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Australian Women Writers of Outstanding Horror and Dark Fantasy: A Not Quite Top Ten

Snowtown bank

Last year, the infamous Snowtown bank – in which eight bodies were found decomposing in six plastic barrels – went up for auction. It was affordable, as I recall; on the market for less than $200,000. It came attached to a little, comfortable house. It wasn’t too far a drive from the city of Adelaide. One night, a group of us fantasised about pooling our money and buying the place and using it as a getaway. That’s it, we said. It would make a great writers’ retreat.

Macabre? Maybe a bit. What kind of people would think of such a thing? More to the point, who would be inspired by such a thing? And can you imagine sleeping there? Even if they wouldn’t actually do so, the writers mentioned below could, no doubt, imagine all this and more. Now, I can’t honestly say that all of them reached for their cheque books when the Snowtown bank went up for sale (though I’m certain a few did!), but their creepy tales sure could have emerged from its vaults. Over the past fifteen-odd years, these authors have created some of the finest (read: most deliciously disturbing) stories in Australian speculative fiction. It is, literally, a thrill to read them – and a thrill to showcase them here.

Kaaron Warren

Kaaron Warren is synonymous with Australian horror. Since 1993 she’s sold about 70 short stories nationally and internationally, as well as three short story collections and three novels. Through Splintered Walls (Twelfth Planet Press), her latest collection, is inspired by the Australian landscape – and has already won Australian Shadows Awards, two Ditmar Awards and has been nominated for multiple Aurealis Awards for 2012. Horror-lovers shouldn’t go past Slights (Angry Robot, 2009), another award-winner and Publisher’s Weekly ‘book of the week’ selection:

Stevie is a killer.

After an accident in which her mother dies, she has a near-death experience, and finds herself in a room full of people – everyone she’s ever pissed off. They clutch at her, scratch and tear at her. But she finds herself drawn back to this place, again and again, determined to unlock its secrets. Which means she has to die, again and again…

Kirstyn McDermott

The tagline for Kirstyn McDermott’s second novel, Perfections (Xoum) promises a wicked twist on fairy tale themes: “Two sisters. One wish. Unimaginable consequences. Not all fairy tales are for children…” This novel, published two years after the Aurealis Award-winning Madigan Mine (Picador), has won a 2012 Australian Shadows Award, was nominated for a Best Novel Ditmar Award and is nominated in the Best Horror Novel category at this year’s Aurealis Awards. Kirstyn’s novels have been described as ‘haunting’ as well as ‘beautiful’ – which applies equally well to her magnificent short stories, which have won Aurealis Awards and have been nominated for the Stoker. Her next book, Caution: Contains Small Parts, will be published this year by Twelfth Planet Press – and if you’re not tantalised by the collection’s title, the publisher’s one-line synopses of these stories are bound to grab your attention:

A creepy wooden dog that refuses to play dead.
A gifted crisis counsellor and the mysterious, melancholy girl she cannot seem to reach.
A once-successful fantasy author whose life has become a horror story – now with added unicorns.
An isolated woman whose obsession with sex dolls takes a harrowing, unexpected turn.

Deborah Biancotti

Deborah Biancotti won an Aurealis Award for her first short story and has only gained momentum since. Her first collection, A Book of Endings (Twelfth Planet Press) was shortlisted for the William L. Crawford Award (amongst a slew of other prizes) and her novella ‘And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living’ (Ishtar, Gilgamesh Press) was shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson Award. In 2011, Bad Power (Twelfth Planet Press) was published to rave reviews, not least because it has one of the coolest taglines ever: “Hate superheroes? Yeah. They probably hate you, too.” There’s a grimness to the stories in this book – and to ‘And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living’ – that is just so appealing. And anyone who loves sharp, snarky, believable dialogue, will revel in Biancotti’s prose.

Joanne Anderton

In the past few years, Joanne Anderton has been delighting readers with her awesome science fiction novels, Debris and Suited (Angry Robot). At the same time, she has also been publishing some very fine horror stories, many of which have been collected in The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories (FableCroft; published this month):

Enter a world where terrible secrets are hidden in a wind chime’s song
Where crippled witches build magic from scrap
And the beautiful dead dance for eternity…

Jo Anderton’s work has been nominated for Ditmar and Aurealis Awards, and she also won the Best New Talent Ditmar for 2011 for writing tales that are “a mix of freakish horror, dark visions of the future and the just plain weird…”

Felicity Dowker

Another Australian Shadows and Best New Talent Ditmar Award winner, Felicity Dowker writes stories that are filled with revenge, twisted characters, nightmare carnivals, and righting wrongs in the most sinister ways imaginable. Her stories are straight-up horror with an essence of King or Bradbury – fifteen of which have been collected in her first book, Bread and Circuses (Ticonderoga Publications).

Cat Sparks

Even when she’s writing stories that have been categorised as science fiction or fantasy, Cat Sparks evokes the type of bleakness, suspense, darkness and disquiet that is more often associated with horror. I’ve got too many favourites to list here, but ‘The Sleeping and the Dead’ (Ishtar, Gilgamesh Press), an unsettling speculation on post-climate-change life in Australia, is definitely worth checking out. Now the editor of COSMOS magazine, Cat has been editing, publishing, and writing award-winning dark short stories for years – many of which have been collected in her gorgeous new book, The Bride Price (Ticonderoga Publications; published this month).

Angela Slatter

Brisbane-based Angela Slatter is known world-wide for writing exquisite fantasy (dark and light) and horror stories. Last year, she won the British Fantasy Award for a wonderfully dark story, ‘The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter’ (A Book of Horrors) which has since been reprinted in ‘Nightmare’ magazine online. In 2010 she published not one, but two short story collections: Sourdough and Other Stories (nominated for a World Fantasy Award) and The Girl With No Hands and Other Tales (Ticonderoga Publications), a collection of original fairy tale retellings, which won the Aurealis Award for Best Collection. Last year, Angela and I co-wrote Midnight and Moonshine (Ticonderoga Publications) which is equal parts horror and fantasy – an Old Norse-inspired feast of ancient lore… and more than a little blood and gore.

Kim Wilkins

Kim Wilkins has over two million words in print, a good chunk of which conjure up the supernatural. The Infernal (Random House, 1997) won Aurealis Awards in both fantasy and horror categories, and was published world-wide – as were her subsequent books, such as Grimoire (Random House, 1999), The Resurrectionists (HarperCollins, 2001), Angel of Ruin (HarperCollins, 2001), to name only a few. Kim has been publishing fiction virtually non-stop since the 1990s; her latest book, The Year of Ancient Ghosts (Ticonderoga Publications; published this month) is a collection of five novellas that revolve around medieval myth, and which will no doubt prove to be a haunting treat:

A mother and her daughter come to the remote Orkneys to grieve, and find themselves instead dealing with a ghostly Viking legend. A dark-ages king doesn’t realise his wife carries another man’s child and she is desperate for him not to find out. A young woman, who has spent her whole life hiding her supernatural strength, discovers on the eve of her wedding that she is Odin’s daughter. Sir Percival’s sister finds herself trapped in a castle of bloodletting sorcerers with only her sexuality as a weapon. In the wake of the Norman conquest, the daughter of an abusive man falls in love with a Norman priest whose abilities blur the line between religion and magic.

Margo Lanagan

Finally, no list of must read Australian horror authors is complete without Margo Lanagan. Margo’s work needs little spruiking: her latest novel, Sea Hearts (Allen & Unwin; published as The Brides of Rollrock Island in the UK) has been nominated for too many awards to keep track of precisely, but which includes the prestigious Stella Award here in Australia. Her previous novels, novellas, short stories and short story collections – including Tender Morsels and Black Juice – have also won multiple World Fantasy Awards, VIC Premier’s literary awards, New South Wales and Queensland Premier’s literary awards, the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, Aurealis Awards, Ditmar Awards, and they’ve been nominated for the Shirley Jackson Awards, the Hugo, the Nebula… and on and on and on! Margo’s work defies genres – it is fantasy, horror, science fiction, and ‘capital L’ literature – and bridges age groups – it is sold on YA as well as Adult fiction bookshelves – and because of its perfectly-crafted style, it is universally lauded.

Over to you…

I realise that this showcase is unconventional: there are only nine authors featured here instead of the usual Top Ten. The tenth spot is for you to fill – we’d love to hear your suggestions about who else should appear on this list in the comments. But while you’re pondering, Google the authors I’ve already mentioned. Track down their books. And start imagining what kinds of stories might emerge from a Snowtown bank vault…

LISA L. HANNETT

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4 comments

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  1. Alan

    Number 10 would be Lisa L Hannett, obviously!

    1. Lisa Hannett

      Thanks, Alan! Your cheque’s in the mail… 😉

  2. Sean the Bookonaut

    I would add Jodi Cleghorn, specifically because of Elyora/ River of Bones. She flies under the radar because she’s spent the last few years running/editing at eMergeant Publishing. I suspect Australia will see A bit more of her work in the near future. Very much Australian gothic writer.

    1. Lisa Hannett

      It would be great to see more of Jodi’s work!

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