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Literature / The Pilo Family Circus

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Jamie has a perfectly ordinary life; he works at a trendy Brisbane hotel as concierge; he lives in a dingy shared house alongside various drug dealers and petty thieves; his only goal in life is to romance one of his coworkers; and—up until that fateful evening—he has no enemies to speak of.

Then, he meets the Clowns. Worse still, he makes the mistake of taking something that they left behind: a bag of mysterious crystalline powder.

For the next few nights, he's hounded by them: they stalk his dreams, trying to find out where he lives; they break into his house and vandalize everything he owns; they follow him to work and threaten to blow up the building; they even physically assault him. And then, quite unexpectedly, he makes them laugh... and they offer him the chance to audition and join them. After a few more days of being tormented and threatened, Jamie caves in and auditions- and passes with flying colours.

Unfortunately, this results in him being unceremoniously kidnapped and taken to the Pilo Family Circus, a travelling carnival that exists beyond space and time, occasionally "visiting" towns by connecting itself to the entrance gates of other circuses and fairgrounds. There, Jamie is officially made a clown, and given his first coat of magical facepaint, transforming him into the sociopathic "JJ"; now, when not trying to stop his second personality from destroying him, Jamie has to survive the horrors that the Circus can offer, and figure out just what the Pilo Brothers want from the audiences they abduct...

This book provides examples of:

  • Affably Evil:
    • Kurt Pilo; always polite, always friendly, and almost impossible to offend. He's also in charge of the Circus and a willing pawn of the Things imprisoned beneath the Showgrounds, responsible for most- if not all- of the atrocities committed against the hapless visitors.
    • Gonko can be surprisingly pleasant to his fellow Clowns, provided you don't get on his nerves. On the other hand, he's still a cold-blooded sadist who's more than happy to kill children if his boss gives the order.
  • All Part of the Show:
    • When Goshy the Clown slaps an audience member in the face, the rest of the crowd assumes that its part of the show and laughs. Doopy beating the Apprentice half to death, unfortunately, is taken as a cue that the audience should leave immediately.
    • Spoken word-for-word after Mugabo obliterates the rabbit he just pulled out of his hat.
  • The Apprentice: Technically, the Clown Division already has one of these around the time of Jamie's recruitment, known only as "The Apprentice." Most of his character is devoted to creeping around, reeking of sabotage waiting to happen, up until Gonko arranges his near-fatal beating and immolation; Jamie becomes the replacement Apprentice after this.
  • Badass Boast: Gonko delivers a doozy after JJ inadvertently steals his pants.
  • Berserk Button:
    • As mentioned, Gonko is very protective of his pants - and for good reason.
    • Goshy is fiercely protective of the plant he's currently romancing. Exploited by the Freedom Movement, who tear the plant to shreds and leave a trail of its leaves and petals leading straight to Shalice's door.
    • Similarly, Doopy is very protective of Goshy; when the Apprentice makes the mistake of shoving Goshy a bit too violently, Doopy flies into a rage and delivers a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown.
    • Mugabo loathes any mention of the Bunny Trick.
    • JJ is decidedly possessive of both his stash of powder and Shalice's crystal ball.
    • Kurt Pilo develops one very late in the story: "taking the Lord's name in vain".
  • Beware the Nice Ones:
    • Doopy has the mental age of a small child and a Shrinking Violet by nature, but as mentioned, harming Goshy in his presence is not exactly advisable.
    • Winston, normally a sedate old man with no taste for violence, goes out of his way to put JJ in his place by making it look as though he stole Gonko's pants. Plus, he casually threatens to snap JJ's neck if he ever betrays him.
    • Fishboy is undoubtedly the "nicest bastard in this place," but he's also got a set of fangs to rival a shark, and he's organizing a conspiracy against the management itself.
    • Shalice, who is compassionate and Affably Evil enough to try and steer the Pilos' schemes away from the most destructive results, is probably one of the most dangerous members of the Circus. At one point in the backstory, one of the woodchoppers attempted to rape her; after ensuring that the perpetrator died horribly, Shalice went out of her way to set up a long spell of bad luck for the others that continues to this day.
  • Body Horror:
    • The Circus' Freakshow is naturally full of this, the worst example arguably being Tallow, who is constantly melting. Most of his life is life is spent in a glass tank, where the bits of himself that slough off can be easily reabsorbed.
    • The Matter Manipulator, who created the freakshow in the first place, is an easy source of Body Horror: he can shape flesh and bone at will, at one point torturing Winston by merging a hot coal with the flesh of his stomach. The brief glimpse of his workshop inside the funhouse reveals that he makes furniture and decorations out of the Tricks that the managers donate to him; when the funhouse is bombed, the walls are seen to bleed.
    • A more mundane example- the Apprentice, having survived a beatdown from Doopy, being set on fire by Gonko and existing as an outcast on the very fringes of the Circus, begins to visibly deteriorate as his injuries worsen and the effects of starvation and exposure become obvious.
    • Kurt Pilo's slow transformation into his One-Winged Angel form.
  • Brick Joke: Late in Part 2, Shalice offhandedly notes that she's still taking revenge on the woodchoppers for their attempted rape. Then, in Part 3, JJ is watching the showgrounds with the stolen crystal ball when he notices that one of the woodchoppers appears to have suffered a near-fatal fall, and notes that the woodchoppers always seem to be suffering some kind of bad luck—tripping over, catching on fire, getting brained by a flying axe-head...
  • Butt-Monkey: Mugabo, the Freak Show, the Woodchoppers, and Jamie himself.
  • Casual Danger Dialogue: Rufshod is a common source of this; when the surviving Clowns are trapped in a trailer and George Pilo is dragging it towards the funhouse, while JJ is panicking and Gonko is desperately searching his pockets for something that can help them, Rufshod is peering out the windows and remarking with amusement at the dead bodies they're passing.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The giant wooden crucifix, AKA: Kurt's birthday present.
  • Circus of Fear: It'd be pretty damn hard to think of the Pilo Family Circus as anything other than this.
  • Circus of Magic: The circus is not only a Circus of Fear home to sorcerers, prophets, supernaturally-empowered clowns and transforming ringmasters, but it's eventually revealed to not be a travelling show at all: it's set in a Pocket Dimension that occasionally connects itself to the gates of a mundane circus or carnival and steals the customers for itself. It's actually engaged in the business of extracting the souls of the customers and crystalizing them into wishing powder, and operating on behalf of an imprisoned race of Eldritch Abomination.
  • Closed Circle: The Showgrounds, which are cut off from the world by a seemingly endless void; it's impossible to leave without a pass from Kurt or George, and the passes are only given in the event that the Clowns have business in the real world- which happens only once in the entire book.
  • Deal with the Devil: It's revealed that the Circus itself is based on this. Its main role is conning its audiences into voluntarily parting with their souls, with each exhibit appealing to a certain demographic: the games and shops in Sideshow Alley appeal to the greedy, the Acrobats are intended to tempt the vain and insecure, the Woodchoppers provide offers of strength to the weak, Mugabo's magic show is aimed at the power-hungry, and the Clowns appeal to the cruel and rebellious; the Freak Show is designed to frighten the more resilient Tricks into giving in. In true Deal with the Devil fashion, the Tricks receive nothing in return for their souls except for a few subliminal promises that can never come true.
  • Depraved Dwarf: George Pilo.
    • The Circus has a whole legion of these at work throughout the show: their most common duty is to collect the grains of Powder that gather on the lawns. On their days off, they're usually gambling or fighting.
  • Dream Spying: Jamie ends up as the recipient of this early in the book, being haunted by dreams in which Gonko and the Clowns try to find him. Apparently, this ability has been borrowed from Shalice, as Gonko is heard to grumble at how many bags of powder "That Skag" charged them for it.
  • Dirty Coward: JJ. So long as he's got the upper hand, he's reckless, arrogant and cruel. The moment someone fights back, he bursts into tears and runs off.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Circus has actually been built over a prison keeping an entire race of godlike reptiles in check, and the Pilos are their loyal servants. Everything they've done, from the farming of human souls and the catastrophes caused in the real world, is performed in the hope that whoever jailed them will eventually be forced to reduce their sentence- or set them free.
  • Eldritch Location: The Showgrounds, which is essentially a patch of earth with a magical prison for Eldritch Abominations concealed under it, hovering in an empty void situated outside the universe itself; the only way for employees to enter or exit are through mysterious elevators that lead back into the real world (where they are disguised as portable toilets). Meanwhile, the "tricks" that make up the audience are drawn in when the Show secretly connects its gates to the gates of circuses and fairgrounds in the real world.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: The book ends with Kurt Pilo killing most of the carnies in his search for traitors before descending into the Funhouse basement where he is presumably punished for bringing a crucifix with him; Gonko is dragged into hell with Kurt, but is heard communicating with Jamie in his dream at the end of the book; JJ and Rufshod are both killed by Kurt; Winston is last seen heading out to stop George Pilo from taking over the Circus; the only confirmed survivors of the massacre are Jamie, Steve, Shalice, and Mugabo.
  • Fantastic Drug: The Powder that Circus employees are payed in; already bearing a vague resemblance to cocaine, it has to be melted down like heroin before it can be used- though it has to be drunk instead of injected. As it grants wishes to the drinker, the effects vary wildly, but Jamie's use of it to help him sleep or to soothe the pain from being taken over by JJ make the drug parallels very obvious.
  • Fortune Teller: Shalice, the Circus Fortune Teller. She's a genuine psychic and more than capable of seeing the future, but Kurt and George Pilo have tasked her with changing the future: her customers are all brainwashed into performing supposedly innocuous activities, directing events towards more desirable futures. She's also the management's eyes and ears, her crystal ball allowing her to keep tabs on almost everyone on the showgrounds.
  • Holy Burns Evil: Subverted in the case of Kurt Pilo, who is currently so obsessed with Christianity that he collects bibles and crucifixes as a hobby; for his birthday he receives a massive wooden crucifix and a live priest, both of which utterly delight him.
    • Played with in the case of the Creatures imprisoned beneath the showgrounds. They might not actually be injured by holy symbols, but they're definitely insulted by them, enough to fatally punish Kurt for daring to bring his giant crucifix into their presence.
  • Incomprehensible Entrance Exam: Having accidentally managed to amuse the Circus clown division while they were vandalizing his home, Jamie is told he has three days to pass his audition: he has to make them laugh - no matter who gets hurt or killed as a result. Other than that, there's no explanations, no opportunity to back out, and no way of knowing if the clowns are being serious or just fucking with him again. For good measure, the clown division spends the next few days stalking Jamie, leaving menacing letters, torturing his friends, threatening to blow up his workplace and even making it look like they murdered one of his flatmates. The goal is to scare Jamie into a Freak Out! so as to see how funny he can be when he stops caring about social conventions. In the end, he passes the audition by creating a fake bomb scare with the aid of fireworks, then sprinting naked through a shopping center with a pillowcase over his head and a swastika painted on his chest.
  • Jekyll & Hyde: Jamie and JJ.
  • The Jekyll Is a Jerk: Jamie is a bitter, superficial, cowardly, and generally self-absorbed dickhead who slips an unknown substance into a housemate's milk as petty revenge for hogging the shower. After being press-ganged into the Circus and forced to wear the Clown Division's facepaint, he develops the alternate personality of "JJ," a Psychopathic Manchild with all Jamie's worst traits turned up to eleven. In response to JJ's increasingly violent antics, Jamie regularly uses the Powder to sedate himself so he won't have to deal with the consequences of his other self's actions, even though he knows that his time in the Circus can only end with JJ taking over for good. It's not until after Winston the Clown recruits him for the Freedom Movement that Jamie gets off his ass and tries to be a better person in the face of JJ's atrocities.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Jamie burns away all his memories of his time at the Circus, all his memories of JJ, and everything that ever happened while he was there. We really can't blame him.
  • Muggles: The "Tricks," the circus' audience.
  • Naked Nutter: After days of being terrorized by the clowns, Jamie suffers a nervous breakdown and carries out his audition by faking a terror attack via fireworks, then stripping nude and running down the street with a pillowcase over his head, screaming at the top of his lungs about bombs.
  • Powered by a Forsaken Child: It's revealed that the Powder that the circus employees are paid in is actually the souls of the audience, crystallized, broken down into dust, and scattered onto the lawn to be collected by the circus dwarfs. Gonko cheekily compares the process to cows being milked- except the Tricks aren't able to recover what was taken from them.
  • The Pursuing Nightmare: After Jamie steals a bag of mysterious powder left behind by Goshy the clown, he finds himself being stalked by the rest of the Clown Division in a nightmare. Here, he's trapped in the same corner of the city where he found the powder and left struggling to hide while the clowns slowly hunt him down, helplessly listening to them drawing closer and closer. Thankfully, finding Jamie in the dream doesn't give them an opportunity to harm him... but it does allow them to get a fix on his location in the real world, resulting in carnage when Jamie gets home from work that day.
  • Sinister Whistling: Jamie's secondary personality (AKA JJ) finally proves himself every bit as vicious as the other circus clowns when he takes an axe and goes on the prowl for victims while whistling "Que Sera, Sera."
  • Superpowered Evil Side: Not only does the Clown facepaint create a secondary personality in the wearer, but it also enhances strength and durability, to the extent that Goshy can survive a two-story drop without sustaining injury.
  • The Trickster: Rufshod and JJ.