Review: Shadows of the Emerald City

Review by Ben Cooper

Book-COVERwebSchnarr, JW, ed. Shadows of the Emerald City. Northern Frights Publishing (Canada): October 15, 2009. 326 pages. ISBN: 978-0-9734837-1-0

When I was a young child, it was films, not books that turned me on to fantasy. One of the earliest films I remember watching was Return To Oz. Like all children, I’d seen The Wizard of Oz on television at Christmas time while stuffing my face with chocolates and yule log. With its funny Munchkins, memorable songs and gaudy Technicolor, it wasReturn To Oz on video, I was expecting something similarly saccharine. Instead, the Wheelers scared me stiff and my nightmares were stalked by the headless Mombi. L. Frank Baum’s creation is beloved of many in its various guises and Canadian independent publisher Northern Frights has served up a collection of 19 dark fantasy stories firmly rooted in the world of Oz, but one that sits more comfortably with the Gothic nature of the second Oz film.

The collection kicks off with “Dr. Will Price And The Curious Case of Dorothy Gale”, by Mark Onspaugh. Its an entertaining-enough story but a tad predictable, at times. Dr. Price is a hotshot young psychiatrist whose thesis was written on Dorothy Gale. He lands his dream job working in the hospital that Dorothy, now an old lady, has been in since the destruction of her home in that big ol’ twister. Dorothy’s previous physician vanished without a trace several months earlier. She sits in a room in a catatonic state, repetitively clicking her heels and chanting that famous catchphrase of hers. Determined to snap her out of it, Dr. Price takes her to the Gale farmstead in the hopes of shocking her out of her zombie-like state. Things take a turn for the worse and Dorothy and Dr. Price end back in Oz. Or are they? Price maintains his clinical, scientific mindset and is banished to the desert, while Dorothy disappears, leaving him to wander around. Is it a hallucination or something more incredible?

Onspaugh does a good job of invoking the land of Oz, and he offers both the bright and beautiful 1939 version, and the dark 1985 version. The prose is clean and Onspaugh’s eye for detail is keen. As Price wanders in the strange, obsidian hinterland I really felt like I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. However, I knew where the story was going from the off, and although the ending is suitably macabre, it wasn’t entirely unforeseen. Nonetheless, it’s an engaging story and serves as a good opener by making the reader’s journey parallel to that of Dr. Price into the strange world of Oz.

“Pumpkinhead” by Rajan Khanna keeps us in Oz this time, with no outer world to serve as a frame. It’s an interesting first-person narrative, told from the perspective of Linnaea, who has been employed to help Jack Pumpkinhead. Poor old Jack’s heads are rotting away, and no matter what Linnaea does, she can’t seem to work out the problem that’s causing it. Over the course of the story, we learn exactly what’s at the “root” of Jack’s disease.

This is a slower-moving story than Onspaugh’s, but the character of Linnaea is finely delineated and the true nature of Jack’s problems is trickled out through the story alongside the development of the characters. All in all, it is a fine effort.

Oz is a world that manages to balance the beautiful and the macabre, a feature it shares with many a fairy tale, and Michael D. Turner’s “Mr. Yoop’s Soup” is a fairy tale for adults. King Gob Ghab, King of Munchkinland, has a problem. A spate of crimes has hit his tiny fiefdom and he doesn’t know what to do, so off he trots to The Emerald City to enlist the help of Ozma. Unfortunately, he falls victim to the perpetrator, the escaped giant cannibal, Mr. Yoop. What follows is a grotesque but entertaining story, littered with swearing munchkins and humorous gore.

The story is told in an avuncular tone in places, reminding me a little bit of The Hobbit in this regard, and this is in keeping with Turner’s attempt to evoke the feel of a fairytale. The swearing munchkins were a welcome surprise and helped to further shed the image of Oz as a wonderful, wholesome land, reminding us that this is a different world to the one we may have been expecting. The giant Yoop also speaks in rhymes, a familiar conceit which stirs up memories of Jack and The Beanstalk and other tales. However, I felt the story was a bit too simplistic compared to some of the other stories and was overlong for what it was trying to achieve.

My favourite story in the collection was “Emerald City Confidential”, by Jack Bates, a delightful, hardboiled detective story. This was the most successful piece, in my mind, at evoking the darker side of Oz. The title alone lets you know what to expect. Captain Jo Guard, having been demoted and transferred for his scandalous affair with Ozma, is called back to Emerald City for one last case. Someone is out to kill Ozma, and the mayor of Munchkinland is missing, and so, Jo Guard is reluctantly plunged back into the world of sex, lies and invisibility cloaks he despises. You’ll never see Ozma in the same light again.

The story rattles along at a fair pace and Bates does a wonderful job at taking the world of Oz and twisting it into a gritty and grimy world populated by green-skinned prostitutes, sex-mad Munchkins and subterfuge. His eye for detail is spot on, but never detracts from the plot, and Jo Guard is an appealing anti-hero, more often led by his manhood than his brains. The story is very adult, with quite-explicit sexual scenes, but these were well executed, lacking the cringe factor often associated with such scenes. A good story, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of Bates’ work in the future.

Shadows of The Emerald City is an entertaining collection of dark fantasy tales. The quality ranges from the OK to the very good; though I didn’t find anything truly outstanding, neither did I find any of the stories boring or badly written. There were some typographical errors in several stories, which irked me somewhat as they stopped my reading flow and hindered my enjoyment (though that could just be me). Hopefully, my copy was an early proof and most, or all, of these will be ironed out in the final print. If you are a fan of L. Frank Baum’s creation, and don’t mind seeing it subverted and twisted, often to good effect, then you’ll enjoy this anthology. If you’re not really bothered with the whole Oz thing, you may find your mind wandering, though there are a couple of little gems that might take your eye. In reality, this is aimed at a very specific market, if you’re in that market you’ll snap it up, if not then you’ll get your kicks elsewhere.

You can find Shadows of the Emerald City at Northern Frights Publishing.