Dark Häus Press, 2011; Bedlam Stories LLD, September 2013
Trade paperback, 396 pp., $13.99; eBook, $4.99
Review by Michael R. Collings
Imagine an insane asylum isolated on a dismal gray island; surrounded by a graveyard studded with moldering, canting, illegible headstones; its structures decaying, paint peeling, walls and floors aged to a uniform non-color; its inmates’ rooms little more than prison cells with a single hard cot and barred windows. Then square that image.
Image a doctor who, for the best of reasons perhaps, experiments on his helpless victims, using them to try to achieve his heart’s desire without any consideration for their pain, their suffering. Then square that image.
Imagine a head nurse who makes Nurse Rachet seem warm and cuddly and Annie Wilkes the epitome of selflessness and nurturing. Then square that image.
If you’ve been able to imagine all of the above, and then transform those into images exceeding the horrific, you have engaged the world of Christine Converse’s Bedlam Stories: The Battle for Oz and Wonderland Begins.
But that is only the beginning.
Every story of death and darkness needs a protagonist, a voice of reason to resonate with the unreasonable and irrational. In Bedlam Stories, that voice belongs to intrepid New York Examiner reporter Nellie Bly, who in our world worked for the New York World and committed herself to a ten-day stay in Bellevue Hospital to expose the inhumane treatment of its inmates…and died in 1922. In Bedlam Stories, she enters Bedlam Asylum for much the same purpose—to research an exposé of how mentally unstable women are treated.
On the ferry trip to the island, she meets a second main character: a young girl named Dorothy Gale, late of Kansas, who has been committed by her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry in the hopes that treatment will cure her of what appear to be dangerous and obsessive powers. A few pages later, inside Bedlam itself, Nellie sees a beautiful mirror on the wall, the only thing in the Asylum that is neither crumbling nor decrepit. As she passes, she glimpses a third character…hidden within the mirror itself: Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
And the stage is set for a phantasmagorical narrative in which worlds—imaginative and ‘real’—collide, in which the well-known and well-beloved characters from both Oz and Wonderland have transmuted into horrors…and gained the power to move from one fantasy world into the other—and into Nellie Bly’s world. Alice and Dorothy possess the power to make their fantasy worlds real, and, for reasons beyond her own understanding, Nellie provides the catalyst for the other two girls.
The result is a mind-numbing panoply of horrors: machines designed to drive the sane insane; imaginary landscapes that are as bleak and inhospitable as Bedlam Asylum itself; characters who inflict physical, mental, and emotional torture on young women, assuring them all of the time that their suffering will eventually “cure” them; and a cataclysmic ending (to this volume at least) that brings to bear all of the evils and terrors of three worlds. The final sentence (not actually a spoiler, since it is implicit in what I’ve said so far) threatens, “Wonderland will regret the day they ever crossed us, the armies of OZ!”
The next volume will be subtitled: “The Fall of Oz.”
Bedlam Stories is a highly intriguing amalgam of historical figures, imaginary landscapes, familiar characters from favorite children’s stories; in addition to Dorothy and Alice, there is an enigmatic Wendy. And it is an ideal introduction to what promises to be a complex, multi-volume exploration of the limits of sanity, the powers of imagination, and the metamorphosis of fantasy into horror.
While there are some problems with word choice and sentence structure, Bedlam Stories largely overcomes these by the sheer vitality of its storytelling. Like Nellie Bly, once the reader has entered the Asylum, it is difficult to emerge…unscathed.