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2006 Judge's Comments: Miranda Siemienowicz

The Australian Shadows award is an award for dark fiction, and judging this year quickly became an attempt to define that phrase, or at least to decide what is and is not dark fiction. Entries were from a variety of markets (Australian and overseas) and covered a broad range of sub-genres, raising a number of questions. Is a story about a vampire or zombie automatically dark fiction? Probably not if the piece is comedy - if the author's primary intention is to make the reader laugh. Similarly if the piece is a gentle love story, even though the characters are ghosts.

The dark atmosphere of a piece is lost when the plot or premise is dark (loss of freedom, grief) but the writing fails to convey any sense of anguish or desperation. Many stories that fell in this category looked to the traditional tropes of horror writing - eternal punishment after death, hauntings, murders - but relied solely on these mechanical features without creating an overall mood.

The quality of the writing was the most fundamental part of judging and it was frustrating to receive stories with frank flaws in construction: clichéd, clunky or melodramatic language, ungainly shifts in point of view, poor pacing with drawn-out conclusions and disruptive flashbacks, or straightforward problems with maintaining a consistent tense. These drawbacks were by no means limited to Australian markets; technically imperfect pieces were entered from
across the board, including overseas small press and pro rate venues.

But technical strength is probably the only objective aspect to assessing quality dark fiction. A number of stories I felt to be sound did not, for a variety of reasons, make the final cut. Some pieces worth drawing attention to were "The Revenant" (Lucy Sussex, Eidolon I) and Lee Battersby's "Fade" (Ticonderoga Online #8), both solid literary pieces. Three works from Fantasy Magazine were stand-outs - the lyrical and culture-infused "The Mosquito Story" (A. M. Muffaz), the wonderfully surreal and moody "Why The Balloon Man Floats Away" (Stephanie Campisi) and Ben Peek's "Under the Red Sun", darkly exotic with great characterisation. Margo Lanagan's short story collection "Red Spikes" excelled in the elegantly creepy fairytale "Winkie", which creates a wonderful sense of dangerous secrecy. Three promising new writers were N. Joy Dodds ("Souls of Our Sons", Ticonderoga Online #7), with her soft, magical voice; Peter McGregor, whose " half past four" (Ticonderoga Online #8) built steadily in Waldrop-like fashion to a satisfying conclusion and Matthew Doyle, with a bizarre and neat use of religion and art in "Painting with Ichor" (Ticonderoga Online #10).

The growth of Brimstone Press this year produced a greater awareness of dark fiction, particularly in the form of the 2006 edition of Australian Dark Fantasy and Horror (ed. Angela Challis and Shane Jiraiya Cummings), a reprint anthology of high quality dark fiction and non-fiction. The Redback Special (Issue 9) from online magazine Shadowed Realms was another quality production, showcasing dark writing from local female authors through strong design and content.

The final shortlist and the selection of honourable mentions was an exercise in compromise and debate, but the outcome is one with which I am very comfortable. Lee Battersby's "Father Renoir's Hands" (Through Soft Air, Prime Books) is a guttural reversal of an oft-repeated theme; Stephen Dedman's "The Blow-Off" (Brutarian #47) is a mature, literary tale with freakshow flavour; Deborah Biancotti's "The Dying Light" (Eidolon I) builds a strong, human and very dark world; Will Elliott's "The Pilo Family Circus" (ABC Books) takes the dark novel to a whole new realm with its horror comic strip feel and Carol Ryles's "The Bridal Bier" (Eidolon I) is a homage to classic horror portrayed in a lyrical Carteresque voice.

The honourable mentions all show solid writing and strong atmosphere: Brett McBean's novel "The Mother" (Lothian Books), K. J. Bishop's "Silk and Pearls" (Shadowed Realms #9), Simon Brown's "The Cup of Nestor" (Troy, Ticonderoga Publications) and Terry Dowling's collection Basic Black" (Cemetery Dance Publications).

The dark fiction produced by Australians in 2006 included a wide variety of high quality writing. For me the strongest works were those that kept away from the clichés of horror and created an unsettling atmosphere by finding strangeness in other places - human defence mechanisms, the difficulty of letting go, paranoia, irrationality - creating dark stories that disturb without being self-consciously "horrific".

Back to 2006 Shortlist