Demon Clown Diary
by Shaenon Garrity
Worked a sewer tonight. Played to lost children, luring each kid with balloon animals made from the entrails of the previous one. Killer set. Killer set.
Some demons ask me why. The places I’ve been, the things I’ve done—some would call legendary. I wouldn’t, but I’m not going to deny there’ve been highs, and here I am, squatting in a sewer making pink poodles for an audience of one at a time. Why keep doing it, they say. I give them the Oldest Answer and they roll their eyes or whatever they’ve got.
So it’s corny. I’ve come to prefer an old routine executed with perfect timing over some experimental bit that doesn’t do more than shock and spatter. You should see my swipe file sometime. I’ve got gags so old they’ve got chunks of Milton Berle stuck to them. I stick to classic greasepaint, no blood or fangs or any of that shit. Trust the material, I say. Clowns are scary. Be a clown.
Maybe a couple of fangs.
Anyway I love playing to kids, to the young people. After all these years, it’s immensely gratifying that the young people still get me.
* * *
I’m writing this down because Sslikesh the Procurer thinks I should publish my memoirs. Me, I’m not so sure, but a couple things convinced me to at least start putting my recollections down. The first was realizing how much I’ve forgotten. In what state was the backwoods cult that worshipped me? How many years was I trapped in the cursed jack-in-the-box? (Not a bad gig, looking back, though at the time I was impatient to get on with my career.)
The second thing is that the Smiling Boy is coming to eat me. A lot of new demons, young and hungry, have taken me on over the years, and I’ve always slayed. But the Smiling Boy might just be the one who kills me. I know he wants it.
Maybe I want it too, who knows? Nobody stays on top forever except Bob Hope.
* * *
I meet Sslikesh for coffee. He’s looking a little more gelatinous these days but basically good. He takes care of himself. He tells me forget about the Smiling Boy, work on my memoirs. All those notebooks piled up at my place, he says, there ought to be material.
I explain the notebooks aren’t diaries. They’re full of ideas for bits. Now that I’m home writing this, I can grab one off the nearest stack and check for myself:
Empty subway car at night—looking out windows—single balloon (black? red?)
Smell of rubber more subtle than smell of turpentine, more think-y
Small rabid dog in clown frill = scarier than big rabid dog in clown frill. Large circus bear = scarier than small circus bear. Other options: potbellied pig, hyena, angry parrot [the rest is scribbled out, followed by NEVER WORK WITH ANIMALS]
Keep practicing knife work
Cornfield, no wind, balloon visible above corn (settle on balloon color!)
Something with airport restrooms
You see? All work and no play.
* * *
Funny thing, reading these over I can tell exactly when I wrote them. This notebook has to be from the early 70s, because I was experimenting with animal acts around then, and I started doing the subway bit in NYC in summer 1974. Twenty-four karat gold. Audiences were almost too easy in the 70s. I’d walk out of Central Park in the small hours wondering if I was really scary or everyone I met was just strung out on coke. But I can still be proud of the material I was doing, and I really think a clown standing in an empty subway car has stood the test of time.
I hear the Smiling Boy did a similar bit in San Francisco, for instance.
* * *
I got started on the carnival circuit, the perfect place for an evil clown to learn the ropes. A carnival’s always on the move, and it’s full of dark corners. I got to hone my act. If the audience in Plattsburgh saw me slip in a pile of manure or I dropped my straight razor in front of some kids in Yuma—and trust me, both those things happened—I could still terrorize the crowd in Muscatine. Later I got some of the same thrill working amusement parks, twisting balloon animals under a roller coaster after hours, making rats drop out of my sleeve on the boardwalk. But nothing was ever quite like the carnivals in their glory days.
I loved the limelight, no shame in admitting that, but I also learned to love the darkness. Darkness is essential to comedy. People need the privacy of shadows to really laugh. And really scream. There used to be a funhouse ride you’d see at carnivals called Laff-in-the-Dark. I always thought whoever came up with that name got what I was trying to do.
Pulled off some killer sets in funhouses, back in the day.
My big break is still pretty well remembered, I flatter myself to think, so no point going into much detail here. Suffice to say, whatever the Internet tells you, I was not the first demon to appear on television. I was just the first to do it while the television was off.
At the height of my success, when I had crowds screaming my name, sometimes I’d take a week or a month off and work the carnivals again. By that time they were already a shadow of what they’d once been. They were getting safe. I’d pack a duffel bag with balloons and scalpels and go anyway. For old times’ sake.
* * *
Everyone thinks I’m the original. That’s show business for you: no memory, no respect for the greats. I tell you, I wouldn’t be down in this sewer if it wasn’t for the Burning Jester. I saw him live back in, I don’t know, must’ve been the sixth or seventh century, when he razed the royal court of Mercia and danced in the ashes. I’ll never forget the screams and laughter mingling, rising with the smoke into the night. That was when I knew I wanted to do comedy.
He was the first to hide in a funhouse mirror, the first to fill a body cavity with candy and razor blades, the first to sing off-key children’s songs in an empty playground. And now who remembers the Burning Jester? The man pioneered ripping off your face to reveal the void beneath.
In a few years, everyone will think some jackass like the Smiling Boy invented demonic clowning. Truth is, Hell has always been a funny place. Dante didn’t call it the Divine Tragedy.
“That’s why you do the memoir,” says Sslikesh. “So they don’t forget.” Sure, I’d like to be remembered. Not even in a big way. I’ll be content if, whenever a carousel turns on by itself and someone is disemboweled beneath its swirling lights, people think of me.
Because that’s my bit, dammit, whatever Jiminy Whiteface claims.
* * *
Sslikesh says the Smiling Boy slaughtered on his European tour. He did mostly smaller venues, remote hostels and so on. But he also crashed a Cirque du Soleil show in Munich. Half the audience went mad before the police showed up. Some of the acrobats ate each other.
“You slayed bigger crowds in the day,” Sslikesh says. We’re at a pumpkin festival in northeast Ohio, shooting the breeze while I wait for the sun to go down and my set to begin. “Remember the orphanages? Remember Tokyo Disney? This Smiling Boy, he’s a showman, but he’s sloppy.”
I hand Sslikesh a pink tuft of cotton candy. “But.”
“But you should maybe check him out. People are wondering why you haven’t manifested at one of his gigs.”
“Like hell you’re busy.” He sucks on the cotton candy, a sound like a kitten going through an electric fan. “This small-time shit, this is busy?”
“You got it. I’m small-time. And us small-timers have to work our goddamn asses off.” Back in the Tokyo Disney days, reaping a harvest of souls in a single set, I could afford vacations. Nowadays it’s hustle, hustle, hustle. I’m in an attic in Maine one night, pacing a lonely road in Oregon the next. It’s hard work, it’s not glamorous, and when I ask myself why I’m doing it only the Oldest Answer echoes back. So maybe I get a little fed up at Sslikesh for needling me about it.
“He’s coming for you,” says Sslikesh, sugar dripping off his mandibles.
“Let him come. Let him come to me instead of the other way around. Can I keep that much of my dignity?”
As I storm off, I already feel like an ass. It was Sslikesh who booked me at the pumpkin festival. It’s got a corn maze, a big one. I can do a lot in a corn maze. Like I said, I love the classics.
But it’s small-time.
I spend the evening telling my troubles to Tom Collins. I’m not proud of it. There’s nothing scary about a clown at a bar. That’s where you expect to find them.
* * *
Demons ask me what’s the secret of comedy. When I’m killing, really killing, what am I feeling? Sometimes I bullshit them, but sometimes I tell them the truth. And the truth is this: fear. I’ve never gone out into that darkness without a rush of blind pants-shitting panic. I could kill, sure. But I could always die. In the moment before a set, you never know which it’s going to be.
And that’s the secret. To be terrifying, you have to be terrified.
Like I say, comedy is hard. Nobody believes it until they’ve faced a Monday night crowd for themselves.
* * *
“He’s coming for you,” says Commedia Dellarte.
“Do you want the cotton candy or don’t you?” I say.
“What is it with you and cotton candy? You got any jelly beans? I’ve been working on a scene with a trail of candy.”
“Where am I supposed to get jelly beans at this hour?”
Commedia shrugs and flips into a handstand. “You’re not wearing those shoes, are you?”
“There’s something wrong with my shoes now?”
“Clowns, scary. Oversized squeaky clown shoes, not scary. How do you even sneak up on people?”
For a long time now Commedia and I have been looking for a project to do together. When she invited me to work with her at an abandoned boys’ school outside Poughkeepsie, I packed without a second thought. Now I’m here, though, I’m getting cold feet, and the giant shoes aren’t helping. She’s right. The shoes are overkill. I’m a demon clown, not a demon prop comic.
I’m a big fan of Commedia, supported her career from early on. And when she was getting started, I like to think she kind of looked up to me. But I’m not so sure our styles mesh. She’s more indie, more modern. Does black-box improv and calls bits “scenes.” She talks about developing a new approach where audiences come away “unsettled” instead of terrified or dead. I try to get her into Burns and Allen but she just doesn’t think they’re scary.
“Did you hear me say he’s after you?”
“Everyone’s telling me that. What’s he want with me? I’m washed up, anyone notice that?”
“If you’re washed up, how’d you score this fantastic venue?”
“You pulled strings is how I got this venue.” I stalk the vaulted gymnasium, testing the acoustics. “It’s gorgeous, it’s got atmosphere, but where’s the audience? Who comes out to a condemned pile of masonry in the middle of nowhere?”
“Urban spelunkers. I’m telling you, it’s the best audience. They come looking for a scene. Literally search it out. Urban spelunkers are the new horny teens in the woods.”
“I remember when horny teens were the new virgins in peignoirs.”
“You’re an old clown, but you’re not that old. You changed the subject again.”
“About the Smiling Boy? I got nothing to say.” I poke my head in a side door. Equipment room. Pommel horse. Bare bulb swinging from the ceiling. Potential.
“You’ve gotta take this seriously. The Smiling Boy’s not just another imp with a rubber chicken and a machete. He knows his shit.”
“Have you seen his act?”
A long pause. Commedia tumbles to the ceiling in slow motion, like a dandelion seed. She’s been rehearsing. At last she says, “I’ve seen an act. Supposedly he changes his entire set for every tour.”
“What, just throws it all out and starts from scratch?”
“Down to the last gobbet of flesh.”
I give a low whistle. “And?”
A longer pause. “He’s good.”
She knows what I’m asking. Is he as good as me? Good as I used to be? Good as she maybe thought I was when we first met, before she learned all my tricks, that night she crept up pale behind me and giggled at the pictures I was painting in blood on the hospital walls? But I don’t have the stones to ask, and she’s not about to volunteer the information.
Down the hall, a door splinters. Laughter drifts in. Sweet human laughter.
“Urban spelunkers,” says Commedia. “What did I tell you?”
“It seems too easy. You’re saying they want to be scared?”
She flashes a grin jammed with teeth like needles. “That’s the beauty part. They think they can’t be.”
It’s my best show in years, and the meal is comped.
* * *
We do three weeks at the abandoned school and clean up. Before the gig’s even over I’m getting the kind of calls I used to get in the old days: an amusement park here, a cemetery there, the odd children’s hospital. Commedia tells me I’ve got retro appeal. She says I went viral on YouTube.
“How’d I get on YouTube?” I ask as I’m packing for home.
“You shitting me? All our victims took video. Some of them had live feeds going from the moment they stepped in.”
“Unbelievable. It’s like they’re doing promos for us as we eviscerate them.”
“I told you this is a great time to be in the business. You think the dark circus days were good? The laughing sickness epidemics? Forget them. We’re on the brink of a whole new golden age of demonic comedy.”
I don’t commit to any offers right away. Instead of going back to the old gigs, it’s maybe time I stretched a little. I’m thinking a road show. All new material. Maybe some improv. Good chance to see the country and catch up with old friends. When was the last time I shot the shit with Headless Koko and Mr. Pinwheel? Last I heard they’d both retired to Miami. I kill in Miami.
The flier’s waiting in my P.O. box when I get home. I get a sour taste in my mouth before I even read it. THE SMILING BOY’S CARNIVAL OF TRUTH, it says in whirling script, the kind they probably consider vintage these days. ONE DAY ONLY. I AM HERE!
The date underneath is April Fool’s, less than a month away. Then there’s a list of attractions:
THE FUN HOUSE
THE RED CAROUSEL
THE BLIND TOYROOM
At the bottom, in the smallest print, is a list of the talent invited to perform. Long list. All clowns, all demonic. I see Headless Koko and Mr. Pinwheel, Red Lips, Fat Sally, Jiminy Whiteface, Shrapnel the Clown, the Jumping Jack. I see Commedia’s name.
I see mine.
* * *
“He’s calling you out,” says Sslikesh the Procurer. “What did I tell you?”
I Irish up my coffee with a squirt of aqueous humor. “Want a shot of this? I got a whole Rubbermaid thing of eyes from my morgue gig last week.”
“He sent you the flier so you’d see your name. So you’d know he’s expecting you.”
“Damn, this is some fine coffee. This is going to be my new morning routine.”
“Are you listening to me? Are you or are you not going to this thing?”
I set the coffee down. “You know I’m going.”
“Because he invited you? Or because if you don’t come to him, he’ll bring the show to you?”
“Neither.” I stand, glad I swapped out the squeaky shoes for boots that make a satisfying dead thump. “Because the Blind Toyroom is my bit, I own the Blind Toyroom, and the little pissant knows it.”
“You do a lot of work with eyeballs, you ever notice that? You’ve got a whole injury-to-the-eye thing going.”
“I respect the classics.” Just to prove it, I cloak myself in red mist, work up a nice exit miasma. “It’s time the Smiling Boy learned to respect them too.”
* * *
The Carnival of Truth, I’ve got to admit, is one hell of a setup. You got your off-kilter Ferris wheel, your black-on-black circus tents, your calliope music playing a smidge too fast. The Smiling Boy put a lot of work into this thing. Too much work, I’m thinking. The audience walks in already scared. I watch them wander the midway, hypnotized by the lights. Mixed crowd, lot of teenagers but some older folks too. It’s already dawning on them that they shouldn’t have come in. Thing is, a killer routine builds. It toys with the crowd. It makes them want to follow you down the hole.
You can’t work with a dead audience. Believe me, I’ve tried.
I drift through the gates holding a single balloon.
In the shadows, through slits in the tents, I catch the other acts. Every clown in Hell has responded to the Smiling Boy’s invitation, looks like. There’s Doctor Chills with his oversized bonesaw. There’s Sammy Little weeping on a tightrope. On the carousel, the Red Clown and the White Clown, cracking whips, improv a jockey bit. There by the shooting gallery goes half the Volante family, whooping and tumbling.
A voice seeps into my ear like engine oil. “So you made it. I love your work.”
“You behind me, or you throwing your voice? I ask purely out of professional curiosity.”
“Why don’t you turn around and see?”
“Me I’m not so bad at the voice-throwing. Always thought I could kill with a vent act, but I never found the right dummy.”
A rustling of leather, or something like leather.
“Never too late, though,” I say. “Never too late.”
The Smiling Boy stands before me, just like that. No miasma for this guy. He’s a skinny kid in monochrome, like a mime crossed with a speaker at a Microsoft conference, but still clearly a clown. Even with the razor gashes, clearly a clown.
“I’m gonna kill, old clown,” he says. “I’m gonna slay you.”
“Lot of clowns have tried. Half the jokers you’ve got working this gig, I’ve double-billed with at least once.”
“But I’m the one who’s gonna do it.”
Screams flow around us. The music of the fairground. Takes me back.
“What are you thinking now, old clown?” says the Smiling Boy.
“I’m thinking I had a pretty good burn about you looking like a computer conference speaker, and I’m trying to decide if Microsoft or Apple is funnier.”
“Apple. You’re thinking it’s like a Silicon Valley hipster look, right? Mac is the hipster one.”
“Yeah, but Microsoft is a funny word.”
“Nobody does funny words anymore. You’re stalling.”
“You want we should do this?”
“One set. You and me. One kills, one dies.”
“In the Blind Toyroom?”
“That’s what I built it for. Ready to retire, old clown?” And he’s gone, leaving a trail of laughter for me to follow.
It’s maybe a bad sign I don’t feel fear this time. But I don’t. Just the rush of performance, the hunger to step into the darkness. Chances are good, real good, I’m going to die tonight. What the hell, I think. Dying is easy. I let my balloon drift into the darkness and shout the Oldest Answer, the words Satan howled as he fell from Heaven in the original pratfall: What, and leave show business?