More filler content with yet more Australians

I don’t have time to blog at the moment, and so to stay with what appears to be this week’s theme, here are a couple of reviews of books by Australian authors that originally appeared in Interzone #242:-

TICONDEROGA PUBLICATIONS

Nominated for a World Fantasy Award, Australian writer Lisa L. Hannett’s collection BLUEGRASS SYMPHONY (TP pb, 258pp, $25AU) contains twelve stories and has an introduction by Ann Vandermeer. And, while much of the content is more appropriately labelled fantasy than horror, even those stories set in wholly invented realities have about them something of the horrific, so there’s no need for genre purists to believe this work isn’t for them.

Beautifully told, there’s a eulogy feel to opening story ‘Carousel’, with moths descending on the dead body of a girl in a barn, and the bulk of the story telling of how she got there, a tale of bullying and abuse, but with a last line that somewhat redeems that, offering us the option to believe, not so much in bad men, as in men (and women) who make bad choices. In ‘Down the Hollow’ a young woman is sacrificed to bring about a much needed thaw, but she isn’t the person others believe her to be, with terrible consequences ensuing for the one who loves her most. This is a ghost story, but at its heart is another tale, one that takes in guilt and the need to prove oneself worthy of a parent’s love, a tale permeated with sadness and in which the ghosts are our better selves, the whole played out against the backdrop of a cruel and judgemental society.

Next up is the brilliant ‘Them Little Shinin’ Things’, in which a mid-wife with designs on the husband of her charge consents to bring a changeling child into the house, only to find herself tricked by the twig-wife. Hannett captures the voice of her narrator perfectly, the self-justifying and hard done by tone, using it to drive the story to its powerful ending, offering a novel twist on the trope of the changeling and some truly macabre imagery as the story works its way into your consciousness and won’t let go. ‘Fur and Feathers’ is even further out there, with fortune telling chickens and a woman married to a were-fox, the story sounding ridiculous in the abstract but working wonderfully well and delighting with the conceits sprinkled throughout the text, at its core a tale of love well lost and found again.

‘From the Teeth of Strange Children’ was the longest and best story, told from the viewpoint of a young woman taken by vampires to be a brood mare, the narrative offering a new interpretation of vampires, one that gives a nod in the direction of the aristocratic archetype while allowing an almost unparalleled level of viciousness, the story compelling and with enough wet work to unsettle the most hardened fan of the subgenre. ‘Depot to Depot’ finds Hannett in a more reflective mode, with the sad tale of a trucker whose role, like that of Charon, is to escort the spirits of the dead to where they are supposed to be, the story throwing the reader a dummy and then gradually revealing its true intent.

And then there’s the witty and engaging ‘Commonplace Sacrifices’ in which a sprite or similar magic being helps a woman to get out of an abusive relationship, the story offering an insight into a magical world that is hidden from most of us, a glimpse of its rules and regulations, the inner workings. The dead body of the opening story is mirrored in the last, ‘Forever, Miss Tapekwa County’, with beauty contests in which the winner is pickled, the moment frozen in a horrific tableau that has the very opposite effect to that intended, the death of beauty rather than its celebration, a powerful and salutary end to a very strong collection, one that I unreservedly recommend.

BREAD AND CIRCUSES (TPpb, 268pp, $25AU) by Felicity Dowker has a similar blasé attitude to genre boundaries, while still serving up enough of the true grue to more than satisfy the horror demographic. Case in point, ‘Bread and Circuses’, which is set in a post-zombie apocalypse world, where the living survive in cemeteries, the one place the zombies won’t venture, and distraction is provided by a bloody game in which victims are sent out to confront the undead, with a lesbian couple being selected for bucking the community’s elite. The idea here doesn’t strike me as particularly plausible, but Dowker writes well, capturing perfectly the love between her two leads and the way in which they are ostracised, showing how prejudice and political manipulation will outlive us all in a powerful tale, so that universal themes overwhelm any objections as to the particular. Next up is the creepy ‘Jesse’s Gift’, which is to sacrifice himself for a friend when the two children are threatened by a demonic Ice Cream Man, the story unsettling for the hints it gives of the true nature of the world and the way in which the most innocent aspects of childhood are corrupted, but offering a core of hope at the personal level, indicating a means to redemption.

‘From Little Things…’ is a tale of revenge, put in motion when an unhappy man set in a hard place discovers a tiny dragon, the victim of a magician’s spell, and helps to set it free, the story both whimsical and entirely serious, with the tension between the two strands playing out to the advantage of both and the guilty delight of the reader. ‘Us, After the House Came Back’ is my favourite piece in the collection and one of the finest stories I’ve read so far this year. The idea is breathtakingly simple, a mysterious substitution along the lines of Stepford Wives or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but we see this from the viewpoint of a child, the daughter of an abused mother, and the matter of fact narration makes the horror of what is happening all the more intense, with a coda to the tale that raises questions about morality and pragmatism, the story powerful and moving in a way that reminded me of Gary Braunbeck’s work.

‘To Wish on a Clockwork Heart’ is another highlight, Dowker taking a familiar plot device and twisting it through a full one eighty degrees to deliver a strikingly original tale, with protagonist Marc encountering a clockwork fairy, the wonderful Pendula, and feeding her on his blood in exchange for a wish, but of course there is a catch, the story gritty and violent even as it teeters on the edge of absurdity. In ‘Phantasy Moste Grotesk’, another story that made me think of Braunbeck, a self-absorbed, borderline masochistic couple are lured to a strange carnival, by way of an object lesson in self-discovery, the story disturbingly off kilter and with the suggestion that the ‘grotesk’ element is only a reflection of inner self. A boy thug, sentenced to community service at an old people’s home, encounters ‘The Blind Man’, a vampire of sorts who feeds on the eyes of his victims, the story cleverly showcasing the idea of the abuser and the abused who grows into that role model.

Forgetfulness is at the heart of ‘Nepenthe’, a savage story in which a woman who does not wish to feel asks to have her heart locked up by the Secret Squirrel, but then comes a blackly comedic twist, Dowker rendering the almost cartoon nature of what takes place in the darkest of tones to deliver a shocking revelation that undercuts what has gone before and turns the story into a sociopathic fable. ‘The Female of the Species is More Deadly Than the Male’ has a woman who was forced into an abortion given the chance to swap places with the man who put her through this, the story savage and soliciting both sympathy and glee at the appropriateness of the revenge meted out. Finally the feminism running through many of these stories moves centre stage in ‘The Emancipated Dance’, as lonely Penny stumbles across a community of women and joins their dance, the story celebrating the feminine principle and its transformative power.

These stories and six others, each with an individual afterword by the author, make for a showcase volume, and alongside Hannett’s collection it amply demonstrates that dark fiction down under is in good hands.

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