(David Plourde’s cover for the 1978 edition)
4.25/5 (Very Good)
Tom Reamy’s Blind Voices (1978) was nominated for the Nebula, Hugo, and BFSA awards and came in second in Locus voting for best novel in 1979. Posthumously released, Reamy died of a heart attack while writing in the fall of 1977 at 42. His take on small town America transformed by the arrival of a traveling circus and its array of wonders will stay with you for years to come. The science fiction elements (revealed more than halfway through the novel) interlace and add to the elegiac and constrained fantasy feel. The specter of sexuality and violence spells cataclysm.
Plot Summary/Analysis (*spoilers*)
“It was a time of pause, a time between planting and harvest when the air was heavy, humming with its own slow, warm music.” (1)
With this line we are drawn into the world of Hawley, Kansas sometime around 1930. A small American town like so many where old men “tell[…] half-remembered or half-invented stories of better times” and “pontificat[e] on the government, President Hoover, the Communist, the Anarchists, the Catholics, the Jews, the stock market, and other topics about which they knew little nothing” (4). Economic woes nag at every mind. The heavy air “humming with its own slow, warm music” is pregnant with impending disaster (1).
I hold the trope (my knowledge is mostly cinematic I must confess) of a circus entering and disrupting a town’s rhythms close to my heart: the spectacle of pseudo-science, lost knowledge, wonder, oddity… A few memorable instances: In Bella Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)—based on László Krasznahorkai’s novel The Melancholy of Resistance (1989)—the arrival of a circus master and his sole attraction, a massive taxidermy whale, creates instability and violence (a political allegory of Eastern-Europe in the post-WWII world). In the noir Nightmare Alley (1947), the rise and fall of a con man (an on point Tyrone Power) starts behind the scenes of a traveling circus. In Ingmar Bergman’s The Magicians (1958) the leading townspeople attempt to debunk the “magic” of a traveling magician played by the great Max von Sydow. There are countless other examples, Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), Bergmann’s Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), etc.
In Blind Voices, Haverstock’s Traveling Curiosus and Wonder Show, announced by its ramous steam calliope, rattles and creaks into Hawley conveying an array of marvels—The Invisible Woman, The Minotaur, Medusa, Angel the Magic Boy, The Snake Goddess, half man/half woman Henry-etta, and Little Mermaid. The circus must compete with Bulldog Drummond (1929), the local theater’s first talking picture. The circus impresario’s lackey unleashes a skunk into the theater to delay the premier!
The narrative follows three young women—Evelyn, Francine, and Rose—in the liminal moment in the summer after high school, whose lives will suddenly be transformed. Possessed by an uncomfortable sexual tension and hidden desires, the circus and its act simultaneously repulses and seduces. Francine accidentally touches the Minotaur—“He was a tall, powerfully muscled man, wearing only a loincloth” whose face had only “a suggestion of bovine features” (32)—and “jerked it away with a little gasp” adding “fuel to the heat already enclosing her body” (35).
The most spectacular marvel is Angel, the Magic Boy who seems channels the elemental forces at the coaxing of Haverstock. Who is controlling who? An aura of decadence and decay permeates the wonder show: Tiny Tim, a mere twelve inches tall, can barely move and the Mermaid “had the look of being half-finished”, “her small breasts were like deflated bladders. Her arms were small and her fingers stubby and webbed. Her head was bald and scaly; her mouth very small with horny lips, her eyes round and lidless like a fish” (36). The Snake Goddess refuses to make her passage down the aisle, her snakes terrifyingly real. Some of the marvels, the Invisible Woman, are clearly fakes. While the others are unsettlingly animalistic and real. The townspeople debate each and every marvel in earnest while they wait for the second showing.
Meanwhile, Evelyn encounters Angel, the Magic Boy and Tiny Tim. Rose falls for Kelsey Armstrong, an exotic show hand and dreams of running away. And Francine thinks of the Minotaur…. Angel, the Magic Boy, perhaps inspired by his meeting with Evelyn rebells, in his own way, against Haverstock. The Minotaur, possessed by his sexual energies looks for a victim before Louis, Haverstock’s righthand man can find him a suitable woman. A cataclysm looms on the horizon as Haverstock’s control on his troupe, both human and animal, falls away. And when the violence comes, Reamy holds nothing back.
Final Thoughts (*spoilers*)
The way Blind Voices unfolds demonstrates Reamy’s craft—we, the audience, observe the world around the tent, wander into its mysterious interiors, speculate about the wonders, and learn all the secrets behind the glass and spectacle. The pastoral qualities of the first third of the novel, an homage in many ways to Ray Bradbury, explode with controlled and horrific fury—none of the covers evoke the resulting gloom (there is light in the madness).
My biggest frustration with the novel might be the result of the lack of complete final revisions due to Reamy’s death. There are a few moments where the sheer effects of some of violence does not seem to register with the young women, particularly Rose after Francine’s shocking death, in a believable way. However, I was caught up in it all and did not want to leave Reamy’s world. The gruesome spectacle of the old Little Mermaid who boils in her tank, and Medusa, who dies “without uttering a sound” (117) with her snakes bitting her face, and the tender of love of Evelyn for Angel, the Magic Boy who cannot speak, will stay with me for a long while.
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(Ulf Herholz’s cover for the 1982 German edition)
(Peter Goodfellow’s cover for the 1982 edition)