Amberjack: Tales of Fear and Wonder by Terry Dowling is an eclectic collection of old friends and new surprises, each story driven onwards by a mighty engine of transparent prose crackling with the electricity of ideas. Terry Dowling belongs to an elite group of short story writers that combine an unerring sense of how to tell a gripping story with the ability to blend in very sophisticated concepts without anyone noticing. . . Well, perhaps that should be, “. . .without anyone minding the challenge”. Too often, writers aim for the common denominator tropes and allow their readers the luxury of undisturbed sleep while reading. Terry Dowling prefers to explore regions somewhat off the beaten track where the map bears the legend hic sunt dracones. He expects his readers to keep up.
As a starting point, let’s consider what anchors us to a place. Sometimes, it will be the practicalities of where we can afford to buy or rent, where there’s work that pays enough to support our lifestyles, or where family and friends supply obligations for us to fulfill. But other times, we are trapped by memories. Objectively there’s no reason to stay, but habit takes over. So, as a theme, what would it take to free a person from a particular place?
“The Lagan Fishers” (1) is a simple story that leads us on a stately dance. It’s not quite deceptive in its intention for there’s something inherently random about the direction of travel when dealing with flotsam and jetsam. So, perhaps, when you grieve, you wonder whether to stay in the place full of memories. In which case, I propose a slight change to the title as Lagan Fissures for there should always be cracks between the dimensions through which gifts representing hope may arrive. “The Fooly” is a biter-bit ghost story. Slightly contrary to our theme, we begin with a man who is always on the move. Appropriately, he’s walking from the pub to his temporary residence when he meets another waiting by the road.
“The Magikkers” is an elegant puzzle story. Let’s assume we all have a little magic in ourselves. What might we do with it? The answer has more than a hint of sadness about it, particularly because what we have must be used in one single moment. So what is our decision? With something so precious, it would be better to recover something lost to the world, knowing it would be protected by a real magician. Perhaps reuniting a family would give everyone a reason to stay. And thinking about individuals who come together in unpleasant circumstances like a mental hospital, what would make them stay together even when pronounced cured? “Toother” (2) is a wonderful story of psychosleuthing as Doctor Dan comes back from the Blackwater Days to track down a serial killer. The fact there are such people in the world offers the reason why the sane might claim sanctuary. Another way in which people find themselves anchored to a place comes from a curse. In “The Suits at Auderlene” we find a completely entrancing story of revenge. You may think “entrancing” is an odd choice of adjective because it’s more usually associated with positive nouns. Yet I find this story a source of wonder and delight despite the darkness that lurks at its heart. Perhaps when a man with an enquiring mind comes from outside, he can see a way of freeing those who are trapped.
Changing themes, “He Tried To Catch the Light” is one of these intriguing philosophy meets science fiction stories. Let’s assume that, with full control over all he sees and hears, it would be possible to bring up an intelligent child. How would this child turn out if he was never introduced to the idea of God. The trouble with our perceptions of the world is that they are filtered through the preconceptions and prejudices implanted during our socialisation. We conform by believing what we know others believe. Indeed, more generally, how we interpret the world depends on where we are, who we are with and what we are doing. But if someone came to the real world without the same belief systems and preconceptions, what might he see? Is there something embedded in our genetic heritage that we never experience because, as a species, we have conditioned ourselves out of its use? Now add in a practical way of experiencing the dreams of another and consider the suggestion that a new form of light might actually have elements of animate life. After all, God’s first words were to create light. Perhaps there’s more to this sunmire than meets the eye. Even more interesting is the politics of it all. What might the world’s great religions make of an experiment to determine whether a tabula rasa instinctively dreams of God?
This same debate continues in a slightly different form in “The View in Nancy’s Window”. Initially, the story put me in mind of “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster but it then goes into more modern sensibilities where we humans worry about what we might become or, indeed, change ourselves into. Suppose the technology becomes available, and we direct our evolution or deliberately fashion new forms for ourselves, would we continue to recognise ourselves as human? Just as “He Tried To Catch the Light” speculates on whether belief in a higher being is genetically coded into us, this wonders whether we stay human if we rewrite our genes or augment ourselves with technology. To an early human, we might even appear godlike so great were our powers to create star systems and new forms of life. In “Some Roses for the Bonestell Man” we have the chance for the pre- and post-humans to debate the issue. The assumption is that the techophiles will never understand the conscious decision to live without augmentation as in the current incomprehension of the Amish community’s decision to live without electricity or other modern conveniences. If this leads to insufferable condescension, they’d better hope the primitive ones are not toting guns. Putting the boot on the other foot, “Flashmen” thinks about how primitive humans might attempt to fight back if technologically superior “aliens” start a cull. In all asymmetrical combat, there’s no heroism. It’s all about costs and benefits to both sides. The technologically disadvantaged save who they can and the survivors fight until there’s no-one left standing. No-one knows what price the aliens may be prepared to pay to prevail.
“Jarkman at the Othergates” is a study of immanence — the idea that there are supernatural possibilities associated with and existing within a place — where an initiate may go beyond the traditional genius loci and discover new understandings about himself and how he relates to the world. The attention to detail is beautifully managed as curiosity leads Jarkman ever closer to the “other” and the consequent confusion as to what is real. “Truth Window: A Tale of the Bedlam Rose” (4) takes us back to the days of Wormwood where truth may be found in even the most unlikely of places — even a window in an insignificant building may enable insights with profound consequences to those who are too quick to speak of them. Finally, “The Library” reconnects us with Tom Rynosseros in another of these genre-busting tales of detection in a future world so unlike our own. When our good Captain is tasked with finding someone who does not want to be found, you know you can expect fireworks or, in this case, lightning strikes.
This is another of those rather beautiful books from Subterranean Press. The jacket art by Nick Stathopoulos is pleasingly evocative, the choice of font and point size make the book easily readable by one of the old folk like me, the stories are bracketed with the lyrics from Terry Dowling’s song cycle, Amberjack, there’s an introduction from Jack Vance, and the end notes are particularly insightful. When you have both content and form working in harmony, the result is genuinely worth every last cent. Buy your copy immediately.
(1) Year’s Best SF 7, edited by David G Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, Eos 2002.
(2) The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror 21, edited by Ellen Datlow and Kelly Link & Gavin K. Grant, St Martin’s Press, 2008.
(3) The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Twenty-First Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois, St Martin’s Griffin, 2004.
(4) Eclipse Two: New Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Jonathan Strahan, Night Shade Books, 2008.
For of a review of Terry Dowling’s only novel, see Clowns At Midnight.
Thematically, the best way to understand Clowns at Midnight by Terry Dowling (PS Publishing, 2010) is to talk about another interesting writer. Although his output of fiction was modest, Russell Kirk managed to produce some particularly effective short stories and three fascinating novels. It’s not important to say much about Kirk here save that, as a US Conservative who espoused Libertarian instincts, he held that liberty is, at its heart, a version of ethics defining self-control. He believed all humans have selfish and expansive appetites but, through “liberty”, they may impose emotional order on themselves. Kirk is not unique, but unusual in that he used supernatural and horror stories as parables through which to explore his political philosophy. In his third novel, Lord of the Hollow Dark, Kirk characterises a diabolical version of Gnosticism in Mr. Apollinax. This man is the novel’s catalyst who preaches a hedonistic New Morality to a group of disciples as they stand at the mouth of a labyrinth. By journeying through this maze, they hope to fulfill their desires. The book is a dialogue between a Dionysian philosophy asserting the possibility of an Earthly paradise through pleasure, and Gnostic salvation for the individual. Yet the point of such salvation is not to stop at the level of the individual. It’s intended to become a form of rebirth for society as like-minded individuals are attracted to each other and, through their shared values, create a divine realm on Earth.
Dowling is playing in a similar sandpit, thinking about how a Dionysian version of symbolism has informed beliefs and cultural practices from the beginning of time. The parallel with Lord of the Hollow Dark comes in the use of the labyrinth or maze. The fascination in complex mazes lies in their potentially infinite nature. In theory, you could wander indefinitely, never able to find the way out and, in so doing, discover something important about yourself and your relationship to your environment. So, in Clowns at Midnight, we have two labyrinths. One is physical and located in the garden of Carlo and Raini Risi, second-generation Australians from Sardinia. The other is the mind of the protagonist, David Leeton. This is a classic unreliable narrator, a man desperately trying to work through the cognitive behavioural therapy lessons given to him as a means of coping with an intense phobia of clowns and associated imagery.
It seems a perfect solution for Leeton to get away from the urban landscape where the randomness of the environment may throw a range of disturbing imagery his way. When offered a house-sitting opportunity in a more remote part of New South Wales, this seems to offer a safe harbour while he internalises the self-discipline to survive. Thus, as with Kirk, we have a man needing to transcend fear through control of his emotions. Yet, he is immediately pitched into situations in which his carefully structured defences are attacked by the things he fears the most. So, from the outset, we must play the game of deciding exactly what is real and what represents the product of his fevered imagination.
What makes our navigation through the labyrinth interesting is Leeton’s internal dialogue as he attempts to be his own voice of reason, rationalising his fears, and hoping to find a better balance within himself. The symbolic thread guiding this search for reason starts with the owners of the house who, like Ariadne for Theseus, leave a copy of Mary Renault’s The Mask of Apollo on his bed. It symbolises the choice between the rule of disordered fears and a measured existence, between the wild abandon of a Bacchanalian celebration, and something altogether more profound in which the cycle of creation and recreation offers the choice to end and begin something new.
I also note a resonance with the original The Wicker Man — I have not seen the remake — in which an island community sacrifices an innocent Christian to restore fertility. Dowling rejects this form of neopaganism. Although the resolution of the book must have elements of destruction, these should be steps to a new self taken with the consent of the one chosen, i.e. we are witnessing the destruction of the weaknesses that allow disordered fears to infect the mind, and the reincarnation of the old self as a person with new self-confidence and a positive expectation as to the future. Yet even this is uncertain.
We come back to the notion of the unreliable narrator. Much or all of the “action” in this book could be the delusions of a man as he suffers a nervous breakdown. What he thinks he sees or hears inside the house could be simple paranoia amplifying his fears into nightmares. Or there could be genuine supernatural events testing the limits of his behavioural therapy defences. Or what happens could be an all-too-human conspiracy to push him over the edge into madness. People can and do torture themselves. We take this as proof of their irrationality. Similarly, supernatural forces need no reason to torment a human. But if this is the work of one or more humans, what could their motives be? Why should they wish to take a man already struggling with his own demons and undo all his good work to control them?
Dowling manages to pull off a clever technical trick in putting this book together. He has to insert a significant amount of basic factual information about the history of Sardinia and of the use of masks in religion, the theatre, etc. Like Kirk, he must also rehearse some potentially heavy philosophical debates. This could make the tone of the text academic and boring. That he manages to create a real and mounting sense of menace is a tribute to an excellent storyteller on top form.
The physical book is slightly unusual in having the jacket artwork by Nick Stathopoulos laminated on to the boards. I assume this means some copies were presold into the library trade and, rather than selling the unbound signatures, PS bound up the books to library specifications. Whatever the reason, it makes the book more interesting than the usual bland boards.
Overall, this is a real thinking reader’s supernatural/psychological thriller, delivered in a pleasing physical package. Recommended.
As an irrelevant aside since it does not affect the quality of the text, the book was the creative writing component to a doctoral degree in Creative Writing awarded to Terry Dowling by the University of Western Australia in 2006. Our thanks go to Peter Crowther at PS for finally allowing the text to see the light of day.
For a review of a short story collection by Terry Dowling, see Amberjack.