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The Search for Early Australian Horror

(as appeared in Bloodsongs #2, 1994)
by Steven Paulsen

"Examples of early Australian horror stories are few and far between." This was statement made to me recently by a horror fan well versed in contemporary Australian Horror fiction.

I was inclined to agree with him, but I would have been wrong. Horror stories lurk in early Australian literature in many guises. You might have to hunt to find them -- unless you take advantage of some of the short cuts mentioned in this article -- but they are there for the finding.

Don't expect to turn up too many stories about vampires, werewolves, witches, zombies and the like -- these are the horror icons of other cultures. Indeed, with the exception of ghost stories (spirits belong to a primordial fear common across most cultures), the supernatural does not feature all that prominently in early Australian fiction. Instead, Australians found other sources of horror to populate their nightmares -- they wrote about the things that frightened them, fears specific to our landscape and our people.

So where does one start the search for these horror stories from yesteryear -- the horror stories which are our literary heritage?

You could scour old, hard-to-find magazines and short story collections. The Bulletin, referred to by many as "the Bushman's Bible", is an obvious place to start. It was a popular magazine late last century which had a reputation for publishing fiction with a distinctive Australian style. But even if you could actually lay your hands on the old publications you would need to read, I suspect the task would be too daunting for most.

Another way is to try and track down the works of particular authors who worked in the genre. But Australia does not have any single writer in its past who made his or her name writing horror stories. There is no Poe or Bierce, no Lovecraft or M.R. James. In fact most early Australian horror and supernatural stories -- particularly ghost stories -- were written by writers better known for bush yarns or other genres. Writers such as Marcus Clarke, Tom Collins, Edward Dyson, Henry Lawson and many others used elements of horror in their writing.

Guy Boothby (1867 - 1905) might come closest to being an early Australian horror story writer, but he was still better known for his crime, mystery and adventure tales than for his macabre fiction. Several of Boothby's story collections contain ghost tales. Examples worthy of note are "Remorseless Vengeance" in Uncle Joe's Legacy (1902 - reprinted in Terror Australis: The Best of Australian Horror [Hodder and Stoughton, 1993] edited by Leigh Blackmore) and "A Strange Goldfield" and "The Black Lady of Brin Tor" in The Lady of the Island (1903). Unfortunately, these collections are somewhat scarce today.

Also worth noting (and easier to locate) are Boothby's earlier series of novels based on the character Dr Nikola whose quest is to pursuit a Tibetan secret which can resuscitate the dead and impart immortality to the living. They are: A Bid for Fortune (1895 - a revised edition was published in the USA as Dr Nikola's Vendetta - 1908), Dr Nikola (1896), Dr Nikola's Experiment (1899) and Farewell Nikola (1901).

Boothby was a prolific writer, publishing some fifty or so novels in his lifetime. However his only other books of possible interest to horror readers are The Lust of Hate (1899), Pharos, the Egyptian (1899) and The Curse of the Snake (1902). These books all contain elements of the supernatural or fantastical, but are not necessarily Australian in theme. Boothby wrote for a cosmopolitan readership and lived permanently in the UK from 1894.

Barbara Baynton (1857 - 1929) is another Australian writer who could almost be considered a horror writer. She began writing in her early thirties and although she wrote on bush themes and was contemporary with Henry Lawson, her approach to the Australian bush was substantially different than that of Lawson's.

Baynton's stories explore the harshness of the bush. The landscape in her work it is often malevolent, overlaid with themes such as violence and greed, vulnerability and fear. Her stories are grim or macabre as much as horrific, tales where the landscape and men are compassionless and brutal.

Unlike Guy Boothby, Baynton was not prolific. She is mostly remembered for the six stories (some of which were first published in The Bulletin) which were collected in Bush Studies (Duckworth, London 1902). In these stories she is probably at her best and these tales will certainly be of greatest interest to horror readers. The publication of Bush Studies was followed by that of a short novel on similar themes called Human Toll in 1907. In 1917 two new stories were added to Bush Studies and it was republished as Cobbers.

Thankfully all Baynton's work has now been collected in a single volume with fully restored texts edited by Sally Krimmer and Alan Lawson: Barbara Baynton: Bush Studies, Other Stories; Human Toll, Verse & Letters (University of Queensland Press, 1980). It is a thoroughly researched book which includes previously uncollected material, poetry, letters, a brief interview and biographical data which, among other things, provides proof of her real birth date which Baynton chose to conceal.

But beyond the work of Boothby and Baynton it becomes more difficult to think of individuals with a reputation for writing horror fiction. It is more likely that an individual story (or two or three) can be recognised as horror from writers who are not usually associated with the field.

Fortunately, others before us have done some legwork unearthing many such stories as these. Readers who want to explore the roots of Australian horror fiction but don't have the time or inclination for such a daunting bibliographic study may wish to consider Gordon Neil Stewart's Australian Stories of Horror and Suspense from the Early Days.

This book was first published in 1978 by the Australasian Book Society and republished in 1983 by Hale and Iremonger with a new introduction by the editor. It is, unfortunately, currently out of print and difficult find but some libraries thankfully have copies.

Stewart has turned up a representative collection of grim stories written by early Australians (most of whom were either born in Australia or arrived here at an early age), which have clearly been influenced either by the Australian landscape or by its people. The volume consists of some thirty-four early tales reprinted from a variety of old books and magazines originally published between 1850 and the turn of the century.

The stories are categorised into thematic groups which are arranged in subtitled sections. The first of these sections is "Outsiders in the Land" and among other tales it includes Marcus Clarke's "Governor Ralph Darling's Iron Collar", and Tom Collins' "The Lost Child" which is an extract from his famous novel Such is Life.

"The Unforgiving Land", the second section of the book, gives us stories set amid drought and bushfire, and this is followed by "Masters and Servants" and "The Law and the Lawless". These sections contain tales with recognisably Australian backgrounds.

"Life and Death in the Tropics", however, contains stories set in the more exotic background of the South Pacific. Three of the stories are by Louis Becke who worked on trading ships in the South Seas before he became a writer, and most of the stories here have a sea-faring flavour.

The final section is called "Love, Hate and Madness in the Bush", and it's not surprising to find two Barbara Baynton stories from Bush Studies included here with a section title such as this. Henry Lawson, however, is also represented with a pair of suitably grim stories, "The Bush Undertaker" and "The Selector's Daughter".

Some readers will blithely reject many of these stories as horror (indeed, Stewart does not claim them all to be horror), but horror is a relative term. Certainly they can't be compared with the many graphic aspects of horror today. And if the horrors of yesteryear do not frighten today's reader, this is because they are stories of their time. They are written by and about our ancestors, and about things which frightened them.

That's not to say today's horror readers won't find them entertaining, and while they have an "old-fashioned flavour", many of their themes are timeless. In his introduction to the book Stewart says: "The subjects are very much the product of life -- love and hate, fear and danger, loneliness and despair, ignorance and poverty." And these are, after all, the very same themes at the core of today's horror.

Australian Horror Stories selected by Bill Wannan and published in 1983 by Currey O'Neil covers wider ground than the Stewart volume. Its stories are selected from around the turn of the century up until 1975 and range from very early stories similar to those mentioned previously through to modern surrealistic and science fiction stories. Our primary concern here, of course, are the early tales.

Bill Wannan will be more widely known to many readers as a humour anthologist -- this is how Wannan earns his living. His leisure reading, however, consists of tales of the "sinister, the disturbing and the macabre" so it should not surprise us entirely that he has compiled this "uncharacteristic" volume.

Among the early tales are stories of bush life, the goldfields and the South Seas, represented by many of the same writers who appear in Stewart's volume. There are stories by Baynton, Lawson, Dyson, Becke, Brereton and even Marcus Clarke with an extract from his novel, His Natural Life, first published in book form in 1874.

It will be no surprise therefore to find that many of the comments made about the previous anthology apply equally here. Again, some readers might question the validity of categorising some of these tales as horror stories, but in answer one need only look at Wannan's selection criteria: "All of the stories are concerned to define and illuminate some human encounter with terror, fear or dread."

Australian Horror Stories is also interesting in as much as it provides a follow on from the early Australian horror story, tracing its course into the middle part of this century. Almost half of the stories in the book were first published in the ten or twelve years spanning the 1940s.

Although also out of print, Wannan's book is easier to find than Stewart's, appearing fairly regularly in second hand book stores and available in many libraries.

The final book on my early Australian horror fiction recommended reading list is the soon to be published The Oxford Book of Australian Ghost Stories edited by Dr Ken Gelder. This book is scheduled for publication in hardback in October this year by Oxford University Press and is expected to retail for $39.95.

A quick glance at the proposed contents list shows that Gelder is providing us with a retrospective view of the genre. Like Wannan's selection, these stories span the past to the present (including some more recent offerings by Lucy Sussex, Sean Williams and Terry Dowling), but Gelder's selection is weighted more towards the early story.

Ken Gelder is currently on leave of absence from the University of Melbourne and is a principal lecturer in English, Media and Cultural Studies at De Montfort University in Leicester. Gelder first came to the attention of many horror fans after his appearance on ABC radio when he produced and presented a feature on ghost narratives. Among his previous books Reading the Vampire (Routledge, 1994) is also of interest.

A close examination of Gelder's selection reveals some interesting statistics. Of the twenty eight contributors, seven are represented in either Stewart's or Wannan's selection, and three of these contributors, Marcus Clarke, Edward Dyson and Barbara Baynton are represented in all three volumes.

You will notice a scarcity of women writers in both Stewart's and Wannan's selections -- indeed, Stewart comments on this fact, pointing out that while there were other early women writers (aside from Barbara Baynton and Mary Gaunt), they wrote mainly novels which were the "more fashionable art form of the nineteenth century". In Gelder's selection, to his credit, women make up one third of the contributors.

Ghost stories are a personal favourite of mine, so it is with great anticipation that I look forward to The Oxford Book of Australian Ghost Stories. Some of the proposed contents are familiar, however, forshadowing Gelder's selection of lesser known tales.

John Lang's "The Ghost Upon the Rail" (1859) is one of the more familiar retellings of the Fisher's Ghost tale, probably Australia's best known ghost story. Lang himself is regarded by many as the first Australian-born writer to publish fiction. Interestingly, Lang has changed the names of some of the characters and changed the location of the tale to Penrith instead of Campbelltown to avoid libel as the story is based on a true occurance that happened only 33 years prior to his account.

Surprisingly absent from the previous two anthologies, Guy Boothby appears here with two popular stories: "With Three Phantoms" and "Remorseless Vengeance". Also included is Barbara Baynton's nightmarish borderline ghost story from Bush Studies, "The Dreamer" (also known as "A Dreamer"), in which a pregnant women makes her way home to her mother through a malevolent landscape.

Other contributions which may be familiar to readers are: Edward Dyson with "The Trucker's Dream", Ernest Favenc with "An Unquiet Spirit" and "The Red Lagoon", and Hume Nisbet with "The Haunted Station". In all Gelder has compiled 35 tales and I for one am looking forward to the publication of this book -- the first historical collection of Australian ghost stories.

Are examples of early Australian horror stories few and far between? I think not. Difficult to find? Perhaps. Certainly the books mentioned in this article provide a wide range of examples and an excellent starting point for the interested reader. I suspect, however, there may be many more examples of early Australian horror fiction lurking in dusty, forgotten tomes, just waiting to be discovered.

Document Created: 2nd June, 1994 | Last Updated: 27th November, 2006