Reviews: The Magic Lantern: The Magical Shoppe is Now Out of Business

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by Adam-Troy Castro

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You know what kind of stories we don’t see much of, anymore, in print or visual media?

Well, that’s actually one of those questions possessed of multiple answers, and always will be, because the fact of the matter is that certain sub-genres fall in and out of favor, and in many cases should remain in the out column.

As just one example, before we get to the one that really sprung to mind today, you don’t see many “Yellow Peril” stories anymore, not even in the comics where they remained au currant long after the pulp outlets where such stories first thrived.

What’s that? You don’t know about the Yellow Peril stories?

batman232They were the tales of highly cultured and educated Asian supervillains, who used torture and other ancient oriental arts to bedevil the white race, often while being opposed by lone western heroes who, though vastly outnumbered by the bad guy’s vast army of worshipful followers, would nevertheless find some way to blow the bad guy to smithereens in the last act. He was frequently immortal thanks to ancient jiggery-pokery of one kind or another, and he often had a beautiful daughter who would defy the staggering racism of the story in the foreground by falling in love with the white hero, and sometimes saving him from dear old Dad. Fu Manchu was the best known of the yellow peril super-villains, but there were certainly others, including The Yellow Claw and the old Iron Man villain the movies figured out how to use without really using, The Mandarin.

The closest thing we now have to an extant Yellow Peril villain now is one the comics introduced in what will, in only a few short years, be fifty bloody years ago: Batman’s perennial nemesis Ras Al Ghul. Ras has everything the Yellow Peril villains had including the means of immortality and the daughter – and as of this millennium’s storylines, daughters – whose loyalties shift back and forth between various sides of the righteousness fence, but his ethnic identity has been moved significantly further to the west, to the point where his most prominent live-action incarnation was played by an Irishman. I submit that this is using the form while altering the specific. As a villain, he owes everything to the basic model. And there’s a reason why in today’s world it’s difficult to introduce an Asian of his sort unless you also posit an Asian hero to oppose him: a perfectly commendable reason.

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Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon, the camp version from the 80s, was played by Max von Sydow, continuing the long standing hollywood tradition of never giving minority actors significant roles, even in stories demonizing them.

So, no, you don’t see that kind of story anymore, and further inroads have been made against others that folks have begun to point out as offensive in recent years, among them, what’s known as the Magical Negro. (And no, that cliché is not extinct, either, but by God, is it under siege.)

It is when you move away from tropes that have become more problematic – or rather, more widely recognized as problematic – in recent years that you come up with story types that have become rarer for different reasons.

Here’s the one I wanted to talk about today, the Magical Shoppe.

You’ve seen this multiple times; the mysterious store that pops up on a block where it’s never been before, sells the protagonist a magical item, and is then no longer at the site when the protagonist goes back to ask follow-up questions. The Twilight Zone had multiple iterations of this story, and the implication was always that the store came into being just to sell this particular protagonist that particular thing, which he would then be stuck with, consequences at all. There have been any number of stories where this was linked to some ethnicity, such an a wise old Asian (as in Gremlins), or to some swarthy robed trader right out of an Arabian souk, but it could also just as easily be a fast-talking Yankee, and so it cannot be mere cultural sensitivity that accounts for this sub-genre’s nigh-total disappearance from our narrative conversation. Granted, some of the reason has got to be years of surfeit on the part of editors who wince whenever the latest story that comes over the transom turns out to feature a random pedestrian who, go figures, spots a store he’s never seen before come into existence between two familiar retail establishments that before this point have always been adjacent – and this is a powerful reason all by itself, since many of the gatekeepers at the fiction markets known by this short story writer would only wince as the first familiar notes were wrung, and would likely pencil in a no even before the mysterious little man in the mysterious little shoppe sells some hapless viewpoint character an item that should never be placed in close proximity to bananas (or something). Successful writers also tend to know that this is a place their predecessors have visited any number of times, and to immediately put such ideas into the unworthy stack unless, and this is a very strong unless, the particular variation they’ve come up is so mind-staggeringly astonishing that completing it is their moral duty. Don’t hold your breath.

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Mr. Wing, the magical storekeeper from the 1984 film Gremlins, seems to have barely escaped the yellow peril trope, only to become ensnared by another—the magical minority embodying non-western magic, wisdom, and resulting charming special effects sequences.

So these are all persuasive reasons why this particular sub-genre has been left in the dustiest part of the toolbox. But here’s another.

It honestly doesn’t make all that sense anymore, even as a subject for fantasy.

In the pulp days, it was possible to wander down a Manhattan street and find a strange little shop that sold something you had never seen for sale before. I’m old enough to remember one little store that sold a wide variety of 3-D postcards, another that was to go-to-place if you found yourself needing a kaleidoscope in a hurry, and one delicious store just off Times Square that did nothing, absolutely nothing, but print up a fake newspaper with the headline of your choice, a service that delighted tourists and kids in from the suburbs. Entering that establishment, you always found the same old guy reading a real newspaper, one with actual news, and you were the always the only customer there because it was that borderline a business model, meaning that he used to greet you with the absolute warmth of a merchant for whom you were the rescuer capable of keeping his store open for five minutes longer. You would look at the sample newspapers pinned to the wall, things with titles like MARY LIEBOWITZ GRADUATES HIGH SCHOOL or some other stupid thing, and you would come up with something you considered immeasurably more clever than that and he would go straight to little boxes of letters, actual metallic letters like in an old-time newspaper, so he could construct the front page while you watched, ink it up while you watched, and hand it to you with a stern warning not to let your still-wet prize touch anything, while you watched. This was all low-rent, all borderline, and wonderful.

(I parenthetically point out that his little establishment provided a joy of another sort, which somehow still continues to pay off, every once in a while, even today. To wit: the space your personalized newspaper devoted to your headline was just the top fourth or so. The rest of the front page was a selection of generic newspaper stories, that if memory serves included an alert to a recent mass break-out at a zoo. All of these stories came complete with text, conferring a bizarre sense of reality to your front page declaring that your younger brother was a real doodyhead. The old guy running this place must have gone through thousands of these pages, all identical, printing up novelty headlines for anybody who wandered into his place and thought that the idea of their own front page ridiculously cool. So, fine: but every once in a while you would be at home watching some old movie on one of the lesser channels – this being the era where most home televisions in the greater metropolitan area could only pick up seven channels clearly, those being 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, and 13 on the dial. The movie would come to some dramatic moment conveyed by headline, like MONSTER ESCAPES FROM LAB, and you who possessed a version of the same newspaper on your own bedroom wall would suddenly grin like a loon because, yes, right there under that screaming banner would be all the same filler stories that you knew by heart, including the one about the mass break-out from the zoo. Words cannot express how wildly delightful it was, to have the crappy movie’s already shaky illusions shattered this way, to know that whoever paid its bills had been so bloody parsimonious with his pocketbook that he’d sent some prop guy to that very store, to get a banner headline printed up on the cheap. Some movies had multiple headlines of that sort, MONSTER ESCAPES FROM LAB to MONSTER STRIKES AGAIN to MONSTER HIDING IN WAREHOUSE DISTRICT, and in such cases it was true found comedy when the lead story underneath those bellowing pronouncements of doom was always another, identical, break from the same goddamned zoo. This was golden, people. It remains golden whenever I spot one of those crappy made-for-order newspapers in some poverty-row old movie. And I’ve got to tell you, one of the life pleasures we sacrificed forever whenever every Tom, Dick and Nudnik got a computer printer suitable for printing up any goddamned headline they wanted. A little delight went out of the world, when absurdity of this particular sort was denied us. Thus endeth the parenthesis.)

The point is, though, that all of this was possible at all because that was a simpler time when it was a common, among us to find a peculiar little store that sold one particular eccentric thing that you could find nowhere else, and where such holes in the wall could exist for decades even in as bustling an area as the streets around Times Square. Back then, the era of the chain store had not yet completely taken over this country’s retail fabric. A drive down a typical American commercial drag was not an exercise in yet another Starbucks and yet another Best Buy and yet another Target and yet another Office Max and yet another Pet Supermarket and look, another Starbucks, already, go figure. These days, driving the outskirts and sometimes the center of any sizeable urban region is an exercise in experiencing in your life what Fred Flintstone used to experience running for dear life in his own life, a recycled background in which, every five feet, he would run past the same easy chair, the same little table, the same plant, repeating forever no matter how far he ran.

We’re also largely past the pedestrian era. Sure, foot-shopping still exists in some places, both in very big cities and in very tiny ones, but increasingly we drive to wherever we’re going, making silly retail discoveries only accidentally. These days, even malls are in trouble, because so many of us buy anything we want online, forty percent of the time from the same one retailer.

So it is any surprise that the eccentric little shop run by the eccentric little man that sells you the one thing you could find nowhere else, is increasingly no longer a trope in fantasy? It is indeed becoming more fantastic, in the sense of being harder to countenance, but also in the sense that it’s farther from the shared experience that once would have allowed us to identify with it. Get rid of that particular shared experience, and the ideas that shared experience once spawned somehow no longer come up.

So that magical little shoppe that appears and disappears becomes a thing of the past.

But here’s a story idea for you.

What happens when the followers of that particular business model start selling online?

Adam-Troy Castro’s most recent novel is Gustav Gloom and the Castle of Fear, finale to the six-volume middle-grade series.

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