Filler content with Oz

Time goes by so fast. It seems like only moments ago I was sitting here with the whole day ahead of me, and now here I am rushing round trying to rustle up some filler content so that I can continue with the illusion that I’m a regular blogger.

With that new film out, this little ditty from Black Static #11 seems appropriate:-

Gerard Houarner: The Oz Suite

(Eibonvale Press paperback, 145pp, £6.75)

Now here’s an interesting idea for a book, a trilogy of novellas based on the film of The Wizard of Oz, and I’m probably the wrong person to be reviewing it as in all my 54 years I have never watched Judy Garland’s finest hour, but unfortunately we don’t have any right people in the house, so take it as a given that there are things about this book your reviewer is missing. Of course Oz is such a part of the fantasy landscape that you can’t help knowing something about it, even if the knowledge comes second-hand courtesy of Stephen King’s referencing in his Dark Tower series or Geoff Ryman’s brilliant novel Was.

A word about the book itself, before we get to the stories. It is a nicely made product, but with rather too many typos for comfort and, in the odd place or two, lines of text are left hanging. Somebody needed to pay a little more attention to detail.

In “No We Love No One” the world is beset by a rain of babies, each tucked neatly inside a spiral shell. People either dispose of these sky borne infants or, in the main, take them into their lives to look after. The babies grow but they never seem normal and their presence causes the unravelling of society, with its final collapse as they march off to wherever they must be. Compared to the other two stories, this one is pure fantasy, with no attempt to explain what has taken place or make it sound reasonable – something happens, and then we deal with the consequences. Central is the antagonism between the ‘shell child’ David and the narrator, the eldest son of the family into which he is ‘accepted’. Though Houarner is careful to only suggest, there is the hint of an embryonic psychopath in the narrator, seen in his glee at bullying first young stepbrother Silas and then in attempts to scare the unmoved David. On a societal level, the children are emblematic of all the past and present victims of prejudice and persecution, and in their indifferent response is seen the secret fear of the bully, that those they torment are somehow better than them. The narrator is representative of flawed humanity, and at the end in a scene that echoes the child left behind by the Pied Piper, we see his wish to leave with David and his kin, to be one of them.

Second story “Bring Me the Head of That Little Girl Dorothy” is told partly from the perspective of the king of the flying monkeys, a witness to the war between the Wicked Witch and the Wizard, but Dorothy’s presence shakes the foundations of the Witch’s power by causing her to doubt herself. Intercut with that is the first person narration of Maribel, whose most cherished possession is a little ceramic monkey and who believes that she is the Witch, expelled from Oz by the Wizard. As fantasy and reality overlap tragic events ensue, and the story strikes echoes of things like Cell, with aspects of Maribel’s personality deconstructed in some solipsistic other realm where she holds absolute power. It is a powerful story, well written and keeping the reader off balance, as Houarner disassembles his narrator, merging fantasy and reality to the reinforcement and ultimate destruction of both.

The first story was fantasy and the second a mix of fantasy and reality, but third offering “The Wizard Will See You Now” is entirely realistic, which is not to say that it doesn’t have an element which pushes at the envelope. It is the story of a young man who survives when, after a family trip to see The Wizard of Oz, his father uses a knife on him and his mother. The boy becomes obsessed with the Wizard, thinking that he actually exists in some form or another, and can grant wishes, answer questions. His whole life is devoted to learning how to make a connection, involving magic and drugs, betrayal and crime. Again, as with “Bring Me the Head”, this is a compelling account of a soul in torment, somebody who has witnessed something so terrible that their whole world has been overturned. As the narrator remembers how the knife went into his chest, driven by his father, the person who was meant to love and care for him, it’s impossible not to feel moved and to agree with the conclusion that only something outré could account for this. All that follows, in a narrative littered with throwaway ideas, seems to spring from this incomprehensible moment, and the story is infused with a feeling of not so quiet desperation, culminating in the thought that maybe there is certain knowledge we do not want to have, that the fantasy no matter how bad is a construct to protect our minds from something even worse.

It’s a powerful end to a collection that is filled with unusual ideas and cleverly subverts one of the staples of an American childhood. There is beautiful writing here and telling characterisation, with a sense that something strange and enigmatic and, in its own way, quite magical is unfolding on the page.

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