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Jamie has a perfectly ordinary life; he works at a trendy Brisbane hotel as concierge; he lives in a dingy sharehouse alongside various drug dealers and petty thieves; his only goal in life isto romance one of his coworkers; and- up until that fateful evening- he has no enemies to speak of.
Then, he meets the Clowns. Worse still, he makes the mistake of taking something that they left behind: a bag of mysterious crystalline powder.
For the next few nights, he's hounded by them: they stalk his dreams, trying to find out where he lives; they break into his house and vandalize everything he owns; they follow him to work and threaten to blow up the building; they even physically assault him. And then, quite unexpectedly, he makes them laugh... and they offer him the chance to audition and join them. After a few more days of being tormented and threatened, Jamie caves in and auditions- and passes with flying colours.
Unfortunately, this results in him being unceremoniously kidnapped and taken to the Pilo Family Circus, a travelling carnival that exists beyond space and time, occasionally "visiting" towns by connecting itself to the entrance gates of other circuses and fairgrounds. There, Jamie is officially made a clown, and given his first coat of magical facepaint, transforming him into the sociopathic "JJ"; now, when not trying to stop his second personality from destroying him, Jamie has to survive the horrors that the Circus can offer, and figure out just what the Pilo Brothers want from the audiences they abduct...
- Affably Evil:
- Kurt Pilo; always polite, always friendly, and almost impossible to offend. He's also in charge of the Circus and a willing pawn of the Things imprisoned beneath the Showgrounds, responsible for most- if not all- of the atrocities committed against the hapless visitors.
- Gonko can be surprisingly pleasant to his fellow Clowns, provided you don't get on his nerves. On the other hand, he's still a cold-blooded sadist who's more than happy to kill children if his boss gives the order.
- All Part of the Show:
- When Goshy the Clown slaps an audience member in the face, the rest of the crowd assumes that its part of the show and laughs. Doopy beating the Apprentice half to death, unfortunately, is taken as a cue that the audience should leave immediately.
- Spoken word-for-word after Mugabo obliterates the rabbit he just pulled out of his hat.
- The Apprentice: Technically, the Clown Division already has one of these around the time of Jamie's recruitment, known only as "The Apprentice." Most of his character is devoted to creeping around, reeking of sabotage waiting to happen, up until Gonko arranges his near-fatal beating and immolation; Jamie becomes the replacement Apprentice after this.
- Badass Boast: Gonko delivers a doozy after JJ inadvertedly steals his pants.
If I find the motherfucker who took my pants— I DON'T CARE WHO YOU ARE: CLOWN, ACROBAT, BELOVED FRIEND OR RELATIVE, AN INANIMATE OBJECT... AN ASTRAL BODY... ME MYSELF... A ROCK OR A BOWL OF PICKLES... SOMETHING UTTERLY IMPOSSIBLE TO KILL, LISTEN UP: I'LL FUCKING KILL YOU! I'LL FIND A WAY, IF IT TAKES ME A HUNDRED YEARS... I'LL FIND... A... WAAAAAYY!
- Berserk Button:
- As mentioned, Gonko is very protective of his pants- and for good reason.
- Goshy is fiercely protective of the plant he's currently romancing. Exploited by the Freedom Movement, who tear the plant to shreds and leave a trail of its leaves and petals leading straight to Shalice's door.
- Similarly, Doopy is very protective of Goshy; when the Apprentice makes the mistake of shoving Goshy a bit too violently, Doopy flies into a rage and delivers a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown.
- Mugabo loathes any mention of the Bunny Trick.
- JJ is decidedly possessive of both his stash of powder and Shalice's crystal ball.
- Kurt Pilo develops one very late in the story: "taking the Lord's name in vain".
- Beware the Nice Ones:
- Doopy has the mental age of a small child and a Shrinking Violet by nature, but as mentioned, harming Goshy in his presence is not exactly advisable.
- Winston, normally a sedate old man with no taste for violence, goes out of his way to put JJ in his place by making it look as though he stole Gonko's pants. Plus, he casually threatens to snap JJ's neck if he ever betrays him.
- Fishboy is undoubtedly the "nicest bastard in this place," but he's also got a set of fangs to rival a shark, and he's organizing a conspiracy against the management itself.
- Shalice, who is compassionate and Affably Evil enough to try and steer the Pilos' schemes away from the most destructive results, is probably one of the most dangerous members of the Circus. At one point in the backstory, one of the woodchoppers attempted to rape her; after ensuring that the perpetrator died horribly, Shalice went out of her way to set up a long spell of bad luck for the others that continues to this day.
- Body Horror:
- The Circus' Freakshow is naturally full of this, the worst example arguably being Tallow, who is constantly melting. Most of his life is life is spent in a glass tank, where the bits of himself that slough off can be easily reabsorbed.
- The Matter Manipulator, who created the freakshow in the first place, is an easy source of Body Horror: he can shape flesh and bone at will, at one point torturing Winston by merging a hot coal with the flesh of his stomach. The brief glimpse of his workshop inside the funhouse reveals that he makes furniture and decorations out of the Tricks that the managers donate to him; when the funhouse is bombed, the walls are seen to bleed.
- A more mundane example- the Apprentice, having survived a beatdown from Doopy, being set on fire by Gonko and existing as an outcast on the very fringes of the Circus, begins to visibly deteriorate as his injuries worsen and the effects of starvation and exposure become obvious.
- Kurt Pilo's slow transformation into his One-Winged Angel form.
- Brick Joke: Late in Part 2, Shalice offhandedly notes that she's still taking revenge on the woodchoppers for their attempted rape. Then, in Part 3, JJ is watching the showgrounds with the stolen crystal ball when he notices that one of the woodchoppers appears to have suffered a near-fatal fall, and notes that the woodchoppers always seem to be suffering some kind of bad luck- tripping over, catching on fire, getting brained by a flying axe-head...
- Butt Monkey: Mugabo, the Freak Show, the Woodchoppers, and Jamie himself.
- Casual Danger Dialogue: Rufshod is a common source of this; when the surviving Clowns are trapped in a trailer and George Pilo is dragging it towards the funhouse, while JJ is panicking and Gonko is desperately searching his pockets for something that can help them, Rufshod is peering out the windows and remarking with amusement at the dead bodies they're passing.
- Chekhov's Gun: The giant wooden crucifix, AKA: Kurt's birthday present.
- Circus of Fear: It'd be pretty damn hard to think of the Pilo Family Circus as anything other than this.
- Closed Circle: The Showgrounds, which are cut off from the world by a seemingly endless void; it's impossible to leave without a pass from Kurt or George, and the passes are only given in the event that the Clowns have business in the real world- which happens only once in the entire book.
- Deal with the Devil: It's revealed that the Circus itself is based on this. It's main role is conning its audiences into voluntarily parting with their souls, each exhibit appealing to a certain demographic: the games and shops in Sideshow Alley appeal to the greedy, the Acrobats are intended to tempt the vain and insecure, the Woodchoppers provide offers of strength to the weak, Mugabo's magic show is aimed at the power-hungry, and the Clowns appeal to the cruel and rebellious; the Freak Show is designed to frighten the more resilient Tricks into giving in. In true Deal with the Devil fashion, the Tricks recieve nothing in return for their souls except for a few subliminal promises that can never come true.
- Depraved Dwarf: George Pilo.
- The Circus has a whole legion of these at work throughout the show: their most common duty is to collect the grains of Powder that gather on the lawns. On their days off, they're usually gambling or fighting.
- Dream Spying: Jamie ends up as the recipient of this early in the book, being haunted by dreams in which Gonko and the Clowns try to find him. Apparently, this ability has been borrowed from Shalice, as Gonko is heard to grumble at how many bags of powder "That Skag" charged them for it.
- Eldritch Abomination: The Circus has actually been built over a prison keeping an entire race of godlike reptiles in check, and the Pilos are their loyal servants. Everything they've done, from the farming of human souls and the catrastrophes caused in the real world, is performed in the hope that whoever jailed them will eventually be forced to reduce their sentence- or set them free.
- Eldritch Location: The Showgrounds, which is essentially a patch of earth with a magical prison for Eldritch Abominations concealed under it, hovering in an empty void situated outside the universe itself; the only way for employees to enter or exit are through mysterious elevators that lead back into the real world (where they are disguised as portable toilets). Meanwhile, the "tricks" that make up the audience are drawn in when the Show secretely connects its gates to the gates of circuses and fairgrounds in the real world.
- Everybody's Dead, Dave:The book ends with Kurt Pilo killing most of the carnies in his search for traitors before descending into the Funhouse basement where he is presumably punished for bringing a crucifix with him; Gonko is dragged into hell with Kurt, but is heard communicating with Jamie in his dream at the end of the book; JJ and Rufshod are both killed by Kurt; Winston is last seen heading out to stop George Pilo from taking over the Circus; the only confirmed survivors of the massacre are Jamie, Steve, Shalice, and Mugabo.
- Fantastic Drug: The Powder that Circus employees are payed in; already bearing a vague resemblance to cocaine, it has to be melted down like heroin before it can be used- though it has to be drunk instead of injected. As it grants wishes to the drinker, the effects vary wildly, but Jamie's use of it to help him sleep or to soothe the pain from being taken over by JJ make the drug parallels very obvious.
- Five-Bad Band: The Circus
- Fortune Teller: Shalice, the Circus Fortune Teller. She's a genuine psychic and more than capable of seeing the future, but Kurt and George Pilo have tasked her with changing the future: her customers are all brainwashed into performing supposedly innocuous activities, directing events towards more desirable futures. She's also the management's eyes and ears, her crystal ball allowing her to keep tabs on almost everyone on the showgrounds.
- Holy Burns Evil: Subverted in the case of Kurt Pilo, who is currently so obsessed with Christianity that he collects bibles and crucifixes as a hobby; for his birthday he recieves a massive wooden crucifix and a live priest, both of which utterly delight him.
- Played with in the case of the Creatures imprisoned beneath the showgrounds. They might not actually be injured by holy symbols, but they're definitely insulted by them, enough to fatally punish Kurt for daring to bring his giant crucifix into their presence.
- Jekyll and Hyde: Jamie and JJ.
- Muggles: The "Tricks," the circus' audience.
- Powered by a Forsaken Child: It's revealed that the Powder that the circus employees are paid in is actually the souls of the audience, crystalized, broken down into dust, and scattered onto the lawn to be collected by the circus dwarfs. Gonko cheekily compares the process to cows being milked- except the Tricks aren't able to recover what was taken from them.
- Super-Powered Evil Side: Not only does the Clown facepaint create a secondary personality in the wearer, but it also enhances strength and durability, to the extent that Goshy can survive a two-story drop without sustaining injury.