Saturday, June 25, 2016

There's a Circus in The Cauldron

Lions and Tigers, World War I, and the Salem Witch Trials

The opening paragraph from The Cauldron, a science fiction novel featured in the current Storybundle:

Freida was purchased from an outfit in Birmingham and towered over the other elephants, dwarfing even Trilby the Ponderous Pachyderm. She weighed nearly nine thousand pounds, and the flies attracted to the considerable amount of dung she produced made Petey cringe. At least he didn’t have to shovel it.

What’s a circus and an elephant…from the 1920s…got to do with a book about aliens and self-discovery? I suppose I should just say “read the book.”
The longer answer is that my co-author, Gene DeWeese, wanted the Cole Bros Circus in the story. He had a big old book about the circus, and he was fascinated by the circus’s history. The circus is still operating today ( 
He was going to mail me this book, “lend” it to me, so that I could study the circus and “get it right” for The Cauldron. But I knew how much Gene treasured his books…his collection was scary-impressive…and so I didn’t want to trust one of his favorite books to the mail. We were going to meet at Culver’s for lunch—one of his go-to restaurants for cheeseburgers and custard—so I could look through the book; but his doctor appointments kept getting in the way.
Instead I scoured the Internet for tidbits on that circus; and circus history in general. Now, admittedly, the circus does not play a big part in the book and does not occupy a big chunk of pages. But it is crucial to the plot, and it required a good bit of digging to “get it right.” I didn’t mind. I like research.
The Cole Bros Circus has survived for more than a century. Since 1884 the circus has brought the smells of straw and sawdust, cotton candy and animals to “children of all ages.”
William Washington Cole (1847-1915) started with W.W. Cole’s New Colossal Shows in 1884. At the turn of the century it became the Cole Bros Circus and was purchased by Canadian Martin Downs and his son James. It traveled throughout the West, and scheduled sessions at mining camps, remote boomtowns, and military bases. During the Great Depression, Jesse Adkins and Zack Terrell bought and rebuilt the circus to rival Ringling Bros. Some of the gorgeous parade wagons from that time are on display in the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin.
In 1935 Clyde Beatty was featured…and so he gained a mention in The Cauldron. The elephants and the great cats are in there, too, as well as a couple of characters who are tasked with saving Earth.
What passed for the midway... I pulled that from my memories of walking through various circus grounds when I was a kid. I’d seen Ringling Bros performances, Shriner’s circuses. I even edited an anthology called Circus (a CD horror compilation…Gene DeWeese had a story in it).
How awesome is that? Putting an old-time circus in a SF book? Well, I thought it was awesome, and certainly nothing I would have thought up on my own. I enjoyed where Gene DeWeese pushed me. He taught me a lot. I miss his phone calls and working with him.

There are other unusual elements in the book—a piece of the Salem Witch Trials, Gene’s idea; a WWI battlefield, my idea…I’m a WWI game-player and have tons of WWI history books; a fishing resort in Indiana, both our notions. Oh, and I had to add Ancient Egypt…because I was studying Egypt at the Kenosha Museum at the time.
The circus is in there more than once…
…because it’s a circus and because Gene wanted it in there.
And that’s frigging awesome to put a circus in a SF book with aliens and such.
Next time I’ll talk about that fishing resort and how to wrap memories into a novel.

Two reviews of The Cauldron:

THE CAULDRON is a gripping, fascinating journey through what seems at first like one man's nightmare—impossibly far-fetched yet eerily plausible. I couldn't stop reading until it was done. Wow, what a book!
–Ed Greenwood, creator of The Forgotten Realms

THE CAULDRON is a stunning effort, aglow with interesting venues and incidents, and three characters I wish I knew personally. A fine job by Ms. Rabe and the late Mr. DeWeese.
- Mike Resinick, five-time Hugo Award winner

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