Reviewed: The Oxford Book of Australian Ghost Stories, ed. Ken Gelder (OUP); She’s Fantastical, ed. Lucy Sussex and Judith Buckrich (Sybylla); Strange Fruit: Tales of the Unexpected, ed. Paul Collins (Penguin).
I read these books in gulps, which is probably not the way to do it. The disciplined mind would sit down with a morning caffe latte and read ‘The Cat’ by Nancy Cato. Then, after a restoring walk, ‘The Lady with the Ermine’, a fantasy by Lucy Sussex. So to a delicate lunch at a suitable location, or sandwiches made of wholemeal bread under a leafy tree, and taste ‘The Goddess Wakes’ by Jane Routley (a thoroughly clever tale) or ‘The Master Builder’s Wife’ by Lisa Jacobson. With a suitable interval for phone calls or a nap, then to dinner and ‘The Daemon Street Ghost Trap’ by Terry Dowling (which would ensure the digestion was firmly interrupted) and then the disturbing ‘An Australian Rip Van Winkle’ by William Hay; and so to bed. To dream—of what? Of strange latitudes and things that go chomp in the night?
I just carried these books around for a week and read them in the Williamstown Magistrates’ Court, on Sunshine Station, while trying to work out that fiendish Sunday Age crossword in Brunswick Street or while contemplating my vacant tomato patch in Footscray. Or as the excellent excuse not to get the dinner, sew on buttons, think about that knotty problem involving the Sentencing Act or do something about a cat having thrown up on the white rug. Books have to be tough to survive that sort of distracted consumption.
The Oxford Book of Australian Ghost Stories suffers from the anthologist’s problem: what to leave in. The editor has selected a few well-known stories, like John Lang’s ‘Ghost on a Rail’, about Fisher’s ghost (the only ghost, to my knowledge, ever cited in court), and Marcus Clarke’s ‘Human Repetends’, which was also included in the recent Oxford Book of Australian Short Stories (1994) and isn’t all that brilliant, smacking as it does of Fergus Hume and The Mystery of a Hansom Cab—the world’s most overrated mystery novel. But there are a couple of chilling little narratives among both the ancient and the modern.
Rosa Praed’s ‘The Bunyip’ is matter-of-fact and, because of that, most alarming. ‘An Australian Rip Van Winkle’ frightened me for what the writer wasn’t saying (and probably didn’t realize he implied) about a necrophilic relationship between a dead woman and a tramp. I also developed the right supply of goose bumps from Percy Mumbulla’s Aboriginal stories, ‘The Bunyip’ and ‘The Bugeen’. It’s difficult to make spoken words vivid on the page; usually a direct recounting does not have the right flavour. But Mumbulla’s tales have an impressive immediacy.
Dad went out and talked to him in the language. He talked to him: ‘We are all right. No one doing any harm. You can go away.’
Dad followed him across the road, talking to him all the time in the language.
I look out of the window. That’s when I saw the bunyip. He was milk-white.
Two modern stories in The Oxford Book of Australian Ghost Stories that should not be read after dark are those by Sean Williams and Terry Dowling. Williams’ ‘Going Nowhere’ has an authentic horror that kept recurring in my mind for several days—it’s a good reason not to break down on the Nullarbor. And Dowling’s ‘The Daemon Street Ghost Trap’ has an excellent and surprising twist on the well-worn haunted room motif.
An hour off reading to have an argument with a client who has stolen a pre-stolen car and is charged with car theft. ‘But I can’t have stolen it, it was already stolen,’ he protests. ‘Was it your car?’ ‘No.’ ‘Then you stole it and you’re pleading guilty, let’s get this show on the road.’ ‘But I can’t have stolen it, it was already stolen!’ he wails. I manage not to shirtfront the client, instead inventing eight different ways of saying the same thing until he finally says ‘Oh, you mean I stole it and I’m pleading guilty?’ with an air of enlightenment. I get the case into court smartish before he changes his mind.
Then to Strange Fruit, an anthology of horror stories edited by the innovative Paul Collins. Usually innovative. Perhaps with the advent of The X-Files and Stephen King (may something out of one of his fetid novels happen to him—I keep remembering the fate of the horror writer in ‘Beauty’ by Sherri Tepper), it isn’t as easy to horrify people as it used to be. But these stories strike me as anaemic. Most of the writers seem to lack the courage to claim that the cause of whatever is happening is actually supernatural. Poe could manage it. Lucy Sussex manages it with ‘The Lady with the Ermine’. The best ones are Jack Wodhams’ ‘Jade Elm’ about a carnivorous tree (not a new theme but well handled), Thomas Shapcott’s reworking of the bitter bit in ‘Martin Falvey’ and the truly horrible ‘Old Wood’ by Steven Paulson about a renovator possessed by the vengeful spirits of murdered convicts. On the whole, though, this isn’t the outer limits. Or if it is, the universe is more ordinary than we can imagine.
She’s Fantastical has the most beautiful cover I’ve seen in years. St Martha dragon-killer in pink and dark blue by Deborah Klein. I have to say now, however, that I found the typeface distractingly twee and would rather have had plain text in black than blue italianate script, which is hard to read in strong sunlight. Design apart, this is a valuable collection.
Ursula Le Guin, a writer for whom I have the greatest respect, talks in her introduction about female ways of relating to the boys’ club of science fiction.
The view from below, from outside, from behind the mop-bucket, is a view through the illusions and collusions of the ruling class. It is, in fact, a novelist’s view. We know who to go to for truth about life on the plantation, and it ain’t Massa.
In fact, this book is worth buying for the introduction alone.
So what are the views from behind the mop-bucket? ‘She’s fantastical, they all do cry/Yet they will imitate her, by and by,’ said Margaret Cavendish, the ‘mad’ Duchess of Newcastle. Are male science fiction writers likely to find themselves imitating female ones? And is there a huge difference anyway? Time will say nothing, I expect, but ‘I told you so.’
This collection includes some of the best and worst of women’s science fiction/fantasy writing. One expects women’s writing to include revenge stories, so here is ‘The Master Builders Wife’ by Lisa Jacobson. He creates a vast and confusing house which she systematically tears down. I didn’t like the philosophy, but there it is. Slaves will destroy if they have no freedom of expression. There is the genetically engineered angel whose wings have been cut off and a deeply satisfying escape in ‘Angel Thing’ by Petrina Smith. No-one but a female writer would have wondered about the difficulty of giving birth for shapechangers, as in the charming and gentle ‘Possum Lover’ by Yvonne Rousseau.
The horror story ‘Entropy’ by Leanne Frahm is well done, the apotheosis of the axiom ‘Cleanliness is next to impossible.’ And I really loved ‘A Sky Full of Ravens’ by Sue Isle. A trainee sorceress deals with the invasion of a nock of ravens in a most satisfactory and ingenious fashion. The pregnant spaceman in ‘The Padwan Affair’ by Tess Williams owes nothing to Red Dwarf and is a satire on the way women are treated. And I was greatly affected by ‘One Last Picture of Ruby-Rose (a letter to Kevin Arnett)’ by Carmel Bird, where a woman photographs her child into nothingness. An embarrassed Lucy Sussex escorts a nineteenth-century feminist around the city, blushing for her racism, sexism and lack of understanding in a gently humorous story called ‘A Tour Guide in Utopia’. She shows a depth of historical understanding which must have been hard-won and certainly takes the palm as the best, consistently best, writer in all three anthologies.
Most of the rest suffer from reading too much Sherri Tepper, or an intractable case of postmodernism, eschewing punctuation, narrative, capital letters and, in the most extreme instances, both sentences and story. For those to whom this defiant lack of sense appeals: I suggest you omit the stories named above and make pigs of yourselves on the rest.
What is this fascination with anthologies anyway? I have spent what can only be called an action-packed week reading short stories and I think I would rather have had a novel. All anthologies must by their nature contain stories you aren’t going to like, along with some that may be brilliant and memorable. I would rather buy a novel by a writer I like for the journeys to the Magistrates’ Court, the interminable waiting during which I cannot relax because in a moment someone is going to call ‘Miss Greenwood to Court One’, for the station waiting and the exalted moment when I can make a cup of coffee, pour a small brandy; take one cat on a knee and the other on a shoulder and stare out the window at the (still bare) tomato patch.
But it’s obviously profitable because there is a new anthology published every month. Publishers I have spoken to say that the important thing is that there will be at least one story in every anthology that someone will like, so they make the best presents. However, should you be thinking of buying me a present, dearest reader, Green Chartreuse is always most acceptable.