Is also a novel by a certain Steve Harris (No, not that one!) which I have recently re-read and, given that my IRON NODER campaign is slightly running out of steam, I figured I'd actually review a good book on here rather than the derp-fests that I'm used to writing about, and also to prove that I do read good stuff as well. "Adventureland" is its UK title; in the US it was called "The Eyes of the Beast" and it came out in 1991.
The Haunted Funfair comes to Basingstoke.
A bit more detail, if you wouldn't mind?
Well now, our protagonist, Dave Carter, is a STANDARD NERD in 1990 in Basingstoke and is 18 years old. He has a slightly older and somewhat more worldly wise girl friend, Sally, who works on a perfume counter, and is in that limbo period in between finishing school and going off to University when the old home town starts to become more of a cage than a playground. And as someone who grew up in a horrible provincial town, this is familiar to me. Intensely.
Anyhow, it begins on his birthday. After a few close calls such as a large black claw coming out of the bog while he's rummaging around in there to try to find a fresh lubber and having to hack it to death with a swiss army knife, and the same claw almost drowning his friend Phil, as well as obtaining some rather weird matching puzzle-jewelry for said birthday (two silver crosses with eye-like gems set in them), he gets the impression that something isn't quite right around here. Then the funfair, AdventureLand, comes to town, and him and his nakama go off to check it out, upon where they go on the Ghost Train, which seems bigger on the inside, has extremely realistic and super-gorno-covered exhibits, and ends up with two of his friends missing, nowhere to be seen.
Of course, nobody believes him when he starts going on about how they've been kidnapped, because they've nowhere to be kidnapped to.
Then it all gets worse and, without giving too much away, he ends up crossing over into a parallel dimension, firstly the totally uninhabited and rather creepy neutral version of Basingstoke and then the evil version, where, despite being a glasses-wearing STANDARD NERD he manages to save his friends and also some other folks along the way.
What makes it so compelling, in my view, is that it is so incredibly believable. The author is apparently a native and resident of Basingstoke, which is a town I have only been to once in 2001 at age 15 for a chess match and recall as being a big wodge of concrete with not much there. He goes into great detail about the various local characters and things. Not only is there Dave and his mates - to be fair, I don't think Dave is an author avatar, I think the authorial character, if there is one, is probably his mate Phil, for reasons that are not really relevant right now - but also there's the various other inhabitants. For instance, there's "Bad Eddie," who everyone thinks is just a weird old and slightly creepy old drunk who collects baby dolls and hoards them in his flat but who actually is a person of metaphysical importance. And then there's Roddy Johnson, the local hard case and all round psychopath. The author also goes into exquisite detail and almost exact reference to things in Basingstoke, drawing on vast local knowledge. Apparently shortly after the book first came out a local woman said she expected the big plate-glass window outside the MacDonald's in the town centre to be gone because, in the book, it got smashed at one point. And one early chapter (the first in which Roddy Johnson appears) there is an almost blow by blow account of a pub fight, allegedly, which appeared in the local press at one point.
Also, the inspiration for it is dead on. It's almost a dead horse trope now that funfairs are all a bit creepy and that carnies are weird and possibly a little bit dodgy, if not outright nasty pieces of work. I still am bitter over an incident in October 2005 where I got my wallet pinched by a carnie. I was trying to pull some gal I liked who'd invited me to the fair in Putney with her and my wallet fell out my pocket on the waltzers. One of them must have gathered it up but when I asked where it was they all denied any knowledge and started getting rather borsant at my questioning them about it and threats to call the Police. Anyhow, two weeks later I get a call from Slough Police station where someone's found my driving licence, all my bank cards, and my DCI membership card in a subway over there, just dumped. I do some digging and find out that Slough was the same fair's next destination. The lying cunts had nicked the thirty quid I'd got out the bank for the fair, and the wallet, and just dumped everything else. So if you're reading this, Mr Wallet-Nicking Carnie Scumbag, I hope you get herpes. And indeed, the Big Bad of Adventureland, a grotesquely fat carnie called Fred Purdue, is able to get away with it because of the general dodginess of the carnies in general. The terrifying thing about him is the dissonance between his habits and what it entails - the rather jocular sounding "Knife Time," for instance. And the fact that he peels off and eats peoples' skin because this keeps him alive.
In a way, the idea of using a funfair as a cover for a conduit between Earth and some hellish parallel universe actually makes more sense than a more permanent structure. By keeping on the move, your friendly local monster-hunter wouldn't suspect anything. And also, the intensely private and insular world of the showman would help keep it discreet also.
There's also a keen and somewhat snarky sense of humour throughout the book. Dave comes over as basically, a This Loser Is You, but without too much hostility behind it. He's at a loose end in his life (as people are between school and college) and looking for a purpose. He's also very much a STANDARD NERD and, excellently (and this is unfortunately where reality ends and fantasy begins), is able to persuade his girlfriend in the ways of standard nerdiness. He's a bit of a computery type, gets Sally, his gal, into it despite her initial resistance. In a way, the novel is probably aimed at the Dave Carters of the world, as it never explains exactly what Dave has done before or since the novel. Probably this is so that the reader can identify with Dave - note also the very generic name - more effectively. Who probably had some run-ins with the local bullies like Roddy Johnson, his grotesque sister Randy Sandy (who is first encountered pulling a train at a party Dave is invited to - what's the betting that the real Randy Sandy still exists and lives in a decaying council flat in the depths of Basingstoke with a small legion of children?) and can't work out what to do with their life all that much. Yet he is able to rise to the challenge (No, not like that! Although that happens as well) and win through.
If I had a criticism of the novel, it'd be the ending. It's all very abrupt and I want to know what exactly happens to tie everything up. However this is just minor. It's definitely worth reading, if you can find it, and I'm quite surprised that Steve Harris never really got the recognition he deserved for it. It really could do with a film or TV adaptation, yeah, maybe with one of The Inbetweeners as Dave and bringing it up to date by having Dave and Sally bond over endless hours in Skyrim as opposed to Elite, but still, the central conceit, that carnies are creepy and Basingstoke is boring, would well translate even 20 years on.