The Land of Laughs was lit by eyes that saw the lights that no one’s seen.
Jonathan Carroll, The Land of Laughs
In my irregular series on creepy books in honor of the impending autumn, I present to you one of the funnier ones. To a point. This book reads like a light surreal comedy with equal parts love, awkwardness, the true passion of a book collector, and the act of creation, at least at the beginning. By the time you get to the end, or even the final third, it’s something completely different. I dare you to pick out the point where it shifts gears, too… I’m not quite sure where it is myself.
The actual plot of The Land of Laughs is fairly straightforward: Thomas Abbey, the son of a famous movie actor who neglected him while he was growing up, found solace in the enchanting children’s books of Marshall France. As an adult, he’s still an avid collector of his books, and when he finds a rare version in a used bookstore, he jumps at the chance to buy it, only to find that it’s already spoke for… and the woman who spoke for it becomes his girlfriend. After they build a relationship on their love of this favorite (yet underrated) author they decide to collaborate on a biography of the late writer. Of course, in order to do that, they have to go to Mr France’s hometown of Galen, Missouri.
For those of you that haven’t read the book, you probably think I’ve just described the plot of an interesting bit of contemporary fiction, something that may not win awards, but will be a night’s or a week’s entertainment. For those of you who have, you know. Describing this book this way is like if I reviewed that famous Hitchcock film by saying “It begins when a woman wants to run off with her boyfriend and embezzled money from her work. On the road, she gets second thoughts, and after a pleasant meal and a conversation with the nice, mild-mannered motel proprietor, decides she’s going to go back home and return the money. But first, she’s had a hard day, so a shower seems like a good idea…”
The book might not be as visceral as Psycho of course, but as you read, you slowly realize that things aren’t what you were led to believe… and perhaps the new things you learn aren’t quite what you should believe, either. Certain images begin to stick in your head and never leave… a kite, bull terriers, the desire to know how the eyes could light the land, and just what they saw, and why no one’s ever seen them. The ending is as brutal and inevitable as a slow-motion shipwreck, yet there’s still a bitter twist at the end that, well, doesn’t make everything better but does somehow make it satisfying.
On top of that, this is a book about creation. Marshall France was, after all, a talented author, and like all authors, the world he created lived on long after he died. Sometimes I myself get the feeling that I’m not making up stories so much as telling them, and the good and bad side of this feeling is out in full display in this book. (Another one to check out for the same feeling, but with a far different treatment, is William Spencer’s Zod Wallop. It’s another criminally underrated book that I recommend to anyone who likes this blog.)
This is a book to crawl under your skin and wriggle around until you have to slap at it to get it to stop bothering you. And yet, it never will…