Edited by Alisa Krasnostein

Twelfth Planet Press (2010)

ISBN: 978-0-9804841-8-2

Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce

Described as Australian suburban fantasy, Sprawl is an ambitious anthology. It both taps into the zeitgeist for urban fantasy, and twists it, moving the focus from the mean streets and neon lights of the city into the supposedly-familiar suburbs. As urban fantasy is meant to make the reader view the city with discomfort and wariness, Sprawl asks: “what if the suburbs aren’t what you think they are?”

The anthology is almost entirely set in Australia (there’s one in New Zealand). Not all of the suburbs are identified, but they range across the breadth of the continent. Some are concerned with intensely personal dramas, some involve mystery or mayhem, and some are just plain creepy. And it begins with a poem by Sean Williams called “Parched” – which, if nothing else had tipped the Australian reader off, lets you know that here is a set of stories for us, and about our place.

Tansy Rayner Roberts begins the anthology. Her “Relentless Adaptations” taps into the (possibly? hopefully? short-lived) trend for re-writing classics with added monsters. She imagines a Hobart where ordering your classics with whatever added ingredients is de rigueur, and then wonders what sort of impact that might have on society – and takes it to the fantastic extreme. As well as an insightful commentary on attitudes towards literature, this is also a deeply personal story about the trials and joys of motherhood, and Roberts skilfully combines the two aspects.

Shifting to Melbourne, Stephanie Campisi offers suggestions on “How to Select a Durian at Footscray Market”. Personally, I can’t get past the smell, so her suggestions are never going to help me. However, the story itself is a moving one, of families and migration and seeking the lost. Campisi’s use of adolescent protagonists, spying on their Vietnamese neighbour, offers two concurrent stories: one of Malaysian kids growing up in Australia, the other of something at once more magical and more tragic.

I had listened to the podcast of “One Saturday Night, with Angel” by Peter M. Ball (at http://www.twelfthplanetpress.com/category/podcast) before I got the anthology, and I wasn’t sure I could cope with reading it. Ball’s story takes place on a single night – half a shift at the Nite Owl – and is bleak, tragic, and utterly mesmerising. Anyone who has entered a convenience store late at night knows their ambiance, and Ball captures it exquisitely. This alone is enough to make it a harrowing story, but the addition of an angel, whose purpose is only slowly revealed, makes it truly creepy.

It must be said that I think Krasnostein made an unfair decision backing Ball’s story with “Yowie,” by Thoraiya Dyer. I think Dyer’s story is my favourite of the entire anthology, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed it. It, too, is harrowing, thanks to the atmosphere Dyer creates and because it struck me very close to home. It’s made up of two stories. In one, a young mother struggles with the change from having a successful career to being at home with a baby. Dyer is sympathetic towards Zoe, but all too well captures the feelings of frustration and despair that can attend such a situation. This story is paralleled by that of the Yowie, on a quest to find something he has lost, and in the process returns other lost things to their rightful place. The result is a story that is a superb look at one aspect of suburban life, teamed with a gentle magic.

Simon Brown’s “Sweep” is a complete change in pace. In going home to deal with the aftermath of his father’s death, George confronts memories of his adolescence: the “gang” he used to hang out with, and some of the very weird things that they saw. The fantastic element is just enough to make this story creepy, and is very effective, but as with many of the other stories in this anthology what makes it a great story is the characterisation and relationships portrayed. Brown captures a moment of Australian childhood – which to me feels like it dates to the 1980s – wonderfully; the attitudes towards parents, siblings, and particularly towards outsiders feel right.

In “No Going Home,” Deborah Biancotti confronts issues of identity and aging, when a young woman lands on Harry’s doorstep, looking to get out of the rain. Biancotti uses a subtle magic to ask questions about how we know who we are. It’s followed by “Loss,” by Kaaron Warren. While being distinctly creepy – it begins with the line “Rhonda lost the power of speech first,” and goes downhill from there – it’s one of my least favourite stories. It works as a character study, but I found the lack of narrative disappointing.

After several stories with a very subtle take on suburban fantasy, Dirk Flinthart’s “Walker” brings on the magic. He is one of few authors to introduce an Indigenous aspect into his story (“Yowie” being another), and does so by transplanting Dreamtime ideas about the spirits of the land into the modern world and wondering where exactly they would end up. The result is a clever story, one that while having its dark elements ends up feeling like one of the more lighthearted stories in the collection.

The middle of the book is taken up by a couple of pages of a comic called “Seed Dreams,” by Liz Argall and Matt Huynh. It’s delightfully whimsical and a reminder that even the seemingly-endless suburbs, with their concrete and brick, are not eternal. But – if you read anthologies sequentially, which I must admit that I do – you’re then thrown back into the creepy and frightening world of suburbia by Pete Kempshall: specifically, the world of real estate. If I ever had delusions about being a realtor, “Signature Walk” has destroyed them for me.

“White Crocodile Jazz” by Ben Peek, is a violent story of magic and revenge. It’s unpleasant, and none of the characters are particularly likable, and the thing that leaves me feeling uneasy is the knowledge that these sorts of people are all too real. It’s also very well written. The next story, “Brisneyland by Night”, is also unpleasant, but has the advantage of feeling slightly more removed from the realities of the world. Angela Slatter uses the idea of there being a parallel, magical world to the mundane one, which only occasionally intersect – in this case, taking children from the mundane for nefarious purposes. It’s a great story, with entertaining characters and zippy dialogue. What really makes it for me is the detail Slatter uses, making the places and sounds (Bernard Fanning wailing in the taxi) feel incredibly real.

I have mixed feelings towards Anna Tambour’s “Gnawer of the Moon Seeks Summit of Paradise”. On the one hand, I actually found it very hard to read. The narrative felt unnecessarily jerky, and there were sections that just didn’t seem to make sense in the context of the story. Reading the story, and making sense of it, took effort, and I also didn’t particularly connect with any of the characters. On the other hand, the idea – that Australia, land of immigrants, might also become home to supernatural immigrants – is a marvellous one. If human migrants have to learn to cope with a new environment and a racially diverse community, what would it be like for leprechauns and such?

Probably the most lighthearted of the stories in Sprawl is “Neighbourhood Watch” by Barbara Robson. Neighbourhood Watch is so ubiquitous a part of the Australian suburbs that it was nice to see it included. Here, the stereotypical do-gooders and nosey-parkers aren’t just watching to see whether there is a burglary in progress. Rather, they are concerned with fairies in the neighbourhood, and whether they will prove to be a nuisance.

Switching from basically cheery to something close to gloomy, although not entirely, the next story is “All the Love in the World” by Cat Sparks. The only post-apocalyptic story in the set, Sparks imagines how suburban inhabitants would react to an apocalypse. Her vision of the community is stark, but not entirely depressing. It’s not all vegetables-in-the-backyard, though. In such conditions relationships are bound to be fraught, and the addition of a stranger can be the final straw. Such is the case here, but as with so many things, an enforced change isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sparks’ vision of these suburbs, personal interactions and attitudes, is actually refreshingly optimistic, given the preponderance of pessimistic post-apocalyptic literature.

L.L. Hannett has clearly lived in a drought-affected region, given the focus of “Weightless”. Although clearly set in Adelaide, the fantastic elements give it an unworldly feel, while simultaneously appealing directly to most of south-eastern Australia in its obsession with water. Given recent discussions about what should be done to ensure regular water supplies to major towns, perhaps marrying someone off to the Rain King isn’t so outrageous a suggestion.

Finally, the anthology concludes with its New Zealand offering, by Paul Haines. Haines is known as a harrowing writer, and “Her Gallant Needs” fits the bill. Set in the early 1980s, like “Sweep”, Haines considers suburban life from the perspective of adolescent boys. Unpleasant adolescent boys. In between lusting after Atari games and Mad Magazine, the boys first pick on the new boy at school and then befriend him when they discover the riches he has access to. Of course, you just know things aren’t going to end well. Haines is a disturbing author both because he writes about disturbing things, and because he realises his characters so frighteningly well. This is a creepy conclusion to the anthology.

I’m not sure what it says about Australia that overall, Sprawl is not a particularly upbeat anthology. It’s not entirely gloomy, nor is it entirely pessimistic, but these visions of suburban Australia are rarely ones of sweetness and light. Perhaps this ties in to a problem of identity: the reality is that we are a nation of suburbs, but we still like to think of ourselves as either beach-bums or living the rugged bush life. This ambivalence towards the suburbs is superbly captured by this anthology.