I have a fascination with old horror fiction stories, particularly so in Australia and New Zealand. They are a vital part of our past, showing us where we’ve come from, while revealing so much about society at the time of their writing. When I started working on Macabre in 2007 or thereabouts, I spent several years hunting down these forgotten gems from colonial through to pulp times, and there were some real treasures to be found.
A friend of mine, James Doig, was doing likewise at around the same time, and he has gone on to publish a number of great anthologies capturing many of these otherwise difficult-to-find colonial stories. James also put together a brilliant resource on the AHWA website, listing a great number of stories and their authors, key anthologies, references, and quite a few original covers, through until around 1960. Unfortunately, those pages never made it across to the new AHWA site, so I’ve captured them on my own website under Australian Horror History. There’s too much history there to be consigned to the dusty corners of the internet.
I think this from Marcus Clarke sums it up perfectly:
‘The very animal life of these frowning hills is either grotesque or ghostly. Great gray kangaroos hop noiselessly over the coarse grass. Flights of white cockatoos stream out shrieking like evil souls. The sun suddenly sinks, and the mopokes burst out into horrible peals of semi-human laughter. The natives aver that when night comes, from out the bottomless depths of some lagoon the Bunyip rises, and in form like a monstrous sea-calf, drags his loathsome length from out the ooze. From a corner of the silent forest rises a dismal chant, and around a fire, dance natives painted like skeletons.’ (Australian Tales, 1896)
In 2008, I wrote an article called Colonial Ghosts and Modern Terrors; An Overview of Australian Horror Fiction, which was published in Reading Down Under: Australian Literary Studies Reader (Sports & Spiritual Science Publications). That piece covered the colonial era, but also the pulp times and right up to modern day – well, modern when it was written, a decade ago now! A lot has changed in the small press world since then, although that’s standard, I guess. Below is a small snippet of that article, and the full one can be read here.
The Beginning—Early Australian Horror
Late 19th century Australian horror stories had a gothic focus on the grim realities of life for the European immigrants in such a harsh and desolate, almost apocalyptic world, a world like they had never before experienced. Much of the horror in these stories was derived through the suffocating ‘bush’ and the isolation of the outback (eg, “The Conquering Bush” by Edward Dyson, 1898). The supernatural existed predominantly in the form of ghosts, spirits of the dead seeking retribution for some vile deed or wanting to be put to rest (eg, “Spirit Led” by Ernest Favenc, 1890). And the outback, for such a desolate world, was surprisingly filled with such frightful apparitions. Other stories focused on the horror of more natural human emotions; revenge, lust, greed, and desire (eg, “The Chosen Vessel” by Barbara Baynton, 1902; “Hollis’s Debt: A Tale of the North-West Pacific” by Louis Becke, 1897).
There were, however, the occasional story regarding something more overtly horrific and otherworldly. Three such examples are: “The Devil of the Marsh” by H.B. Mariott-Watson (1893), which details the account of a man who set out to meet up with his loved one, only for her to turn out to be a devil of the marsh; Ernest Favenc’s “A Haunt of the Jinkarras” (1894), in which two Bushmen encounter human-like beings and other monstrosities in a cave deep beneath the ground; and “The Old Portrait” by (James) Hume Nisbet (1900), whereby the main character unearths an old portrait of a vampire who comes to life and seduces him.
I’m glad that James has made such an effort to make these stories digitally available, and I’m glad Angela Challis and I included what we did in Macabre, because these tales deserve a modern-day audience. As I said before, they’re part of our cultural history, our identity. It’s where horror came from here in Australia.
I’ve just started working on a secret squirrel project with a group of pals that aims to rejuvenate these colonial and pulp-era stories, and in quite a fun way, too. More details on that when I can. But in the meantime, go hunt down any of those anthologies or stories mentioned here, and enjoy a true-blue taste of Australian horror.