By Ron Breznay
Originally published on June 2, 2008 in Hellnotes
A neglected geographical category of classic horror fiction is that of Australia. English-speaking readers, even many in Australia, are more familiar with English, Irish, and American weird tales than with those published down under. A movement is afoot within the Australian Horror Writers Association to rectify this situation, particularly through the efforts of James Doig and Benjamin Szumskyj.
Until recently, it appears only three modern anthologies of classic Australian horror have been published, and they are now out of print: Australian Stories of Horror and Suspense from the Early Days, edited by Gordon Neil Stewart (1978, 1983); Australian Horror Stories, edited by Bill Wannan (1983); and The Oxford Book of Australian Ghost Stories, edited by Ken Gelder (1994) (but in the first two, almost all of the stories are non-supernatural). Since late last year, however, this has changed. Three new anthologies have been published, a new periodical devoted to the Australian weird tale has appeared, and more anthologies as well as a non-fiction book are in the works.
In October 2007, The Anthology of Colonial Australian Gothic Fiction, edited by Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver, was published by Melbourne University Press. It is comprised of 17 stories published from 1859 through 1932, with the majority having first appeared in the nineteenth century. The book contains traditional ghost stories, such as John Lang’s “The Ghost Upon the Rail” (1859) and Mary Fortune’s “Mystery and Murder” (1866). There is a tale of a mysterious creature in “The Bunyip” (1891), by Rosa Campbell Praed. Henry Lawson’s blackly humorous “The Bush Undertaker” (1892) is included, as is the unusual tale of “An Australian Rip Van Winkle” (1921), by William Hay. Another nod to American horror is Hume Nisbet’s “The Haunted Station” (1894), with an ending reminiscent of “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
October 2007 also saw the publication of Australian Gothic: An Anthology of Australian Supernatural Fiction 1867-1939, edited by James Doig and issued by Equilibrium Books of Mandurah, Western Australia. This book collects 23 stories, most of which were first published from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Doig tried to include mainly stories that have not been reprinted since their original publication, making this volume not only an entertaining collection but also an important contribution to supernatural fiction and Australian literary history. This anthology includes, among others, the ghost story “The Spirits of the Tower” (1883), by Mary Fortune; B.L. Farjeon’s lost-child tale “Little Liz” (1867); “The Cave” (1932), by Beatrice Grimshaw, which tells of strange creatures on an isolated island; “The Vampire” (1901), by W.W. Lamble; and Dulcie Deamer’s “Hallowe’en” (1909).
Doig’s follow-up anthology, Australian Nightmares, was published by Equilibrium in June 2008. This volume contains 18 classic Australian horror tales. Among them are some Lovecraftian stories (”The Prophetic Horror of the Great Experiment,” by James Edmund, and “The Story of the Waxworks,” by Rosaleen Norton); a science fiction horror story involving a plague that decimates Australia, which is overrun by giant vampire bats (”What the Rats Brought,” by Ernest Favenc); a prehistoric swamp-monster (Beatrice Grimshaw’s “The Blanket Fiend”); a vampire tale (”The White Maniac,” by Mary Fortune); and some ghost and haunted house stories (”The House of Ill Omen,” by Rosa Praed, and Ernest Favenc’s “On the Island of Shadows”).
James Doig works at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. Much of his research for compiling these anthologies and writing about Australian weird tales was carried out in the National Library, which contains an extensive collection of early Australian periodicals.
In March 2008, the first issue appeared of Studies in Australian Weird Fiction, edited by Benjamin Szumskyj and published by Equilibrium. This trade paperback publication deals with contemporary as well as classic Australian horror fiction. The first issue contains a number of articles on various Australian horror writers; several interviews with contemporary Australian authors; The Ossuary, a column by Robert Hood; and two symposia, one a retrospective on Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and one entitled “Crosses & Shadows: Australian Christians Discuss the Horror Genre.”
Forthcoming are possibly further anthologies edited by James Doig. He hopes to publish a series of such books as he “suspect[s] there are a lot more good stories out there waiting to be rediscovered.” Also coming up are Macabre: A Journey Through Australian Horror, edited by Angela Challis and Marty Young, which collects classic as well as modern horror tales (coming soon from Brimstone Press); The Australian Weird Tale, a study of the subgenre by James Doig and Benjamin Szumskyj; and further issues of Studies in Australian Weird Fiction.
Some points about Australian history will help in understanding the stories as certain themes crop up again and again in early Australian fiction. In 1770, Captain James Cook discovered New South Wales and claimed it for Great Britain. On January 26, 1788, New South Wales became a British Crown Colony, thus starting Australia’s colonial period. Five other colonies were eventually formed: Tasmania, South Australia, Victoria, Queensland, and Western Australia. The colonies were united into one country when federation was declared on January 1, 1901.
Australia was initially settled through “transportation,” in which convicts were transported by ship from Great Britain to penal colonies overseas. The first convicts arrived in New South Wales on January 26, 1788 (see above). A second penal settlement was formed in 1803 in Van Diemen’s Land (later named Tasmania), followed by the Moreton Bay Settlement in Queensland in 1824. The other Australian colonies were called free settlements, or non-convict colonies. Until the gold rush, Australia’s European population was dominated by convicts and their descendants. Transportation officially ended in 1868.
A gold rush began in Australia in 1851 when the valuable metal was discovered in Victoria. The gold rush lasted until the late 1860s. The gold led to fortunes for many people and a rapid growth in Australia’s population – and to ghost towns when the mines played out.
The native population of Australia is called the Aborigines, or indigenous Australians, who had migrated from Asia some 30,000 years ago. The natives are often referred to in colonial stories as blacks or by the infamous “n-word.”