Tuesday, May 02, 2006

In the Violent Old Land of Oz

It's nice to know that after reading crime novel after crime novel that violence can still shock me. While reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to my son Duncan, I came to realize what kind of a sick puppy L. Frank Baum truly was. The Cowardly Lion runs off into the forest to rip apart small animals for dinner and the Tin Woodman goes postal with that ax of his - a real no-nonsense motherfucker. I counted over forty beheadings. Did I stop reading, like a responsible dad should? Well...no. Actually, I laughed through the whole battle scene while I read it. And this is after Baum's introduction where he complains about old fairy tales "with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents..." and states that readers would "gladly dispense with all disagreeable incident" Ironic, isn't?

This is the passage that killed me:

"This is my fight," said the Woodman, "so get behind me and I will meet them as they come."
He seized his axe, which he had made very sharp, and as the leader of the wolves came on the Tin Woodman swung his arm and chopped the wolf's head from its body, so that it immediately died. As soon as he could raise his axe another wolf came up, and he also fell under the sharp edge of the Tin Woodman's weapon. There were forty wolves, and forty times a wolf was killed, so that at last they all lay dead in a heap before the Woodman.
Then he put down his axe and sat beside the Scarecrow, who said, "It was a good fight, friend."

Can you imagine what kind of a bloodbath that was? The Tin Woodman trying to clean his metal suit asking Dorothy if she has a napkin. No heart, I'd say so.

And this is the Scarecrow fending off the Witch's crows:

"It is only a stuffed man. I will peck his eyes out."

The King Crow flew at the Scarecrow, who caught it by the head and twisted its neck until it died. And then another crow flew at him, and the Scarecrow twisted its neck also. There were forty crows, and forty times the Scarecrow twisted a neck, until at last all were lying dead beside him. Then he called to his companions to rise, and again they went upon their journey.

Who needs brains when you have the ability to cause death with a single twist?

But the violent passages of Oz makes me wonder about desensitizing readers of crime novels. Do genre readers expect violence and therefor it doesn't bother them when they read it? And if you need to spark a reaction out of your readers, how do you accomplish it? A beheading in a thriller or a horror novel wouldn't bother me too much; I seriously doubt my reaction would be disbelief and laughter.

I've struggled with the degree of gruesomeness in one of my chapters. I don't want to go overboard, but at the same time the reader needs to have a reaction to the violence to understand the motives of my main character; there needs to be some empathy to connect with the character. Now, I don't have the luxury of putting blood and guts in the middle of a children's story; instead I'm dealing with readers who've probably seen it all. Well, here's hoping people can just appreciate my own brand of violence.


Christa M. Miller said...

Wasn't "Oz" written in the 1930's, before kids were insulated from life's harshness? It might be that kids themselves were desensitized, and those images helped them cope with their fears about losing parents, parents losing jobs, whatnot.

I think if crime authors want violence to get to a reader, they have to dig into the basest feelings they have and translate them into that scene. For instance: I won't read Laura Lippman's Every Secret Thing because I have an incredibly hard time reading or seeing bad things happening to tiny kids. So, even if I'm desensitized to violence on the order of a Tarantino film, what matters in my writing is that I can tap into my feelings about infanticide and then try to extend it to how this fictional parent is feeling.

The hard part, of course, is not turning into a weepy paranoid mess while I'm channeling. ;)

Sandra Ruttan said...

Some of the most violent stuff out there is fairy tales and children's books, and maybe that's why there were fewer psychos back then - kids were addressing violence from a young age and learning what was wrong instead of being shielded.

'Course, I wouldn't swear by that, I just think it's interesting to consider. People were pragmatic, they knew they couldn't shield their children from everything. Funny how things change.

Steve Allan said...

Can't read Every Secret Thing? This from the woman who wrote a flash fiction piece about a baby finding his mother with her guts hanging out?

And there has to be some corrolation between the heightened shielding of kids from exposure to violence at a young age and the rise of violence in the country. That's why I'm going to allow my kids to play with guns. And none of this unloaded with the safety on crap - I'm talking about hollow points with no safety. And liquor, I'm gonna let them drink while they play with the guns. Man, I'm an awesome dad! :)

Christa M. Miller said...

Nope. Can't read it. I leave the room if I think a movie is going toward a violent scene with a little kid or a pregnant woman.

Writing it is a whole different matter. That stuff comes right out of my own fears, so getting it on paper purges it. Well, kind of. I'm still the paranoid mom on her kid's heels in the playground. ;)

As for the hollow points, no safety, liquor - par for the course up here. Are you going to let your kids snowmobile on lakes in April, too? Cause I know mine would get a total kick out of it!

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Baum self-published the first "Oz" book in 1903. It had been rejected everywhere else, because publishers didn't think children would be interested.

The Grimm Brothers' fairy tales, as they wrote them, were intended for an adult audience...which is why they were so dark and violent. The stories were later watered down for children.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Some of the fairy tales were deliberate warnings, though. Like the inclusions of wolves as evil villains. This was because farmers relied on their stock and having wolves snatch sheep or goats or whatever was disastrous. Kids were conditioned from a young age to see wolves as evil, so they'd kill them.

This was something discussed in my educational training and I refuse to read those books to kids. It isn't the violence, it's the fact that these beautiful animals were hunted almost to extinction because of propaganda.

But that self publishing bit is pretty interesting! It proves there are times the self published authors really do know more than the publishers.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Hold the phone. Wolves aren't evil? They must teach you some weird things in those Canadian schools. Next thing, you'll try to convince me there's no bogeyman. Sheesh, you're gullible.

Christa M. Miller said...

I'd argue that it became propaganda *after* the Industrial Revolution, but beforehand - as you implied, Sandra - a matter of survival.

Interesting about the date, Patrick. Obviously I got the movie and the book mixed up. Forgot in those days, movie rights didn't get optioned the moment the book was released. ;)

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

If I got dropped into Oz, I'd whack the Lollypop Guild's boss and take over. Then we'd harvest that big poppy field with munchkin slave labor and corner the Emerald City's opium racket.

Steve Allan said...

Well, I doubt Duncan got much out of it. I think he just likes the sound of daddy's voice before he goes to sleep. I could probably read him anything and he'd be happy. But he does like to "Toto" over and over again.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Patrick, there's no sasquatch either.

I've even petted a wolf. So there. Phooey on you!