The Art of Anatomy
By Gary Power
Ann Laabs reviews The Art of Anatomy, a novelette by Gary Power which will appeal to fans of HBO’s Carnivàle...
Who doesn’t love a good campfire story? For horror fans yearning for a yarn combining elements of HBO’s Carnivàle (2003-2005), the existential morality plays of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone (1959-2020), and the body-horror squick of EC Comics, Gary Power’s novelette The Art of Anatomy may satisfy that craving. While I had some quibbles with the story’s characterisation of its villains, this journey to a forgotten Dust Bowl hamlet kept me reading – and hoping for more stories from the small desert town of Snake Falls.
One warm Arizona evening, a grizzled, amiable old man invites a group of festival-bound young people to hear the legend of Turtle Lake. The old man begins his tale, and draws the youngsters, and us, into the world of Snake Falls in the depths of the Great Depression – and the visit from Dragan’s Carnival of the Bizarre that changed everything.
Through its 36 pages, The Art of Anatomy works best when bringing us into the lives of characters with a basic core of decency. We meet young men and women suffering from mental and physical limitations: wheelchair-bound Jamie, handsome Joseph, and shy Ella-Louise. We meet townsfolk bound by their circumstances and choices, like middle-aged Lola, trapped in her marriage to ne’er-do-well drunken bully Don Wolfe. The story does a fine job bringing us into their lives efficiently and effectively. Because we really know them, there’s a poignancy to the physical and mental transformations brought about by the carnival.
It’s in the depictions of the reprobates of Snake Falls (Don Wolfe, and his equally loathsome sidekick Sam) that The Art of Anatomy falters in comparison to the carnival employees and townsfolk. The carnival workers are all vivid and mysterious agents of change and chaos, from Grigori, to strongman Raven, and seductive showgirl Orla. Joseph, Ella-Louise, Jamie, and Lola’s innate decency come through clearly in their actions and conversations with others. But with respect to Don Wolfe and his sidekick Sam, we get far too much telling and second-hand showing of their rottenness. It didn’t strike home or come to life for me as a reader. I got to know Ella-Louise, Joseph, Jamie and Lola; but for me, Don and Sam never developed beyond the one-dimensional villainy of their EC Comics counterparts. That flatness and lack of any inner life made their fates less than satisfying.
Having said that, I remained intrigued by Snake Falls, and the hints of other characters and stories left me wanting to know about this sleepy, mysterious, and fascinating desert town.
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