Monday, October 19, 2009

GUEST POST: Brandon Bell reviews SHADOWS OF THE EMERALD CITY




[Brandon Bell has had stories published in M-Brane SF, Byzarium, Everyday Weirdness and elsewhere. His story "Things We Are Not..." is newly available in a certain anthology of the same name. Also, if you're needing an Oz fix while waiting for your copy of Shadows of the Emerald City from Northern Frights Publishing to arrive, you may be interested in this episode of Studio 360.--CF]

Stephen King (I believe in Danse Macabre) noted that the cinematic version of The Wizard of Oz represents an oddity of sorts.  It is one of the few films that outperforms its literary source material.  I'm sure the comment was in connection with the quality of many of the adaptations of his own work.

I mention this because, for many fans of the world of Oz, their knowledge of it is confined to that 1939 film, with possibly a dollop of the 'not nearly as good, but strangely compelling' sequel from the '8os, Return to Oz.

Until a trip to New Mexico, I was—mostly—one of these fans.  I once read a book of American fairy tales (the title long since forgotten) that included several entries from Baum.  But that was it.  My wife and I took our girls to Sante Fe for Thanksgiving last year and on the trip we listened to some public domain audio recordings I downloaded, including a nice collection of Oz tales.

Those tales, bearing some resemblance to Lewis Carroll's matter-of-fact morbidity, address death and physical harm in direct but fairy tale terms.  In one of the tales the lion and tiger discussed devouring someone but they talked themselves out of it in lackadaisical tones. They were... American fairytales.  The label fits.  Fairy tale logic and story structures merge with American imagery in those Baum stories to create something unique and endearing.  A mixture of the carnival and Vaudeville, old locomotives and circus animals, infused into the classic fairy tale mold.

Though the Baum stories that I have experienced are children's stories, there is a component darkness due, if nothing else, to their fairy tale form.

And then there is our cinematic Oz, with its flying monkeys, witches, and urban legends of midgets hanging themselves in the background of certain frames.  There is that rumor that if you play Dark Side of the Moon along with the movie, they match.

Into this history a book of short stories stumbles, seeking to gaze deep into the darker corners of our American Faery Land.  In this pursuit it excels, though some of the spirit of the original Oz tales must be left behind to make room for a more modern, adult, and nuanced flirtation with death and darkness.

Shadows of the Emerald City has rewards for both its cinematic and literary fans.  Some of these stories are dark love stories written to fans of the original movie alone.  Some seem aware of the sequel.  And then there are stories that venture into corners of Oz not seen or hinted at in the movies.

In the opening tale, Mark Onspaugh's “Dr Will Price and the Curious Case of Dorothy Gale,” we start, aptly enough, in Kansas.  I liked this story quite a bit.  It undertakes the considerably difficult role of delivering the reader, for the first time, back to Oz.  Worth noting is the familiar trope of the skeptical narrator, which works well as an entree into the milieu but is used to greater benefit as the existence of such a person is extrapolated upon and serves as the mechanism for the story's conclusion.  I found the actual transition from Kansas to Oz a bit herky-jerky, but that may have been intended.

Onspaugh's story lands ultimately in the horror zone, as does Barry Napier's “Tin.” Napier's tale expands upon the history of the Yellow Brick Road and takes our original cinematic tale in an alternate direction.  Think Poe meets Baum and you'll have a feel for the sort of story Napier delivers.  A nice story that allows for interpretation in purely psychological or supernatural terms.

I wanted to address to “Pumpkinhead” by Rajan Khanna and “Fly, Fly Pretty Monkey” by Camille Alexa together as they approach the milieu as one of dark fantasy. “Pumpkinhead” in particular captured the original fairy tale roots of Baum's stories while bringing a brooding horror rooted in decay and long-hidden secrets.  I am one of those readers who reads stories in order in an anthology, believing that the editor arranged them in sequence for a reason.  By the time I reached “Fly, Fly Pretty Monkey,” I wanted something a bit more understated and subtle, and this one delivered on that desire.

Which is to say, Mr. Schnarr has done a good job of arranging the stories.  The entries represent various approaches to the subject material such as the excellent “Emerald City Confidential” by Jack Bates and Jason Rubis' “A Chopper's Tale” which (at least to my delicate sensibilities) ventures into splatterpunk territory.  It also offers an alternative to Napier's history of the tin woodsman, demonstrating that Mr. Schnarr sought out the most effective stories for his anthology, as opposed to stories that jive together to offer an alternate view of Oz.

Depending on one's perspective, this could be a critique or a compliment to the anthology.  Regardless, there is great variety here for readers, though it is certainly aimed at an older audience.  Though there are some that would rate a PG if made into a movie, others, such as Rubis' tale, venture into NC-17 territory.

The artwork on the front and back covers is workable, and from a distance perhaps perfect.  On closer inspection, I'd like to see more whimsy in the imagery to contrast with the bloodstains on the yellow roadway.  I'm all about packaging: I think it matters.  I also realize that an artist is behind that work and I always want to offer, not negativity, but constructive suggestions for “next time.”  Based on the quality here, we will all be enriched by that “next time.”

Mr. Schnarr, his writers, and the artist, are in the early days of a new era of publishing.  These efforts count.

My final assessment of the anthology is that it can be a bit dark, reading all these stories in one go.  But, that is probably the point. This is, first and foremost, an anthology of horror stories.  And readers looking for something different in a horror collection, a collection that achieves this not only through the unique background of Oz but through a variety of tales and story modes, will find a sinister pleasure in these excursions over the rainbow.

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4 comments:

D. D. said...

I am curious on your take of SciFi's Tin Man. It was definitely darker, but I enjoyed it very much. Azkadelia's clevage was very distracting, though.

Nithska said...

I wanted to like Tin Man, the Syfy mini series, but ended up losing interest. I did like some moments when it had an uncanny feeling of being glimpses into King's Dark Tower world more than Baum's Oz.

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