Dr Potter’s Medicine Show by Eric Scott Fischl

February 10, 2017

Dr Alexander Potter, disgraced Civil War surgeon, now snake-oil salesman, travels the Pacific Northwest with a disheartened company of strongmen, fortune-tellers, and musical whores. Under their mysterious and murderous leader they entertain the masses while hawking the Chock-a-saw Sagwa Tonic, a vital elixir touted to cure all ills both physical and spiritual. For a few unfortunate customers, however, the Sagwa offers something much, much worse.

At first glance, the plot of this novel appears to be relatively straight-forward. Alexander Potter is a charlatan, little more than a con man. He travels from town to town with his medicine show, separating the locals from their hard-earned cash. The Sagwa tonic he is peddling is nothing but a sham, it has no medicinal properties at all. Of course, looks can be deceptive, there is far more to the story than that. It turns out that one form of the tonic is utterly fake, but there is another variant that has the potential to be something miraculous.

Dr Potter is a fascinating fellow. It’s quickly established that he has been ground down by his time in the world. A series of ill-advised decisions has left him in a situation he can’t get out of. Forced to travel the back roads of America, he must sell the Chock-a-saw Sagwa Tonic because he has no other option. In his mournful state, he reflects on the man he once was. In his younger days he was brilliant but brash, the fastest surgeon with the skills to match. Potter is burnt out by the horrors he witnessed during the Civil War. There is only so much blood and guts one man can stand, so he lost himself in the bottom of a bottle. At his lowest ebb he was given a choice – be in thrall to someone else or die. In his weakened state, he chose the former. A choice he comes to truly regret with each passing decade.

For every hero, no matter how flawed, there must be a villain. Dr Potter may be the public face of the enterprise, but there is another who is pulling all the strings. Potter’s nemesis is Lyman Rhoades, a corpulent beast who runs the medicine show from behind the scenes. I don’t think I can adequately express how unpleasant he is. Rhoades truly is a vile piece of work. I’m always impressed when an author manages to pull this off, to make me genuinely loathe a character.  Rhoades is evil, but don’t confuse that with being two dimensional. There are reasons why he is the way he is. I almost felt empathy for him when his backstory is revealed… almost.

The other members of the travelling show are an eclectic bunch. The chanteuse is in an abusive relationship, the fortune teller is a drug addict and the strongman is in just as much trouble as Dr Potter. There are even a group of ill-treated oddities who are forced to live in cages and take part in a sinister scheme. Now you might be thinking this all sounds horribly downbeat, and to an extent it is. There is certainly an underlying melancholy to this novel that I don’t think I was expecting. The thing is though, I rather like it. Why? Well, it gives the narrative some nice additional depth. It also allows Potter and his friends the chance to seek something akin to redemption. The characters are well observed, you get the sense that they are all broken in one way or another. Potter most of all, he is almost crippled by his regrets. The doctor has done horrible things because he believes he lacks the inner strength to do what is right. Can he finally make amends before it is all too late?

Eric Scott Fischl also does a wonderful job of capturing the intimate details of the lives his characters lead.  As part of the run-down medicine show, they travel dusty trails in carts and caravans that have seen better days. You get a real sense of mind numbing repetition. They are all trapped in their own prescribed roles, ground down by the drugery. It’s like everyone is existing in their personal form of Purgatory. Each of them has a secret they are trying hide, or something they are trying to run away from.

I’ve been pondering this one for a while now and I reckon I have the perfect music recommendation to go along with this read – the soundtrack to Carnivàle by Jeff Beal. The book and the television show cover similar thematic ground so it only makes sense that the musical accompaniment for the television series almost perfectly complements the book. A little bit Western and a little bit Gothic turns out is an ideal fit.

If you’re looking for subtle but engrossing fantasy with a deliciously dark heart, then look no further, the doctor will see you now. Dr Potter’s Medicine Show is published by Angry Robot and is available now.

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