Spectres of the Past: James Doig

James DoigJames Doig has recently published two excellent anthologies of early Australian supernatural horror fiction:

Australian Gothic: An Anthology of Australian Supernatural Fiction 1867-1939, edited by James Doig (Equilibrium Books, 2007)

and

Australian Nightmares: More Australian Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, edited by James Doig (Equilibrium Books, 2008)

These two anthologies represent years of work and a Holmes-like dedication to the pursuit of minutia in ferreting out information and sourcing references. The resulting books are undoubtedly of historic importance in understanding the nature and extent of supernatural horror fiction in Australia.

But it is not simply historical curiosity that is satisfied by Doig’s anthologies. The stories which he includes prove to be entertaining and often powerul reading, many displaying a dark sensibility that is as potent now as it must have been then. I found them both surprising and rarely “dated”, at least not in the sense that they have lost their ability to engage the imagination. Many pack as strong an imaginative punch as the contents of more contemporary anthologies.

I asked James about his project:

“Early Australian supernatural fiction is very much an untouched area. People like Van Ikin and Graham Stone have done an exhaustive job finding and getting into print early Australian science fiction, but vintage Australian supernatural fiction and fantasy haven’t attracted much attention at all…. The thing is that the best supernatural horror fiction doesn’t date — the ghost stories of Charles Dickens, Henry James and M.R. James are just as effective today as they were in their own time. The same can’t be said of early science fiction, which in most cases has dated terribly.”

“Most of the stories are set in Australia, and there are themes and subjects that crop up fairly often. One of these is the “child lost in the bush” — this is quite a popular theme in early Australian fiction, and there have been a few studies of it. Of course, it symbolises the fears of European settlers blundering into a huge country that overwhelms them; they were like babes in the woods. … A number of the stories are set during the lawless gold rush — greed, envy and hate lead to murder, which results in supernatural revenge — the classic supernatural horror tale, common in all times and places.”

“I think the point is that they were talented, professional writers and were well received during their lifetimes, but have since been forgotten. The depressing thing is that many of the writers included in AG and AN died forgotten and penniless. “

Dead Men cover

Read the full interview here.

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