Call me old-fashioned, but something about haunted carnivals has always appealed to a very base level of my horror fandom. I have no idea why, I know I sure didn’t go to many when I was younger or anything; there’s just something sinister in general about carnivals that I’ve always enjoyed.
That being said, I think it’s safe to assume I went into Smith’s latest offering with some positive bias, much the same way I approach a vampire story with disdain until it can prove itself to me. The Freakshow only had to have a lot of freaks and maniacal havoc and I would love it, and thankfully Smith is of the same thinking. After House of Blood and Deathbringer, I was afraid the author would’ve hit some kind of slump, especially considering how fast those books came out, but if anything the man is in peak form with The Freakshow.
The action kicks in from the first page and doesn’t let up for the entire book and while I know that sounds like hyperbole, it’s the truth. We immediately find ourselves plunged into the hell that Pleasant Hills, Tennessee has become thanks to the arrival of The Flaherty Brothers Traveling Canivale and Freakshow. The tale is told to us through a survivor of the carnage the carnival caused throughout the town, which drew in nearly all of the Pleasant Hills residents through some sort of mind control; a man named Mike, who somehow escaped the mass execution of everyone he’s ever known.
We’re also introduced to Heather, heading to Pleasant Hills with her incredible asshole of a boyfriend, Craig, to check on her mother, since the town has been out of the communication loop for a while now. These are our primary characters, though they never meet face to face even once, which allows Smith to show us two very different aspects of what happens when this Freakshow shows up in small town America, something it’s apparently been doing for centuries.
Through Heather we see the sickest of the freaks, a mind-controlling two-headed hyper bitch known as Miss Monique, who revels in causing the worst possible indignities to the human race that her twisted pair of minds can muster up. And believe you me, this girl is creative. Through Mike we’re shown the political side of things, as it were, learning the history of the freaks and their reasons for wanting to decimate the human race.
The really great thing is with The Freakshow is that there’s really never a moment where the characters just sit down and explain everything that’s going on; the reader is forced to pay attention to every nuance and depravity to piece this mystery together. The action never slows down; our heroes go from one incredibly fucked-up situation to another, all the while trying to just simply stay alive, though by the end of the night neither can imagine what they would want to live for after seeing the things they’ve seen.
The pacing is dead on and the horror is exceptional; Smith comes up with twisted and vile characters with even more despicable tastes in humiliation and destruction. I can guarantee there are things in The Freakshow you’ve (hopefully) never thought of before, and even if you have they’ve probably never been translated to the written word. The fact that it’s all done by dog-faced humanoids, or clown creatures that pop when you stab them but keep coming after you thanks to retractable teeth, or massive beasts with pumpkin-like heads, makes the imagery that much more horrific. This is a book begging to be translated into a graphic novel.
Good characters, a good story and some nasty imagery combine to make The Freakshow one of the most fun reads I’ve had in a long time. Though it’s not the pinnacle of horror fiction or anything that will change your view of the world, it is one of the most original books Leisure's put out to date and for that I commend them. I can’t wait to see what Bryan Smith does next, though it’s going to be very hard to top The Freakshow!
4 1/2 out of 5
Review by Johnny Butane