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Charles G. Finney

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Standard Disclaimer:

This is a brief discussion of Charles G. Finney and, of course, of some speculative-fiction books by Finney.

This discussion and list does not necessarily include every book by Finney: it includes only those books that I both know and like. Just as with the author list itself, omission of a particular item may mean I didn’t think highly enough of the omitted item, or it may simply mean that I have not yet sufficient familiarity with it. (In a very few cases, I have listed some books merely on the strength of my opinion of the author: all such books are clearly marked below, as throughout these lists, with a hash mark (#) before the title so you know what’s what.)

I don’t pretend that this discussion is a deep analysis. My intent is no more than to give you a rough idea of what kinds of tales Finney tells, how those tales are usually told, and what makes them and Finney worthy; in sum, to help you rank Charles G. Finney (and the works by Finney listed here) on your personal literary “to do” list.

A Few Words About Charles G. Finney

Some General Notes

Charles G. Finney’s reputation nowadays, not large to begin with and now rather small, seems to rest on a single book, The Circus of Dr. Lao. That is twice a shame: first, even on the strength of that one book, Finney ought rightly to be recognized as a genius; second, while he was not prolific, he did produce a few other gems too.

Though Finney’s books are not much alike, he is nevertheless another of those authors hard to mistake for anyone else. (Indeed, the only author I can think of to whom he can be likened at all is R. A. Lafferty—or, just maybe, Thorne Smith at his most outré.) Finney’s works have that quality of cartoon madness, of a world that looks like it ought to be our normal own but in which people react in the most prosaic ways to the most bizarre circumstances (his work might fit under the umbrella "magical realism," though I think that a pompous term). Above all, though, Finney’s books, whether or not serious of purpose, each have as their essence fun—a tremendous amount of lively humor, sometimes on the dry side, sometimes on the rollicking side, but always of the essence of the tale and of its telling.

Finney’s career as a writer of fiction is curious: his masterpiece, The Circus of Dr. Lao, published in 1935, was his first novel; it was followed with reasonable promptness in 1937 by the odd little tale The Unholy City. After that, there was silence for about a quarter of a century until the 1964 collection of short stories The Ghosts of Manacle (whose contents had been individually published between 1958 and 1962 in such toney magazines as Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Paris Review). The 1968 re-issue of The Unholy City was accompanied by a novella, apparently then newly written, entitled The Magician Out of Manchuria. And that is what we have (Finney died in 1984).

(Not that Finney wasn’t working as a writer during those periods: he was with the Arizona Daily Star from 1930 through at least 1964.)

With Finney, I will for a change put aside my usual technique of discussing his work by component elements, for he does not seem to me to lend himself readily to that approach. So let me take each of his few books in turn.

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The Circus of Dr. Lao

The Circus of Dr. Lao mixes mordant sarcasm, philosophy, social commentary, even moments of ineffable poignancy, and washes them all down with pervasive humor that ranges from wry to almost slapstick. If that sounds quite a juggling act, so it is, but Finney brings it off as if casually.

(By the way: George Pal made a silly, superficial, saccharine movie titled The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao that was supposedly derived from the Finney novel—if ever you are faced with possible exposure to the thing, run away screaming.)

One hot summer day in the depths of the Depression a travelling circus arrives in the dry, dusty town of Abalone, Arizona (based loosely on Tucson, where Finney lived). That strange circus confronts the citizenry of Abalone with real miracles togged out as shabby carnival sideshows. The various ways in which various of those citizens respond, that summer’s day, to the astounding things they see and hear (including the spectacular grand finale under the main tent) is the book’s freight, but this I can say without it being any “spoiler”: they none of them react, whether to a medusa or the reanimation of a dead man, just quite as one might expect.

The book is not simply rich in symbolism: it is overloaded, comically and deliberately crammed-in overloaded ala the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers’ classic A Night at the Opera. Indeed, following the body of the tale proper is a lengthy addendum, “The Catalogue”, subheaded (An explanation of the obvious which must be read to be appreciated.) That is true and false: it is a catalogue, but it is no sort of explanation at all; in fact, Section VIII of that Catalogue is THE QUESTIONS AND CONTRADICTIONS AND OBSCURITIES.

The tale has points to make; some are made with intentionally ridiculous obviousness, some pretty clearly, some indirectly, and many quite obscurely; indeed, much of the time we have to stay awake just to sense that yet another point is hidden somewhere hereabouts. In short, the tale is not that hateful thing, an “allegory”; it is a truckload of Jungian odds and ends dumped into our subconscious, with Finney the deliveryman following after, his prose kicking those bits about and leaving to us to determine just what these oddments of symbol are symbolizing.

A few quotations are always the best medicine for the confusion my descriptions no doubt too often create. One passage that I wanted to quote, and even started typing, I gave up up on as being too long; then I found that that particular passage is so appealing that others have abstracted it onto web pages. So here—please click on the link—is Apollonius of Tyana reading fortunes for a dime in a sideshow tent of Dr. Lao’s circus.

Here, for contrast—or is it contrast?—is a more overtly humorous exchange that covers, with its humor, one of the emphasized points in the book:

“He doesn’t make a very good statue does he? Let me implore you, ladies and gentlemen, when you go into that tent, for your own good, look at her only in the mirror. It is very distressing for us always to have one or two customers turned to stone at every performance, besides being very difficult to explain to the police. So, once again, I ask you to look only at the medusa’s reflection, not at the lady herself.”

John Rogers tweaked the hem of the doctor’s gown. “We wanta see the big bear, doc, me and the wife and the kids. Which tent is it in?”

Doctor Lao frowned down on the plumber. “Whatsa mattah allee time talkee talk bear business? Me no savee bear business. You no like this Gloddam show, you go somewhere else.” The doctor spread wide his arms and swept on in his discourse:

“Possibly the strangest of all the animals in this menagerie, and certainly one which none of you should miss seeing, is that most unique of all beings, the hound of the hedges.”

(The “bear business” is itself another of the Mysteries, but so is the Doctor and so is his way of reacting to questions about certain things.)

Well, do we want for irony and sarcasm? Then…

“But here was this hound, product of no trial and error process, lacking lust, unhampered by ancestral fears and instincts. And I wondered if in this hound of the hedges were not to be found the apogee of all that life could ever promise. For here were beauty and gentleness and grace; only ferocity and sex and guile were lacking.

“And I wondered, Is this a hint of the goal of life?”

Doctor Lao reached in the cage and patted the hound’s head. The beast soughed like the murmur of wind in sycamore leaves.

“What the hell is the Chink talking about?” asked Quarantine Inspector Number One.

“I’ll be damned if I know,” said Quarantine Inspector Number Two. “Let’s go see the mermaid. That goddam dog looks like a fake to me, somehow.”

Finney was not so crude a writer as to envision every soul, even in benighted 1935 Abalone, Arizona, as a clod. Some of the commonest people, in any sense one wants to take that, are after all interesting and very often likeable. Larry Kamper has seen some of the world as an enlisted army man, and plans in time to see a lot more of it in the same way.

People laughed when Doctor Lao went up to Larry Kamper and addressed him in Chinese, but their laughs turned to stupefaction when Larry replied in the vowel-fluid music of High Mandarin. He sang the four-tone monosyllables as shrilly as did the doctor, and they talked as two strangers finding themselves in a foreign land with the bridge of a common language between them.

There is so much symbolic freight in that casual scene that I dare not essay it for fear of sheer length. (By the way, Finney spent some years in China, and apparently started writing the book while in Tientsin in 1929.) And here’s just one more sample from it:

“Will chimeras breed in captivity?” asked the lawyer.

“Oh, certainly,” said the doctor. “They breed any time. This fellow here is always trying to get at the sphinx.”

“Well, that isn’t exactly what I mean, though, of course, it’s interesting to know. I mean will they reproduce?”

“How can they, when they are all males?”

“What? Are there no female chimeras?”

“Not a single one, and very few males either, for that matter. You are looking at a rare animal, mister.”

“Well, if there are no females, then where do they come from?”

“This one came from Asia Minor, as I already said a moment ago.”

Well, one could go on forever quoting—or at least until one had ended up quoting the entire book trying to show what the book is like. In fact, it is not like anything but itself, which is the difficulty (as is the length of quotation usually needed to convey the kernel of any given scene). Look here: this is simply one of the finest little books in the English language. Get it. Read it. The end.

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The Unholy City

The Unholy City is as strange a book as The Circus of Dr. Lao, but in very different ways. It is nominally the tale of the wanderings of one Captain Butch Malahide (late of Abalone, Arizona) in the strange land in which he finds himself after the crash of a round-the-world-bound airliner, of which crash he is the sole survivor. His wanderings, in the company of a rather peculiar gentleman named Vicq Ruiz, whom he meets on page 1 of his wanderings (no spoilers here), take place in an unnamed region of the world containing, ah, bizarre places which, nonetheless, we are to take as being not fantastic but accepted parts of the world.

(I should point out that critical receptions of the book are all over the place. One review says “It seems forced and—speaking frankly, dull,” while another says “The first twenty pages did not cause me to want to go on”; but then a third says “Finney’s other books, The Unholy City and The Magician Out of Manchuria, are also great, particularly The Unholy City,” while a fourth states “In sum I would rate The Unholy City very highly”. Lesson? Strikingly unusual books are strikingly hard to appreciate.)

They are, of course, especially the astounding city of Heilar-wey—in which the great bulk of the tale takes place—no such thing.

(“Heilar” is an exercise in language beyond me, but one source I found says, “in old Norse ’To greet many women’: Heilar”. It does seem to fit.)

The tale is a Lafferty-esque rapid-fire of outrageous humor and sarcasm. Heilar-wey is, for the times of the book (the late 1930s), a sort of Republic Serials vision of a futuristic city.

“Come along, sir. We will take a streetcar.”

I came along, and we boarded a streamlined, underslung, multimotored streetcar that carried us down Calle Grande at ninety statute miles an hour. The buildings along Calle Grande grew higher and wider, and, finally, some forty minutes later when we neared the beginning of the First Business District, the buildings lost all semblance of engineering and architectural works and appeared, instead, to be vast, immeasurable mountains.

Vicq Ruiz is a classic picaroon, and the tale—which we soon realize is his, Captain Malahide acting as a Boswell or Watson—is in the classic picaresque tradition. But there is also an underlying theme of seriousness, and, as in his other books, acid social commentary. Here is what the lighter sarcasm is like:

I gave the knob a slightly harder twist, and immediately from the sound box poured a rich, resonant, lovely, and powerful voice which pronounced every word with ringing clarity and undeniable sincerity. “Liar and betrayer!” cried that wonderful voice. “Miscreant and deceiver! Fornicator and malefactor! Bastard and sonofabitch!”

I looked at Vicq Ruiz inquiringly.

“That’ll be one of Heilar-wey’s lesser gospelers summing up the shortcomings of one of our current political heroes,” he explained.

“He seems to be very vehement,” I said.

“Very vehement,” agreed Ruiz. “Twist the dial a bit further, sir, and see if you can get some piano music. Sometimes Bach is played about this time in conjunction with toilet-paper advertising, though I forget exactly which day.”

But Finney’s humor can be thoroughly dark too (recall that the following was written in 1937):

[A]nd then we went on to the Criminal Courtroom where a black man’s right to further life was being weighed on Justice’s scales….

The courtroom was cluttered up with microphones and newspaper reporters and cameras and telephones; so many wires were strung around that they veiled completely the statue of the Goddess who stood blindfolded behind the judge’s bench holding in impersonal hands her weights and measures. For it was the trial of the century; every word spoken during it was to be broadcast or telephoned or wired or written everywhere throughout the world from Pit to Pole, and, though only a few thousand people were actually in the courtroom, everyone in all creation knew what was happening.

As Ruiz and I sat down on the floor, there being no seats vacant, the jury was momentarily out, and the attorneys, in low, monotonous voices, were arguing before the bench about the admissibility of some scrap of evidence or other. The old judge was drowsing with his head in his hand; finally, though, he gave an adverse decision, and the jury was called back in.

Then the attorney for the defense announced the defendant would take the stand in his own behalf. Everybody, except the judge, sat up.

The defendant was a big, black brute with white eyes and kinky hair; he had a haunted face, and he acted as if the air around him were haunted. In all that vast courtroom he seemed to be searching for some reality, for some tangible thing he could seize on that would free him from his devils.

“Tell the jury in your own words,” said counsel, “exactly what took place.”

The black man squirmed slowly around in the witness chair, and he clawed at the edges of his mouth with his big black paws.

“Come, come! Speak up!” said his lawyer sharply.

So the big black man began to talk.

“When I shook and held it to the light, the whisky I had bought bubbled greasily in the flask, and little chain-like beads formed, broke up and rotated. It was pretty stuff, a wicked amber that seemed to embody in itself a life of its mysterious own.”

The prosecuting attorney sprang to his feet.

“Iyahbjeck, yeronner! Witness is being irrelevant, immaterial, off the subject entirely, and what he has said will unduly influence the jury. The State asks the testimony as so far given be stricken from the Record and the witness be reprimanded. May it please the Court!”

The defense attorney sprang roaring to his feet. “No such thing, yeronner! Witness’s testimony is highly relevant, intensely pertinent, and is background for further testimony to come. Defense asks that witness be allowed to proceed without interruption. May it please the Court!”

The old judge awoke. “What?” he said querulously. “What’s all this now, gentlemen?”

Quite a few institutions of 1937 America seem to have curious parallels in the unholy city of Heilar-wey, where, of course, not being American institutions, their natures may be limned in an acid normally used in much-diluted form.

The book parades many such institutions, but it is not just a parade of institutions. The running motif—a giant tiger threatening the city—slowly evolves from just another bizarre Heilar-wey curiosity, mentioned in passing, to a dominant symbolic theme, and gives the ending of this seemingly comic tale a freighted conclusion.

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The Ghosts of Manacle

The seven tales collected as The Ghosts of Manacle (Manacle being another imagined Arizona town not too different from Abalone or Tucson) are less fraught with significance than the two novels that preceded them. They are—not each, but mostly—just flat-out zany fun.

I sat back against a comfortable igneous boulder, a glass of gin and bitters in my hand; and a great feeling of contentment stole over me, for Alberecht and Happy were both skilled cooks and I loved roast goose above all other things.

But my moment of placidity was all too brief, for I was hardly on my ninth sip when a man came in to our camp—an Indian, a Potenuse buck—and he strode up to Alberecht, raised his hand in salute and said: “How.”

Alberecht’s hands were deep in a bowl of goose dressing; he acknowledged the redskin’s presence with a courteous inclination of his head and said: “Guten abend.

The Indian sat down cross-legged on the ground and produced a long-stemmed pipe. “This,” he said, “is a pipe of peace. It has been the property of my tribe for six hundred years, ever since the day when we stole it from the Ixitcotls.” He lighted it and took a puff. “The tobacco,” he said, “is aged in a cask and is plug cut. Just good, solid Potenuse Indian tobacco. No perique. I am a good, solid Potenuse myself. No Yaqui. I am an emissary from our tribal headquarters. My name is Sneak-About-Quietly-in-the-Dark. My mission is to find out what you are doing here. We imagine you are looking for the Frémont Treasure as your main object but we suspect you may have other aims and motives. Meanwhile, until it is ascertained that you definitely intend harm of some sort to our people, I am authorized to offer you this pipe of peace.”

And he thrust the pipe toward Alberecht.

Alberecht wiped the goose dressing clinging to his fingers off on his long black coat, took the pipe, and tried a deep puff. He tried a second one and blew an appreciative smoke ring.

“Goot,” he said. “Dot iss goot tobacco. No perique. Ven der sheroots I gif up I get me vun of dese peace pipes und some of this tobacco. It smokes goot like a peace pipe should.”

“How?” asked the Indian.

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The Magician Out of Manchuria

In Finney’s last fantasy, The Magician Out of Manchuria, he pulls back from the weightier matters that have underlain even the most comic-seeming of his earlier works and gives us sheer amusement. This tale is a fitting dessert of jollity for the fine meal Finney’s career set for the reader hungry for witty solemnity and solemn wit.

“Oh, rapture now! See, magician, how our fortunes have picked up!”

“No, I do not.”

“Stupid, thick-headed darling man! Where are your wits? We will rob them.”

“Benighted but beautiful woman! How can we rob them without weapons or superior numbers? More likely they will rob us.”

“Not for nothing are you a magician,” replied the gay queen. “And not for nothing did the Bey of Ballong dub thee the Undenigratable. There are five of them and three of us. Therefore, I command you to construct two warrior dolls and to place them on the back of Ng Gk, thus giving us the similitude of great mounted strength. Gather up grass and clay and rags and sticks, magician; make me two great robber dolls to ride the back of the good black ass, Ng Gk, and throw fear into the hearts of the House of Gin.”

“It is a dishonest and doubtful thing to propose,” said the magician, for he had not thought of it himself.

Two great robber dolls. And so to bed.

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Other Charles G. Finney Resources

Charles G. Finney Resources on the Web

While the number of pages on Finney seems adequate, most are really just short reviews of The Circus or potted capsule bios of Finney. Still, there are a few of value, which I hope are all captured in the following list.

It is especially difficult to look for information on Finney on the web owing to the voluminous output of and comments on his namesake, the evangelical preacher Charles Grandison Finney. So far as I can see, there is no web site dedicated to (nor even much information on) Finney the author, which is a great shame. If you’re a Finney aficionado, get going on one!

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Charles G. Finney Resources in Print

I found none. Sad.

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Notable Science-Fiction and Fantasy Books by Charles G. Finney ****

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