Alex Cothren, Australian fiction, Australian short stories, Carmel Bird Short Story Award, ghost stories, Guy Salvidge, Krissy Kneen, Marion Halligan, Mark O’Flynn, Rhys Tate, Ryan O’Neill, SF, Susan Yardley
Melbourne-based writer and reviewer Angela Meyer has brought together some of Australia’s finest writers in this collection of eerie and mysterious stories. From things that go bump in the night via sci-fi medicine to menacing alphabets, The Great Unknown explores the ideas that make us check under the bed before retiring for the night – and perhaps consider leaving a light on, just in case.
The anthology opens with a cracker of a story by Krissy Kneen, ‘Sleepwalk’, a genuinely spooky tale about a sleepwalking woman and her watchful husband. Brendan wakes to find Emily’s side of the bed empty while she stalks the house with unfocused eyes and her father’s old film camera, snapping photos:
She turned then and looked directly at him. Brendan smiled. Perhaps she had seen him, waking from this strange night-wander. He took a step towards her. It was unsettling that her eyes refused to follow him when he walked towards her. She stared at a fixed point somewhere behind him and when Emily raised her camera, Brendan stepped quickly aside to get out of the shot.
When Brendan tells Emily of her night-time photography session, she develops the film and there is something about the photos that reminds Emily of double exposures and mistakes made in the developing process. Kneen’s talent with language and tone allows her to imbue the story with doubt and fear and each sentence adds to the mystery of what Emily has captured on film, leading to the terrifying climax.
‘A Cure’ by Alex Cothren won the Carmel Bird Short Story Award. A short piece of sophisticated SF, it is no less scary than the more traditional ghost stories included in the anthology. Alice is an avid user of MindFi, technology implanted in her brain that allows her to inhabit the bodies of those suffering in famine- or disaster-ravaged countries half a world away, a kind of first-person game using real people’s lives. She visits the offices of Empathy International to take part in a trial for a cure for Compassion Fatigue – she has been numb for a while now and all she wants is to be able to feel empathy again when she visits her hosts:
For some time now, a fog had been creeping over her ability to empathise with her hosts, whom she called on daily to escort her through the tragedy of their lives. She had subconsciously tried to repel it by searching for the worst situations that the wars, disasters, and other miscellaneous calamities of the world could offer …
Cothren’s spare prose and crisp narrative style make his story an incisive statement on modern society and the way in which we are all numbed by the portrayal of human tragedy in traditional and social media alike. ‘A Cure’ asks us how much we would sacrifice to overcome our detachment from others’ suffering, how much we would give to walk in another person’s shoes.
Guy Salvidge’s ‘A Void’ is another standout story; a classy future-noir thriller featuring a tempting seductress, experimental drugs and time slips. Tyler Bramble wakes with the mysterious Lilly Follicle in his bed and no memory of the night before. As he goes about his work as a Seeker with his superior officer, Garrick, they both experience strange, violent hallucinations. Or are they flash-forwards? Or memories?
The ticket inspector asks for our cards and we display them to her satisfaction. ‘They’ve got you in a pocket universe,’ she says as she passes us by.
‘Excuse me, what did you say?’ Garrick asks, but she doesn’t turn back and he doesn’t press the issue.
There are a number of unnerving gems in The Great Unknown. Mark O’Flynn’s ‘Bluey and Myrtle’ was shortlisted for the Carmel Bird Award and is a fine tale of a caged bird and his doddering, ageing owner. Another shortlisted story, ‘Significance’ by Susan Yardley, is a moving exploration of how a middle-aged mother’s feelings of invisibility manifest. ‘The Koala Motel’ by Rhys Tate is a spine-tingling and sorrowful ghost story set in outback Queensland. And Marion Halligan’s ‘Her Dress was a Pale Glimmer’ is a bittersweet, gently told tale of a broken family. But as with a lot of anthologies, there are a handful of weaker stories that let the collection down, stories that don’t quite live up to the promised strangeness or which don’t quite work as self-contained stories and feel more like a chapter from a larger work.
Ryan O’Neill’s ‘Sticks and Stones’ closes the collection, a clever, funny tale of a bewitched book, an evil alphabet and a reader who must rid himself of a curse. James Blackwood buys a book called Ten Terrifying Tales on a whim and though the stories it contains are lacklustre, Blackwood is amused by the annotations of the book’s previous owner. It isn’t until he reaches the final, ripped-out page that he realises the book contains something more than old-fashioned ghost stories. The story’s ending is perhaps too clever but readers will no doubt get a kick out of it. Or a fright.
Angela Meyer (ed) The Great Unknown Spineless Wonders 2013 PB 188pp $27.99
Kylie Mason is a freelance book editor based in Sydney. http://www.kyliemmason.com
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