The Land of Laughs by Jonathan Carroll
The Land of Laughs was written back in 1980 and I wonder how many readers know about it now. It’s written by Jonathan Carroll, who has written a number of offbeat modern fantasies, and I only know about it because it was selected by David Pringle for his Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels. Even that is probably not enough to put it on most radars, but Neil Gaiman also chose it for his “Neil Gaiman Presents” series of audiobooks, so I listened to it during a series of long walks along Tokyo Bay in Rinkai Park. It’s narrated by Edoardo Ballerini, who does a nice job of capturing the strange events of the story.
The Land of Laughs is the story of Thomas Abbey, son of famous film actor Stephen Abbey. He teaches English at a small Connecticut prep school for rich kids, and tries to avoid the huge shadow that his famous father casts over him. Dissatisfied with teaching The Scarlet Letter to bored teens, he decides to take a sabbatical to pursue his greatest passion — writing a biography of his all-time favorite writer, Marshall France, a renowned creator of quirky children’s fantasies in the mold of Lewis Carroll. France was a secretive man who lived much of his life in the small town of Galen, Missouri, and when Thomas runs into another obsessed female fan of Marshall France named Saxony Gardner, they strike up a relationship and decide to take an extended road-trip to Galen to research a biography of their beloved author.
When they arrive in small-town Galen, they are unsure how the townspeople will react, and even less so the famous author’s daughter Anna, a mysterious woman who they have been warned will be hostile but turns out to be extremely welcoming and offers to help with their research. They meet many of the townspeople, attempting to gather as much material as possible about the life and influences of Marshall France. But the longer they stay, the more they notice a number of strange and disturbing incidents in the supposedly idyllic small town, which seems to have an overabundance of bull terriers…
The Land of Laughs may sound like a familiar set-up, with dark undercurrents lurking beneath the surface of a quiet Midwestern town, but this is as much about the obsessions of Thomas and Saxony and the intensity with which they idolize their favorite childhood author. As we learn about their pasts, we come to understand why they have been so strongly drawn to the quirky fantasy worlds of Marshall France. All lovers of fantasy worlds are likely to recognize that sentiment, even if not to this degree. And as the emotional lives of Thomas, Saxony, and Anna get tangled with the life of Marshall France, things get deliciously twisted.
The revelations of the power of Marshall France’s imaginary worlds and how they have influenced the town of Galen are eye-opening. And though there are moments of discomfort, this story is far more humorous than horrifying, at least until the final chapters (which felt a bit rushed, and less than fully satisfying).
The Land of Laughs could have been played as an Amityville-style horror story, but really it’s more about obsessions and how they shape our lives, as well as the overwhelming influence that parents can have on their children. It also is a tribute to the godlike powers of the author to create and shape worlds to his/her liking, but a warning of the responsibilities that come with that.
The Land of Laughs is a very entertaining and thought-provoking tale, and not like anything else I’ve read before.
I really loved this quirky almost-horror story and am so happy to have discovered Jonathan Carroll.
I can’t wait to read more of his work!
This novel has turned into something of a cult item over the years. I loved it when I first read it many years ago. Thanks, Stuart, for reminding me why….
I have the audiobook but haven’t read it yet. Sounds good!
Jonathan Carroll is one of those writers, like Jeffrey Ford, Elizabeth Hand, or James Morrow, who enjoy a specific but strong following. A breakout onto the ‘big scene’ unlikely given he (and they) will never cater to mainstream interests by writing overly familiar material, I’m glad you recognized him for the unique talent he is. The Land of Laughs is his most famous work, but I feel only because of Pringle’s list as well as being included in the Fantasy Masterworks series. In fact, you could choose any one of Carroll’s novels and find the same intelligence, technique, and storytelling.
I see you mentioning Pringle’s list every now and then. How many have you read, and, any favorites so far?
Indeed, Jonathan Carroll is one of those niche writers like Blaylock, Powers, Morrow, etc who have their own loyal followings but aren’t likely to reach a huge audience. I’d like to try his Outside the Dog Museum someday.
As for David Pringle, his two Best of books have been my guiding compass for three decades, and I’ve reviewed them at FanLit along with the follow-up by Damien Broderick & Paul de Filippo covering books from 1985-2010. My lifetime goals is to real all the books listed that sound promising, and I still have a long way to go. Here’s my progress to date:
1) Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, 1949-1984: An amazing guide to lesser-known SF gems (49)
2) Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels, 1946-1987: Introduces many lesser-known fantasy works (26)
3) Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels, 1985-2010: Interesting choices (18)
Stuart, I can recommend this book as another great guide: https://img.fantasticfiction.com/images/x0/x2893.jpg
I have that book and it covers much earlier works which is your bread and butter. I would like to explore that territory someday, but I’m so behind in the three books I currently have, so I need more reading time!
“Need more reading time”! Don’t we all!