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A short history of Australian horror

Wolf Creek silhouetteAustralian horror

These two words have different connotations for many people worldwide.

Australian horror has exploited fears of Australia’s ‘wide-open spaces’, and the isolation and vulnerability of people where the population drops to less than fifty individuals per square kilometre. Wolf Creek and Snowtown are based on real-life crimes such as Ivan Milat’s ‘backpacker murders’, or the murders in Snowtown last decade. The desolation of much of the Australian landscape, and the vulnerability of those within these areas, has been driven home both by crimes of opportunity and well-planned killing sprees. This is the horror of Australia in reality.

For many overseas residents, it seems Australia has a reputation as the home of many things that have no other aim in life but to kill humans in very nasty ways. Crocodiles, poisonous snakes and spiders, serial killers, giant insects, deadly jellyfish, shark attacks, drop-bears… the list goes on.

But when it comes to fictional Australian horror, be it in literature, film or gaming, there are very few names that come to mind. Australia had made very little in the way of horror films before the 1970s. More have been made lately, but very few made any impact on the international market: Wolf Creek and Rogue by Greg McLean; Patrick (1978), the story of a comatose patient killing with the power of his mind; Saw (2004), created by Australian director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell; the classic Peter Weir film Picnic at Hanging Rock—these are some that come to mind. Yet if I were to mention The Cars That Ate Paris, an earlier Weir movie, very few people will likely have heard of it.

And then we can look at the written word. The first Australian story of the supernatural was Fisher’s Ghost: A Legend of Campbelltown, written by John Lang and published in March 1836. Since then, many Australians have written horror-themed stories.  From the 1800s to the late 20th Century, Australians such as Waif Wander (The White Maniac – A Doctor’s Tale could be called the first Australian vampire tale), Henry Lawson, David Unaipon and Vol Molesworth have written and published horror stories. Throughout the late 20th Century, more modern tales of dread have been written by modern Australian masters of the macabre such as Terry Dowling, Robert Hood, Stephen Dedman and Kaaron Warren. We have writers like Shane Jiraiya Cummings, vice-president of the AHWA for five years, who classes himself more a fantasy writer than a horror writer; we have writers like Kirstyn McDermott, published internationally as a writer of urban fantasy, yet she fits firmly within the horror genre; we have Marty Young, the founder of the AHWA, who is in the process of editing the final manuscript of a coming-of-age traditional horror story, a real throwback to the King’s famous Stand by Me and Robert McCammon’s A Boy’s Story.

Dark Rising by Greig BeckGreig Beck, internationally-published author of what he calls ‘terror-thrillers’, lists Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Graham Masterton as his main influences. Beck’s series of books, based around the character Alex Hunter—a more-than-human soldier fighting threats based deeply in science rather than the supernatural—are now published internationally by Pan McMillan, one of the ‘big six’ publishing houses.

Kylie Chan, another bestselling Australian writer, works within the urban fantasy genre, and is now published worldwide. According to Kylie’s website, her series revolves around “the story of Emma, an ordinary Australian woman thrown into the world of Chinese Gods, martial arts, and magic. Emma must deal with a bewildering variety of Chinese mythological creatures from dragons to the Monkey King as she learns martial arts from her employer John Chen, who is really the God of Martial Arts, Xuan Wu.”

Lucy Sussex‘s fiction has spanned a range of genres, including science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime and detective fiction, and has been aimed at the children’s, young adult and adult fiction markets. She has published six novels—the first appearing in 1995—and over 30 short stories, which have been collected across four anthologies. Her first story to gain notice might be 1985’s The Lipton Village Society, which involved the creation of an alternate world.

We  have the Australian Horror Writers Association (AHWA), the peak Australian genre association for horror writers of which I am president. We represent over two hundred established, emerging, and upcoming writers. We host a Mentoring Program for members, where individuals have the opportunity to work with established writers. We also host the Australian Shadows Awards, which reward excellence in Australian horror-genre fiction and editing.

The AHWA publishes Midnight Echo twice a year. Midnight Echo is the magazine of the AHWA, and features Australian horror heavily (although not exclusively). The magazine usually has one or two international icons of the horror genre—ME7 featured Graham Masterton, and the upcoming ME8 features stories by Joe R. Lansdale and Jack Ketchum (writing with Lucky McKee). For ME9, which I’m editing, we have some big names, but you’ll all have to wait until the official announcement to find out who is featuring there.

In this inaugural column, I have tried to give a brief overview of Australian horror. In upcoming columns, I intend to look more deeply at the many and varied creators of such horror, with author and filmmaker profiles, and other more focused articles on horror in Australia.


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  1. Fascinating Geoff, while I just watched The Cars That Ate Paris the other night, there was a lot I hadn’t heard about in this article and I’m glad I’m now more educated.

  2. I just read Kaaron Warren’s THE LIGHTHOUSE KEEPERS’ CLUB in Exotic Gothic 4/Postscripts and thought it was superb, gripping, haunting, unforgettable.

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