THE LAND OF LAUGHS by Jonathan Carroll (copyright 1980,
St. Martin's Press, ISBN 0-312-87311-5, 253pp)
(book review by Mark R. Leeper):
Jonathan Carroll's THE LAND OF LAUGHS is a book I have wanted to read for a long time after I heard it recommended by a panelist at a science fiction convention. The book seems to have a very loyal following, though it itself is generally a hard book to find. Most editions of the book--and there now seem to have been a handful--have humorous cover illustrations of a smiling bulldog. They remind me of a painting that was in my bed-and-breakfast room in Australia. It showed a happy smiling girl in the woods like she was from a Grimm's fairy tale. But I realized that if you looked at the girl's face you could easily read in it a terrified hysteria. That ironic duality is what most cover illustrations for this book try to capture. That duality is exactly the tone of the novel.
Hanging over this book is the great children's author Marshall France, now deceased. Think of him as L. Frank Baum with J. K. Rowlings's success (which Baum may have had at one point). There are those who remember the happiest moments of their childhood were reading France's books. But there has never been a biography of France. A young couple who recently met each other, Thomas Abbey and Saxony Gardner, want to write just such a biography of their favorite children's author. They travel to Galen, Missouri, France's hometown, to research the man. Galen is a town that still lives under the spell of its favorite son. The magic of France's writing still lives in the town. Like picture of the girl in the woods, behind all the apparent joy lies terror. Not all the magic is so wonderful as it at first appears.
Carroll's book, copyright 1980, is full of an infectious theme of the joy of reading. There are references to several books about children's fantasy, of which all but France's books are real. It is an odd combination to be writing about the joy of reading in a tale that is in large part horror story, but Carroll deftly manages to get them to rest side-by-side.
Carroll has a nice flowing writing style matched as closely as possible to France's probable writing style. Still the final explanation of what is going on seems a minor letdown. But rare is the horror story that has a truly original concept. The interlocking aspects of style, mood, and atmosphere are much more the virtues of horror and Carroll is better than most with subtlety and wit.
I believe that in the United States this book was out of print and hard to obtain for several years. I can't say I was actively searching for the book but I probably would have picked up a copy if one appeared. None did. In 2001 Orb reprinted the book and I actually found it inexpensively remaindered. But it is easy to get a copy from Amazon. If you treasure memories of reading from your early years, this novel is worth checking out.