Edited by Alisa Krasnostein

Twelfth Planet Press (2010)

ISBN: 978-0-9804841-8-2

Syndicated from Guy Salvidge

Sprawl is the latest themed speculative fiction anthology from Twelfth Planet Press, a Perth-based indie publisher that has burst onto the scene in the past two or three years. The writers collected herein are a mixture of some of Australia’s more famous names in speculative fiction and an army of promising up and comers. The resultant anthology is quite spectacular.

I was very impressed by Sprawl, intended as a collection of suburban fantasy stories, on a number of levels. Firstly, the cover design by Amanda Rainey is superb. Based on the coastline and streets of Perth, the sprawling lines are both the names of the writers and lines from their stories. Krasnostein writes in her introduction that she “wanted to produce a strong volume of Australian short stories to take with me to the Worldcon [held in Melbourne in September 2010] and showcase our vibrant local scene.” On these or any terms, Sprawl must be judged a success.

To the stories themselves. I decided only to write about the ones I particularly engaged with, but handily that proviso covers about two thirds of Sprawl‘s contents. After the opening poem (“Parched” by Sean Williams), the first story is “Relentless Adaptations” by Tansy Rayner Roberts, a lighthearted romp set mostly in a book cafe complete with zombies for staff. Our protagonist is too sleep deprived by her infant child to care about the literary vandalism occuring around her (she orders a copy of Sherlock Holmes with lesbians). In the future, it seems, you can not only print novels on demand – you can tailor them to your tastes as well. Ulysses in modern slang, for example. This trend, which may have had its beginning in our own times with a book called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, reaches its end point when the characters of seminal works of literature appear to redress the balance.

Stephanie Campisi’s “How to Select a Durian at Footscray Market” is a lusciously written tale containing some of the best prose in this volume; it reminded me of the work of Simone Lazaroo in that it is centred around Malays living in Australia. Like the strange fruit of this story’s title, I suspect Campisi’s writing to be an acquired taste, but unlike durians, I’ve acquired the taste for Campisi’s writing after reading this story.

Peter M. Ball has had a couple of novellas out from Twelfth Planet Press of late, neither of which I’ve read, and here he offers us “One Saturday Night, with Angel.” This story definitely fits into the category of suburban fantasy in that it is set in an all-hours deli and concerns an actual angel. This is a punchy, distinctive piece that puts this author’s other work on my to-read list.

I was especially enamoured with Thoraiya Dyer’s “Yowie”, which begins: “There was dog shit on her shoe.” (p. 47) This is another tale of the difficulties of motherhood in an uncaring world, and the story combines realistic and fantastical elements most effectively. I’m not going to try to summarise the story’s rather complex plot here, but suffice to say that I think this one should be nominated for an award or two.

Similarly, I rather enjoyed reading Simon Brown’s “Sweep”, which reads a little more like memoir than fiction. Much closer to the realistic (but never mundane) end of the fantastical spectrum, this is nevertheless an extremely effective piece about how decisions made in childhood impact one in adulthood. This is a bit like an Australian The Wonder Years and I mean that as a compliment.

Deborah Biancotti’s “No Going Home” is the kind of story you’ll want to read twice. I say this, having as yet read it only once, hence my vague understanding of the story’s twist. Don’t mind me though; this is coming from a guy who walked out of The Sixth Sense not having understood the ending. Harry is an elderly man who receives a visitation from a strange visitor who can’t remember her own name, let alone anything else. A number of other people find this young woman eerily familiar too.

Pete Kempshall’s “Signature Walk” shared some similarities with Deborah Biancotti’s piece (which is hardly surprisingly given that this is a themed anthology). In it, a whinging pom by the name of Lara (I can say that, I’m one myself) is sent to a rundown house on the outskirts of Perth with a view to trying to sell it, only to get much more than she bargained for. This starts off in engaging fashion and gets creepier as it goes.

Ben Peek’s “White Crocodile Jazz” reminds me of the work of one of my favourite writers, Harry Crews, of whom no one but me seems to have heard. This is a gritty piece quite different in tone from most of the stories in this anthology. In it, there’s a Snake Handler who gets the stuffing beaten out of him more than once, a Vietnamese midget by the name of Bob, a mute narrator, a Crocodile Woman, and more. The Crews novel this reminds me of most is The Gypsy’s Curse, which everyone should read directly after reading “White Crocodile Jazz”.

“Brisneyland by Night” by Angela Slatter is an intriguing and complex tale about the Weyrd, and more specifically a kinderfresser or child eater. Worse, it seems unscrupulous sorts are harvesting the tears of young children in the creation of some kind of elixir. Our protagonist, Verity Fassbinder, is half Weyrd and half Normal herself, and is thus mistrusted by both groups. She’s on the trail of some missing children, and her investigations force her to confront the heinous misdeeds of her own Weyrd father, the odious Grigor. I enjoyed reading this so much that I was genuinely disappointed to turn onto the last two pages.

I enjoyed most of the stories in this anthology, but the one I probably enjoyed the most was “All the Love in the World” by Cat Sparks. This is a post-apocalyptic tale but, importantly, Sparks has managed to avoid retreading most if not all of the cliches of the genre. In doing so she has created something exciting indeed. The Crescent is a self-sufficient enclave that is home to a number of survivors of the unspecified calamity, and all is relatively well until our protagonist loses her lover Jon to the interloper Jeannie. When Jon falls sick, she leaves the enclave in search of antibiotics, with surprising results.

Sprawl’s final story is “Her Gallant Needs” by Paul Haines, which is an engaging work on a number of levels. At first it resembles Simon Brown’s story in that it is about a seminal moment in one’s adolescent years, but the story takes on a decidedly fantastic and shocking twist toward the end. Set in New Zealand in the early eighties, “Her Gallant Needs” centres around an overweight child by the name of Samuel Goldstein. Both he and his mother are in possession of several things that brothers John and Richey desire, not least a then-new Atari 2600. Both get significantly more than they bargained for.