Under Stones by Bob Franklin (Affirm Press)
From Guest Judge Chuck McKenzie’s Report: Under Stones (Bob Franklin) is a magnificent collection of short stories ranging from dark fantasy to outright horror to less definable but equally disturbing work. Featuring strong, concise prose and empathic characterisation, almost all the tales herein induce varying levels of unease, many to the extent of playing upon the mind of the reader long after the individual tale has been read. Franklin’s fiction vividly recalls the style (and effect) of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, whilst nonetheless related in a voice that is recognisably Franklin’s own, and the author has that unsettling knack peculiar to outsiders (Franklin being a UK expat) of highlighting the unique terrors of even the most banal Australian settings that local writers are sometimes inured to. Under Stones is a work that will appeal as much to the literary mainstream as it does to a genre-specific readership, and as such, should ideally garner the wider readership it deserves on the back of this award.
Macabre: A Journey Through Australia’s Darkest Fears, edited by Angela Challis & Marty Young (Brimstone Press)
From Guest Judge Rocky Wood’s Report: Macabre: A Journey Through Australia’s Darkest Fears is an important book. Editors Angela Challis and Marty Young set themselves an interesting and uneasy task – to showcase Australia’s long history of dark fiction publishing, contrasting that with new output from today’s established and emerging writers from the horror genre. They succeeded by avoiding the risk of aiming for whatever might have been popular or attractive in horror’s many sub-genre’s at the time they selected the included works, while showing deep, nay loving, respect for truly Australian tales from our past.
The volume will surely be selected from bookshelves and e-readers for generations to come, unlike so many horror anthologies that have a half-life of a year or two. Readers, writers of genre fiction, students of both Australian and worldwide literature, and researchers have the mother lode here – it’s the literary equivalent of Lang Hancock’s Hamersley Iron deposit – full of riches that will give for decades.
What a delight to find an aboriginal vampire story from the inter-war period (“Yara Ma Tha Who” by David Unaipon, a man we Aussies regularly sight in our wallets). Or the innovative tale (well, at the time) from Marcus Clarke, author of For The Term of His Natural Life, in which he is visited by a slew of his own characters! (“Ladies and gentlemen, consider the exigencies of fiction!”) Clarke claimed the ‘dominant note’ of Australian scenery is ‘Weird Melancholy’ (dated terminology but still applicable). Henry Lawson’s “The Ghostly Door” is amusing if not, in the end, that scary and was an interesting choice for the editors, set in New Zealand as it is, rather than Australia – but it certainly illustrates the style and dry wit of the time.
The editors achieved further balance with worthy contributions from some of Australia’s better known contemporary genre writers (Terry Dowling, Will Elliott, Richard Harland, Robert Hood, Stephen M. Irwin, Kaaron Warren, Sean Williams) and a slew of those representing a golden ‘generation’ of Australian dark fiction scribblers, including Shane Jiraiya Cummings, Stephen Dedman, Russell B. Farr, Bob Franklin, Paul Haines, Martin Livings, Kirstyn McDermott). Really, if one was not careful here, we’d be reading the entire Table of Contents. And that’s the point, really – an editing team who went the extra mile to select and attract talented writers and quality fiction.
A couple of choices will make my point. Elliott’s “Dhayban” (an indigenous word for the taipan snake) is an odd tale of twisted redemption and brilliantly picks up the dangers of our Land. “Can’t Stop Killing You”(Russell B. Farr), on the other hand, is more a horror tale by an Australian – it could be set anywhere and really is, with only the intervention of a local train wreck to identify it as of this continent. It barely matters whether local matters inspire the tale or that it is simply by an Australian – what matters more is that the editors achieved their aim of delivering the quintessential selection of dark short tales illustrating the Australian experience.
Readers find here a real sense of isolation, an almost alien place populated by those a long way from the rest of the world (particularly in the colonial days when sailing ships took months to return to the Mother Country). As has been pointed out elsewhere, it’s no wonder On the Beach, Mad Max and other apocalyptic movies and stories are set in Terra Australis – apart from Antarctica, this is the strangest and most inhospitable natural environment on our planet. On the slightly more positive side, the collection showcases a genuine connectedness with the spirit of the geography and reflects indigenous mythology, the flora and fauna, and the toughness of the native population, Aussie settlers, and their descendants – both literally and those who followed as immigrants.
We who write and study the genre closely will easily value this collection; but just as importantly, those who simply read widely are offered something well above the norm in Macabre: A Journey Through Australia’s Darkest Fears. It is the deserved winner of the 2010 Australian Shadows Award for Best Edited Publication.
“She Said” by Kirstyn McDermott (Scenes from the Second Storey)
From Guest Judge Kaaron Warren’s Report: The story that resonated the most with me, and which came back to me at odd hours of the day for a week after reading, was Kirstyn McDermott’s “She Said.” McDermott’s story embodies all the qualities of the others: sadness, cruelty, bizarreness, and originality. Her imagery is deeply disturbing because it seems so right in the story. She has created a man so evil, so foul, and yet so attractive and lovable that I was conflicted as I read as to whether he was really evil or simply misunderstood. This trick, I think, is what makes McDermott’s story a brilliant one.