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Spotlight on: Chemical Gardens by Gina Ranalli

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Chemical Gardens by Gina Ranalli Gina Ranalli, Chemical Gardens

The horror genre has recently unveiled a new, more experimental subgenre (the idea isn't new, but the name is). Entitled "bizarro fiction" by its practitioners, the writers known for this style embrace weirdness for its own sake, while still retaining the primary goal of telling an entertaining story (like David Lynch does for film). The relatively inexpensive Bizarro Starter Kit is available for those wishing to test this fascinating subgenre further (and it includes a novella by the author of Chemical Gardens, Gina Ranalli, in addition to other authors like Carlton Mellick III and Kevin Dole 2).

Chemical Gardens is the first Bizarro novel I have read. I've always enjoyed what the used bookstores I frequented in my youth chose to call "weird fiction" (as that was where the horror was usually shelved), but I never sought out "strange" volumes in particular. I thought that perhaps the weirdness would outshine any relatability. Some things are just too weird for me.

Based on Gina Ranalli's debut novel, however, I was wrong. Chemical Gardens is incredibly accessible. It is, simply put, a freaked-out, punk-rock version of The Wizard of Oz, told with an engaging style that is smoothly delivered and very easy to get into, making it an ideal first purchase for those wishing to step lightly into bizarro and "test the waters," so to speak.

Ranalli does not step lightly, however; she leaps into her story in the midst of a Green is the Enemy concert -- in the middle of a song, in fact -- starting us off right in the center of the action and giving us time to get to know some of the characters beforehand. Ro is the narrator of Chemical Gardens and the lead singer for Green is the Enemy, a Seattle punk band on their way to San Francisco to open for their idols, Peroxide, at a concert for the suits at Withering Skin Records, the label they hope to sign with. On their way out of Seattle, she and her bandmates (Pawn, Dose, and Whey) hit a monster earthquake.

The ground opens up and swallows their van, dumping them in The Underground, the area of Seattle that was once the ground level before the city was raised two stories as a way to avoid the rampant flooding that previously plagued the city -- it is now a tourist attraction. (This is a piece of history of which I was unaware, never having visited the west coast, which just goes to show that even "weird fiction" can be educational!) Later, Ro wakes up from a blackout, alone. Armed only with her still-not-paid-for guitar, Nemesister, she takes off to try to find her bandmates and a way to get to San Francisco in time for the concert that is destined to change their lives forever.

The main flaw of Chemical Gardens lies at its core. It is so faithful to its source material that there is very little suspense -- anyone who has seen The Wizard of Oz more than once will be able to predict what happens next (albeit somewhat disguised) with a fair amount of accuracy. But this is a minor setback as the story is hardly the best part of this novel. The real fun is in watching how Ranalli chooses to paint the different portions of the story with her own brush. The members of the band become cockeyed versions of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion (my favorite, given the hilarious metaphorical choice made). The good and bad witches and even "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" also get a weirdly imaginative makeover.

I'd love to tell more about them, but that would ruin the surprise. I will say, however, that having Nemesister play the role of ruby slippers and Toto is only one of many inspired touches. (No wonder Ranalli dedicated the book to her own guitar.) So pick up a copy of Chemical Gardens and join the transformed members of Green is the Enemy as they follow, follow, follow, follow, follow the black sewer sludge to the titular location to meet the Metal Priestess who, they hope, will give them the key to leave the Underground and get to Frisco on time. Just watch out for those white apples.

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