08 September 2007

Finding the Horror in Oz

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has a fair number of grisly moments: the Tin Woodman chops off 41 animals' heads and kills two Kalidahs, the Scarecrow twists the necks of 40 birds, the Cowardly Lion decapitates a giant spider and offers to kill a deer for Dorothy to eat. In his later Oz books, however, L. Frank Baum moved his fairyland closer and closer to a paradise, and its potential for scary stories became more limited.

The country turned out to be protected on all sides by the Deadly Desert, made of sand that turned any flesh to dust. In The Road to Oz (1909) and The Emerald City of Oz (1910), Baum stated that people in Oz are immortal. (Earlier books had mentioned people dying.) Ozma and Glinda extended their hegemony over all of Oz, using their Magic Picture and Great Book of Records to keep track of potentially everything that goes on. In particular, they clamped down on unauthorized magic, driving away wicked witches and such. There is no want. Given that edenic situation, is it possible to write stories about Oz that are scary in any way?

Baum faced the same difficulties when he returned to the Oz series in 1913. In that year's comeback novel, The Patchwork Girl of Oz, he used several ways to jump out of the corner he had painted himself into:

  • Start the story far from the Emerald City and other parts of Oz where Princess Ozma's authority holds sway.
  • Give the characters a reason to hide from her, such as being involved in illegal magic.
  • Use the country's abundant wilderness areas, fearsome beasts, and isolated communities.
That approach provided the model for many of Baum's subsequent books and his successors'.

But so much of horror literature involves death, either as a threat or a condition. How can storytellers exploit that force in a land of immortality?

Again, Baum created the opportunities. The same Deadly Desert that protects Oz and its immortal inhabitants can turn them into dust (presumably--we never actually see that in the series). In Daniel Gobble's "The Wailing Witch of Oz," the opening story in Oziana 2006, the spirit of a witch has lived on after her body has been thrown onto the sands. The tale's setting is thus a ghost town both literally and metaphorically. And, true to Baum's model, that town is an isolated community far from the Emerald City with a good reason to keep a low profile.

Ozian-style immortality is not without problems, furthermore. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Tin Woodman survives having all his body parts hacked off, one by one. What happened to the pieces? The Tin Woodman of Oz (1918) tells us that the tinsmith Ku-Klip has glued parts of the woodman and another man together to make a third, as shown above. But he found he had no left arm. (Yet a right arm was left, Prof. Wogglebug would remind me.)

Those missing arms hold great potential for a horror story, especially if its young protagonists:
  • live deep in the Munchkin woods, far from Ozma.
  • are being raised by a supplier for illegal magicians.
  • must beware of Kalidahs and other beasts.
For me, the outcome was "The Axman's Arm," also in Oziana 2006.

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