Two reviews and the first part of a feature on the work of Australian writers and editors that originally appeared in Black Static #39:-
AUSTRALIA, MON HORREUR
One of the things that always strikes me about the Australian genre scene is how prevalent women writers and editors appear to be. Last time I did an anthology comparison between the four main English speaking nations, Australia came top of the table with 44% of the stories written by women, with the poor old UK a dismal fourth with 19%. And that strong female presence is reflected both in the makeup of this feature, with six of the eight books under consideration either written or edited by women, and the contents of THE YEAR’S BEST AUSTRALIAN FANTASY & HORROR 2012 (Ticonderoga Publications paperback, 488pp, £16.99), with twenty of the thirty four pieces it contains coming with a female by-line.
The book appears to follow a similar format to the Datlow/Windling helmed Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror of several years back. It opens with the editors, Liz Grzyb (Fantasy) and Talie Helene (Horror), giving an overview of the year in genre from an Australian perspective, then continues with a brief necrology and a tribute to the writer Paul Haines by Cat Sparks. It ends with contributors’ notes, a recommended reading list and a roundup of the various awards within the community. Sandwiched between those two slices of reality is the fiction, and a very substantial filling it is indeed.
Leading off is the writing team of Lisa L. Hannett & Angela Slatter, with ‘Bella Beaufort Goes To War’, but I’m not going to discuss that here as it also appears in their collection at the end of the feature and would be better reviewed in that context. I have similar conflicts with several other stories, and will review them in situ but with an asterisk to signify their inclusion in The Year’s Best.
So, after that false start, step forward Kaaron Warren, who cleverly conflates Greek myth, science fiction and zombies in the ghoulish ‘River Of Memory’, with Amazons cutting loose in Tartarus and a warbot that must protect humans turning out to be the most sympathetic character in a story that’s as lively as a meeting between The Walking Dead and Cleopatra 2525, but with an underlying sadness that is all its own. ‘Crow And Caper, Caper And Crow’ by Margo Lanagan gives us a riveting evocation of the working of magic in our world, all wrapped up in the story of a witch woman who discovers how special her granddaughter is going to be, the undercurrent of conflict and rivalry between different generations of women driving the story forward. Set against the backdrop of Prohibition, Nicole Murphy’s ‘The Black Star Killer’ has the enforcer of a magical organisation hunting for a killer who seems intent on stealing power from others, the story hinting at an underworld of magical beings with their own rules and codes of conduct, with a subtext about the accommodations made in a relationship where the female is the stronger partner.
‘The Last Boat To Eden’ by Jason Nahrung is arguably the bleakest story in the book and one of the most powerful, tackling the theme of xenophobia head on with its picture of a post-apocalypse Australia and three survivors willing to make boat people prisoners and sexual slaves. The ending, with its air of utter hopelessness, reveals the futility of it all, and perhaps even of trying to effect change, as the would be hero just leaves things even worse than they were before. One of the cleverest pieces in the anthology, Kathleen Jennings’ ‘Kindling’ contains stories within stories as a young barmaid realises that she has a special gift and the potential to be far more than she is, but there is a subtext woven into the fabric of the tale that implies her desire is a danger to us all, that power as an end in itself can never be anything but a cause for concern.
Told mostly from the viewpoint of ‘The Dog Who Wished He’d Never Heard Of Lovecraft’, Anna Tambour gives us a delightfully off the wall account of a poet who summons something with tentacles, the story filled with diversions and touches of detail, and told with a tongue that is set firmly in her cheek. More bleakness from Karen Maric with ‘Anvil Of The Sun’, a harrowing story of the barbaric treatment meted out to a political prisoner and the transformation that enables her to be avenged, the words digging their claws into the reader’s skin and making us feel the character’s pain and anger, the fantasy setting used as a device to shine a light onto abuses in our own world. ‘Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean’ by Angela Slatter is a flash fiction celebrating Hollywood and zombies in the best way, a story driven by jealousy and black magic.
Pendula, the feisty clockwork fairy in ‘To Wish On A Clockwork Heart’ by Felicity Dowker, is the most memorable character in the anthology, a unique monster who both gives and takes away, in a story that, at least once, made me squirm with discomfort. Thoraiya Dyer’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ eats massive amounts of food and then hibernates, but comes back to a world that is changed, where nuclear winter holds thrall and she herself is transformed into a goddess, the story giving us an unusual “monster” and suggesting that our terrors can redeem us. An attempt to make someone leave the apartment in which they are trapped goes disastrously wrong in Stephen Dedman’s ‘The Fall’, the story touching on the power of the imagination and how horror can enslave us.
From Martin Livings we have the sombre ‘You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet’, in which a star of the silent screen who has been displaced by the talkies finds a new career producing snuff movies and using them to get rid of those who have offended him, the harsh tone of voice and bitterness maintained to the end in a masterful display of prose bravado. ‘Beautiful’ by Jay Caselberg presents the spread of a disfiguring plague, the story told through the eyes of one particular couple who must come to terms with their new situation, and offering a bittersweet threnody on the theme of what it means to be beautiful. There’s a karmic quality to Narrelle M. Harris’ story ‘Stalemate’, a dialogue driven piece in which a mother and daughter look set to endlessly act out their mutual hatred, with not even death bringing closure. Another strange piece, the beauty of the writing offsetting the obliqueness of the narrative, Lisa L. Hannett’s ‘Sweet Subtleties’ has a woman transformed into a living dessert and consumed at meals.
Another incredibly bleak outing comes courtesy of Gary Kemble with ‘Saturday Night at the Milkbar’ in which a journalist still in mourning for the death of his wife and child (suicide and murder) is given a lead that takes him to a secret rendezvous where men drink the milk of drug addict mothers, with something even more disturbing going on in the backroom. Gritty and unsettling, this is a story that hits every nerve, with the character’s feelings of loss and horror coming to terrible life on the page. Author Eddy Burger intrudes himself into his story ‘The Witch’s Wardrobe’, a tongue in cheek fantasy with an audacious punch line.
The horror of ‘Hungry Man’ by Will Elliott lies in the inexplicable nature of what takes place, teen bullying displaced by an act of barbarism, an event that haunts the survivor through all his life. Jack the Ripper is the subject of the only poem in the book, R.J. Astruc’s evocative and beautifully titled ‘The Cook of Pearl House, A Malay Sailor by the Name of Maurice’. In ‘What Books Survive’ by Tansy Rayner Roberts in the aftermath of an alien invasion a young girl hopes to keep the memory of mankind alive through its literature, the story reminiscent of the end of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 but more sad, in that a love of books alone is not sufficient to save the human race, only to bear witness to its passing.
Last but far from least we have ‘Nightside Eye’ by Terry Dowling, in which a team of paranormal researchers make a chilling discovery about the nature of reality, the story building gradually and piling detail on top of detail before the final, shattering reveal. It’s a strong end to a substantial volume that demonstrates the genres of Horror and Fantasy are in good health on the other side of the world.
Another thing that strikes me about the Australian scene is that there is more overlap between the genres, with writers happy to flit between Horror and Fantasy, avoiding the kind of labelling and pigeonholing that passes for the norm elsewhere. Case in point, THE YEAR OF ANCIENT GHOSTS (Ticonderoga Publications paperback, 258pp, £12.99) by Kim Wilkins, a collection of five novellas that embrace supernatural horror, fantasy and historical fiction with a twist.
Title story ‘The Year of Ancient Ghosts’ is told from the viewpoint of Jenny, who has come to Orkney with daughter Mary, while her husband Lachlan is in a coma back in Australia. Something terrible happened to Lachlan on the island where he was raised, leaving a gap in his memory. Jenny learns the truth from Lachlan’s foster parents and encounters the monster he fell in love with, and who now threatens their child. This is a story rich in atmosphere, the windswept shores of Orkney and the pagan traditions woven into everyday life coming alive on the page, with a monster that is made credible thanks to Wilkins’ storytelling prowess. It is a predictable story, but one that pleases not least for that reason, gratifying in the thrills that it delivers.
Fantasy ‘The Crown of Rowan’ has a queen pregnant by her lover, and with ancient magic foretelling that her daughter may not inherit the throne unless she murders her husband. There’s a richness of invention here, with the feel that Wilkins knows far more about this world than she reveals, the story given depth by competing religions and marauding bands of freebooters, while the characters are perfectly realised, people with feelings and internal conflicts between doing what they wish and what they know as right. It is a story that benefits from the author’s lack of judgement on her protagonist’s behaviour, and that of others. Oh, and it also has the delightful warrior princess Bluebell. You’re going to want to meet her.
‘Dindrana’s Lover’ picks up on an incident from Le Morte d’Arthur and fleshes it out into a variation on Countess Dracula, with Sir Percy’s sister falling victim to a monster and a gratifying twist in how she turns the tables on her assailant. This time I feel that Wilkins is being judgemental, and rightly so, casting a very critical look at the self-righteous Galahad and his unhealthy attitude to sex, with Dindrana, who the noble knight regards as somewhat unchaste, the one who shows real bravery and vanquishes the monster, even though it costs her dearly.
‘Wild Dreams of Blood’ looks to be shaping up as a superhero story, but then becomes something else. All her life Sara has had to hide her strength, even from the man she wishes to marry, but when her father Odin reveals himself and puts her lover Dillon to the test, Sara learns something about herself and who she really is. This is a somewhat silly plot, the sort of thing you got on Charmed in a slow week, and I wasn’t really taken with the idea of Odin as father of a mortal child, though of course gods have some form in that area. The subtext though, of not settling for second best, of striving to be the most that you can be, is a solid one, and especially pertinent when pitched along gender lines as here, while some aspects of the story, such as Sara’s fascination with wrestling and her various attempts to save Dillon were highly entertaining.
Set in the years after the Norman Conquest when pagans were having to make their accommodation with Christianity, ‘The Lark and The River’ is the story of Merewyn and her love for the incoming priest Rufus, an alliance that is opposed by the families of both parties, and despite his healing power and psychic gift Rufus does not have the will to save his lover from a tragic fate. While the love affair takes centre stage, the conflict of cultures is bubbling away in the background and driving the action forward, and in the figure of Merewyn’s father Cynric we have a portrait of a bully whose motives are rooted in resentment of a changing world, who has turned bitter and twisted rather than change with it. The end result is a powerful and sad story, one of love and loss.
(TO BE CONTINUED)