Like skilled acrobats, these stories straddle the line between realism and fantasy, and fly through the air between them. Sexual attraction between men in the circus world seems like such a good fit that I wonder why no one compiled an anthology on this theme before. Like gay men, circus performers have traditionally been nomadic social outcasts, and the yearning of a lonely boy to “run away and join the circus” seems like a thinly-disguised desire to “come out.”
Several of these stories are set in a realistic past, when trained elephants in a travelling show were less controversial than the human performers and crew. In “Roustabout” by Dale Chase, the twenty-year-old narrator begins his story in California in April 1878:
“Jack Hodges was shot two days ago and while the man who done him in has been strung up, there remains an empty place in me that will not likely be filled by justice, be it vigilante or otherwise.” The narrator was Jack’s lover, and he goes to the circus with a barely-conscious plan to find some distraction for his grief.
An exchange of meaningful glances between the narrator and Tully, an older, muscular roustabout who is setting up a tent, leads to a fast hookup, which could possibly lead to a deeper relationship. But there are no guarantees.
“The Twenty-Four Hour Man” by Dusty Taylor shows a professional P.R. man through the eyes of a “rube,” an innocent young man in a small Kansas town in 1915. While seducing the whole town to come to the circus starring “Buffalo Bill,” the handsome stranger seduces the narrator, who has never met anyone like him before. The young man’s father had always warned him to beware of con men and circus types as moral ‘stumbling blocks,’ but even after the handsome stranger has left him forever, the narrator doesn’t regret their night together.
In “Circus Wagon Love” by Garland, a group of circus performers listen to the radio during the Second World War, wondering if they will be sent to one of the camps where people go in but never come out. When the narrator, a contortionist, learns that a Hollywood movie, Freaks, is being made about the sideshow, he feels ambivalent: I honestly didn’t know how I felt about it. His reaction is much like that of a gay filmgoer to a film that shows his “people” as freaks, but which gives them public exposure.
In the fantasy stories, the circus represents an imaginary world of unlimited sex and real monsters. The narrator of “The Midnight Barker” by William Holden is an immortal wraith, one of a circus `family` that survives on the energy of the living:
The young man we want has to have a tainted heart. He has to want it, need it, desire it. Through their desires, we create our Netherworld where we make their fantasies come true. Through their fantasies, we feed. The circus is a jealous whore, a ravenous hag that sucks the vitality right out of a person, just like a bloodthirsty vampire sucks the veins dry.
Like a vampire, the narrator seems likely to change his chosen victim into one like himself.
The title character in “The Great Masturbator” by Daniel M. Jaffe is rumored to cause gay men to disappear from the real world. When the narrator, whose life is going nowhere, goes to the circus to be cheered up, he learns what has happened to the missing men. He is trapped in a kind of limbo from which there seems to be no escape, but he tells the reader: I live in hope.
“Circus Maximus” by Sean Meriwether is set in a dystopian society run by clowns whose “patron saint” is John Wayne Gacy, serial killer of young men in the real world. The story is told by an “ant,” a young man whose lack of performing skill condemns him to the lowest rank and whose protective love for his younger brother drives him to kill. The two young men run away from the circus and discover a tribe of fellow refugees led by a magical queen who resembles the older wisewomen in The Matrix and Tommy. At last the narrator finds his tribe and the male mentor he needs, although the life of a fugitive won’t be easy.
“Oggie Joins the Circus” by the team of Jay Neal and R. Jackson is a lighter story: a teenage boy’s masturbation fantasy. Parker the Barker introduces young Oggie to the circus of his imagination:
Ah, young sir – we have many wonderful wonders ready to amazingly amaze you. Inside my pants – inside our tents, I mean – you will meet the world’s best-hung midget, incredible twin contortionists, Melvin the Magnificent – soothsayer, human goat and tattooed man – a mystifying fun-house of mirrors and a remarkable game of skill and luck, to mention but a few of our unique attractions.
Oggie discovers all these wonders before being welcomed “home.”
Steve Berman’s story, “Tell Me What You Love, and I’ll Tell You What You Are,” shows a contemporary circus as a slice of untrustworthy reality. Printed in two columns on each page, the story is an episodic two-ring show in which a rueful older man accompanies his closeted nephew and the nephew’s ‘friend’ to a circus of illusions. The handsome guy working the “Guess Your Height, Your Age, Your Fate” booth seems attracted to the uncle – or is he? The reader can never be sure what is real and what is not.
In a parallel story, “Magic” by Matt Kailey, another lonely, disillusioned gay man discovers a circus that advertises only by word of mouth, where an incredibly well-hung performer chooses him for magically painless public sex.
One of the “realistic” stories (to use the term loosely) focuses on the role of a “fluffer,” a kind of roustabout in the world of porn films. “Charlie Does the Big Top” by Hank Edwards is an over-the-top “dirty joke” in which the circus is actually a porn-film set, and the central character gets paid to keep the stars as hard as they need to be.
“The Worker” by Cage Thunder is about “coming out” into another dream job. In this story, a bored college student has come home to Kansas for the summer. (Did The Wizard of Oz start a tradition of setting quest stories in Kansas?) At the circus with his former high school buddies, the narrator is fascinated by Steve Starr, a pro wrestler who helps “the kid” to find his calling and his stage name, Cage Thunder.
The remaining stories are more-or-less true to contemporary life, and are as captivating as the obvious fantasies. “Il Circo dei Fiori” by Gavin Atlas suggests that the circus (as entertainment, business and lifestyle) may be doomed, but the narrator tries gamely to save the “circus of flowers” which has been in his family for generations, and hang onto the man of his dreams.
In several of these stories, the appeal of circus performers for audience members and humble handymen is a source of erotic tension. In “Aiming to Please” by Nathan Burgoine, a knife-thrower seduces an enthralled audience member by hurling sharp knives that barely miss the target’s flesh while pinning him in place. In “Winter Quarters” by Tom Cardamone, young Jimmy (who works the concession stand) gets to wrap his idol, a performer of his own age, in cotton candy when the circus is not on tour. In the brief “Horse’s Ass” by Ralph Seligman, the handyman narrator has dramatic sex with a clown who uses white grease paint as lube.