10 Fascinating Books about Circuses & Carnivals

For me, autumn is associated with circuses and carnivals, maybe because Halloween is approaching and I think of country fairs, masks, costumes, etc. Thus, I am presenting ten books, in no particular order and both fiction and non-fiction, that revolve around circuses or carnivals.

I. Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham

Nightmare Alley is a fast-paced pulp noir that tells a journey of ambitious and street-smart Stanton Carlisle, working as a mentalist, through all the dark sides of one second-rate carnival show. The structure of this book is dictated by a Tarot deck, and the novel has now been adapted twice – as a 1947 film noir starring Tyrone Power and as a 2021 film directed by Guillermo del Toro.

II. The Circus Fire: A True Story of An American Tragedy by Stewart O’Nan

This book is about the 6 July 1944 circus fire disaster that occurred in Hartford, Connecticut, when a big top of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus caught fire in the middle of a performance with some 7000 people inside. At least 167 people died and another 700 were injured, and this book, filled with maps and photographs, painstakingly sets down all the circumstances leading up to the tragedy, including previous fires and circus arrangements, before talking about acts of heroism on the day and the aftermath, when the injured had to deal with PTSD.

III. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Gruen’s popular book tells the story of Jacob, a veterinary student, who lands a job in a menagerie of a travelling circus Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth. He gets attached to one elephant Rosie, and meets Marlena, a star of the equestrian act, and her ruthless husband August.

IV. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

In my review, I criticised Morgenstern’s plot and characters, but there is no denying that she penned some of the most engrossing and transportive descriptions of a magical circus ever, “a feast for the senses“. This book is an imperfect, but lush cross between Harry PotterJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Water for Elephants and Romeo & Juliet.

V. The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney

This is the circus of Dr. Lao. We show you things that you don’t know. We tell you of places you’ll never go. We’ve searched the world both high and low, To capture the beasts for this marvellous show“. A classic of speculative genre, The Circus of Dr. Lao tells of a circus that arrives to a small town in Arizona, and its attractions: a chimera, a sphinx, a sea-serpent, a mermaid, etc. are about to change the lives of the spectators.

VI. Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

The backdrop to this story is the traveling circus of Colonel Kearney, and its star is Sophie Fevvers, a winged woman with a trapeze act, telling her story to an American journalist Jack Walser, who is about to experience the unfathomable. Carter produced something bizarre, lyrical and wondrous in this story of a circus that uproots from London and travels to Russia.

VII. Circus World by Barry B. Longyear

This is a collection of short stories that fuse an inter-stellar journey and a circus. All the stories detail the adventures of the descendants of a space-ship that crashed on one planet Momus. That space-ship carried a circus, and now the planet is filled with magicians, acrobats and clowns.

VIII. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

This plot-driven, somewhat disturbing story about a travelling carnival run by one eccentric family is an oddity even by the standards of this list. When that family realises that their business may not last long, they decide “to breed their own freak show, using various drugs and radioactive material to alter the genes of their children”. What was the result? A baby with telekinetic powers, a boy with flippers for hands and feet, and a pair of Siamese twins, among others.

IX. World of Wonders by Robertson Davies

This is the third book in the Deptford Trilogy about the life of magician Magnus Eisengrim in the World of Wonders, a touring carnival. It is told through the making of a film about the great Robert-Houdin, a French magician. It is a philosophical book that also deals with traumatic issues.

X. Memoirs of a Sword Swallower by Daniel P. Mannix

This interesting memoir is written by writer, journalist and sideshow-performer Daniel Mannix and, there, he tells of his childhood filled with magic and fairy-tales, and then of his dreams of becoming a fire-eater and sword-swallower, introducing us to the 1930s-1940s circus environment. Daniel Mannix is also known as the author of the books Those About to Die (which was the basis for developing Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator (2000)) and The Fox & The Hound (1967).


17 thoughts on “10 Fascinating Books about Circuses & Carnivals

  1. Thank you for including World of Wonders – always glad to see someone recommending Robertson Davies. This topic makes me think of one of my childhood faves, Circus Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. And I’m really intrigued by the Memoirs of A Sword Swallower!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I don’t know its criticisms upon publication, but I guess it could be seen as rather controversial? Well, it should – I mean, some people may read it differently, as presenting its (pseudo?) disabilities in a certain light and this may anger some. I think it is for this reason that director Tim Burton hasn’t yet made a film out of this book, though it was his “passion project” for many years.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Great list! I am amazed that you knew so many books about circuses! I find circuses and carnivals a bit creepy and I don’t usually like masked people or some types of shows, so maybe that’s why, but the descriptions on some of those books seem fascinating! I remember seeing Nightmare Alley at the cinema not so long ago and leaving with mixed feelings – did you see it? How did it compare to the book?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I instantly thought of Enid Blyton’s Mr Galliano’s Circus, then Stephen King’s Joyland. Circuses and carnivals lend themselves to so many different types of story, from pure fun and adventure, to romance, horror and memoir.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. First I thought this was your Top Ten Tuesday twist. Btu we can always do with lists on one topic.

    I have only read one of your books: Water for Elephants.

    I had to find something else this week since I haven’t read most of the books on my last list. So, I did a completely different challenge.

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  5. I’ve read the Robertson Davies (thanks to Lory’s promptings) and the Finney, the last which I think must have influenced Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. I have a copy of the Carter, which I began once though have yet to go back to, and I never tried the Morgenstern after seeing its mixed reviews. But I do like your choices, Diana, one or two of which sound right up my street!

    Liked by 1 person

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