By Tansy Rayner Roberts
Australians. They’re generally happy people, right? Beer, sunshine and prawns. Happy people in shorts, sunnies and thongs (it’s a kind of footwear, honestly!) Nothing sinister about that.
And yet Australia has produced some of the darkest and weirdest speculative fiction of recent years. Authors like Margo Lanagan and Garth Nix have brought their particular brand of weirdness to a vast international audience. Veteran storytellers like Richard Harland and Robert Hood have been constructing Australian horror, not only in stories for adults, but also for children and teenagers. Hard on their heels we have a whole generation of short story writers graduating to novellas and novels, or selling stories into the professional SF and horror scene. Dark stories. Sinister stories. Strange stories.
Australia might have warm weather and a reputation for a relaxed, “no worries” attitude, but we also have a long tradition of dark, Gothic literature and a deeply uncomfortable relationship with our own history and surroundings.
This is a country, after all, full of snakes and spiders, a country where people sometimes walk into the bush and never return.
Deborah Biancotti, author of the short story collection A Book Of Endings, wrote an online essay last year in which she admitted a hatred and fear of the Australian landscape: “The sweaty, swollen rainforests that threaten, in my memory, to tip into the thin wedge of playgrounds. The vast brownness of some places, the spindly silver trees, the ungenerous scrub by the sides of roads, wild grasses that whip the edges of beaches. Strange powers control those spaces. Indifferent powers. Wind alone doesn’t describe the movement.” [poesdeadlydaughters.blogspot.com/2010/03/land-waits.html] This idea resonated with many readers, who provided a variety of responses: some were indignant at the idea that the land was in some way “out to get us” while others found that unsettling idea strangely appealing.
So why is it that Australian spec fic writers, especially those known for their short fiction, so often tend towards the dark and weird? “I think writers write in reaction to what’s around them,” Biancotti suggested. “We come from a culture of ‘she’ll be right, mate’, but we’re not part of it–we live on the fringe. And from that vantage point, it’s easier to see the darkness behind the happy-go-lucky Australian attitude. The history of white settlement is pretty savage: we practiced genocide on the native Australians and wiped out rainforests to make space for houses, we turned the place into a prison island by shipping out convicts. Oh, and there’s all those wars we were dragged into as canon fodder. How can you not be affected by the anxiety that it will all be taken away from you, with a history like that?”
It’s important to note that the majority of speculative fiction published in Australia is from the perspective of non-indigenous writers, and rarely uses iconography or cultural influence of Aboriginal culture. Apart from the lack of Aboriginal writers getting their own work published, which is certainly a concern, there are also issues to do with cultural appropriation. There are taboos within Aboriginal culture surrounding the sharing and distribution of traditional stories outside one’s own family or tribe, which absolutely throws Western ideas of copyright out the window: faced with the idea that borrowing a myth could be seen as the grossest form of cultural appropriation even if the writer in question is of Aboriginal descent, most non-indigenous writers are now encouraged to steer clear of indigenous themes (this was not always the case).
As Deborah Biancotti points out, the classic Australian novel Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay, based on a “true life” event when some privileged schoolgirls went missing in the bush, is an example of that awkwardness of the white Australian approach to the country’s landscape. “We think we can take our frocks and parasols out for a day’s picnic, but occasionally the landscape will eat us just to show who’s boss. I think that’s one of the darkest things a human being would have to endure: the inexplicable disappearance of another human being.”
Biancotti isn’t alone in associating the natural landscapes of Australia with fear and dread. Trent Jamieson, who was well known for his dark literary short stories before selling the Death Works urban fantasy described similar feelings: “I think we live in a very curious country. There’s a sense of dislocation some of us feel with the land and its endless spaces and the cities that the bulk of us live in, these urban and country spaces sit rather uncomfortably together and where they connect there are odd frictions and weirdness.” Jamieson has long been fascinated with death and the afterlife. You can see this theme as central to his short fiction over the last decade, and more recently with his novels. I just find death fascinating,” he admits. “I’m not a nihilist, but I really think that death exists on the fringes of every story, when it’s not front and center. Life’s this brief and precious thing, death makes it that (and pain, of course). I grew up with a fascination for the idea of an Underworld, not a heaven or a hell really, but this cold curious place where the dead hang out.”
Peter M. Ball is a short story writer often published in the US but is best known on his home ground for Horn, a fantasy noir novella that takes any preconceptions the readers might have about unicorns and beats them into a bloody pulp. “Occasionally being the unicorn porn guy leads to all sorts of unfortunate conversations,” he admits. “But for the most part it’s still pretty cool. I rather like unicorns in all their absurdity, and I doubt Horn will be the last time I write about them, so it’d be slightly foolish to fight against the association.” Horn was recently a book for discussion on the Outer Alliance podcast, [blog.outeralliance.org/archives/875] where the disturbing violence of one particular scene in the story was analyzed at length.
Ball has his own theories about why Australian speculative fiction writers so often veer towards the shadows rather than the sunshine. “I suspect it’s the legacy of Australian colonialism, whereupon a bunch of British convicts used to green fields and rolling hills were deposited into the utterly alien Australian landscape some two hundred years ago and utterly freaked out. I’m still not convinced we’ve conquered that fear; the history of White Australian art and literature is full of weird and terrifying depictions of the bush, and the media is still full of horror stories about people who go missing in the bush or disappear into thin air while traveling the outback.”
Kaaron Warren is one of the rising stars of Angry Robot, with three novels published between 2009 and 2011–the latest of which is Mistification. She also has a reputation as the writer of some of the most horrible fiction in the history of the Australian scene, something she takes great pride in. Warren often outlines her theory about horror writers, which is that, like plumbers and butchers, they deal with the most horrible materials in their daily lives, and yet they are the nicest possible people to meet. “I almost always start with a dark theme because that’s where my inspiration lies,” says Warren. “Sometimes niceness sneaks in, which surprises my readers. I do tend to see the dark side of things. My mother still talks about the poem by Merle Shain. ‘It is better to light candles than to curse the darkness.’ My mother had it on our fridge as an inspiration, but the words that interested me were ‘curse the darkness’. Wonderful start to a story!”
Richard Harland is the author of a variety of genre novels, covering SF thriller, YA fantasy and children’s horror. He’s also the author of two cult novels that could well claim to be the weirdest dark Australian books of all time: The Vicar of Morbing Vyle and its even more bizarre sequel The Black Crusade. More recently, he’s turned his inky black pen towards steampunk, with a world of juggernauts acting as countries, Victorian society gone bonkers, and a ruthless class system. “There’s plenty of lighthearted whimsical steampunk,” Harland acknowledges, “but that’s not my sort of steampunk. I like the dark side of the genre, Dickensian, Gothic, atmospheric, grotesque and often morbid. The lighthearted stuff is fun, but I doubt it’ll last long, whereas the dark stuff plugs into deeper levels of the imagination.”
When it comes to a reputation for nasty stories, surely the queen of Australian Dark Weird has to be Margo Lanagan. While many writers build a career on a short story reputation, she did this far more successfully than most, when her acclaimed collection Black Juice was launched in the US, and won not only two World Fantasy Awards, but also fifteen other international awards. That collection’s opening story “Singing My Sister Down” is the perfect storm of gorgeous prose and deeply miserable, gut-wrenching familial grief. After keeping her fans on tenterhooks about what kind of novel she would produce after her three (now four) short story collections redefined what readers expected from YA fiction, Lanagan did not disappoint. Tender Morsels (2008) was a powerful and confronting literary retelling of the fairy tale “Snow White and Rose Red,” which dealt with important themes such as child abuse, rape, incest, and the recovery of victims after trauma. It attracted critical acclaim as well as controversy, the latter particularly after it was published in the UK with a sweet-and-innocent cover.
“I’m regularly surprised by how timid and squeamish some readers are,” says Lanagan. “What safer place is there than a book to explore, as either a reader or a writer, darkness and fears, where you can pause the nastiness for the sake of having some relief from it, or just pondering and processing it, or abandon it completely without losing face?”
Lanagan made certain to telegraph the more challenging themes of her novel as early as possible in the text, so as to warn away readers who were not looking for that kind of story–but of course what this meant was that the people most likely to complain didn’t have to read very far to find something that offended them. “I also don’t understand how a reader can have such a sense of entitlement that they expect me to keep my imaginary world safe and pleasant to spare them feeling any discomfort,” says Lanagan. “I don’t think writers are here to continually reassure people that everything is nice. And I think readers have a responsibility to know their own limits, and to be prepared to equip themselves to do their own test reading. There’ve been plenty of reactions to the novel that were exactly what I’d hoped for and more; I don’t think it’s fruitful for me to either dwell on the ones that weren’t or try to please everybody with my next piece of work. That way lies madness–and a lot of namby-pamby stories.”
Kirstyn McDermott and Jason Nahrung are a married couple who have built their reputations by writing horror fiction which makes use of Australian characters and settings. “I’ve always been a reader of the fantastic,” says Nahrung. “I’ve found it more interesting and more provocative, certainly more atmospheric and creatively engaging, than literary work dealing with the commonplace.” As well as his short fiction, and a horror novel called The Darkness Within, Nahrung is the editor of the Queensland Writers Centre magazine. In 2008, he completed a Master of Arts on the topic of Australian vampire Gothic fiction, and you can find a bibliography of Australian vampire stories and novels on his website. [jasonnahrung.com/australian-vampire-stories-pre-2007/] “I always find dark themes slinking into my work,” he says. “Perhaps it’s my cynicism or, conversely, my romanticism, that always finds the dark side. This is perhaps because the metaphorical power of the supernatural and the fantastic is just too great to ignore.”
McDermott’s debut novel Madigan Mine was about a man who thinks he is being haunted by his dead childhood sweetheart. She’s also a podcaster on The Writer and the Critic, and regularly wins awards for her scary short stories. “‘Dark themes’ are usually my starting point,” says McDermott, “and, if anything, I’m interested in seeing how dark those themes will actually become if given enough rope. Occasionally, though, I’ve surprised myself by winding up with a–I won’t say ‘happy’; it’s never as simple as that–but an optimistic ending, or at least with a story that has room for optimism. And that always delights me. Because as much as I set out to explore situations where people might be expected to be at their very worst, what I think I’m really doing–both in my writing and in my reading–is hoping to discover them, despite all odds, at their very best.”
Cat Sparks and Robert Hood are a couple who both work across a variety of media and genres, though neither of them ever move too far away from speculative fiction on the whole. Sparks received acclaim as an artist and editor/publisher before devoting her attention more solidly to her writing, which has paid dividends in recent years with stories like “All the Love in the World,” a creepy look at post-apocalyptic suburbia that was reprinted in Vol. 16 of Hartwell & Kramer’s Year’s Best SF this year. She is also the current fiction editor of Cosmos Magazine, the only regularly professional market for speculative short stories in Australia. Hood has been writing and selling short stories for more than twenty-five years, and has been gathering award nominations and wins for just as long. He is particularly well known for his children’s novels as well as his deep obsession with Japanese monster movies. His most recent short story collection is Creeping in Reptile Flesh.
“I have written some ‘naturalistic’ literary-type stories,” admits Hood, “but wasn’t surprised to find that an air of strangeness permeated them. In fact, the first real publication I had–a story that won the Canberra Times National Short Story Competition in 1975, ‘Orientation’– was about being a new high-school teacher. It doesn’t have vampires or Buffy in it, but it does read like a Twilight-Zone episode because, you know, that’s what being a trainee teacher felt like at the time.”
Sparks also finds that dark, weird themes creep into her work even when she isn’t expecting it. “This week I received a reader’s report via my agent for a novel-in-progress in which the word ‘gruesome’ stared back at me from the page. Gruesome? Moi? was my initial reaction…until I thought about it some more.” Working for an educational publisher also provides grist for her particular writing mill. She helps to produce books about subjects such as health and social justice, “most of them laden with miserable stats and facts about society’s harshest truths… Where else to put it but in my fiction? People sure as hell don’t want to hear it in my conversation.”
Since Hood has such a deep love for the “daikaiju” movies of Japan such as Godzilla, I asked him what monsters he thought were ingrained in the Australian psyche. He mused that the lack of giant monsters in our pop culture was because of a lack of trauma “by mass destruction from a history of earthquakes and tsunamis, not to mention nuclear weapons. The odd ghost crops up in the Australian literary tradition, though most of them are rather European in tone.” He went on to note that genre writing in Australia was basically still European in background with an increasing influence from Asian and Pacific Island countries, but generally not including Aboriginal mythologies.
Still, you’d think that some Australians would find beer and sunshine more interesting than the dark, the weird, and the sinister, right?
Margo Lanagan doesn’t think so. “We see people enjoying the beer and sunshine, but we keep watching, until they fall out of the pub and into inappropriate people’s beds, or the gutter, or just throw up in an alleyway, or stand swaying and glazed, eyeing their demons through the fug. And we realize they’re drinking all that beer for a reason, and we want to know what that reason is. There is no story material in uninterrupted happiness, leisure and pleasure–some stranger has to walk into town, or some error of judgement has to be made, or some dark future has to descend, if we want our readers to stay awake and wonder, and experience wonder.
“We totally take our beer and sunshine for granted,” adds Cat Sparks. “Many Aussies don’t even realize beaches strewn with golden sand aren’t necessarily the norm worldwide. Dark and weird are exotic in a way that our comfortable middle class lives so often aren’t. Sure, we have our individual problems, but they’re not backed up with howling winds, bone-gnawing hunger and a thousand years of spirit-crushing oppression. It’s nice here. You can survive on unemployment benefits. The government isn’t going to shoot you.”
“I’m much more of a red wine and moonlight kind of person myself,” says Kirstyn McDermott, “so the very idea of writing only about beer and sunshine does make my skin crawl a little. But the mythic persona of the average Australian as a sun-worshipping, beer-swilling, sports-loving, laid-back larrikin is not one that has ever sat comfortably with me or with most people I know. You don’t have to scratch far below the surface of our country–our past, our present or even our plans for the future–to find things which are dark and horrible and strange, things which are seldom acknowledged or discussed with any real complexity.”
“Delving into the dark and the weird is what spec fic writers do,” suggests Jason Nahrung. “They want to get behind the scenes of the commonplace, perhaps even examine the commonplace, through a fractured lens…there might also be an influence from the force of opposites attracting: bathed in sunshine, we hanker for the dark, just to see what it is like.”
“There are plenty of Australian horror stories set in sunshine and bathed in beer,” points out Kaaron Warren. “‘Wake in Fright’, by Kenneth Cook comes to mind, about the teacher posted to a remote school and baptized into local ways with beer at the local pub. It’s terrifying. Horror to me is stronger when it’s shown in sunlight.”
Trent Jamieson has a final comment to make about the Australian sunshine as a tool of horror in its own right: “It’s a little too bright, too strong, it’s the sort of thing that drives our skin to bloom with all sorts of nasty cancers and bleaches bones white.”
Tansy Rayner Roberts is the author of the Creature Court trilogy and short fiction collection Love and Romanpunk. She blogs at tansyrr.com, tweets as @tansyrr and is one of the voices of the Galactic Suburbia podcast.