By Ron Breznay
Originally published on July 11, 2008 in Hellnotes
What makes Australian weird fiction different?
In his introduction to The Anthology of Colonial Australian Gothic Fiction, Ken Gelder describes gothic fiction as “an intense blend of the supernatural, family romance and gloomy atmospherics.” He says the first gothic novel was The Castle of Otranto (1764), by the English writer Horace Walpole, and the genre was popularized by another English writer, Ann Radcliffe, with The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and other novels. The genre flourished in the nineteenth century and spread from Europe to America and then to Australia. Although Australian gothic was an imported genre, it developed unique local characteristics. Classic Australian horror fiction differs from northern-hemisphere horror in two major ways: settings and the supernatural entities haunting the stories.
Instead of moors, you have the vast and hostile outback and the less harsh but no less desolate bush as common settings. The outback is the remote desert land outside the main urban areas on the coasts of Australia. It is vast and sparsely settled, with hot, dry conditions. The fauna consists of camels, dingoes, kangaroos, snakes, lizards, and wild horses (brumbies). As far as flora goes, most of the outback is infertile, though there are some grasslands along the fringes, which are used for sheep and cattle ranches (known as stations). The bush is a wilderness area, with brush lands or forests, water-holes and creeks. So the Australian outback and bush look very different from the moors, meadows, and dense forests used as settings in American and European fiction. In addition, the outback and bush were dangerous because of climate and lawlessness, and stories set there played on the fears of the early European settlers of Australia.
As horror is a reflection of the culture in which it is written and meant to be read, you won’t find vampires, zombies, witches, or werewolves as horror tropes in Australian horror because these entities belong to a different culture. Ghosts abound, as in the northern hemisphere, but they are sometimes different. In “The Ghost of Wanganilla: Founded on Fact,” by Ellen Augusta Chads, a visiting English schoolmaster states: “I do not expect [a ghost] of the correct type; your ‘marvelous Melbourne’ is altogether too new for that style of thing.” Where there are ghosts, there are also haunted houses. The haunted houses in Australian stories are mainly found not in cities but in the bush and outback as those otherworldly areas stirred the imaginations of these early writers.
James Doig states that there are many stories about a child lost in the bush or outback and being preyed upon by a supernatural manifestation, “symbolic, perhaps, of European colonists naively blundering into a harsh, unforgiving landscape and suffering the consequences.”
A unique creature of Australian legend is the bunyip. It is also called a devil, debil-debil, or spirit. Descriptions vary widely but have many common features. For example, in “Ironbark Bill Meets the Bunyip,” by Dal Stivens, the creature is described as “about ten feet long, with a body like a Murray cod with gleaming golden-yellow scales, flippers like a crocodile, and the head of an old man. His hair was coarse and long like a horse’s mane.” The creatures lurk in water-holes, swamps, creeks, and similar areas. They give off a blood-curdling cry when they devour any creature that ventures too close to their home.
Another common feature of Australian horror fiction is the cry of “coo-ee.” It is a call used in the bush, but it often appears in fiction as an eerie cry announcing death or warning against it. The cry is such a cultural icon that one writer, William Sylvester Walker, used Coo-ee as his pseudonym.
Then there are the seasons. Inhabitants of the Northern Hemisphere are well aware that the seasons in Australia are the opposite, but it still gives one pause to read lines like: “It was a winter’s night – an Australian winter’s night – in the middle of July” (”The Ghost Upon the Rail,” by John Lang) or “The old man shaded his eyes and peered through the dazzling glow of that broiling Christmas Day” (”The Bush Undertaker,” by Henry Lawson).
Common outlets for many early authors were the many periodicals that appeared in Australia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which also published stories by British and American authors.
Australian Journal, founded in Melbourne in 1865, was a weekly for its first four years of publication and then became a monthly. Published continuously until 1962, it actively promoted Australian literature and gave many colonial authors their start. Marcus Clarke, known for his weird tales, was an editor in 1870. His well-known novel of convict life, His Natural Life, was serialized in this magazine.
The Bulletin was an influential weekly newsmagazine founded in 1880 by journalists J.F. Archibald and John Haynes and published in Sydney. It began as an illustrated journal of political and business commentary, with some literary content and was called the “Bushman’s bible.” However, in its early years, it was racist and xenophobic (its slogan was “Australia for the White Man”). In 1886, the magazine started accepted contributions from readers, and soon its pages contained short stories, poetry, and cartoons submitted by miners, shearers, and timber-workers from all across the continent. Some of this material was of high quality, and many leading figures in Australian literature had their start in this magazine. By 1900, the magazine had reached a circulation of 80,000. But The Bulletin gradually declined in the 20th century, being seen as a sad, almost comical relic of radical, racist thought. In 1961, the magazine was sold and modernized, becoming mostly a newsjournal along the lines of Time and Newsweek, but with occasional stories as a tribute to its literary past. The modern version peaked in the 1990s and steadily lost circulation since then, finally folding on January 24, 2008.
Lone Hand was an illustrated monthly magazine started as an offshoot of The Bulletin by J.F. Archbald (a “lone hand” is a solitary, resourceful prospector in the bush). It first appeared in 1907 under the editorship of Frank Fox and lasted until 1921. Its concentration was on the arts and literature.
Other periodicals that published early Australian weird fiction included Digest, The Blue Book, Australasian (1864-1946), and The Australian Town and Country Journal (1870-1919).