review | Lucy Sussex

summer 2007
ISBN 978-0-9775171-6-9
published 21 November 2007


Lucy Sussex

  • Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver (eds): The Anthology of Colonial Australian Gothic Fiction
    (Melbourne University Press, ISBN 9780522854220, $34.95)
  • John Harwood: The Ghost Writer (Vintage, ISBN 0099460823, $23.95)
  • Margo Lanagan: Red Spikes (Allen & Unwin, ISBN 9781741146578, $17.95)

The period of Australia’s early colonisation was also the era of the gothic. Though its literary stock matter – haunted castles, white ladies and rapacious monks – might seem inappropriate for the great southern, sunburnt land, it has been a persistent mode. The gothic sense of mystery, of the uncanny and fantastical, could be easily transferred to bizarre creatures, spooky ragged trees, a land that was terra nullius but never a void. Such perceptive observers as Marcus Clarke and Arthur Upfield looked at the landscape and thought of Edgar Allan Poe – then evoked his eerie spirit themselves. They were not alone, and they have many literary descendants.

Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver collect older local gothic in The Anthology of Colonial Australian Gothic Fiction. For the purposes of comparison, two more recent examples of Australian gothic are also reviewed here, both from authors with international recognition. Margo Lanagan famously won a bundle of awards with Black Juice, and her follow-up is Red Spikes which has just won the Children’s Book Council award for older readers. John Harwood’s The Ghost Writer was published in 2004 by Cape as a ‘literary’ novel, which it is; interestingly, it then crossed over into genre by winning the International Guild of Horror Writers first novel award, beating out such strong competition as Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

Defining the gothic is a bit like defining science fiction, with the added complication that types of the gothic have been catalogued by modern critics as ‘male’ (Monk Lewis), ‘female’ (Ann Radcliffe) and even ‘homosexual’ (the father and daughter team of William Godwin and Mary Shelley). These spawned genres: male gothic, modern horror; Radcliffe, the mystery, for instance. For the writers collected by Gelder and Weaver, these modern distinctions could come as some surprise, as well as the very idea that their works were gothic. The texts anthologised could fit into collections of ghost stories, or crime – in fact, some of them have done that. In addition, three stories by Barbara Baynton, Tasma and Rosa Praed were collected in From the Verandah (ed. F. Giles), as women’s writing.

Not many of the stories here are unfamiliar (to fans of Australian writing pre-1900). Yet grouping them together as gothic is new, and in some cases arguable. Henry Lawson’s canonical ‘The Bush Undertaker’ reads more like gallows humour, although its last line does call Australia “the home of the weird”. Marcus Clarke’s ‘The Mystery of Major Molineux’ can be read as foreshadowing the scientific mystery. And Mary Gaunt’s ‘The Lost White Woman’ is perhaps included to show the form white ladies took in Australia – less ghostly in Gippsland than gone native.

The selection is exclusively Australian, chosen on presumably much the same basis as the Miles Franklin award. This is a shame, as some wonderfully excessive gothic written in Australia but with European settings is thus excluded, such as Mary Fortune’s vampirish ‘The White Maniac’. Her ‘Mystery and Murder’ is here, with its Tasmanian setting. It includes a ghost, and others feature in the collection – as do haunted houses. One bunyip appears, and also something that seems much like a Morlock, in Favenc’s 1890 ‘A Haunt of the Jinkarras’. But the editors do establish a case for an Australian gothic, as bloodstained and melodramatic as its parent stock, but with some unique features.

One is race relations. Those who loftily denigrate ‘the black armband school of history’ love to quibble about figures and colonial policy. They ignore the contemporary fiction which provides ample evidence of massacres – and, significantly, the widespread attitudes towards them. Brutality in these stories is endemic, and also casual: settlers as violent as Vandals. Yet, as in Ellen Davitt’s fine 1867 story, ‘The Highlander’s Revenge’, it engenders a persistent sense of guilt. The stories here similarly display guilt, eerie or lingering, or violently erupting in fantasies of revenant retribution. There is no denial, but an acceptance of Australian frontier realities, even if expressed via the supernatural.

Given the identification of these stories as gothic is recent, it seems appropriate to consider Harwood’s The Ghost Writer, a novel which looks back both to England and to the gothic itself. That it won a horror award does not mean it is subsequently positioned for ever and ever in genre. Rather, it both inhabits this form and transcends it, in much the same way as the stories of M.R. James – a clear inspiration for the book.

Harwood has much fun in creating pastiches of late nineteenth-century ghost stories, which he does admirably. The plot is a framework in which these stories are embedded like cameos in an antique bracelet. Gerard grows up in late twentieth-century Australia, with parents who belong to a different time. His mother both looks back at and eschews her native England; his father may have secrets, but his passion in life is model trains. Like Godwin’s Caleb Williams, a secret is locked away. Gerard has a writer of ghost stories in his ancestry, and as he unearths more about his quite gothic family, he returns to England. Here he finds a locked, deserted house, apparently haunted. It fascinates, but may also kill him.

It might be wondered if Harwood is channelling William Hay, whose superb ‘An Australian Rip van Winkle’ (in Gelder and Weaver) contains a similarly eerie Aladdin’s cave – although it would be more accurate to say both are channelling Ann Radcliffe. The novel melds the Australian and European schools of the gothic in a fashion that is very self-aware, but never self-conscious. At the end, in a typically gothic narrative feature, Harwood goes over the top into outright horror (which Radcliffe regarded as contracting and annihilating). The work fully deserves its International Guild of Horror Writers gong, and it should have won more than one literary award in Australia.

And so to Margo Lanagan’s Red Spikes, the third in a series of short story collections. Lanagan attended the Seattle Clarion Speculative Fiction workshop in 1999 and, like many who attend the course, came away with a portfolio of short stories. Unusually, due to her existing profile as an author for younger readers, she got White Time published. It was followed by Black Juice, which went critically gangbusters, and now Red Spikes.

Lanagan is like J.K. Rowling, a crossover author between children’s and adult markets, but she is not simply a fantasy author. There is a darkness to her work, which does mean it can be lumped with the gothic. The stories in Red Spikes explore various modes, as did its predecessors. ‘Monkey’s Paternoster’ depicts a monkey’s eye view of the world. ‘Under Hill, Over Heaven’ is about limbo. ‘Forever Upward’ concerns an imaginary resistance of colonisation, the imposition of new gods and beliefs. Again, there is the sense of a portfolio. She does not, though, present as particularly Australian, which can be a hindrance in the overseas market.

What unifies Red Spikes is a persistent musing on motherhood – even when the mothers are animal or alien. The theme was most clearly expressed in ‘Singing My Sister Down’, which won the World Fantasy Award. A tribe punishes offenders with slow immersion in tar pits, and a daughter dies while her mother watches. The awards indicate that some love this story; others mutter quietly that they don’t. Some literati who would otherwise eschew Australian fantasy writing are thus forced to accept the fact of overseas validation. They thus read Lanagan and pronounce her ‘good’, in much the same way as they read Rowling.

With Lanagan, I notice most a cool, controlled technique used in the service of emotion. Sometimes one element predominates, as with ‘A Feather in the Breast of God’ which, apart from a horrible pun on Hildegard of Bingen, also features a ghost bird. Jan Mark has used this notion before, and gothically, in ‘Who’s a Pretty Boy, Then?’ Lanagan’s story is anti-drugs and contains a moral. Whether your disbelief is suspended at a ghost budgie saving a teenage girl from her first hit is entirely up to you, dear reader. Pick of the collection, for me, is ‘Mouse Maker’, where Hamelin meets Frankenstein, a dark tale that works precisely because of its understatement. It might sound heretical, but Red Spikes seems stronger than Black Juice. But in today’s publishing, the proof of the pudding is in the novel, rather than the short fiction. Lanagan’s forthcoming novel draws on a Grimm fairytale – and it is easy to predict that it will partake of the gothic.

Lucy Sussex’s Mist and Murder, a revisiting of Mary Fortune’s Mystery and Murder, was published this year in New Ceres 2.
© Lucy Sussex
Overland 189 – summer 2007, pp. 80-81

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