On Research, Dead Trees & Horror in Australia
Picture this: it’s a rainy winter’s night and on a narrow road that winds through dense forest – mountains on one side, sheer drop on the other – you see a car’s headlights cut a feeble path of light through the pitch darkness. Now you see the car – it’s a small hatchback that looks like a matchbox car next to the trees that tower over it on either side of the road. Then, from around a bend comes a truck; a large, what-the-hell-is-it-doing-on-a-narrow-curving-road-in-the-mountains kind of truck. Its travelling fast, faster than the little car, and for the moment, as the two pass on this wet, winding road, the forest lit up like a Christmas tree, the driver of the hatchback wonders what would happen if the truck were to lose control – would the driver and passenger be crushed into the mountain, or would the car be knocked over the sheer drop and plummet to the darkness below? But just as the driver is contemplating which death would be the preferable option, the truck passes, the night grows dark again, and the two people in the car breathe a sigh of relief and continue along the shadowy mountain road…
Sounds like something out of a horror movie, doesn’t it? Or out of a novel, something by Richard Laymon or Dean Koontz.
Well it’s not. It was me (and my then girlfriend, now wife) in 2001, doing research for my novel The Last Motel, specifically driving along the Maroondah Highway in Victoria, the Black Spur section of the Great Dividing Range. If you want an eerie, very horror movie-esque drive, I highly recommend doing the Black Spur at night, preferably in the winter, when it’s either raining or foggy.
Ok, I hear you saying, thanks for the travel tip Brett, but why bother telling us about this?
Simple – because Australia can be just as good a place to set a horror novel than in America, or anywhere else overseas.
Horror novels set in America and England are everywhere – it’s what most of us are familiar with, have grown up with. We’re used to reading about Stephen King’s America or the British ethos through the words of James Herbert or more recently Simon Clark.
But stories set Down Under are few and far between.
Which, in my view is a damn shame.
We’ve got bustling cities rife with crime and grime, lush mountains, barren desert, tropical rainforests, farmland, small country towns, a plethora of beaches – every setting a horror author could need.
True, Australia may not have the history of Europe, or the hillbilly culture of backwoods USA, but that doesn’t mean we are without our own flavour or culture. We have a bloody history, one filled with stories of convicts and bushrangers. Australia is steeped in myths and legends from the world’s most ancient living culture. We have plenty of creepy haunted houses, like Monte Cristo in New South Wales and we even have our fair share of serial killers and mass-murderers. There’s a lot to draw from and the Australian landscape is as diverse as anywhere on Earth.
Take Mitchell River National Park near Bairnsdale in East Victoria – there’s a cave among the glorious mountain surroundings, beneath a small waterfall, called the Den of Nargun. According to Aboriginal dreamtime stories, the Nargun is a half human half stone female creature who lives in the cave. This creature abducts children or unwary travellers into its den and because of its mostly stone body, can not be hurt by spears or other weapons. This legend was used to keep children close to their families and to keep others away from this sacred site.
There’s the Victorian University of Technology in Sunbury, a sprawling campus of gothic buildings. It used to be the Sunbury Lunatic Asylum, home to the notorious Women’s Refractory Ward where, from 1894 right up until 1989 (the ward wasn’t officially closed until 1992), women suffering from any number of ‘difficulties’ such as post-natal depression, venereal disease, or who were simply homeless, were deemed insane and institutionalised. The building where around fifty of the students now live used to be the nurses station, and apparently many a nurse committed suicide from the top level of this building. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few ghosts haunted the living quarters and classrooms.
Just a few seemingly normal, everyday places, with darker secrets lurking behind their otherwise ordinary façades.
Then there’s the place I found by chance while researching my latest novel.
The novel I’m working on at the moment, The Mother, is also set in Australia – along that great beast of a road the Hume. While I was planning the story, I had to decide where I was going to set the novel and originally I decided to set it along a major freeway (or interstate) in America. The story is about a woman hitchhiking, searching for the man who murdered her daughter, and I thought the seedy motels, diners, truck-stops etc. of an American interstate would be the perfect place for my character to inhabit; after all, these are the types of places you often see in American movies and read about in American horror/crime novels.
But the more I thought about it, the less thrilled I became with setting my story in the US – not only would I not be able to do any hands on research, but I started wondering whether a more Australian feel to the novel would work better. The story of Ivan Milat and the backpacker murders came to me and suddenly it all made sense and the novel’s tone changed drastically from what I had initially intended.
Generally, I tend to write the first draft of a novel before diving into the heavy research. I get the story and characters down and then, on the second draft, while I’m tearing apart everything I wrote, deleting this and that and crying in agonising re-writing hell, I’ll start to add the details from my research. A lot of things can change once I’ve researched the place the novel is set (of course, I’ll still do some preliminary research before I begin, just a small amount to get the general feel of the town, country, wherever the novel is set), and this happened a number of times during my research trip in June of 2005 along the Hume Freeway/Highway.
I had already written the first draft of The Mother and in it, I had the body of the daughter being found in a wooded exit off the highway. One of the many aims of the research trip was to find an exit road along the Hume, between Melbourne and Sydney, that was suitably bushy, and I managed to find a few. I took some photos and marked the areas on my map where these exits were, and continued on with other research, putting that part of the story out of my mind.
That was until I was driving home a few days later and by chance, stumbled upon the perfect area for my body to be dumped.
I was actually researching areas for another part of the novel and I had hoped to find that area in Mt. Samaria State Park. I had gotten off the Hume and was heading towards the small Victorian town of Benalla, and as I was driving along the road leading into the town, I noticed a sign for Lake Mokoan.
I had never heard of this lake before, and I had missed the turnoff, so I continued into Benalla. But a thought kept nagging at me – what if the lake was a place I could use in the novel?
It was morning, an extremely foggy morning, and I still had all day to go searching around Mt. Samaria, so I turned around and headed back to Lake Mokoan.
I’m glad I did.
Even though I was thinking it could be the setting for another part of the novel, the moment I arrived there, I knew it had to be the area where the killer dumps the body of the daughter.
Lake Mokoan used to be swampland before being turned into a lake in the late 1960s. As a result of the initial flooding, the Redgums that populated the area started to die out, but it wasn’t until the mid-‘80s, during a drought, when all aquatic plants died completely. When the lake refilled in 1986, the water grew seriously contaminated, and now often during the summer the water becomes infested with blue-green algae, making it useless for irrigation – its primary purpose.
Still, all those hundreds, maybe thousands of dead trees just sitting in the water like a thousand gnarled hands reaching up to the sky; it’s an eerie scene – well at least I thought so. What helped was that it was still incredibly foggy when I arrived that bitter winter morning. I wasn’t able to see the other side of the lake, so the lake was just a sea of white – I couldn’t even see the water – and the dead trees reaching out of the fog was like something out of a gothic horror novel. You could call it ‘Tree Sematary’.
The lake, also used for yachting, water skiing and fishing, is surrounded by fairly dense woodland. I was completely alone, so I took a walk around the area, into the woods and discovered the perfect spot for my body to be dumped.
For a horror writer researching his latest novel, that morning was beyond incredible – not only had I found the perfect area for a crucial scene in my novel, but it was just plain creepy as hell and I stayed at the lake for a long time, soaking the atmosphere up into my twisted mind.
And to think – not only didn’t I know this place existed, but I almost didn’t bother checking it out.
I’m sure there are places similar to Lake Mokoan around Australia, as well as other creepy places like the Den of Nargun and VUT that we horror authors and fans of the macabre are unaware of. Such is the beauty and richness of our great land.
It’s a pity there aren’t many horror writers taking advantage of the unique Aussie landscape.
Does this mean that every Australian horror writer should set their stories in Australia? Of course not. As writers, we have to go where the story and characters take us, and if that’s to some village in Cornwall, or to a beach in Jamaica, then so be it.
But sometimes we should step out our front door once in a while, take a walk down that unfamiliar road and see where it leads you.
You may be surprised what you find there.
Brett McBean is the author of The Mother (Lothian Books, 2006), and The Last Motel, published by Biting Dog Publications. His stories have appeared in places such as Dark Discoveries, Asylum Volume 3: The Quiet Ward, and The Rising: Necrophobia. Visit Brett's website for more information.