Jane Yolen’s The Midnight Circus

51KGlGCgF6LJane Yolen’s The Midnight Circus is an appropriately titled collection of her darker stories, featuring sad endings, disturbing implications, and utter beauty. While almost all qualify as dark, more than one deal with the perils of actual historical events, albeit often in a somewhat fantastical way.

Before Yolen’s fiction proper come two essays. One is by Jane Yolen herself and discusses the collection, and her realization that she has indeed written more than a fair amount of what might be called dark fiction. The other is by Theodora Goss, another writer known for her focus on the fantastical, and speaks to the many talents and accomplishments that Jane Yolen has to her credit, as well as the influence Yolen has had on her own work. It is a good reminder of the type of author Yolen is (which is not needed) and an enjoyable piece (which is always appreciated) and serves well to set the stage for the stories themselves.

In the historical horror camp comes a fascinating variation on the 1912 Robert Falcon Scott expedition. Robert J. Harris co-wrote this one, a disturbing tale within a late night confession. The narrator of the first framing is a Catholic priest with more than his share of doubts, whereas the man he takes the confession from is none other than the doctor who found the remains of the failed expedition and, in the process, something more disturbing than he ever let on. There is a crumpled letter from Scott which tells a horrifying version of his life story and addresses the idea that the real reason he wished to go to the Antarctic was in the hopes of suppressing the thirst he gained by becoming a vampire.

It is a sad little story, in which characters appear less heroic, and while Scott remains sympathetic, he is very much not the swashbuckling romantic vampire that has come into vogue. Instead, he is a truly tragic figure, doing what he can to assuage the problem, yet failing to make any significant progress in stopping his crazed bloodlust, save drinking from human beings. Historical figures occasionally appear as somewhat less noble, but none are truly vilified. The fact that someone panics is more than understandable, although who it is might seem an odd choice.

The theme of sacrifice is strong, as is the idea of secrets. Each of the three narrators finds himself hiding something, ostensibly for the greater good. While a personal interest in doing so is plain, the motive remains less than selfish for any. At the same time, the realization that certain personal miseries are carried with you like a special burden is made clear, and the story shows that if such secrets are not laudable then they are most certainly well intentioned.

There is a small ecological matter discussed in the frame of the story, at the very end, which is a surprisingly well thought out if nonetheless horrifying little piece of storytelling. Indeed, the way the faith of the priest is shaken will take on an additional level for the current day reader thinking about the Antarctic. This is an unexpected turn for the story, something rare when it comes to a last minute addition.

Another interesting history-related tale is “Snatchers” which begins with the strange phenomenon of forced military service in Tsarist Russia. As a result of the understandable ways that families tried to avoid this, the Kapher, a type of bounty hunter sent to bring young men for service against their will) came into being as a profession. The way that a variant of Yolen’s own family is used in this story is more than entertaining, but the way that Yolen morphs a historical threat into a classic supernatural bogeyman is fascinating.

The status of a figure in black seen only by its target, the horrifying price to be paid for escape, and the understanding of a cultural shared suffering all coalesce into a truly special combination. It is a classic fairy tale that results, with a dark plot, dark ending, and culturally reinforcing message baked into the plot. This last element, a little piece of enforced conformity, is an unusual choice for an author as left wing as Yolen, yet entirely appropriate to the status of this piece as a dark little fairy tale. 

The idea of one danger outpacing another, and small harm working to eliminate a great threat, are more than understandable. The narrator seems to come to understand that fact; however, the final lines make it clear that the trade-off had a bitter and quite literally painful cost. In addition, the status of an individual or family of Jewish descent as mostly secularized plays a major part. The narrator discusses how at times one wouldn’t know his immediate family were Jewish, were it not for the more observant cousins and uncles they frequently visit. Indeed the narrator’s father is not spelled out as even knowing Yiddish until the strange occurrences begin and he begins calling other family members speaking in Yiddish while asking for advice. It is a grim reminder that community, family, culture, and religion are often a lifeline in a world that can be, at best. unsympathetic.

This book is billed as a short story collection, yet in some ways this volume serves as two anthologies rather than one. After the bulk of the book, all of the short stories, comes a section in which Yolen examines the stories collected and, usually, includes an associated poem. Each is an enjoyable read in its own right, and many are published in this collection for the first time. As a result, those interested in Yolen’s poetry will find this volume of more interest than one would expect if they merely looked at the fact some of the stories within include portions of verse.

An afterword by Althea Kontis is included in which she shares her experiences with Yolen as well as other individuals impressions of the stories. She rates Yolen alternately as a queen and a goddess, each in reference to her own nickname as a princess. It is an amusing and celebratory piece which is greatly appreciated.

Overall, this is an excellent collection, featuring a large number of tales with a range of subject matter. Each is a fascinating little piece in its own right, and some go beyond being gems and into the realm of stunning. Even the introduction, afterword, and notes tell stories. The Midnight Circus is a must-read for fans of Yolen, and easy to recommend to anyone who enjoys a bit of a darker take on the wondrous.

(Tachyon, 2020)