Reviewed by Gillian Polack (this review first published August 2007)
Kim Wilkins is a reliably entertaining writer. She knows the tropes for horror and her backgrounds feel secure and are detailed to the exact level they need to be. Nothing I’ve read by her is less than good, and at her best she is an outstanding genre writer. This makes her quite difficult to review, because I want to say all the same things I have always said when asked about her: that she’s a fine craftswoman with a natural flow of language; that she knows her stuff and uses it well; that her books are enjoyable.
The Infernal does all of these things, and occasionally just a little bit more. It’s not a book to read at night alone in mid-winter. Which is exactly what I did. Just don’t ask me about my dreams for a bit, please.
What’s The Infernal about (besides dreams)?
Lisa is a musician who is successful enough to make a (bare) living, but not so successful that she and her band aren’t looking for that major breakthrough. She starts worrying when one of her fans turns up dead in a forest and when she starts dreaming vivid memories of the past. She does all the right things: tells the police everything she knows about the murder; explores her dreams to find out what has triggered them and why they are coming to her and how she can diminish them. Then the one thing that ought to be going right (her best friend’s marriage to a surprisingly normal accountant) goes all awry. Lisa does what she can, and has to face demons on all sorts of levels.
The Infernal plays on many of our assumptions of witchcraft. It examines the links between magic and higher understanding; the gullibility of women living in a repressive society; the idea that inheritance is a crucial factor in our existence; the links between magic and sex and between magic users. This interplay means that readers who enjoy this kind of book can be active and even complicit in the plot. My thoughts of, “She shouldn’t have done that,” and, “But what if he does this – oh dear, I thought that would happen,” made me feel as if I was part of the book far more than if Wilkins had invented strange new tropes.
I like it that her use of traditional themes opens the reader up to the book. It makes the reading experience more pleasurable, but it also makes the denouement far more powerful. The reader comment Wilkins needed with her ending was “Oh no!”, and that’s exactly what she got from me.
Wilkins chooses to write a two stranded plot. The first strand is about Lisa and is full of grunge and underground Brisbane. The second strand is set in the seventeenth century, about the time that the witch hunts were seriously getting underway.
Lisa and her Stuart counterpart (Elizabeth) have much in common, but they’re also quite different, and Wilkins explains this through grounding both characters in different educational backgrounds and quite different life experiences. The only downside to this that I can see is that at one stage she uses quite inappropriate modern feminist language for Elizabeth when she is looking for a way out of her circumscribed existence. If the aspirations for equality had been backed up by the plot, it would have been another strength in the novel, but it became a throwaway line. A similar sentiment expressed more in accord with the thought of the period would have carried more grace and helped underpin the novel with the theme of struggling for independence.
The Infernal won the Best Horror and Best Fantasy Categories in the 1997 Aurealis Awards. Obviously I’m not the only one to appreciate the pull of Wilkins’ imagination.