I first started reading Jonathan Carroll when I found a copy of The Panic Hand in a used bookstore in Maryland. The story "A Wheel in the Desert, the Moon on Some Swings" blew me away, and I knew I had to get more of this guy's books. Unfortunately, at that point, they were mostly out of print.
Slowly but surely, I've laid hands on most of his work. The Land of Laughs is the most recent acquisition, having just been republished by the nice folks at Tor.
The book is the story of Thomas Abbey, a somewhat jaded English teacher who takes a year off from his job at a private school to write a biography of his favorite author, the reclusive author of classic children's books, Marshall France. He's accompanied on his journey to France's home town by his somewhat eccentric girlfriend Saxony Gardner.
Despite a handful of warnings not to attempt a biography, and the fact that permission has never been granted to do one, Abbey reaches Galen, MO, and finds the townspeople, and Frank's daughter Anna, quite receptive to the idea of a biography. In fact, they're disturbingly enthusiastic about the idea, and slowly it becomes clear to Thomas and Saxony that France was more than an ordinary writer of children's books, and that Galen is not the run-of-the-mill small town it seems on the surface.
I won't go into the details, though it's not too hard to guess what's going on when the hints start dropping, because the pleasure of the book is in watching the slow unfolding of events as things get weirder and creepier. Carroll also writes extremely well, with a good ear for dialogue, and a nice eye for small details of ordinary life.
This is an excellent book, and I would definitely recommend it (and Carroll in general) to anyone who likes work in the odd grey area between mainstream fiction and fantasy. Carroll sort of lives in a literary limbo- his books aren't flashy enough to get much play as fantasy or horror, and his name isn't Hispanic enough for it to count as magic realism. But his best work fits equally well with Powers or Borges (not to mention James Blaylock, Robertson Davies, Bradley Denton, Lisa Golstein...).
My only real complaint with this book is that I didn't read it years ago, when it would've been much more effective. I've grown a bit disappointed in Carroll's last few books, and feared that he was losing his touch. On reading The Land of Laughs, though, I realize that the problem isn't with his writing, it's with my reading-- specifically, that I've read too many Jonathan Carroll novels, and the pattern is too clear: There's a protagonist, who will fall in love with a wonderful, warm, and quirky woman, but their life will start to get weird and creepy, and horrible things will happen before the end of the book. The details vary, but the general pattern's the same. It's somewhat unfair to fault The Land of Laughs for adhering to this pattern-- after all, it's the book that set the pattern-- but it does follow the same basic arc as most of his other books, which weakens the impact. When odd and magical things started to happen in this book, my reaction was less surprise than relief-- "Finally, we get to the good stuff..."
While familiarity weakens the impact of the book, it's still a nice piece of work. I envy people who get to discover Jonathan Carroll by reading this book.