Sunday, May 16, 2010

Australian Ghost Stories

So it seems that Australians had something of an inferiority complex when it came to gothic fiction: in the introduction to Australian Ghost Stories, editor James Doig explains that Australia was often not considered ‘old’ enough by its inhabitants to possess the key ingredients for a spooky chill-fest. Largely ignoring the potential of a vast, unexplored frontier land full of deserted mining towns, deserts, jungles and aboriginal folklore (later utilized so effectively in Picnic at Hanging Rock) for weird fiction, Australian writers instead bemoaned the lack of such superficial characteristics as ancient castles or ghostly traditions.

This is not a trivial point- it shows that writers of the 19th and early 20th century (the providence of Wordsworth, who trade exclusively in out-of-copyright material) drew a distinction between European and aboriginal folklore- the former was considered a kind of ‘real’, mature culture, and useful for the plotting of effective stories, while the latter was not. ‘There never were any fauns in the eucalyptus forests, nor any naiads in the running creeks,’ says Rosa Campbell Praed at the beginning of her tale, The Bunyip, almost apologizing for her use of indigenous folklore. ‘No mythological hero left behind him stories of wonder and enchantment. No white man’s hand has carved records of a poetic past on the grey volcanic-looking boulders.’ Thus with a broad stroke, the entire potential of the brooding landscape and wonderful mythology of the Dreamtime is swept aside.

What a waste. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel- read this lengthy quote from one Marcus Clarke:

What is the dominant note of Australian scenery? That which is the dominant note of Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry- Weird Melancholy… The Australian mountain forests are funereal, secret, stern. Their solitude is desolation. They seem to stifle, in their black gorges, a story of sullen despair. No tender sentiment is nourished in their shade… In the Australian forests no leaves fall. The very animal life of these frowning hills is either grotesque or ghostly. Flights of white cockatoos stream out, shrieking like evil souls. The sun suddenly sinks, and the mopokes burst out into horrible peals of semi-human laughter. The natives aver that, when night comes, out from the bottomless depth of some lagoon the bunyip rises, and, in form like a monstrous sea-calf, drags his loathsome length from out of the ooze. From a corner of the silent forest rises a dismal chant, and around a fire dance natives painted like skeletons. All is fear-inspiring and gloomy.

Wow. What an evocative piece of writing. No master of fantastic fiction could create a more suitable setting for tales of the macabre and the extraordinary. Could anybody still be in doubt that Australia has the chops for gothic/weird fiction? Why has this location not been utilized as the American frontier has been? And yet, what’s disappointing about Australian Ghost Stories is how some of the best stories have very little to do with Australia at all.

Many colonial writers who wished to utilize the gothic style simply set their stories in England, for example the Irish/Australian Mary Fortune, who wrote The White Maniac: A Doctors’ Tale. It’s a typically gothic tale that takes place in England. A doctor becomes obsessed with a family who live in a house in which everything is painted white. They are, of course, keeping a terrible secret, and the twist at the end of the story is very of its time, but entertaining nonetheless. Apart from my disappointment with the lack of ‘Australia-ness’ in the story, it’s one of the best in the collection.

Other Australian writers wrote spooky stories in the manner of English gothic novels without utilizing any real Australian elements. The Mystery Of Major Molineaux by Marcus Clarke is a similar tale that takes place in Australia, not that you’d notice. It’s still a cracking tale with a kind of Le Fanu feel, and it’s one of the spookiest of the lot.

There are entries here that make good use of the Australian culture and countryside: The Haunted Pool, A Haunt of The Jinkarras, Spirit Led, The Bunyip and others do introduce us to ghosts and creatures that haunt the deserts and sweltering frontier towns, but as stories, their plots aren’t crafted quite as well as the gothic shorts mentioned above. Of these, A Strange Goldfield is probably my favourite- it’s an effective story about a bunch of men who discover a ghost town deep in the Australian desert that’s still haunted by its former residents. Another find is The Devil of the Marsh by H. B. Marriott Watson, in which a man keeps a tryst with a mysterious woman in a horrible swamp at night- a perfectly rendered gothic masterpiece. Below is an illustration for this story from the cover of another collection.

The editor clearly had to stretch his definition of an ‘Australian ghost story’ somewhat in order to fill the book- he includes a couple of south-seas tales, as well as a couple of pieces in which mysterious happenings turn out not to be supernatural (no spoilers on which ones they are!) And there is one story in the collection in which a really creepy, effective build-up leads to such an absolutely stupifyingly strange conclusion that it leaves me quite unsure how to rank it.

Overall, the volume is worth looking into. And Wordsworth editions are very attractively priced (usually 3-5 euros in the Republic), so you rarely go wrong with them. This one of varied enough in settings and action that it’s usually entertaining, even if there are few stone-cold classics. I still feel that the Australian location has been rarely used to its full potential (Picnic at Hanging Rock is an exception). I have a feeling that some Australia-related fiction may appear soon at Odds and Ends.

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