A Wiz There Was

Wizard of Oz posterA storm rages outside. Wind rattles the windows of the 150-year-old inn. Ominous rolling thunder, lightning flashes, horizontal rain whips through the trees. The lights dim for a second. (Should I unplug my laptop? Yes.) Atop Mt. Washington, not far away, conditions must be terrifying. The worst weather in the world is recorded there. The power fails. Darkness. I light a candle. A few minutes ago I was reading a book called The Demonologist. Now I am afraid.

“It’s always best to start at the beginning,” advised Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. The day before the storm on the summit of Mt. Washington, a cold wind swept clouds across my face in the colorless landscape above the tree line. Like Kansas, I thought. Dorothy battling the wind in black-and-white before the arrival of the cyclone that will whisk her away to a Technicolor land of make-believe. The Wizard of Oz was on my mind because this week marks the 75th anniversary of its premiere.

Not in Kansas Anymore

I’m trying to imagine a time that Was, a time before Oz. Before bogus wizards and green witches, before Scarecrow and Tin Man, before cowardly lions and flying monkeys. It’s not possible. I simply can’t imagine a world without Dorothy and Toto, a world without Oz. What is it about the iconography of this immortal classic that so captures the imagination of generation upon generation?

In a 1992 essay for the British Film Institute, author Salman Rushdie writes about seeing the movie as a child in Bombay and cites it as his first literary influence.

“The Wizard of Oz is a film whose driving force is the inadequacy of adults, even good adults, and how the weakness of grown-ups forces children to take control of their own destinies, and so, ironically, grow up themselves.”

Dororthy & Miss GulchRushdie views the story not so much in terms of Dorothy’s search for Home Sweet Home but instead, her exile from home. Not surprising, considering his own situation at the time, in hiding after publication of The Satanic Verses prompted death threats. For a child, the concept of exile may be a bit abstract. Not so the death threat wicked Miss Gulch makes in the film’s opening sequence. She wants to have Dorothy’s dog Toto destroyed! And then she turns into the Wicked Witch of the West who will stop at nothing to destroy Dorothy, even threatening harmless Scarecrow with fire. I can’t speak for anyone else, but it was fear that captured my young imagination.

And Your Little Dog Too

I believe the same might be true for author Geoff Ryman, who calls himself “a fantasy writer who fell in love with realism.” I found his haunting novel Was by accident. No one had recommended it, I hadn’t read about it. (This was the early 90s, before the Oz of Internet, Amazon, or Goodreads.) It appeared on the shelf as if by magic, with a cover as intriguing as its title. Was. I bought it, I read it, and I read it again. And again. It remains without question my favorite book.

Was by Geoff RymanThere was a dog barking. The noise came from within the train, as regular as the beating of its steam-driven heart… A woman all in black with a hat at an awkward angle was dragging a large trunk case. A little girl all in white stood next to her. The white dress sparkled in the sunlight, as if it had been sprinkled with mirrors. The dog still barked.
“Where’s my doggy? We’re going to leave my doggy!” said the child.
“Your doggy will be along presently…”

Ryman’s story is woven from three distinct threads. Child actress Frances Gumm becomes Judy Garland playing Dorothy in Hollywood. Scarecrow-obsessed horror film actor Jonathan is dying of AIDS in the 1980s. And in late 19th century Manhattan, Kansas, a substitute teacher named L. Frank Baum meets the real Dorothy Gael (sic), a withdrawn abused orphan turned bully. The complicated twists that tie these stories together make the Yellow Brick Road seem like a walk in the park.

It’s difficult to explain why I love this dark and perilous reimagining of The Wizard of Oz. I identified with a scene where five-year-old Jonathan sees the film on TV in the 1950s so strongly it felt like a memory. Or perhaps it has to do with when I read the book for the first time. Was it the summer of ‘94 when AIDS took the lives of three friends within one cyclonic month? Or the following summer when I was homeless, living in a jeep with my dog and no ruby slippers with heels to click three times? I’m no longer certain. But the book had an unquestionable impact on me. More than any other, it made me want to write my own stories.

Wizard in Wicked

Adam Grupper as The Wizard in Wicked

The Man Behind the Curtain

Finding Was is just one of many Oz synchronicities I’ve encountered. I happened to be in London in 2005 when a dress worn by Dorothy in the film was sold at auction for $272,000. The excitement in the room was electric. Early this summer I visited a friend in Brooklyn, only to discover her husband had played The Wizard on Broadway in Wicked, the musical based on Gregory Maguire’s wonderful novel about the Witch of the West. And as I sat down to write this piece, I came across news that a 20th anniversary edition of Was is being published by Small Beer Press next month, the same week my debut novel will be released. More Oz magic?

My psychological thriller Calvin’s Head (published by Bold Strokes Books) features displacement from home, the specter of AIDS, and – oh, yes – a dog. Facing fear is a factor in any suspense story, and one scene in particular…

Time stands still and the nervous energy that fueled my courage drains from my body, like the Cowardly Lion quaking before the great and powerful Wizard of Oz. What was I thinking? …I cannot control the random rambling rubbish in my brain. What brain? I haven’t got a brain. I’ll miss you most of all, Scarecrow. The key is in my hand. I have no idea how it got there, how I got here, what to do next. I’m frozen to the spot like the Tin Man in the orchard, unable to move a muscle. Oilcan. Oilcan. I want to scream.

If you’re looking for something to read this fall, I highly recommend putting Was at the top of your list. Then perhaps pick up a book by a new author whose imagination was as much inspired by The Wizard of Oz as writers such as Geoff Ryman, Gregory Maguire, Salman Rushdie, and countless more.
My Oz


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