Reviews of Recent Publications

Strange Fruit
Paul Collins (Ed.)
Cover by Jay Palmer
Penguin Books, 1995, pb, 235pp, $14.95
Reviewed by Martin Livings

Last year, Paul Collins edited an anthology of science fiction short stories for Penguin Books. The book was Metaworlds and, though not perfect (and what anthology is?), it was a strong and worthy entry into that year's collection of "Best of Australian SF" anthologies, and it did both Collins and Penguin proud. Now Collins has edited another anthology for Penguin, this time "a smörgåsbord of horrors from Australia's best writers". Perhaps it should have been called Spookyworlds. But be warned: readers expecting lusty, brooding vampires or buckets of blood or psychopaths wielding a variety of gardening implements may well be disappointed.

Strange Fruit is a remarkably old-fashioned anthology; less New Horror, Barkerian grotesqueries and Kingly nastiness, and more Ye Olde Horror, down-to-earth, under-your-skin creepiness. Indeed, six of the sixteen stories in the anthology were written before 1980 and one, Nancy Cato's "The Cat"-a story of loneliness in the isolation of the Australian outback and the welcome intrusion of either the extraordinary or simply insanity-was first published in 1954. But despite, or perhaps because of, this strange feeling of a leisurely look-back, albeit over the shoulder with unease, Strange Fruit actually works far better than Metaworlds did. The back cover declares that this book is in the tradition of writers such as Rod Serling and Roald Dahl (the subtitle for Strange Fruit is Tales of the Unexpected), and quite justifiably so. The stories are an eclectic collection of scorpions, all short and sharp, some more vicious than others, and all with that dreaded sting in the tail.

Quite often it is difficult to differentiate between old and new stories in this anthology, as the form of the stories is so well-worn as to offer a kind of security, an agelessness which gives the book genuine character. Most could have been written at almost any time, and some give distinctly false impressions as to their antiquity. Richard Lunn's "Roger" feels like an old story, telling of identity lost and security shattered, yet it was written in 1990. On the other hand, Jack Wodham's quite extraordinary "Jade Elm"-which tells of murder from a fresh perspective and the horror of becoming something more than you were, only to have it viciously taken away-could have appeared quite happily in the latest issue of Bloodsongs and not looked at all out of place, but is a quarter of a century old.

Furthermore, stories like "The Arrows" by Dorothy Porter seem to be quite separate of time; though this admirably nasty tale of obsession and possession-and the fine line between the two-does have a distinctly modern feel, if only in the dialogue. Lucy Sussex's "The Lady with the Ermine" is another with this feel, a story which could have taken place anywhere, at any time, though in this case it happened to be Australia in the present day. Though a pretty blatant feminist turning-the-tables power and control fantasy, "Ermine" is still a fun and sometimes creepy tale, well written and memorable.

There are also stories in Strange Fruit which are attached so strongly to the present-or beyond-that you can't find any comfort in the distance of history. Robert Hood's perverse morality tale"Peeking" will make closet voyeurs squirm with discomfort, as a peeping tom has his entire world turned upside down and inside out. This story is also the most obvious Twilight Zone homage, though as an episode it could never be shown on television. The stand-out story of the collection is "Skin Holes" by Kaaron Warren, a semi-science fictional look at man's-and woman's-obsession with self-adornment taken to its ultimate extreme. The characters are well-drawn and realistic, if stunningly unappealing, and the situations uncomfortable, often bordering on painful. This story is a series of sucker-punches to the solar plexus, and ends with a swift kick to the groin. "Skin Holes" is a story that stays with you for a long time after reading.

Strange Fruit is appropriately titled. You take a tentative bite, the juice squirts down the back of your throat, and for a long time afterwards you're not sure whether it tasted good or bad. And each subsequent bite tastes just that little bit different to the last. But you finish the fruit, and you remember it. Paul Collins has put together an anthology which far outshines its predecessor, if only because of its consistency; sixteen stories, most strong, some powerful, none bad. Strange Fruit is highly recommended to lovers of the strange . . . the bizarre . . . the unexpected . . . or perhaps just those tired of the latest by-the-numbers Stephen King novel and in the mood for something with a little more bite.

She's Fantastical (The First Anthology of Australian Women's Speculative Fiction, Magical Realism and Fantasy)
Lucy Sussex and Judith Raphael Buckrich (Eds.)
Cover by Deborah Klein
Sybylla Press, 1995, tpb, 260pp, $22.95
Reviewed by Penelope Love

She's Fantastical showcases the work of twenty-five Australian women writers of speculative fiction. The cover is a visual delight: a bold, blue and gold icon of St Martha, the patron saint of domesticity, as a domesticator of dragons. Loving attention has been paid to details of printing and typeface-perhaps a little too much, in fact. The book is printed in blue ink which is pleasing to look upon, but proved an eye-strain. The typeface for the text is unusual and attractive, although the typeface used for the titles is sometimes difficult to read. That aside, She's Fantastical is a very handsome book.

Ursula Le Guin's foreword sums up her views on the theme of the book. Although her contribution was undoubtedly a coup for the editors, I felt she focussed on sexual politics rather than the stories themselves, and as a result did the collection a disservice. I felt I was being encouraged to approach the stories as exercises in gender issues, which rather killed my enthusiasm and nearly led me to stop reading before I had started. I advise readers to skip the foreword altogether, and judge these likable stories for themselves.

I didn't want to review every story in the book in this short space, so I have given preference to the stories that remained with me after I put the book down. By this criteria, the most striking was "Aubade", an extract from M Barnard Eldershaw's Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, written in 1947. "Aubade" achieves, as none of the other stories do, the sense of a future history for the peoples of Australia. It gives a real sense of tradition to the collection, reinforcing that women writers are not newcomers to the field of speculative fiction.

"Angel Thing" is Petrina Smith's understated and zesty narrative about . . . well . . . a thing. It's not an angel, but it's not human; so what is it? The extract from Maurilla Meehan's The Sea People was an evocative and singing piece that left me wanting more; when does the book come out? Alison Goodman's gothic "The Blinding of Bellevue Hearn" sustained this sense of singing whilst succeeding-unlike some others in the collection-in telling an engaging story within a non-traditional narrative. "Not with Love" by Philippa Maddern vividly sketches several interplanetary conspiracies that abruptly mesh, with devastating consequences. And "The Padwan Affair" by Tess Williams is a wicked look at extra-terrestrial pregnancy-for a man-that evenly distributes the satire between the sexes.

I enjoyed Isobelle Carmody's "The Pumpkin Eater" and Lisa Jacobson's "The Master Builder's Wife", despite the occasional twinge; the themes they explore are not new, and the treatment given them was not really fresh enough to sustain their revival. Carmel Bird's "One Last Picture of Ruby Rose" is delicate, but almost too slight; Sue Isle's eco-fable of sibling rivalry, "A Sky Full of Ravens", has a wonderfully comic conclusion; and Yvonne Rousseau's "Possum Lover" could have been a great story-at half the length, and with its conclusion less emphatically telegraphed.

Sarah Endacott's poem "Science Fiction", by way of doubly intriguing the reader, can be read both across or down its two facing pages. Berni Janssen's prose piece "Saw" had me puzzling for hours before I worked out what I thought it meant, and even then I wasn't sure; I hope that was Janssen's intent. Jane Routley's "The Goddess Wakes" is the boldest of several stories that amend traditional fairy-tales, and features a post-apocalypse Sleeping Beauty.

It seems that Sleeping Beauty is, in the end, the unsung theme of this book. The browser seems impelled to hurdle three high and thorny barriers: writing that is Australian and speculative and by women. Such labeling threatens to narrow the book's audience. However, if ignored, these daunting barriers quietly disappear.

The reward? That most elusive goal: a good read.

Ashling (The Obernewtyn Chronicles, Book 3)
Isobelle Carmody
Cover by Connell Lee
Viking/Penguin Australia, 1995, tpb, 522pp, $19.95
Reviewed by Sean Williams

Isobelle Carmody is an accomplished, experienced writer, much-lauded for her other novels. And it shows. Ashling is an Australian fantasy novel that really works.

On the surface of it, the book doesn't seem particularly original. In fact, the world of the Obernewtyn Chronicles is a very familiar place disguised as somewhere different. There may be no dragons here, but we do have an ancient race of giant birds lurking in the background. Magic, likewise, is non-existent, but we do have access to mental powers instead. No legion of long-gone gods left their relics in the rubble for our heroes to pick up, but an elder race of humanity, who blew themselves to smithereens aeons ago, did-you get the picture.

Add to this pastiche of science-fictional ideas a bunch of talking animals and a main character who is female, young, enormously talented and awaiting some unknown destiny-and there you have it: a recipe for a bad review. Or so I thought at first.

The secret to Carmody's success (and to the writing of any engaging series of novels) is deceptively simple; and yes, it's in the characters.

Isobelle Carmody's angst-ridden heroine, Elspeth Gordie, has some real problems. Not only is she a Misfit (aka Mutant) cast out by normal society, but she's also Talented (aka possesses psychic powers), a double crime that would see her burned at the stake if anyone found out. In previous books she found herself a community of people to which she could belong, but that hasn't made her problems go away. Her best friends are a mad telepathic cat and a horse that reckons Elspeth is some sort of animal saviour; her human associates include other Talented Misfits, rebels, gypsies and "enigmatic nomads from the distant deserts of Sador". Practically everyone around her is having prophetic visions concerning her very next move, and she's beginning to lose all sense of who she is and how much of a say she has in her own bloody life . . .

The plot serves only to heighten her sense of frustration. An "ashling", as the blurb explains, is a dream through which "messages might come". The story is driven by such dreams, plus a few timely and vague visions from future tellers: her original quest, the major characters and directions she needs, and even a few sinister threats, all come to Elspeth this way. While this seems convenient at times, it does serve to enhance the feeling that Elspeth is trapped by her destiny, rather than freed (or given hope) by it. Or, to put it another way, if the "sword & sorcery" battles sometimes seem easily won, it is only because the fiercest battles are still to be fought on the inside.

In the end, I was left with a few niggling points I didn't like, and a couple of major ones that I did. Into the former group fall the clichés mentioned above; the old nuclear-winter anti-mutation scenario we've all seen before; a slight gaming echo in the various roles Talented individuals play; typically stilted fantasy dialogue, plus odd jargon (eg. soldierguards, weaponmachines, Councilcourt) which marred the otherwise smooth writing; and an awkward side-track in the middle of the book, which was telegraphed, distracted from the real issues and left me hanging.

Sometimes the constant arguing about destiny became a little wearying: all of the prophecies have worked out so far, so why doesn't Elspeth just go with the flow? Yet the prophecies aren't clear in themselves-which keeps the mystery rolling along-and they aren't always nice . . .

Apart from these few problems, the good things are many, including the very real sense that Ashling indeed isn't "a fairytale where everyone lives happily ever after". For young adult fantasy, it deals with human emotions-including grief, self-doubt and the truly complicated business of love-with refreshing frankness. And the characters themselves are alive in the most important sense of the word: the goodies aren't always good, and it's not always clear who the goodies are; shades of white prevail, lacking the usual stereotypes.

As far as the ending goes, Ashling does come to a satisfactory resolution although, yes, there will be at least one more book. Whether the Talented Misfits do or don't make allies of the rebels is almost irrelevant when considered against the main thread of the book-but I for one will be keen to see what happens next.

The Prisoner Gains a Blurred Skin
Nicholas Playford
Cover by James Gleeson
Australian Scholarly Publishing, 1994, pb, 160pp, $14.95
Reviewed by Kirstyn McDermott

Sylvia Plath began to write with a thesaurus balanced in one hand and a dictionary the other, methodically looking up every word she typed in a desperate search for precision and exactitude. The results were competent and interesting at best, but more often rather cold and emotionless. Her work only became truly impressive when she began to write solely from instinct, consulting her former oracles only rarely. I think Nicholas Playford may have the same problem. The Prisoner Gains a Blurred Skin is his first book, a collection of short stories which shows some promise for a future literary career but is nevertheless fundamentally flawed in many ways.

A really good story has both an intelligent and absorbing plot and interesting, empathetic players, but many works can stand very well upon only one of these elements (a good example being the largely character-driven novels of Stephen King). Playford's pieces, however, generally suffer from a lack of both. The fact is that the majority of the stories in this collection simply aren't stories. There is no plot as such, and no real ending or climax; there is essentially no payoff for having given the author your undivided (and, at least from this reader, open-minded) attention for a few valuable hours. If I may be permitted a brief descent into metaphor, reading Playford is like sitting in a canoe on a still pond without a paddle. There are no rapids or cataracts or waterfalls or eddies, not even a steady current to sweep you along. Now, floating on a pond may be pleasant at first, but very shortly the lack of movement and direction becomes boring, even frustrating-I for one prefer a little whitewater beneath me.

As far as I can gather, the prevailing thematic concerns of the book seem to be those of identity and relationship-or, rather, the inability of individuals to discover their own autonomous identity, and thus their failure to achieve and maintain fulfilling relationships with others. The only story which I can quite honestly say I enjoyed was the simply titled "Hinges" which revolves around the ideas of scientific vampirism and immortality. "Hinges" is one of the three longer pieces in the collection (most of the others being around ten pages or less) and I believe that this is the main reason it works. Playford has allowed himself the length to develop a more complex plot and structure, and actually comes to a satisfying climax. The other two lengthy stories, "Orientation on the Cinder-track Horizon" and "The Prisoner Gains a Blurred Skin" (see, I told you "Hinges" has a simple title!) are also interesting, but not as tightly woven nor as gratifyingly concluded, and the remaining eleven shorter pieces are pretty much of the insipid go-nowhere nature that leaves you asking "so what?"

With little or no plot to sustain their narrative, the stories are understandably centered upon their characters; which wouldn't be so bad except that nearly all of the characters in the collection are flat and one-dimensional: it is intrinsically impossible to differentiate one from another. The problem is that there is essentially only one voice in all of the stories-and that voice belongs to Playford himself. It doesn't matter which character is speaking, or whether the narrative is strictly authorial, the syntax, vocabulary, structure, style and tone seldom vary. Moreover, as I indicated at the beginning, the prose seems rather artificial, contrived and (dare I say it?) pretentious. The sentences are almost invariably too long and complex, heavily laden with 'ten-dollar' words, and almost painfully formal in register-characteristics which make for somewhat stilted and unnatural-sounding dialogue. The author's meticulous attention to (trivial) detail, which the back cover enticingly describes as "his world seen through a magnifying glass", comes across as annoying passages of unnecessary infodump. In describing everything, he renders nothing significant.

The result is at times not only laborious to read but (like Plath's early work) rather cold and emotionless. Playford does not let you into his stories, but instead constantly rebuffs you with his clinically formal style and highly academic syntax. Whilst his vocabulary is indeed impressively large, he should realize that its entire size need not be demonstrated in the one sentence! You are not really given the chance to know the people of whom he writes, and as such it becomes difficult to really care about their circumstances, or to be curious about their fate. To be honest, if I hadn't been asked to review this book, I probably wouldn't have bothered to finish it.

In fact, the only reason that I am not dismissing The Prisoner Gains a Blurred Skin as pretentious and contrived pseudo-literature is that I think I can detect flickers of promise beneath the experimental wankerism. If Playford could relax his prose a little, allow more free rein to his instincts and emotions, and try to develop his ideas and characters more fully, then he could be very good indeed. As it is, his writing is competent but not particularly engagingor memorable. Incidentally, however, the short bio in the front of the book tells me that he is currently working on a novel entitled The Teeth Chariot, and, despite my reservations, I find myself strangely curious to read it . . .

Sarah Douglass
Cover uncredited
HarperCollins, 1995, pb, 674pp, $12.95
Reviewed by Martin Livings

Too often in this column a single maxim, hoary and clichéd, rears its ugly head. So many books-intentionally or not-mislead the reader, both in terms of content and quality, that it becomes all too easy to simply throw one's hands up and recite the protective mantra over and over again:

"Don't judge a book by its cover. Don't judge a book by its cover. Don't judge a book by its cover."

BattleAxe by Sara Douglass is the first Australian fantasy release from HarperCollins and, in terms of the packaging, I'll have to admit that I was more than a little uneasy about having to read this 674-page tome. To begin with, the cover art is very poor, albeit fairy accurate in terms of content. And once the book was open, my inquietude merely increased at the sight of not one but two maps (usually a strong indicator that the writing won't be strong enough to convey a sense of location on its own), plus a prophecy. Add the glossary at the back of the book, and I found myself becoming less enthused by the minute. But a job is a job, a review a review, and I do have my pride, contrary to popular belief.

"Don't judge a book by its cover. Don't . . ."

Granted, there is nothing startlingly original in BattleAxe-a land threatened by evil, a mighty young leader of dubious parentage, a beautiful yet unattainable woman, a Prophecy in the making, mystic races, ancient hatreds, and plenty of magic, battles, sacrifice, betrayal, love, honour and mysteries. It's all standard heroic fantasy iconography, constructed in a fairly unsurprising manner.

"Don't judge a book . . ."

So why did I enjoy this novel so much, with its awful presentation, its clichéd premise, its cookie-cutter characters? Quite simply, BattleAxe is by far the most professionally-written fantasy novel by an Australian to date. For me to become involved in a fantasy novel, as I've expressed ad nauseam in previous reviews, it must succeed in three key areas: pacing, character and scenery. The prose in BattleAxe is very consistent, starting with events designed to draw the reader in and never really letting go for the rest of the book; the characters are well drawn and generally sympathetic, if not always realistic-this is fantasy, after all-and the descriptive writing successfully manages to balance brevity and clarity: an admirable achievement. One very welcome aspect of BattleAxe is its grittiness, a sharp contrast to the pastel-hued romantic fantasies which have been the dominant force in Australian fantasy recently; the opening sequences are nasty enough to let the reader know early on that this is going to be a rough ride in places. Sara Douglass herself has a PhD and teaches in Medieval History, which is most likely the basis for the novel's depiction of the harsh realities of a non-technological society, lending the book a fair degree of credibility.

". . . by its cover."

For once, the stock-standard "In The Tradition Of" blurb on the back cover is actually pretty justified. The book is a very easy read, considering its hefty weight, and it rarely slows its in pace, propelling its protagonists through a variety of experiences, both pleasant and unpleasant, before ending at an appropriate and dramatic juncture in the storyline. In short, BattleAxe is a well-written and effective fantasy novel which feels a lot shorter than it looks. It is the best Australian fantasy novel I've experienced to date, and is certainly better than many international novels of a similar ilk. Perhaps the boundaries between Australian genre fiction and that of the rest of the world-the xenophobically defensive "us and them" syndrome discussed in Greg Egan's article in the last issue-truly are becoming meaningless. BattleAxe's only real weakness is its presentation, which may deter even the most ardent fantasy reader. But in every other regard, Sara Douglass' debut novel can easily hold its own in the cutthroat international fantasy marketplace, and for the first time in a very long while I find myself actually looking forward to the next book in a fantasy series.

All together now: "Don't . . ."

The Chronological Adventures of Detrius Thesper
N E Doran
Cover by John Farmer
Desdichado Press (PO Box 310, Sandy Bay, TAS 7006), 1995, pb, 171pp, $9.95
Reviewed by Sean Williams

Niall Doran is a young writer from Hobart whose first, self-published, book The Chronological Adventures of Detrius Thesper (referred to hereafter as TCAODT) is proudly proclaimed to be "A Loopy Kind of Comedy" along the bottom of its cover. Irrespective of this claim, the book's general presentation is hard to fault, and the cover illustration is certainly eye-catching; so much so that, upon seeing a flyer for it on a stall at Thylacon [the 1995 Australian National SF Convention, held in Hobart], I simply had to buy a copy just to find out what the hell it was about. (Call me a sucker if you want to; I don't care.)

As for the plot, the scenario sounds more complicated than it really is. Four travellers from the future are stranded in Melbourne, 1985, after an accident destroys their time machine. With little or no memory of their experiences together they drift apart and go their separate ways-until ten years later when one of them, with the help of the Australian Institute for Future Research, develops a possible means of taking them home and sets out to reunite the four. Of course, things don't go according to plan, with one castaway incarcerated in a mental home and later mistaken for a brutal serial killer, another living in blissful (if that's the word) ignorance in Launceston, and the last quite happy with the life she has made for herself in this time. Throw in a few skinheads, bureaucracies, Anti-Terrorist Squads and, of course, a time-devouring monster for good measure, and you end up with a story that's not entirely fresh, but is intriguing enough to keep the reader amused.

Comparisons with Ben Elton's Stark and Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide trilogy are inevitable, although overall the book resembles one by Robert Rankin most closely of all. Flawed characters in a flawed world, with a plot superficially complicated enough to make your eyes water and imperfect resolutions abounding-this is very familiar territory. TCAODT may not break any new ground in sf humor-or even plain old sf-but it is genuinely funny in places and that, after all, is the point. This is a book that sets out to entertain, and nothing more.

Stylistically, Doran demonstrates himself to be a capable (if sometimes over-enthusiastic) writer. Many of the book's weaknesses lie in its structure, particularly its opening chapters and sudden conclusion (of sorts). Like most self-published books, TCAODT suffers from a lack of editing, and would have benefited from a firm, guiding hand to keep the author in check. For instance, an overly-fragmented narrative makes it hard going at times; frequent leaps across points of view work well during action scenes but become labored during development or backfill; and whereas in Ben Elton's (early) work, one gets the feeling that the story would make sense even if the book wasn't a comedy, Doran has patched his holes with an abundance of action and interspersed a bare minimum of explanation among more entertaining character interactions.

For me the prize was Doran's setting, which is nothing more or less than contemporary urban Australia. Not the bush, nor a fictional Neighbours-land perpetuated by other local comedies like Hey Dad and Newlyweds-just the places we have, most of us, lived in or heard about every day. If we have an Australian mind-set then Doran has successfully captured it, or an aspect of it at least, without exaggerating it or distorting it in the process. Doran's eye is keen, his timing is occasionally perfect, and he demonstrates an understanding that, in longer works rather than sketch comedy, it's not what people say or do per se that makes the reader laugh, it's the way they are.

(My favorite passage in the entire book comprises nothing more than an explanation for the dearth of research funds in Australia, thereby justifying the existence of a secretly successful scientific Institute, buried under Canberra "of all places".)

Perhaps that explains why, at times, his main characters come across as being a little stereotyped. Being castaways from the future they are less firmly rooted in our time and therefore less susceptible to the cutting edge of Doran's wit. Maybe in later works with characters echoing reality, rather than other works of this nature, Doran might truly come into his own.

Anyway, to sum up: if you're looking for something to while away the empty months until Terry Pratchett releases his new book in paperback, or you're simply curious about the state of sf humor in Australia, then this book is worth a read. (At least it's intentionally amusing, unlike some notable exceptions the Eidolon reviewing team has come across just recently.) Niall Doran has proved himself to be another new author worth watching in the future-if only to make certain he doesn't make any sudden moves.

Sean Thomas O'Brien
Cover by Hans de Haas
HarperCollins, 1995, pb, 222pp, $11.95
Reviewed by Martin Livings

I've been writing reviews for Eidolon since Issue 10, back in 1992. In those three years I've written reviews as favors, I've written reviews as jobs, I've written reviews as chores, I've written reviews as assignments. I've even written reviews as enjoyment. But never before have I written a review as a warning. Until now.

Darkland, the first novel by Sean Thomas O'Brien, has only one redeeming feature: it's only 222 pages, with large print. But in this case, brevity is hardly the source of wit; it's a long 222 pages. This novel is the first Australian horror release from HarperCollins, and it doesn't bode well for the future. If this is the standard of horror to come, then Australia may well be set back even further than it already is in this field. It seems the all-guts-no-brains mentality that the rest of the horror-fiction world left behind in the eighties and that Australian horror has just recently begun to grow out of is back, just like the resurrected antagonist in this worthless novel, and just as destructive.

Does any of this strike anyone as even slightly familiar? Young Man, abused by Drunken Father, lost Loving Psychic Mother in a horrible car accident. Oh, he also has "The Gift" (which, apart from the uncanny ability to track down vague plot elements without needing to explain his reasoning, appears to consist entirely of the knack of killing a zombie using only some loose change), and is in love with Young Woman, also abused as a child by Drunken Father (no no, a different Drunken Father, never fear-there's plenty of them out there in Horror Stereotype Land), who in turn falls deeply, madly, and instantaneously in love with Young Man. Enter Badass Ex-Boyfriend, who tries to break up this happy, if seriously screwed-up, couple. They fight. Badass Ex-Boyfriend falls to his death (I'm giving away nothing that the back cover doesn't tell you-this is the first half of the book!) Young Man and Young Woman are suspected of murder by Tough Cop Who Has A Stomach Ulcer And A Wrecked Marriage. To prove their innocence, they escape police custody! Badass Ex-Boyfriend gets possessed by Ancient Evil, and becomes Ancient Evil Zombie Badass Ex-Boyfriend From Hell, then wanders around killing people. Tough Cop Who Has A Stomach Ulcer And A Wrecked Marriage suspects Young Man and Young Woman. Lots of gruesome deaths follow, most completely pointless and gratuitous, there are Armageddonaic portents which amount to nothing, some young love (ie. lust and sex), and the biggest fizzle at the end since the opening of Al Capone's safe, in which Good triumphs over Evil without even breaking a sweat; The End.

There, that's the book. Now you don't have to read it. You'll thank me one day.

Darkland reads like a low-to-no-budget horror script hastily turned into a novel, complete with stage directions. Characterization never even makes it to the single-dimension point-giving stereotypical characters a stereotypical past does not realistic characterization make, Mr O'Brien-and the plot was stale well before the flood of '70s slasher flicks. It feels as if O'Brien's entire knowledge of horror is based on repeated viewings of Friday the 13th, with perhaps a quick viewing of the Lou Diamond Phillips occult stinker The First Power slipped in somewhere. To rub salt into the already-smarting wounds, the novel is set in the United States, thus robbing it of any originality or local flavor that may have salvaged it (though the likelihood of that event was fairly low to begin with). Again, O'Brien's research seems to be limited to watching Melrose Place and NYPD Blue, with characters spouting gems like "let's blow this place". Even for a foreigner, this inept description of the States is as convincing as a kangaroo sticking a garden hose up its nose and pretending to be an African elephant.

It staggers the mind how the same publishers who brought us BattleAxe-which, although not groundbreaking in any way, is at least professionally written and enjoyable-can simultaneously offer us this novel which would have had a rough time being self-published. On the basis of one novel, I'd have to say that Sean Thomas O'Brien makes Guy N Smith look like Ernest Hemingway. Incompetent in every possible regard, Darkland is not only the worst Australian horror novel I've encountered, it may even be the worst book of any kind in my experience to date. Avoid like a six-foot-four knife-wielding zombie; Darkland is one (very) small step for HarperCollins, and one giant leap for horrorkind. Backwards.

Postscript: I just saw this book remaindered. 'Nuff said.

Originally appeared pp. 95-105, Eidolon 19, October 1995.
Copyright © 1995 Eidolon Publications. Individual contributions are copyright to the respective authors.
Reprinted with kind permission of the authors.