Tara Calaby interview and excerpt from her horror story, “The Starlight Circus”

Tell us a little about yourself.

I live in Melbourne, Australia with my wife and a ridiculous number of books and DVDs. Think thousands, not hundreds. I’m a research student and addicted to BioWare games and salt & vinegar crisps.

Was there an impetus behind your story? If so, tell us about it.

It all came from one image that popped into my head when I was walking the streets of Nottingham: a small child in clown makeup standing motionless beside his parent’s bed. Everything grew from that. Clowns are naturally creepy, even if you haven’t read Stephen King’s It, so they’re the perfect horror antagonist.

There is probably only one good answer to the question–“Why do you write?”–and that is you can’t imagine doing anything else, nor would you want to. Do you agree, disagree? Share with us your thoughts on the matter.

I disagree, because I think it simplifies things too much. There are many times in life that I am simply unable to write, along with the times that I am simply unable not to write. Ultimately, I think writers are masochists. I often say that I hate writing, but I love having written.

Do you have any advice for the slavering hordes of starving, slavering writers slavering out there?

Read. Read more. Read even more again. Read in your genre and outside it. Read the classics. Read trashy novels. Read non-fiction. Just read.

Use the word “slavering” in a sentence, two if you really need the extra, and feel free to get as wild and creative as you want.
“The wide, slavering mouth of the beast snapped shut over the politician’s head, severing it completely.” Feel free to visualise your most hated president, prime minister or opposition leader.

Tell us about your current project(s), your plans for the future, and any accepted works or work slated to come out this year.

I’m a new PhD candidate in English, so that will be eating up most of my time for the next few years. I’m currently researching asylums in 19th century Melbourne and being inspired to write all manner of historical and speculative pieces by the real-life stories I’m discovering.

 

The Starlight Circus

Horror story by Tara Calaby

After an encounter with a creepy clown at the circus, Mikey starts behaving more and more strangely. Can Steve find a way to drive out the increasingly malevolent spirit trying to take over his son’s body before Mikey is lost forever?

 

The circus was in town when Steve Cooper buried his wife. Mikey was then only six, and a circus was a big deal. Kerry counted down the days with him but, with one day left to count, she was dead and the circus lights were dark. The tickets sat in a drawer, the ink slowly rubbing from the paper, and Mikey never mentioned it again.

Until the circus came back to town.

The old cricket ground was barely recognizable. Families stood in small groups while clusters of teenagers laughed and shrieked about how perfectly tacky everything was. Mikey was too old to deign to hold his father’s hand, but he walked close to Steve’s side as they made their way through the crowd to the ticket box. Steve appreciated his nearness. There were echoes of Kerry everywhere and he didn’t want to lose Mikey in the throng.

The big top had been erected in the middle of the ground, where the pitch had been before the council built a new oval on drier land. The canvas swayed in the breeze, cheery in its red and blue stripes. The roof was fringed with yellow bunting, and the awning over the entrance was shaped to look like another, miniature big top. The effect was magical, and Steve had a feeling that the awed look on Mikey’s face was mirrored on his own.

The seats were filling as they entered. Inside, it smelled of sawdust and popcorn, with a base note of manure.

Forgetting himself, Mikey grabbed Steve’s hand. “It’s so big.”

The tent felt too large for its exterior. The seats were arranged on tall tiers that stretched towards the canvas roof, separated from the central ring by a wooden barrier with closed doors at the base of every aisle. Their seats were close to the middle of a block in the front row. Mikey had to sit on Steve’s balled-up jacket to see over the barrier, but when the lights dimmed and the spotlighted ringmaster walked into the center of the tent it felt like Steve and Mikey were being given a private show.

Mikey cheered at the acrobats and laughed at the performing dogs, but the clowns captivated him. Steve found them creepy. There was something disconcerting about grown men wearing face-paint outside a football stadium. Mikey thought they were hilarious, though. He clapped with excitement whenever a clown appeared and joined in loudly whenever an audience response was required.

After the first hour, there was an interval, and they fought their way outside so that Steve could rush a cigarette. They were about to return to their seats when Mikey spotted the merchandise stand.

“Look, Dad! T-shirts!”

Steve winced when he saw the prices. “Sorry, Mikey. Too expensive.”

Mikey tried not to show his disappointment, but he was always easy to read. Steve felt a familiar pang of guilt; it wasn’t the kid’s fault he was skint. He pulled out his wallet and counted the coins. “If you can find something for three eighty-six, it’s yours.”

Mikey beamed and pushed his way to the counter, browsing for a while before holding up a small box. “Clown paint, Dad!”
Steve handed over the money. It was okay if you were eight, he supposed.

The second half went at as fast a pace as the first, and for Steve it mostly passed in a blur of satin and sequins. Mikey lapped it up, though. It was good to see him looking so happy, like Steve had finally done something right.

Mikey’s highlight came at the end of the show. Steve slumped in his seat as a new clown called for a volunteer. He was the kind that gave the whole lot a bad reputation, with a crumpled costume and streaky make-up. He looked like something that would come at you from under a bridge, not a children’s entertainer. Oddly enough, the kids didn’t care. Beside Steve, Mikey was on his feet and waving his hand so wildly that it endangered everyone nearby.

The clown moved over to their side of the ring and Steve slid lower, willing his skin to turn green and blend in with his seat. He needn’t have worried. It was Mikey who had caught the clown’s eye, and it was Mikey he asked to join him in the ring.

Mikey looked to his father for permission, and Steve pushed him towards the aisle. Mikey smiled like he’d never be able to frown again and all but ran towards the waiting clown.

Up close, he was even more unnerving. His eyes were such a pale shade of blue that the irises were almost invisible, giving his stare an unsettling quality emphasised by the smudged black make-up surrounding it. His smile was a collection of yellowed and crooked teeth that suggested a heavy smoker with an aversion to dentists. Steve supposed there wasn’t much money in clowning, so personal maintenance had to take a back seat to greasepaint and oversized shoes.

Mikey remained oblivious to the clown’s dishevelled appearance, pausing to wave at Steve with a cheek-stretching smile before an usher opened the barrier door and steered him through. The clown placed a hand on Mikey’s shoulder and guided him towards the center of the ring as the audience applauded. Steve clapped until his hands stung, then whipped out his phone to take a few photos while the usher wasn’t looking.

The clown held up his hand for silence. “What’s your name, young man?” His voice was deep and rough, and when he smiled it was more a practiced twisting of the lips.

“Michael William Cooper.”

The audience laughed.

“Would you like to be my assistant today, Michael?”

Mikey nodded, and the clown reached into his oversized pockets and produced four brightly colored balls. “What I need you to do, Michael, is to throw me a ball whenever I ask for one. Can you do that?”

Mikey nodded again, and the clown placed the balls into his outstretched hands. He then retrieved three more balls and began to juggle. As the clown called for Mikey to throw each ball, adding it to those balls already in the air, the audience clapped and cheered. Mikey responded by throwing each ball with a greater flourish. Soon the clown was juggling all seven balls, making it seem effortless. Mikey watched in awe, his mouth dropping open a little as the clown directed the circling balls under one leg and then the other without changing rhythm.

Eventually, the clown pulled out the tops of his pockets and the balls fell neatly inside them. “Your turn, Michael.”

“But I can’t—”

“Are you sure?” The clown bent down to Mikey’s height, and spoke into his ear.

Mikey’s gaze became fixed and his expression slackened. Steve recognized Mikey’s look of concentration. It was only in the last year that he had stopped poking out his tongue when he thought. As an acrobat entered the ring with a painted box, the clown finished speaking and straightened his head. Catching sight of his father, Mikey waved, the clown’s hand still pressed firmly against the small of his back. Steve raised his own hand in response.

The acrobat placed the box in front of Mikey, who climbed onto it. The clown reached his arms under Mikey’s and, with Mikey’s arms tucked behind his back, began to juggle again. From the audience, it really did look like it was Mikey who was controlling the balls, and Steve joined in with the laughter.

He lifted his phone to take another photo. At that moment, the clown turned and looked directly at him. Something shifted in Steve’s mind, a long-forgotten memory turning in its sleep. The juggling balls seemed to hang too long in the air, and the clown fumbled as he reached for one, letting it tumble to the ground. Mikey jerked forward as though to retrieve it, but the clown said something in his ear and he stilled. Steve lowered the phone, but the clown held his gaze. The dark circles surrounding his eyes were like a skull’s empty sockets and his make-up had melted under the spotlight, revealing lines of sallow skin. The clown’s stare was almost accusative, and Steve was glad when he looked away.

When the performance finished, the clown stepped back to applaud Mikey, and the audience joined him. “Take a couple home to practice with,” he said, handing two balls to Mikey. “You’ll make a great clown.”

Over Steve’s dead body, he would. Still, Steve clapped vigorously as Mikey made his way back to his seat.

###

Once the audience had filed out of the big top, Steve and Mikey waited under a clear sky for the car park to empty. Mikey was still glowing from his circus cameo, an ever-moving coil of energy in the guise of a small boy. He rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet, the juggling balls clutched tightly in his left hand, smiling at anyone who gave a look of recognition. One child glared as he was pulled past by his harried-looking mother. Even he received a grin from Mikey; not even outright hostility could spoil his night.

For a large crowd, it cleared quickly. There was a bite to the breeze that ruffled the yellow bunting, and the parents seemed anxious to get their children home to bed. Steve knew there was no point in sitting in the car, engine running, in a queue for the only exit. An occasional late night wouldn’t do Mikey any harm. He’d endured much worse.

When the throng had reduced to a cluster of people at the souvenir stand and a few family groups huddled beneath the temporary lights, Steve placed a hand on Mikey’s shoulder. “Ready to head home?”

Mikey’s smile faltered. “Can’t we stay longer?”

“It’s late,” Steve said. “There’s nothing left to see.”

“There’s everything to see.” Mikey pointed to the ticket booth. “Look, that’s the ringmaster, Dad. And over there…” He turned towards the grove of caravans beyond the big top. “Over there, that’s where they all live. The clowns and the acrobats and those men on the swings.”

“Trapezes.”

“Trapezes, yes.” Mikey faced Steve, his eyes full of magic. “This is the best place ever.”

“I’m glad you enjoyed it, Mikey. But it’s time to go home.”

The line of cars had cleared and the last stragglers were moving towards the road. The souvenir stand was closed. A man in a Starlight Circus T-shirt stabbed rubbish with a spiked pole.

Even Mikey could see that the night was over. “Can we get McDonald’s on the way home?”

“Nice try, kiddo.”

They walked towards Steve’s car, their elongated shadows stretching across the cricket ground. A solitary figure stood just outside the reach of the circus lights.

“Hello, Michael.”

Mikey recognized the voice. “Dad! It’s the clown!”

He ran the last few steps. By the time Steve caught up, Mikey was already talking, eyes wide and cheeks pink. The clown still wore his make-up. The colors were streaky and there was a smear of black from his right eye to the temple above. His left hand was heavily bandaged and he held it against his chest as Mikey talked. A brightly colored object nestled under the injured arm.

“Evening,” Steve said.

The clown turned to him. In the faint light, his pale irises were invisible. “Evening,” he echoed.

“That looks nasty.” Steve nodded towards the clown’s hand.

“Rope burn.” There was something disconcerting about the clown’s gaze. Again, something plucked at Steve’s memory. A long-forgotten nightmare, brought to the surface by the circus lights.

“Mikey loved being your assistant,” Steve said, pushing the niggle aside. “He’ll be talking about it for weeks.”

“He did well.” A faint smile stretched the clown’s paint-covered lips as he looked at Mikey. “He reminds me of my daughter. She could’ve been your boy’s twin.”

“One’s enough trouble.” Steve forced a laugh.

The clown ignored him. “I’ve something for you,” he said to Mikey, retrieving the bundle from beneath his injured arm.

It was a stuffed toy: a clown with red wool hair and clothes made of red, blue, and yellow satin. Its lips were a wide scrap of felt, stitched into a permanent smile.

“Thank you,” Mikey said. If Steve had offered him the toy, Mikey would have considered himself too old for it but, as it was a token from his new idol, he hugged it tightly to his chest.

The clown watched Mikey with an unfaltering gaze. ‘‘Twas my daughter’s favorite.”

“Perhaps you should keep it.” The words came out sounding too abrupt, too rude, but there was something about this clown that made Steve’s body tense. “She might like to give it to her own kids one day.”

“I don’t think so,” the clown said. “She died.”

Steve tightened his arm around Mikey. “I’m sorry.” The clown’s appearance took on new meaning. Steve understood the weight of grief.

So did Mikey. “Thank you,” he said.

The clown nodded, and walked away without saying another word.

“That was nice of him,” Mikey said, all eight-year-old wisdom and heart.

Steve held Mikey for a moment, loving him, and then let him run ahead to the car.

Read the rest and a whole lot more in Red Sun Magazine #3! Buy a copy today!

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Red Sun Magazine publishes speculative science fiction, fantasy, and horror, as well as military sci-fi by military veterans. Visit us at www.redsunmagazine.com.