Angela Challis and Shane Jiraiya Cummings (eds.)

Brimstone Press (2006)

ISBN: 9780980281705

Reviewed by Tim Kroenert (this review was first published in March 2007)

In their introduction to Australian Dark Fantasy and Horror 2006, editors Angela Challis and Shane Jiraiya Cummings contend that Australian “dark fiction is hot property right now”. If you have any cause to doubt them, then the evidence they present, in the form of twelve short stories and five essays included in the anthology, should persuade you — if this is the best Australian dark fiction authors had to offer during 2005 then all signs point to a very ripe field indeed.

There is, in short, hardly a weak moment in the anthology. From the first story to the last, each is highly original, superbly crafted and extremely entertaining. Authors and editors alike should be commended.

One of the most striking aspects of the anthology is the sheer diversity of subjects and styles it includes. The stories range from merely unsettling to truly frightening, and from the laugh-out-loud funny to the achingly sad. As you read you’ll encounter everything from zombies to sentient killer glaciers; from tortured inventors to samurai heroes.

In her story “Memory of Breathing”, Lyn Battersby posits a future where criminals are executed then reanimated in order to work as slaves. It’s an intriguing blend of modern sci-fi and a more classical conception of zombies, but the story plays out — predictably but poignantly — as a more intimate human drama, in which a hardened death camp commander gradually develops fatherly fondness for a reanimated child-corpse.

In “The Interminable Suffering of Mysterious Mr Wu”, Rjurik Davidson’s first-person narrator is kept awake at night by the anguished cries and mysterious, noisy construction work of an upstairs neighbour. It’s an effective exercise in nightmarish surrealism, matched in this anthology only by Adam Browne’s “Heart of Saturday Night” and Trent Jamieson’s “Tumble” — all three tales are dark fantasies wrapped in dense layers of unsettling, dreamlike imagery.

Lee Battersby’s “Pater Familias” is an example of the flash fiction medium at its best. In it, a retired surgeon meets with a young visitor and describes an archaic form of late-term abortion called “craniotomy” (I’ll leave Battersby the dubious honour of describing this brutal procedure). The story moves with a crackling economy of language and, when its inevitable surprise ending appears, it’s not as a punchline-style twist, but as a slowly dawning sense of horror that will leave you gutted.

Kaaron Warren’s short story “The Fresh Young Widow” is equally brilliant. Warren’s recently bereaved protagonist holds a revered position in a mythical village: her all-important task is to sheath the newly dead in clay, so that they can be built into the wall that surrounds the village. This morbid but honourable task is reflected in Warren’s own writing: she’s taken a potentially gruesome topic and rendered it in such beautifully crafted prose that it becomes a work of art. Her juxtaposition of the villagers — with their religious fervour and long-held traditions — and her grieving central character’s budding cynicism, creates a poignant, melancholy dichotomy.

“The Greater Death of Saito Saku” (Richard Harland) is at once an epic action showpiece and an ode to the passing of time and to the maintaining of honour up until death. Harland’s hero is Saito Saku, a samurai warrior and appointed protector of his village, who sets out to fight a final, fateful battle against a colossal fire beast. The saga is one of the anthology’s most moving and memorable.

Anthony Fordham’s satirical “big-budget” sci-fi/fantasy “Aspect Hunter”, in which two time-hopping heroes set out to rescue a re-imagined 1986 Sydney from a menacing glacier, gets this reviewer’s vote for both best opening line — “And so the yak and I rode out of the deep past to save the world from ice. Again.” — and funniest, most subversive single moment: a character conceives that global warming may be the most effective way to save a slowly freezing world.

It’s not just the fiction that makes this anthology thrive, however. The essays that have been included not only provide literary context and industry food for thought; they are fascinating reads in and of themselves.

Josephine Pennicott’s “The Dark Shadow of Fantasy” is given the honour of opening the anthology; in it she digs back into the fetid, fertile soil of pre-Victorian (read: pre-Disney) fairytales, where the twisted roots of dark fantasy — particularly Pennicott’s particular brand of dark fantasy — can be found.

Chris Lawson’s “Body Parts” provides both a history of anatomy and a reflection on changing social, ethical etc. attitudes towards human flesh as both a physical and metaphysical entity.

Robert Hood’s essay on “The State of the Zombie Film” not only paints a vivid portrait of its titular subject; it also puts it into its historical context, and explores the technical, social and cultural factors that have brought it to where it is today.

Then there’s David Levell’s “The Outback Bites Back”, in which the author offers his thoughts on the fluctuating successes of Australian horror on film, offering both a snapshot history of the genre, an exploration of its fertile present and speculation on its promising future.

If there’s a criticism to be made of the anthology, it’s that the selection of stories could be considered fairly conservative; there’s little that could be described as experimental or “fringe”. It’s also clear that, despite the title, the editors have leant more towards the “dark fantasy” side of the fence than the “horror” side (really, there are very few genuine gut-wrenching scares to be had). That said, the editors of an Australian genre-fiction anthology can hardly be blamed for erring on the side of broad accessibility.

As for the stories themselves — well, it goes without saying that all authors have their strengths and weaknesses; to say that every story in the anthology is a perfect gem would be simply disingenuous. However, the advantage of this kind of “best-of” approach is that it offers something to everyone’s taste. Also, any story that seems lacking in one department — for example, characterisiation — tends to make up for it in others: atmosphere, plot, or sheer genius of premise etc.

Such criticisms are neither here nor there given that the anthology is, on the whole, an overwhelmingly good read, and one that bodes well for the future of Australian dark fiction.