Towards the end of 2018, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet and befriend Anna-Sophie Jurgen, a Feodor Lynen Postdoctoral Fellow at the Australian National University. Anna-Sophie has an interesting reach of academia and studies the cultural and aesthetic capital of the circus in fiction and other media, embodied in violent and cannibal clowns, epileptic dancers and freak performers.
It is a fascinating area of study in how this modern age of evil clowns relate to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and as you know by now with my love of evil clowns it was an arm of study that I had no idea existed and was fascinated to learn more about. Upon our discussions, Anna-Sophie even asked me to write a short story for a special themed journal issue of Comedy Studies, an academic journal that focuses on the literature and study of different branches of comedy.
Anna-Sophie's special themed journal on violent clowns also featured abstracts with Stephen Chiodo, the man behind the retro space-clown cult piece Killer Klowns from Outer Space, as well as an interview with Will Elliott, the author of the novel series The Pilo Family Circus, so I was in pretty good company. If the journal has piqued your interest, you can check it out further here.
But now that the project is completed, and the journal has been published, I am very excited to share with you my first piece of writing that has been published in an academic journal. It is based off my real life personal experiences, and the way I imagine myself dying, so I am thrilled to get this short story out there. I hope you enjoy this short story as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Without further ado, I bring you The Circus of Eternals.
Her little red car trundled down the isolated road in the dark, the beams from the headlights dancing over the eerily silent pine trees. On a lovely warm Sunday afternoon, this five-hour drive to the coast would be pleasant, the thick forest providing a protective canopy over the road that was reminiscent of the charm of a storybook fairy tale. But during the darkened hours of the night, the forest was intensely foreboding and often shrouded in a cloud of mist that seemed to haunt the road.
It was not a road that was often travelled in the dead of night, but unfortunately Juliet Donaghie had no choice. She had finished work at the office quite late in the evening, and had to live up to the promise to her boyfriend that she would be at his parent’s anniversary party at their home by the beach that weekend.
Juliet’s relationship with her boyfriend’s parents hadn’t always gone smoothly; they had never forgiven their son for leaving his well-to-do ex-girlfriend for Juliet, so after three years of polite smiles and taking their passive aggressive stabs at her hairdo and her weight, they had finally started to thaw to her. With her invitation to their anniversary party Juliet was hoping to finally be accepted into the family.
Her boyfriend Nick had already gone to their lavish beach home earlier in the day as their schedules hadn’t lined up, and she hadn’t been able to take time off work to travel down with him. That left Juliet flooring her little car down the highway in an attempt to get to the house in time so as not to be judged and start the weekend off on the wrong foot.
Juliet’s mind would usually start to wander when she was driving on a long stretch of road but tonight every movement and sensation was heightened for her. The way the mist rose eerily and floated off the rough concrete had her mind reeling; her little car passing through it as if cutting through a ghost. The darkness seemed to engulf her with the thick trees blocking out any light from stars or the moon, and Juliet fretted constantly at the idea of animals of the night darting across the road in front of her.
She hadn’t seen the headlights of another car for at least one hour, so if there were any problems or accidents she would be all alone in this deep dark forest. She quickly stole a glance at her phone, which was mounted on the inner windscreen. There were no bars at the top of her phone’s display, indicating that there was no signal.
She was truly alone out here.
As Juliet continued along the road she began to feel a heaviness rising from the pit of her stomach. It seemed to course through her and tingle into her bloodstream, forcing a rush of adrenaline that seemed misplaced on the quiet dark drive. Her eyebrows furrowed as her body felt like sparks were shooting out of it, but she dismissed the feeling as nerves for having to come face-to-face with Nick’s parents again and trying to impress them.
“Come on, Juliet, its fine,” she thought to herself as she shook her head and loosened her lips, hoping to ease the unsettling feeling in her stomach. With one hand still on the wheel, Juliet reached over and pressed the button that released her front car window to gulp in some of the fresh air outside.
Expecting to be hit with the strong scent of pine from the trees in the forest, Juliet was bemused when she couldn’t smell anything. The air had an almost electric quality to it, like a severe thunderstorm was approaching, and the otherwise warm night had become almost icy under the protective canopy of trees.
Juliet gulped in the electric air and dismissed the change in weather as simply an incoming storm that had not been predicted by the weather guys. She knew sometimes body parts ached when a storm approached, so she wondered if perhaps this buzzing feeling of adrenaline was a mixture of both that and nerves.
As Juliet drove on, the feeling kept mounting until she rounded a corner in the road; she gasped, her stomach suddenly felt like a lead weight had been dropped in it and every hair on her body was standing on end.
The forest had suddenly been stripped away into a huge clearing, which Juliet never remembered being there on other drives she had taken to Nick’s parents’ house. The mist from the forest had dissipated into a clear moonless night vista in front of her, but still hung absurdly around the trees at the edge of the clearing. In the middle of the clearing was a giant circus tent, lit up with hundreds of strings of festival lighting, outlining the entire tent and bathing the clearing in an eerie white glow. Giant lights at the top of the tent announced that this was the Circus of the Eternals but other than the tent and the lights, Juliet couldn’t see any trailers or food stands. The entire area was deserted save for the incandescent lighting.
Juliet quickly slowed her little red car down to a stop in the middle of the road and gaped at the circus tent. It was almost midnight in the middle of a giant forest that stretched for miles and was almost two hours from even the closest town. Juliet had seen circus tents set up in clearings before, but they were usually situated where their audiences were. It seemed like an extremely unlikely place to set up for the night, but the bright lights indicated that the circus was definitely open for business, despite the desolate feeling of not having any patrons or performers around.
Juliet looked at the screen on her phone again and saw that it was quarter to midnight. She still had two hours to drive and there was no point stopping to investigate this strange phenomenon before her. Juliet put her car in gear and pumped the accelerator, easing her car back onto the road and picking up speed. She looked in the rear view mirror as she drove past the tent and rounded a corner until the bright lights were out of view.
“So strange,” Juliet muttered to herself. She shook her head and continued the drive, the adrenaline still coursing through her body and the heavy feeling in the pit of her stomach still there. The mist picked up again, dancing against the headlights of her car as she drove. Suddenly she spotted something standing near the trees.
Juliet slammed on the breaks. Standing in the beam of her headlights, just at the tree line, was a clown. It was physically thickset and strangely tall, with a white face and black paint weeping from the bottom of its eyes and down its cheeks. It had a bright red closed-lipped smile and it wore a classic blue clown suit that was both the pants and the shirt in one, covering every inch of its skin with blue ruffled silk. Large red pom poms were attached to the front, and on its feet were a pair of oversized red shoes. It was a classic clown, with wild red hair and a comically small red polka dot party hat sitting in the middle of its head.
Seeing a clown standing on the side of the darkened highway surrounded by mist uneased Juliet, but when the headlights on her car started to flicker in the dark she could see instantly why she was afraid.
The clown’s eyes flashed a hungry reflective red in the light.
Juliet was terrified. Her hands were white-knuckled on the steering wheel in front of her, and the only thing she could do was stare. She found herself feeling lost in the flashing red eyes that were rimmed with melting black paint and a white face and could feel no compulsion to move. She was frozen solid with her foot on the break, her hands glued to the wheel, and her eyes falling into a pit of hellfire red.
Suddenly, the clown reached up with a white gloved hand and put it deep into the recesses of the sleeve of its clown suit and pulled out a large rubber chicken, the size of which could not have been hidden in there.
Then it grinned.
The clown’s grin was even more terrifying than its gleaming red eyes. It had rows and rows of sharp, thin, needle-like little teeth that were locked in its big red lips. The smile seemed to widen until it took up all of its face, but still its fiery red eyes burned deep into Juliet’s brain, searing it. Her whole body felt heavy and frozen, but at the same time on fire.
And just as quickly as it arrived, the clown shook the rubber chicken at Juliet and then darted off into the mist at a speed that was almost inhuman. It disappeared beyond the tree line, leaving behind nothing but an overwhelmingly heavy feeling in the very core of Juliet.
After what felt like an eternity, Juliet finally blinked. She began to realise that she was frozen and she loosened the grip on the wheel, her knuckles pasty white and callused from gripping so hard. Juliet forced herself to breathe deeply, and told herself it was just a figment of her imagination – she had conjured it up after seeing the circus because she was so tired from the drive and nervous about the weekend ahead of her.
Yes. That’s what it was.
Juliet sighed and moved her little red car back into motion, still feeling more than a little tremulous from the encounter she wasn’t entire sure she had. She drove slowly past the tree line where she had spotted the clown and craned her neck into the darkness to try and catch a glimpse of blue or red but all she could see was darkness and mist. She shook her head and turned back to the road, speeding up to the limit.
Suddenly a flash of colour sped out of the forest and straight onto the hood of her car. Juliet screamed as she slammed on the breaks, watching in horror as a flurry of blue and red bounced along the front window and the hood with a sickening thud and then tumbling off the bonnet and onto the ground, out of sight.
Juliet breathed heavily, her heart pounding, and peered through the cracked glass of her car’s front window into the night in front of her. The headlights lit up the forest and the mist rising from the road, and then sickeningly, she saw the large rubber chicken’s head slowly emerge from the front of the bonnet.
From where Juliet was sitting behind the wheel, she couldn’t see the hands of the clown moving the rubber chicken and it looked like it was floating on its own. It started to shake in the same motion that the clown had shaken it at Juliet before it had run off the first time.
Surely if the clown was playing a silly joke with the chicken it had to be alright, right? But as Juliet took in the large dents on the hood of her car it seemed impossible.
Slowly, Juliet undid her seat belt and opened the car door. It started beeping at her, telling her that she had left the engine running and the lights on, but she barely heard it.
“Hello?” she asked tentatively into the night. “Mr. Clown? Are you ok? I’m so sorry! I didn’t see you!” she called as she walked on shaky legs slowly around to the front of the car.
The clown was lying in front of her car, with one hand up in the air, holding on to the rubber chicken and flailing it around, but the rest of the clown was motionless on the cement. Its other arm was twisted at a strange angle and Juliet could see bone poking through the bloodied and ragged silk sleeve. Shattered glass covered the clown’s suit, and its party hat was askew. As Juliet approached closer, she could see a lot of blood pooling out from underneath the clown.
“Oh God!” Juliet gasped as tears sprang to her eyes. This is what she had been afraid of – not necessarily hitting a clown, but hitting something while she drove in the dead of night. Juliet moved forward toward the clown and knelt down beside him, unsure of what to do and panicking at the situation.
Juliet knelt down next to the clown, trying to see the extent of his injuries beyond the broken arm. Suddenly the clown’s eyes burst open. She gasped in surprise, replaced by horror as the red eyes turned towards her, engulfing her in their red hot flames and paralysing her with fear. As she stared, entranced, into the clown’s hellish eyes, it started laughing. It was a deep belly laugh that rolled out loudly from the back of its throat, and it made Juliet’s hair stand on end, every muscle in her body twitching and her bloodstream feeling like it was being filled with fire.
The bone that was sticking out of the clown’s suit was suddenly sucked backwards into its body with a disgustingly wet sound, and then the arm jerkily cracked back into place. With its arm healed, the clown suddenly sprang up at Juliet, dropping the rubber chicken and leaving the pool of blood on the concrete behind it.
Juliet was forced backwards under the leaden weight of the clown and she felt several of her ribs crack as he climbed on top of her, all the time laughing crazily.
“No! Please!” Juliet screamed at the top of her voice, her paralyses finally broken as she flailed and struggled to get out from under the clown. It continued to laugh as its white gloves tore at the trench coat Juliet was wearing, ripping into her clothes and then her skin. Juliet could feel fingers as sharp as knives running themselves along her chest, slicing into her skin. She continued to wail and scream as a deep growling rumble burst from the clown’s still smiling mouth. In one final motion it attacked, thrusting its head forcefully at Juliet and ripping into her further with its razor sharp teeth.
The pain was unbearable. It seared through Juliet, nauseating her but she was helpless in this attack. The clown tore apart the muscles in her chest, pushing her bones aside as the layers of teeth dug into her organs. She couldn’t even scream as her lungs were punctured, and in horror she felt rough hands in the deep recesses inside her as its mouth reached in to locate its ultimate prize ... her heart.
Impossibly, Juliet felt the sharp needles of the clown’s teeth clamp around her still beating heart; her eyes became heavy, disappearing into the darkness of the night around her. With one massive pull, the clown ripped Juliet’s heart from her body with its teeth and jerked upwards, sitting on top of her as it bit further into the still beating muscle. It slurped the bloodied organ down into its gullet, blood spurting everywhere, trickling onto its chin and down onto the now blood-soaked blue clown suit. Juliet lay motionless in the headlights under it, her body a mass of blood and torn skin, tissue and organs.
The clown let out a deep growling purr as it finished its meal, its teeth setting back into its tight-lipped smile. Now satiated, it rose off Juliet and wiped its large bloody mouth with the sleeve of its blue clown suit. The clown picked up its rubber chicken from the ground and began to move away from Juliet’s lifeless body and the beaten yet still running car. It wandered deep into the forest mist, humming the tune to Entrance of the Gladiators.
The tune filled Juliet’s ears and she opened her eyes. She was no longer lying on the concrete but she was sitting on a hard wooden bench ringside in a circus tent. Juliet held a bag of peanuts in her lap and she looked around in shock at the others sitting in the stands. It was crowded, and filled with people of all ages, shapes and sizes. They were all laughing and joking, pointing as a clown in a blue suit and a red polka dot party hat created a balloon animal chicken in the centre ring. People were eating cotton candy and drinking sodas, holding balloons and throwing peanuts into the sand of the ring. The air had a hazy electric feeling that Juliet instantly recognised as the feeling she had felt in the car – like a thunderstorm was going to hit.
Suddenly Juliet remembered everything – the clown in the forest, hitting it in her car, the shaking rubber chicken, and the feeling as it ripped into her body with its teeth and white-gloved hands. Juliet quickly looked down and pulled open the buttons of her trench coat to look at her body, terrified of what she might find. Her chest cavity was no longer open or covered in blood and everything seemed to be in place. She breathed in and furrowed her brow, confused.
Juliet placed her hand over her heart but couldn’t feel it beating. She quickly tried to take her pulse on the inside of her wrist as she had learnt in first aid class in high school, but she couldn’t feel anything either. She tried on her neck and failed to find her pulse for a third time.
Amidst her confusion, she realised that the classic circus tune had stopped. The clown in the centre of the ring was no longer making balloon animals, and the crowd in the stands was no longer talking and laughing. They all sat staring at her, their eyes flashing with red.
In the centre of the ring, Juliet recognised the clown that had eaten her. It was no longer covered in blood, and was dressed exactly how she had seen it standing at the tree line, but there was no mistaking the red flashing eyes. The clown cocked its head to one side and looked at her like a puppy, the black make up under its eyes still melting down onto its cheeks, and it’s terrifyingly sharp smile spreading across its face. It waved at her with its gloved white hand and the crowd sitting next to her erupted into thunderous applause.
Terrified, Juliet jumped from her seat on the stands, spilling her bag of peanuts, and ran towards the exit of the tent. Nobody in the crowd made a move to stop her as they continued to cheer so Juliet continued to run to the entrance. She pulled open the gap in the circus tent and burst through it, sprinting as hard as she could … into the exact same ring.
The crowd were still clapping and cheering without a pause and the clown in the centre of the ring was still waving at her, watching. Confused, Juliet turned and ran towards the gap in the tent again, certain this would get her back to the forest, but as she ran through the tent she found herself back in the same ring again. Slowing down she went back to the gap in the tent and opened it, seeing nothing but darkness beyond the material. Now extremely puzzled, she stepped through and out into the darkness, yet stepped into the festive lighting and the applause of the same ring.
She was trapped in some sort of circus Hell, run by the maniacal clown that had killed her. Breathing heavily despite not having a heart, Juliet let out an ear-piercing scream and fell to her knees on the dirty floor, only for it to be drowned out by the applause of the undead crowd.
The tune of the Entrance of the Gladiators began again and Juliet took a breath, watching with dismay as the blue suited clown continued to make balloon animals into the shapes of chickens in the ring. Slowly, she pulled herself to her feet, walked back over to her seat and sat down. An older man next to her handed her a bag of peanuts that looked suspiciously like the bag she had spilled, and she slowly resigned herself to the fact that she would forever be one of the crowd.
As long as they didn’t pick her for the audience participation segment, Juliet guessed she could live with forever being a part of the Circus of Eternals.
It was very late at night at the beach house, and Nick was sitting with his parents on their outside deck in the warm sea breeze, citronella candles burning on the large patio table in front of them. Nick couldn’t look at his mother who wore an “I told you so” look of smug triumph as she sipped from her glass of champagne. Juliet had really let him down in the worst way tonight, not turning up or even calling. He was furious that she cared so little about his family not to show up on this important occasion.
Maybe his mother was right about her after all.