Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack
Basic Black is a collection of dark fantasy stories by Terry Dowling; it won the 2007 International Horror Guild Award for Best Collection, but I believe was not published in Australia until 2009. This is surprising, as Dowling is one of Australia’s more prolific speculative fiction authors; but then again, if you read short fiction at all you’ve probably come across at least some of these stories before. First publication dates range from 1984 to 2006.
So, is it worth picking up a collection with contents that date so far back, and where you’ve likely read some of it before? Absolutely. Dowling is an excellent writer, and one who flexibly covers a wide range of themes, styles and ideas. The older stories haven’t dated and remain powerful, and the newer stories continue to explore new territory.
When I hear Dowling’s name, I think first of his Tom Rynosseros cycle, a set of distinctively Australian stories set in the future. As a result, however, I sometimes find myself surprised when I realise that a story I’m reading is a Dowling story, despite being very different in theme and tone to those stories. I shouldn’t be; the Rynosseros stories are actually a relatively small part of his output (and none are included in this collection). The hallmark of Dowling’s work is quality, rather than a particular setting or theme.
The Horror Guild award may be a bit misleading; although the stories contained in this collection are quite dark, many of them do not fit the common definition of horror. In particular, few feature outright gore or ugly deaths, and they’re generally more subtle than much of the material packaged as “horror”. For me, that made this a more interesting collection. The stories will stay with you for longer, and sometimes that very subtlety – and the need to think about them – is more horrific than something in your face.
The collection includes 18 stories. Because of the overarching theme of the collection, they are probably a little less diverse than some of Dowling’s collections (notably the massive Antique Futures, reviewed here). They still cover quite a bit of territory. It’s hard to choose a favourite from a strong collection, but “The Saltimbanques” stuck with me for quite long time; it strongly evoked life in a bordering-on-outback Australian town, and there was a kind of common-place horror about the ending that rang true. In addition, Dowling paid some attention to something that has always irritated me in traditional fantasies: the idea of virginity placing a character at risk, and the character nevertheless protecting their virginity.
None of the stories here were failures; some certainly didn’t resonate as strongly with me as others, but that’s the nature of fiction. They’re all well constructed, well written and thoughtful, and are likely to strike a chord with some readers. For me, “Clownette” didn’t quite ring true, and “Jenny Come to Play” is a story I’ve read and disliked before – the investigative elements struck me as a little weak. Others have certainly enjoyed it, as it’s won at least one award.
This is a strong collection, and if you don’t normally like publications labelled “horror” – and I don’t – you shouldn’t be put off. These are strong dark fantasies with little outright gore but considerable emotional weight. The diversity of the stories mean you can read the collection in one go, if you like, which isn’t always the case with a themed collection. If you enjoy short speculative fiction, this is one of the better single author collections and well worth tracking down.