Monday, January 25, 2021

Six stories for fans of beautiful Australian Gothic

Kathleen Jennings is an illustrator and writer based in Brisbane, Australia. As an illustrator, she has won one World Fantasy Award (and been a finalist three other times), and has been shortlisted once for the Hugos, and once for the Locus Awards, as well as winning a number of Ditmars. As a writer, she has won two Ditmars and been shortlisted for the Eugie Foster Memorial Award and for several Aurealis Awards.

At she tagged six favorite stories for fans of beautiful Australian Gothic, including:
Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan (2008)

Shaun Tan is far from under-recognised as an illustrator (most recently winning the Kate Greenaway award for Tales from the Inner City—the first BAME author to do so). However he is viewed primarily as an illustrator and artist, and the books he writes—being heavily illustrated—are frequently labelled as children’s books. But he has always been a writer and teller of speculative fiction, and the Kate Greenaway-award-winning book would be better categorised as a collection of masterfully cool—and occasionally achingly bleak strange speculative fiction, half glimmering post-apocalyptic dreamscape, half longing, urban-weird folk-horror.

But the preceding collection, Tales from Outer Suburbia, is a warm, effusively illustrated collection of deeply affectionate—if extremely unexplained—tales, and a number of the stories in it are either squarely Australian Gothic or increase in fascination if you read them that way. These include a family scrabbling to survive in a hostile Australian landscape who discover a secret hidden in the walls of their house—and what the neighbours might know about it (“No Other Country”), children in a magpie-stalked suburb encountering a forbidding neighbour and the ghost of a pearl diver (“Broken Toys”), a distinctly Australian urban development haunted by the presence of inscrutable terrors watching through the windows (“Stick Figures”), judgements passed and witnessed by a court of the voiceless (“Wake”), and the fearsome inexplicable loveliness of nameless night-time festivals (“The Nameless Holiday”), and how people in a landscape of backyards and watching neighbours choose to live when in the immediate shadow of a potential apocalypse (“Alert but not alarmed”).

The Australian-ness is clearly identified in the layered, textured, bounding artwork; the doublings and secrets and hauntings are indisputably Gothic. But they are beautiful, all these stories: painterly and allusive, deceptively slight and enormously resonant, bird-filled, haunted by the possibility of joy, the ghost of understanding. (I recommend writers spend a little time studying what Tan does in his illustrations—the exuberant and ominous textures, the references and hints and possibilities and all the narrative techniques that appear in the art, let alone the accompanying prose). While Tales from Outer Suburbia is littered with silvery flecks of loss, there’s a warm, impossible, grand (sometimes terrifying) beauty at the core of (or wilfully and relentlessly ornamenting) what could in other hands be merely grim.
Read about the other entries on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue