In the northern hemisphere, it’s heading for autumn, when nature slows and sleeps, when days get shorter, and tales get spookier. It’s the time of year for “dark carnival” tales, and Veronica G. Henry provides us with a new one, Bacchanal (2021), her debut novel.
In the late 1930s, The G.B Bacchanal Carnival makes the south-and-southwest circuit of the USA, and along the way they often pick up new acts. Clay, a red-haired white man from Chicago, is the “face” of the carnival, but all the acts are Black performers. Clay and his lieutenant, Jamey, a Black man born in the south, scout for talent. The people they hire are not your average performers; they all have a touch of magic. And Clay, for all his apparent authority, is not the boss of the operation. That position is held by a powerful African demon, Ahiku, who uses the carnival to search for (and ultimately destroy) the one being who can vanquish her. That’s the plan, anyway.
Abandoned by her family, Liza Meeks struggles to master her ability to communicate with animals. When the carnival comes to town it sets off a series of events that ends with Liza joining the troupe. She soon makes friends and enemies among the performers, and senses that there is something not right about the place, particularly the red trailer always guarded by two Dahomey women warriors. And as the carnival travels towards its final destination, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Liza begins to piece together the truth about her parents, her missing sister and the secrets of her own power. Her discoveries put her on a collision course with the demon.
At first glance, Bacchanal sounds a bit like the 2-season HBO series Carnivale, and the Dust Bowl setting enhances the similarity. It ends there, though. The characters who people the Bacchanal carnival have different life experiences from Carnivale, a different view of the world, and the circuit they travel is about the only thing the two stories have in common.
Henry uses multiple points of view, which helps create the feeling of a busy, theatrical operation. Her characters are complicated, with internal conflicts and various loyalties. Liza is often snappish, and her relationship with her wagon-mate is so realistic it’s funny. The Bombardier, a strong man, has an ongoing feud with the two women warriors, Zinza and Efe, while Ishi doesn’t get along with Liza at all at first. Everyone feels believable for the time and place.
The story adeptly mixes African folklore with tales from this country. Henry draws on darker currents of our history — the Ku Klux Klan make more than one appearance. Ahiku is evil and preys on children, so we want her to fail, but several times we see the magical carnival wreak justice on those who have escaped it elsewhere. These “carnival stories” are not all horrific, but even the ones that were had me rooting for the carnival magic, because the people being punished deserved it.
The book was recommended to me as horror; I’d classify it as dark fantasy, but it doesn’t really matter. You could sum Bacchanal up by saying it’s a battle of good versus evil in a carnival, but that depiction doesn’t do the book justice. There are other themes at play here; obvious commentary about social and economic justice, but more personal ones — family loyalty, atonement, identity, that make the story a rich read.
Put Bacchanal on your fall reading list; it’s a perfect book for a fall evening, while sipping a glass of cider, and listening to dead leaves skittering across the pavement.