Terry Dowling

Cemetery Dance Publications (2006)

ISBN: 1-58767-123-9

Reviewed by Leigh Blackmore (this review was first published in September 2006)

Terry Dowling is a modern fabulist who, as an Australian, has always held the locus, or sense of place in his work as one its central features. As Jonathan Strahan points out in his perceptive introduction to this book, “the winds of Australis blow through each of these haunting tales, adding a scent of gum leaves here, a slant of light there…”.

Basic Black contains eighteen stories by a writer whose career has spanned science fiction, horror, award-winning computer games and wondrous tales of all kinds. There are many stories collected here that devotees of Dowling’s darker work may have encountered before; it’s thrilling to see them collected in hardcover for the first time. There are also two previously unpublished tales, making the volume a must-have for Dowling completists. First-time readers of Dowling’s creepy dark fantasy will find here a treasure trove of chilly delights.
Cemetery Dance has produced a beautiful volume here, with the gorgeous wraparound jacket art of Julia Scott-Morgan depicting the characters from Dowling’s World Fantasy Award-nominated “The Saltimbanques”. The most readily available edition is a signed hardcover limited to 750 copies. There is also a traycased Lettered Edition of 26 signed and lettered copies bound in leather with satin ribbon page marker; even at the published price of $175 that one isn’t going to stay around long – collectors will snap it up.

As Dowling’s first short-story collection published in the U.S., and first in hardcover (after several paperback collections published in Australia), this is a landmark volume which cements Dowling’s reputation as Australia’s foremost contemporary practitioner of the weird tale. The macabre and the terrifying, with subtle shifts from the expected to the unexpected, conveyed with uncanny precision, fill all the stories gathered here. The book is subtitled “Tales of Appropriate Fear”. Why ‘appropriate’?, one might ask. Because fear is appropriate under certain circumstances. What if you secretly don’t want to be alone, if that’s your hell, and then, that’s what you wind up with (“They Found the Angry Moon”)? What if madness can’t be cured and ghosts never die (“Downloading”)? What if a seemingly prosaic object like a cross-stitch in a frame becomes the catalyst for unimaginable events (“Stitch”)? What if you find some photographs undeveloped in an old camera, and curiosity drives you to find out what they are, why they were taken, what dark they came out of (“Cheatlight”)? Suppose your old business partner calls you up, takes you to some deserted railway tracks, and plays head-games with you, making you question your own sense of reality? (“La Profonde”). In such circumstances, Dowling implies, we would be wrong not to be afraid; our sensoriums are rigged for it, the sense of fear tied intimately to the sense of survival, though sometimes (as in some of these stories) we do not survive.

Fear, wonder, disquiet – call it what you will – these things are the hallmark of the tale which disturbs us, and which while undermining our sense of safety in the world, also helps us test our place in it. Dowling is a master of the gradual accumulation of telling, disquieting detail so important to the horror story. Many of the best stories from Dowling’s linked collection Blackwater Days are included here (though oddly enough not “Basic Black” which gives this collection its title), and this is fine, for the stories deserve to be seen and appreciated by a wider audience now that the Eidolon Publications volume is not readily available. Here we have “Beckoning Nightframe”, in which Corinne Kester feels inelectably drawn to a windowframe she glimpses from the back of her house; “The Saltimbanques”, an unforgettable tale of what it’s like to be fourteen, and of a troupe of mysterious carnival figures and their strange motives. “Jenny Come to Play”, a page-turning thriller with a riveting payoff, is here as well.

There are strong tales representing the contents of the earlier collection An Intimate Knowledge of the Night, such as “The Maze Man” and “The Gully”. The volume also collects such recent tales as “Clownette”, about a man’s encounter with a stain on his hotel bedroom wall, a stain he comes to call the Motley; and “The Bone Ship”, a classic example of Dowling’s restraint in telling a tale which builds towards its inevitable, horrifying conclusion. Here also are stories no-one but Dowling could have written – “The Ichneumon and the Dormeuse” and “The Quiet Redemption of Andy the House”, each in their way drawing on Dowling’s fascination with ancient cultures, each providing the reader with a quotient of strangeness that cannot help but linger in the mind. Basic Black shows Dowling at the height of his storytelling powers; it’s a volume which will not simply make the flesh creep and the blood run cold, but poke spidery fingers into the inside of your psyche long after the book has been closed.