Oh, The Night Circus. You are not a novel. You are a bag full of spun-sugar candy for those of us who love Tim Burton and Tarot cards and old Victorian mansions. You are a heaping bowl of raspberries and cream for those of us who wish men still wore bowler hats and women still wore crinoline and black feathers and striped stockings. You are not a novel but a brandy-soaked feast for those of us who long for magic and prefer our beauty edged in black lace.
When I first began reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, I thought, “my god, this book has everything I love!” Magic, orphans, mysterious men, an eerie sense of foreboding, brilliant children in strange circumstances, wealthy eccentrics, sisters who have an uncanny connection, ghostly forms, twins, fate, elaborate costumes, a garden made of ice, the list goes on and on. And not to mention that the book centers on a fanciful circus that appears without warning and only opens after dusk. Does it even matter what the plot is – isn’t that enough to make you want to read?
There is a plot, of sorts – a love story, in fact – but honestly, I could take it or leave it. I didn’t read for plot. I read for the world that Morgenstern made: the circus, its performers, its creators. I luxuriated in this book, wandering its pages of delicious prose in awe, like you might wander through the real Night Circus (were it to exist), with its never-ending labyrinth of black and white striped tents, all filled with marvels, the likes of which you’ve never even dreamed. And as I was reading, I realized that The Night Circus reminded me, somehow, of Sleep No More.
Sleep No More is the latest creation from British theater company, Punchdrunk. I saw the show last year in New York, and it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. At midnight my friends and I entered a five-story warehouse in Chelsea, and after feeling our way through a pitch-black hallway, we emerged in the dark and swanky lounge of the fictional McKittrick hotel. A bell-hop escorted us into the elevator where we were made to wear white Venetian masks. We were told that we were free to wander the hotel, free to follow those who interested us, free to open drawers, open doors, and explore. But under no circumstances could we talk to anyone, or take off our masks.
I was separated from my friends and pushed out of the elevator on the fifth floor, which had been converted into a very convincing old-fashioned mental hospital. With my heart pounding, I wandered through a dimly-lit room of soiled, single beds while eerie music was piped in through hidden speakers. I examined the patient charts on a doctor’s desk and followed a nurse in a starched white uniform as she passed by an old electroshock chair. I turned and saw a ghostly figure in a white mask. My breath caught in my throat before I realized it was only my own reflection in a mirror.
Alone, I wandered through doors and down stairs. On the fourth floor was a well-decorated home, but I passed through another door, and I was standing in a graveyard. I went down a set of stairs and found myself in the hotel lobby where a man had just died on the floor. I backed away, pushed through a set of double doors, and came to the ball room where men and women waltzed with ease. I headed up a different flight of stairs and through heavy black curtains, and there I stood on a city street lined with little shops. In the candy store, I stole some gum drops and licorice whips from glass jars and stuffed them in my pocket.
As I wandered, I never knew what I might come to next, or when I might come upon another white-masked patron, floating silently through the rooms as I was. At times I ran into the actors – the only ones not wearing masks. They struggled silently with each other, fighting and kissing, dancing and leaping, and then they vanished into the dimness. I tried to get back to rooms I had been in before, but I couldn’t find them again, and I ended up going in circles. I became confused about which floor I was on, about where I had been and had not been. My surroundings were intricate and beautiful, yet dark and moth-eaten, smelling of dust and mold. My awe mingled slightly with fear.
There was a plot, by the way, to Sleep No More. Had I followed the actors closely, and if I knew my Shakespeare better, I would have realized that they were acting out a stylized rendition of Macbeth. But I couldn’t have cared less about the plot. In fact, after a while I didn’t even try to follow the actors. I was intent on exploring every single one of the hundred rooms that Punchdrunk had meticulous created. Each room was so thoroughly transformed I almost forgot they were just part of an elaborate set. There were old papers in the drawers, period books on the shelves. I wandered for hours, hoping to stumble upon something new, a room even more bizarre and intriguing than the ones I’d already seen. As I was traversing a narrow hall, I saw one of the witches open a locked door with a key and pull a white-masked man inside with her. The secrets seemed endless, and I wanted to lose myself in the mysterious maze that Punchdrunk had created.
In the same way, I lost myself in The Night Circus. The world is so carefully crafted, and every detail is so painstakingly perfect, from the period costumes to the eccentric characters to the sights and sounds and smells of the circus. The book is endless in its maze of attractions; you can simply wander its pages and feel as if you’ve been transported to another time and place. Peek inside the tents at the acrobats and illusionists, taste the caramel apples, smell the cinnamon-scented air, see the caldron of fire, blazing in different colors. Observe the living statue dressed as an angel – is she real? Is anything real, or has it all been touched by a magical hand?
When I finished The Night Circus, I read the acknowledgments page, and there it was: the author thanks “the immersive experience of Punchdrunk.” “Ha!” I thought. “I was right!” No wonder the circus had reminded me of Sleep No More. The author had purposefully written her imaginary circus to be the same sort of dark and mysterious labyrinth. She intended the patrons of The Night Circus to wander alone, unsure of where they were going, and to stumble upon ever-more thrilling attractions.
Although it has its dark moments, The Night Circus is a bit friendlier than Sleep No More. Not as much death, and the dinner parties are more jovial. But they both appeal to the same crowd. Those of us who love gothic story-telling and elaborate games of pretend. They are both beautiful, but with a touch of danger, and madness. They don’t really intend to frighten, however; they just want to entertain. And in both, the plot is secondary to the surroundings and the feelings they evoke. The Night Circus is more than just a novel, and Sleep No More is more than just a play. They are immersive experiences. They pull you into magical, bygone worlds, and they make you believe.