BLACKWATER DAYS

Itís been ten years since I first visited Perth for the unforgettable Swancon 15 in 1990, just a few months before my first book, Rynosseros, was published. Now, with my eighth book, Blackwater Days, being launched at Swancon in 2000, Iíd like to say a few words about how it came to be.

First of all, itís all Shaun Tanís fault. As some of you will know, Iíve always been fascinated with exploring the nature and role of horror, tracking its appeal and allure and, if I can, tapping what I consider to be its true potential. I can usually enjoy the familiar cliché thrills, the blood and gore etc of what rightly or wrongly passes as horror in popular consciousness these days, but am myself drawn to that far more powerful, disquieting, more elusive, atavistic Ďhorrorí that Iím convinced probably has more to do with the classic Greek celebration of Dionysos than most people realise.

Prior to the equally momentous Swancon / Festival of the Imagination in 1996, I already had the central ideas for "Downloading" and "Beckoning Nightframe", and was eager to continue the exploration begun with stories like "The Bullet That Grows in the Gun", "The Daemon Street Ghost-Trap" and "Scaring the Train". I knew I wanted to do a story about utter and considered evil to be called "Basic Black", and one set around the vast World Square site in the heart of Sydney that had been Ėcan you believe it? Ė abandoned for near on five years due to industrial problems. It seemed a perfect location for something chilling and primal. So, too, the title of Yves Tanguyís painting "The Saltimbanques" had always delivered a marvellously eerie charge. A student I knew had done a report on diamond valuation. For years, Iíd had an idea for a story called "The Magikkers" about an Outback carnival following lines of force across the country. All these notions were sitting there at the start of 1996.

Then at Swancon in Perth that Easter, Shaun Tan displayed "Blackwater", and I found myself standing in front of it, staring into its distances, wanting to enter the landscape and resolve it somehow (Iím sure others have felt the desire to do this; the earliest instance I can recall is with Daliís "The Burning Giraffe" back in the 60s).

Itís during those long looks at Shaunís painting that things started coming together. Iím a firm believer that wisdom must be protected by enigma, and here was something definitely on my storytelling wavelength. I wish I could describe how it felt.

I was fortunate enough to buy the painting, and Shaun graciously included the preliminary sketches for it, so I had an equivalent formative journey to set alongside my own. It all seemed so timely, a real synchronicity, something of what Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst or Andre Breton would have meant by the mystique of the chance encounter. I wanted to resolve that picture somehow, using these new kernels of stories to do it.

That pretty much determined the format of the book: a prolonged journey to explore a single, haunting image. My earlier horror Ďnovelí, An Intimate Knowledge of the Night, was of necessity a linked work after the fact, a way of bringing together diverse stories as Ray Bradbury had done with The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man and Dandelion Wine, using a semi-autobiographical metafiction that was in itself a tale of fear. With Blackwater Days, I set out to do the whole thing go to whoa Ė writing a single work of seven sections leading to an appropriate climax, but able to be used as separate parts as well. Quite deliberately itís both a single story and seven stories. Each tale, each segment or chapter, if you like, brings you closer to the centre of the work.

The approach seems to have worked well. Of the three sections released for prior publication, two of them Ė "Beckoning Nightframe" and "Jenny Come to Play" Ė were chosen for the Datlow / Windling Yearís Best Fantasy and Horror in 1997 and 1999, and "Downloading" appeared online at Ellen Datlowís Event Horizon.

As for the bookís form and flavour, the narrative approach, well, thereís this. A storyteller working regularly at the craft usually develops an instinctive sense of dramatic effect and placement. Itís an intuitive thing. I knew that the book had to be a mystery box, a sustained, prolonged yet delayed (even denied) pattern of revelation. In short, I wanted to have it both ways: providing mystery, resolving mystery, yet retaining mystery. Hard to do, but crucial for dealing fairly with Shaunís painting and tapping that force underlying the best modern horror.

While never consciously recognised at the time, itís no coincidence that the idea of a mystery box is a refrain throughout the book, carried on to the climax with the dioramas made by Peter Rait in the closing story. Thereís also the theme of the importance of remembering in our lives and so keeping faith with all that weíve ever been; thereís the theme of orthodoxy throughout Ė of how marvels and private views are constantly being reduced to convenient handles and methods, tidied up into the business of communal living. Orthodoxy may be great for maintaining community, but itís often lousy for the human spirit, so at odds with what actually is. The motif of closure is there too, of trying for appropriate resolution in our lives. If we can have resolution and mystery, then weíre really doing well. Itís probably somewhere close to the cutting edge of what being maximally human is.

Again, just look at the Greeks of Periclesí day. We donít have that vital, ultimately civilising link as dynamically now. Sometimes you find it in shared experiences like going to movies, concerts and theatre, but itís mostly diffuse and diluted compared to what some older societies had. We desperately want mystery in our lives, but frantically try to contain it, resolve it and prove it false, then find weíre disappointed once weíve done so.

I feel Iíve learned a lot recently from entering the immersive environments of better computer games like Myst, Riven, Amber, Morpheus, Temujin, Amerzone, Lighthouse and such (and from my own recent work on the story and script for Schizm: Mysterious Journey for Polandís L.K.Avalon). Such potentially potent personal journeys, such intimate involvements with false realities that become the real (just as in a book, a play or a film), invariably with some vital narrative mystery to solve or simply resolve. Inevitably, when such Ďgamesí (to call them that) are done, thereís the flatness, the inevitable coming down. Thatís how it is with any kind of mystery in our lives now: we crave more, more, more, then impatiently wipe the board clean as quickly as we can and start again. We need the diet of mystery and wonder, but are at the same time actively involved in its destruction. What a situation.

The Greeks knew that to enact catharsis properly, you had to leave mystery intact and powerful and then enact it vigorously. So, I like to think, it is with my horror writing, Iím not on the side of the devils or the angels, but of the Night Sun himself, old Dionysos.

© Terry Dowling 2000


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