First Impressions: The title of this reminds me of Carnival of Souls, which I find inherently horrifying. And then the book opens with a dream sequence that contains this image:
There in the distance, floating yet gaining on him fast as though blown by a wind, came a grey shape. It twisted and whirled like a linen sheet.Carnival of the Dead, p. 2
I know I’ve mentioned this before, but there’s a short story by M. R. James called “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” that terrifies me, and that image could have been lifted directly from that story. Gah.
So I’m already scared going in, basically.
Just a warning: if you want to avoid spoilers, you shouldn’t read any further.
Characters: Raoul Calder, the son of a magician, who is being haunted by dreadful nightmares in which the mushy corpse of his father tells him “The dead shall walk on water.” Raoul is a magician himself, and has a black box that belonged to his father, containing his “apparatus.”
Gemma, Raoul’s friend, who arranges for the two of them to go stay on Perd, an island they’ve never heard of, in hopes of getting jobs at the carnival that’s being built there, all because her French pen-pal Colette wrote to her about it. So trusting! So enthusiastic! So stupid.
The Seigneur Maximillian LaFayette, the sinister magician who has convinced the inhabitants of the island that he’s going to build a new fairground and revitalize the local economy. (Actually, there are two islands joined by a there-at-low-tide sand spit: Perd and La Petite Soeur.) He’s got henchmen, including the scruffy Moby Scruggs. My God, the names in this are fantastic, aren’t they?
Various performers who have flocked to the island and are staying at Aunty Mavis‘ boarding house: Lezlie the Lizard Lady, Tom Thumb, Mike the Strong Man, Fredo…literally none of these people survive the book, so don’t bother getting attached to them.
Also, Mahmood, sent for by Lezlie in an effort to help.
Recap: The book opens with a dream sequence, and it’s very well done. Aside from minor cues (“Raoul Calder groaned into his pillow.”) we’re fully immersed in his nightmare, and it’s seriously creepy. He’s being chased along a beach at night by the grey thing I quoted above, and there’s an old carnival looming in the background, and then the corpse of his father pops up and tries to embrace him while saying, “The dead will walk on water.”
Okay, you know what I wouldn’t do if that was my recurring nightmare? I wouldn’t let any of my friends convince me to go to an ISLAND to work at a CARNIVAL.
Raoul, however, doesn’t know he’s in a horror novel, and has maybe also never read one or seen a creepy movie. Because he follows Gemma to the island, a place she only knows exists because her French penpal has told her about it. These people have no survival instincts whatsoever.
On the ferry Raoul sees the old funfair is called “Wonderland” and has a roller coaster called “The Big Dipper,” just like in his dreams. He has a sort of vision of the place when it was still in business.
They still think it’s a good idea to stay here and look for work, though.
A scruffy guy (Moby Scruggs) approaches them, explaining he keeps an eye out for “talent” for the Siegneur, who’s auditioning all the magicians that arrive, because he’s on the lookout for a special illusion. Okay, sure, nothing sus about that. He also gives them a business card for Aunty Mavis’ Boarding House, where all the pier people stay.
Raoul is thrilled to be staying at a boarding house among fair folk, because for “all these years” (spare me: you’re a flipping teenager) he’s been practicing magic alone but now he’s, like, living the life.
Lezlie the Lizard Lady shows up in their room, but this isn’t that kind of book, so she merely warns them not to trust Scruggs and LaFayette. She thinks LaFayette is looking for a particular magician, and that magician’s life is in danger. She’s told a friend of hers about LaFayette, and this mysterious friend is on the way.
Lezlie goes off to work at the pier, and half an hour later Raoul and Gemma go to meet her. Why didn’t they just walk down with her? Anyway, Lezlie thinks Raoul might be the magician LaFayette is looking for; also, “strange things” have been happening.
Just then one of the strange things happens: a woman and a child show up, completely hysterical because of something they’ve seen in the Mirror Maze. Ha. Fredo, who is manning the maze, goes back to check. I hope you’re not overly invested in Fredo.
That night Raoul wakes up from a nightmare. Outside the window he sees shapes moving on the beach. So, doing exactly what I wouldn’t, he heads out alone into the dark to the beach to investigate.
He stopped short. A wave of uneasiness grew from somewhere within him.
“I’ve done this before,” he said. “I’ve been here before.”
The sudden realization hit him like an unexpected blow.
He looked again across the water. The shadows were moving, but it was clear to him now that they were not shadows at all. Figures, their arms stretched out before them, shambled along as though unseeing.p.67
Why do people in zombie novels NEVER guess “zombies”? Maybe it’s just that I’ve been exposed to too many zombie shows/books, but I’m, like, constantly on the alert for them. Seriously, if you so much as stagger in my general direction I might run you over with my car.
(This goes double for anyone who pops up on the road dressed as a creepy clown. I WILL PANIC AND STEP ON THE GAS. Consider yourself warned.)
Lezlie’s friend is a creepy person named Jacques Mahmood. This is him on the boat over:
“The Day of the Dead,” he whispered. “It draws nearer, I can feel it — the revealer is nearby.” He glanced upwards. “Madron, Madron is that you? Can you hear me, can you know me?”
He heard a voice, a whispering in his head.
“Correct old man, the time of the apocalypse may be close.”p. 70
Lezlie meets him at the dock and tells him “the one you spoke of may be here.”
At breakfast the next day, Lezlie tells Raoul and Gemma that the figures he saw were LaFayette’s workers, who shouldn’t have been on the big island; they belong on La Petite Soeur, the little island where the new fairground is being built. She says they’re not like normal men, and they’re hungry. Also, Fredo has gone missing.
It’s pretty obviously zombies, but she doesn’t say so.
As well, other people have been going missing, including a French girl named Colette. Gemma recognizes the name of her penpal. Lezlie hurries away to her shop, telling them to meet her there in half an hour, which is a lot less helpful than if she simply TOLD THEM WHAT WAS HAPPENING or maybe asked them to WALK THERE WITH HER. Sigh.
On the way to Lezlie’s shop, Raoul and Gemma duck into a shop to try to avoid Scruggs and some other guy. The lady there refuses to sell them a pamphlet called “The Plague Pit: Un Histoire des Iles des Perdus,” saying it was on display by mistake. But after they pay her for some postcards, she tells them that the islands used to be a prison colony during the seventeenth century. One day a shipload of prisoners arrived to find everyone dead of a sleeping sickness, and it took forty days and forty nights to bury them all.
Outside Lezlie’s shop they see something being carried away on a stretcher, and then Scruggs pops up. Lezlie and Mahmood manage to save Raoul, but Scruggs and his accomplice (Pierre) shove Gemma into an open buggy and kidnap her.
Lezlie tells Raoul they need to talk to him, but he takes off on foot, intending to walk to La Petite Soeur and… save Gemma, I guess? Though I don’t see how, since he literally couldn’t prevent her being kidnapped in the first place. Along the way he notices that The Big Dipper is being dismantled.
Fredo wakes up in a locked room, remembering that a huddled creature in the Mirror Maze bit him on the neck, and then he’d been taken to the old fairground and walked with “them.” He tries to resist his growing hunger, but then grabs a rat and eats it. Outside the door to the locked room, Jacques Mahmood says “Oh Fredo, poor Fredo,” and Lezlie cries.
Raoul reaches La Petite Soeur, sees a waxworks building (called “The Soft House,” which is weirdly disgusting), and then Scruggs shows up and takes him to meet LaFayette. LaFayette has an actual THRONE in his luxury caravan, and lots of posters and stuff from historic magic shows. The throne, he tells Raoul proudly, belonged to a thirteenth century Black Magician named Madron. Wait, isn’t that the guy Jacques Mahmood was talking to? If he’s one of the good guys, why is he on speaking terms with a long-dead Black Magician?
LaFayette has hypnotic powers, and Raoul finds himself telling him all about his father, and his father’s black box of magic accessories he’s brought along to the island. Then Raoul has another vision, this time of his father performing, and LaFayette is excited to learn Raoul can “see.” He tells Raoul to return tomorrow to audition, and to bring along the black box, or he’ll kill Gemma.
Gemma, meanwhile, is inside the waxworks building. It’s pitch black and full of rats, but she has a tiny flashlight, and discovers the chained (and partly eaten) body of Colette. The bits of Colette that’ve been eaten have been patched up with wax, which is a grim little detail.
Back at the boarding house, Raoul goes through his father’s black box again, but can’t find anything unusual. He heads off to Lezlie’s shop. Lezlie and Mahmood show him Fredo’s body (Fredo having died for the second, and presumably final, time). Suddenly seized by a spirit of informativeness that would have been REALLY USEFUL a bunch of chapters ago, they explain to Raoul that LaFayette has partial knowledge of a spell to raise the dead.
The spell was discovered by a stage magician called the Great Maskar–who turns out to have been Raoul’s father. LaFayette has been searching for the magician who can help him complete the spell, so his zombies will stop re-dying after a brief period of animation. Raoul explains that his father used to work on cruise ships, and died when Raoul was just a baby. Mahmood has a poster showing Raoul’s father and a mysterious, fully-masked, skeleton-costumed assistant. Raoul has dreamed about this guy, but woke up just before he could see the guy’s face.
It’s great that they’ve all started communicating, but this was a really exposition-heavy section. Still compelling enough that I kept reading, but also I kept wanting to shake them and yell, “You couldn’t have said that before Gemma got kidnapped?”
Oh, also, something called The Carnival of Masks is going on in a couple of nights; everyone on the island is supposed to show up in costume and win prizes. Can we already guess what’s going to happen? Yes, yes we can.
They go back to the boarding house (there really is a lot of to-and-fro-ing in this book), and Mahmood goes though the Great Maskar’s box of props. Among the ephemera there’s a menu from a restaurant in Port-au-Prince, which Mahmood explains is proof Raoul’s father learned Voodoo in Haiti.
Aunty Mavis delivers an envelope (addressed to Raoul in Gemma’s handwriting using her nail varnish and also bearing her scent; COME ON that’s overkill). It’s a reminder from LaFayette that he’s expecting Raoul and the black box to show up or he’ll kill Gemma. YES WE KNOW. Also Mahmood picks THIS moment to tell them there’s a prophecy that four great magicians, one each from the north, south, east and west, will come together at the apocalypse.
He also explains that he’s the latest in a long line of magicians tasked with making sure the “forbidden acts” of magic stay secret, and namedrops that Harry Houdini held the same job. Lezlie is one of his informants. Mahmood’s, not Harry’s.
Mahmood thinks their best bet is to burn and bury all the items from the black box, and then replace them with stuff from Lezlie’s store.
The next day Moby Scruggs takes Raoul (by boat) across to the little island. LaFayette is in a small building with Chinese lettering that says “The Temple of Swords.” I don’t think Raoul can read actual Chinese; I think they mean the sign on the building is in that “chop suey” font. Ugh, and also, why?
Gemma’s tied up and kneeling by a guillotine. LaFayette does a trick called “Salome: the Head of John the Baptist,” which involves pulling his own head off with a squelching sound, placing it on a plate, and then putting it back on his neck and reattaching it. That’s… that’s quite the illusion.
Raoul demands Gemma’s release, then hands over the black box. LaFayette swallows the key, and Mahmood (speaking to Raoul using telepathy or something, I don’t know; he’s hidden himself somewhere in the temple) says something’s wrong. Then LaFayette causes spears to shoot up from the stage, encircling the cabinet where Jacques Mahmood was hiding, and trapping him.
LaFayette exposits dramatically about how he found the zombie magic in Bikini
“Let me tell you a story,” said LaFayette. “Once there was a great magician, possibly the greatest. His magic was misunderstood — unappreciated. He was reduced to working as an apprentice. Then he found the mystery of mysteries. It was on a little island just off Haiti — Bikini Diablo. The High Priest gave the secret to another, a fool who chose not to share it with him. Finally, at last, he can realize his full glory; he now has the missing element.”p. 176-177
I honestly thought the missing element was going to be the key he just swallowed, but no: it’s the cover of the black box, which is actually the skin of Madron. Eww, ick.
A bunch of zombies emerge and hold Gemma and Raoul. LaFayette brings everyone to the Soft House, where there’s an enormous pit filled with bones. Then he sends Scruggs to bring out a body in a tattered skeleton suit. Obviously this is the suit LaFayette wore when he was Raoul’s father’s assistant, so I’m not sure why Raoul doesn’t immediately guess that this is going to be his father’s body.
LaFayette starts elaborating slicing up Madron’s skin, because the ritual requires him to burn the remains of two magicians. Raoul manages to free Mahmood, but it’s too late: LaFayette performs the ritual, tossing the burning remains of Madron onto the remains of The Great Maskar (worst recipe ever). Then Mahmood rushes him, and Mahmood and LaFayette fall into the pit on top of the fire.
This book has way too many magicians, and way too many names starting with “M.”
Gemma and Raoul flee to the theatre, locking themselves in and listening to waves of zombies emerging from the pit. That fairgrounds start up outside; they can hear the calliope, which is a nice eerie touch.
Eventually Raoul and Gemma make their way across the island, seeing islanders who’ve been zombified, including every character from the boarding house. They find Scruggs’ motorboat and hide in it, intending to refuel it in the morning and escape.
But now they see what the dismantled Big Dipper has been used for. LaFayette’s “assistants” have built a ship, which is now teaming with zombies as it heads for the mainland to spread the zombie apocalypse.
Final Thoughts: A zombie apocalypse feels a bit heavy for a Point Horror (although in fairness this is British, and the British “Point Horror Unleashed” were also kind of extreme compared to the American ones). But this was really well-written and had a haunting, nightmarish quality: I enjoyed it, at least up until the last few pages, when I started to find it all a touch depressing.