Make no mistake: this “Tale of Appropriate Fear” is smart person’s horror. CLOWNS AT MIDNIGHT is the first-ever horror novel by Australia’s Terry Dowling, a short story scribe and veteran editor (of the Harlan Ellison retrospective THE ESSENTIAL ELLISON and many other books). His intelligence and voluminous knowledge of the genre are fully evident in this highly provocative, intellectually grounded account. The book is never especially self conscious or obscure, but getting through CLOWNS AT MIDNIGHT takes a fair amount of thought--and patience.
The narrator is David Leeton, a Sydney based writer minding the home of some colleagues, located in the rural village Starbreak Fell. David is a coulrophobe, meaning he’s pathologically afraid of all things clown-related. David’s clown-fear is among the novel’s standout elements, with detailed symptoms (“Full Clown” being the worst) so vividly described I can’t help but wonder if Terry Dowling is a coulrophobe himself.
Coulrophobia is quite a dangerous condition to have in Starbreak Fell, which contains a mysterious tower and three manmade bottle trees that trigger “quarter-clown” symptoms in David. Also afoot are Carlo and Raina Risi, Sardinian pig breeders whose property contains a giant hedge maze and an ancient mask predating the iconic sixteenth century Commedia dell’Arte masks.
Speaking of the Commedia dell’Arte, David uses images of Commedia masks to test the limits of his clown fear. He’s also writing an article on the subject, which Carlo, whose historical knowledge is voluminous, finds especially interesting. Carlo’s dissertations on the true origins of the Commedia dell’Arte and (by extension) western religion are lengthy enough to take up a large portion of the novel, which in keeping with its intellectual bent is part history lesson.
Dowling follows many traditional horror rules in his set-up, in which quite a few bizarre happenings disrupt the protagonist’s existence in Starbreak Fell. Strange pictures turn up on David’s personal CD, the bottle trees are inexplicably smashed and a mysterious figure is spotted that ratchets David’s symptoms up to “full clown” status. He decides these are all part of some elaborate practical joke, but as any knowledgeable horror buff well knows, they’re not--or at least not entirely. There is a game of sorts going on, with David as its unwitting target.
Other genre standbys include a tentative romance the protagonist enjoys with a local woman, the revelation that one character may have an evil twin, and a WICKER MAN-like climax in which ancient ritual and modern apprehension merge. Of course in these things, as in most everything else, Dowling is always several steps ahead of readers’ expectations. In other words, the romance is not the standard star-crossed love you find in so many of today’s (so-called) horror novels, and it doesn’t conclude with said lovers rejoicing in each others’ arms after the evil forces are roundly defeated. Rather, what Dowling provides is a sophisticated look at age-old evil and superstition, and how (to borrow a quote from another intellectually grounded writer) the past is never dead; it’s not even past.