Winner of the award for most original novel in 1936 from the American Bookseller’s Association and subsequently made into the film The Seven Faces of Doctor Lao (1963), The Circus of Dr. Lao was Finney’s first and most critically popular novel. Although only thirty years old upon publication of The Circus of Dr. Lao, Finney produced only three other book-length works during the next half century. These include the surreal science-fiction novel The Unholy City (1937), the lighthearted Chinese fantasy The Magician Out of Manchuria (1968), and the less-acclaimed Past the End of the Pavement (1939).
The strength of The Circus of Dr. Lao lies in its seamless interweaving of various mythological traditions, from the Chinese to the Greek. Finney updates and refines such archetypes for a modern age while implying that the myths of the past are far more glorious than the small-minded concerns of the present.
The novel belongs to the peculiar but potent subgenre of “circus fantasy,” other representatives of which include Tom Reamy’s deliberate pastiche of Finney’s novel, Blind Voices (1978), Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus (1984), and Brooke Stevens’ The Circus of the Earth and the Air (1994).
The most significant author to be directly influenced by Finney is Ray Bradbury, whose Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) owes a large debt to The Circus of Dr. Lao. Something Wicked This Way Comes can be read as a corollary to The Circus of Dr. Lao in that it takes the circus as a given and focuses on one or two characters who visit the circus. Bradbury so admired Finney that he made Finney’s short novel the title story of his strange fantasy anthology The Circus of Dr. Lao and Other Improbable Stories (1956).
The unique strength of the circus fantasy, and Finney’s novel in particular, is its reduction of the broad canvas of the world to a smaller, stylized microcosm, with the point of making ironic and satiric comment on humankind. The interactions between circus and observer define the observer, illuminating fears, desires, dreams, and prejudices. The Circus of Dr. Lao describes Finney’s own journey from the small towns of the United States to the alien outreaches of China. Finney’s novel merely reverses the order, so that the alien intrudes into the realm of the banal.