Dr Potter’s Medicine Show (Eric Scott Fischl, review copy from Angry Robot) is a dark and lush gothic horror set in frontier America. The titular Dr Alexander Potter is a seller of snake-oil, taking his touring circus and freak show round the Western states of America. But the mystery potion that Dr Potter is selling – The Chock-a-saw Sagwa Tonic – is not your usual concoction, part placebo, part laudanum. This Tonic is an alchemical preparation, part of an experimental series designed to unlock the secrets of eternal life.
This is a novel populated by grotesques and monsters, none more so than the sadistic Lyman Rhoades, who has the whole medicine show under his control. The venal and cowardly Dr Potter is dependent on his patronage to get access to the Sagwa Tonic that is keeping him and other key Medicine Show people alive. But Rhoades himself is merely the roving agent of a reclusive chemist, Dr Morrison Hedwith. He brews the Sagwa Tonic as part of his experiments, and sends the Medicine Show out on the road in the hopes that its travels will conceal some of the more horrific results of his experimentation.
This is not an easy read. Expect lots of graphic violence and sadistic torture, including sexual violence and its threat. There is no white hat hero for the reader to identify with. But the darkness and violence fits the overall tenor and style of the novel. It rattles along as a satisfying thriller, building to a climactic and horrific close.
Goodreads rating: 3*