The Grand Tour by E. Catherine Tobler
E. Catherine Tobler created Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade, a carnival/circus where things are not necessarily what they seem… or in some cases, exactly what they seem, no matter how strange that might be. The stories appeared in places like Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and now, in The Grand Tour: A Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade Collection (2020), Apex has gathered up nine of the tales, which traverse earth and time, as we meet Jackson and the people who find their way to the circus, and a few who leave, or seem to.
Story collections can be dicey. Fortunately, Tobler’s prose is excellent, and every one of these stories is filled with beautiful, beguiling language, powerful imagery, and complex characters, whether they are magical or mundane. There were stories I loved best and some I liked not-so-much, but with every story I had the pleasure of tasting beautiful words, the way the characters sample Beth’s magical marmalade.
I wanted to start with my favorite story, and that meant staring at the table of contents for at least a minute while I struggled to decide which one that was. I never did decide, actually, so I’m going to start with “Ebb, Stung by the Flow,” which is told from the point of view of the Jackson’s Unreal Circus train. That’s right, the train, or rather, the being who informs the train. For those of you who haven’t read Tobler’s novella The Kraken Sea, this is the closest you will come to understanding the origins of the enigmatic Jackson. The story is vivid and ghostly, as the train, which may not be physically, actually present, collides with a troop train on the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1940. This throws the consciousness of the train out of the machine, and she relives memories of her life, and her meeting with Jackson. At the end, she must make a decision that will affect everyone in the troupe. I loved this story, but you shouldn’t start here, because you need to understand that most of the stories are set in the USA southwest and west… and you need to understand as you start reading it that the train is now in Russia, and that is not so strange. Or, well, a little strange. Maybe this story is my favorite.
“Vanishing Act” and “Artificial Nocturne” follow two different newcomers to the circus. We see the events of “Vanishing Act” through the eyes of Rabi, the Vanquisher and Vanisher. Rabi can disappear things — he can move them with his mind. When the circus finds an abandoned child on the train tracks, the child clings to Rabi, and he soon realizes she isn’t human. Once he understands what she wants, he must decide whether to help her, and in doing that, face the past that he has fled. The first story in The Grand Tour, it’s a good introduction to other circus people, and the nature of Jackson’s circus. Maybe this story is my favorite.
“Artificial Nocturne” takes place in and around New Orleans. Gabrielle looks like a human child expect for her bat-wings, and her friends are all miniature people, living, but small folks. Maman Floss and Lucien care for her and the others, and they often take Gabrielle into the city to the market. On this trip, a train has pulled in, and on it Gabrielle sees a huge, beautiful bird with a human face, which later Gabrielle calls a siren. Lucien and Maman have nothing good planned for Gabrielle, and when the siren befriends the girl, they soon have something very bad planned for the siren too. This story bubbles with magic, and the settings, from the market to the old house at the edge of the swamp, where people like Gabrielle are remade, are exquisite.
“We, As One, Trailing Embers,” is a beautiful and deeply disturbing story that skirts the edge of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s body horror works — and I mean that as a compliment. At first glance, Beast and Beauty are conjoined twins, with two torsos and heads rising above one set of genitals and legs. Each twin has one withered arm, and they have wings.
Young boys trail more obviously in our wake, attempting to tread upon our wings which, when we want them to, trail upon the ground. Wing-tips flicker just out of foot’s reach, frustrating the boys to no end. They leap closer; the wing tips flick away, saying no and no and in fact never.
This exquisite bit of real-world play makes the surreal elements of this story even more powerful by contrast.
Beauty and Beast are not benign, a fact which becomes apparent quite early. When another carnival owner, who creates his own “freaks” through surgery, covets them, the story takes us into a dark ride, the tour of hell. Whether that is literal or not is left up the reader to decide. It’s very dark, but maybe this story is my favorite.
“Liminal” explains how Sombra and Gemma, also sometimes called the silver sisters, came to the circus. We have seen them in several other stories; I didn’t realize until I read The Grand Tour that they didn’t arrive alone. This story shows us a bit more of the shadow side of Jackson; he provides a refuge for the strange and the outcast, but he is not benevolent. I knew this from The Kraken Sea, but it was shocking (in a good way) to see him act as he does here.
Many of the stories feature the tempting and intoxicating marmalade, and “Lady Marmalade” gives us the story of its maker, Beth. Beth is also a baker, but it’s the marmalade that takes center stage here. The story is bittersweet, no pun intended.
In “Every Season,” the circus comes to the town where Sam and Harper live. Sam wants Harper to go to the circus with him. Every season Sam goes and brings back a jar of marmalade. Every season, Harper sets the unopened jar in a cupboard. The two men seem to have a perfect relationship, but Harper is hiding something from Sam and from himself, and the circus draws him. This story throbs with energy when Tobler describes the gay glam-rock club where Sam and Harper met. At first I wasn’t really clear on what Harper’s fear was, since the story was set in 2001 and apparently, homophobia is not a big deal in the small Colorado town where they happily live. There is more to Harper though, as first Gabrielle and then Jackson see in him when he comes to the fence surrounding the circus. The strange element that envelopes Harper is beautiful, but ultimately, for me this was a love story, about two people who have found each other finally finding themselves. This story wasn’t my favorite, but I liked it a lot.
“Blow the Moon Out” was the story I liked the least of the collection. Set in 1957 Philadelphia, it follows four young teenaged girls on their way to the circus. Fourteen-year-old Lucy’s sister, Audrey, was supposed to drive them, but she kicked them out of the car almost immediately, because she had something she had to take care of. Lucy, Norma, Trudy and Rum, who is a year younger than the others, African American, and lives in a Catholic orphanage, start a long hike through the woods on their way to circus. While they are hiking a large, scary stray dog bites Rum and chases all four girls up into the trees. By the next morning, the dog is still there, but now it is friendly. The girls continue on their way to the circus, having a number of strange encounters along the way.
This story never cohered for me. While I enjoyed the minor-key echo of Stephen King’s famous novella “The Body,” I didn’t really feel the relationships among the girls, except perhaps for Lucy and Audrey. I thought Lucy thinking of Rum as “black” in 1957 was an anachronism, and the girls’ endless singing of one or two famous pop songs from the era didn’t convince me that I was in 1957. Basically, I think, despite the descriptions, this story just never immersed me in the setting the way others did. And while Audrey’s problem was believable, it was a stereotype, and I didn’t think the story addressed it in any new way. On the other hand, I loved Lucy’s storytelling, and the changes she undergoes as the story resolves.
The Grand Tour: A Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade Collection ends with “Inland Territory, Stray Italian Greyhound,” which is more of a vignette than a story, but which rounds out this series of stories beautifully.
Tobler is probably best known as the editor of Shimmer Magazine, which was printing stories that were perfectly strange and ethereal and always beautifully written. Tobler displays the same values in the Jackson’s Unreal Circus stories. The circus is not perfect, but it is a refuge, a sanctuary for those who are different. And in these stories, for a while, you get to ride along. Enjoy this seductive journey into a strange, dangerous and beautiful world.
Contains the following destinations: “Vanishing Act” “Artificial Nocturne” “We, As One, Trailing Embers” “Liminal” “Blow the Moon Out” “Ebb Stung by the Flow” “Lady Marmalade” “Every Season” (original to this collection) “Inland Territory; Stray Italian Greyhound”
Featuring an introduction by A.C. Wise!