Creeping in Reptile Flesh is a new collection of stories, gathered around a loose (a very loose) theme that is dictated by the title story — a 20,000 word novella that can be described this way (to quote from the back cover):
Savage murders that leave no one dead. Politicians intent on ontological genocide. Feral creatures at home in the wilds of Sydney and the Scrub. In “Creeping in Reptile Flesh” one man embarks on an investigation into a maverick Member of Parliament whose eccentric exterior may hide the seeds of apocalypse.
The central image of the story is ferality — so it could be regarded as a sort of invasion story. At any rate it is a weird investigation of politics and species dominance that is dark, horrific and yet oddly funny — or at least peculiar.
The title refers to this quote from metaphysical poet William Blake’s “prophetic” poem Milton (1840):
Ah weak & wide astray! Ah shut in narrow doleful form
Creeping in reptile flesh upon the bosom of the ground
The Eye of Man a little narrow orb closd up & dark
Scarcely beholding the great light conversing with the Void
The Ear, a little shell in small volutions shutting out
All melodies & comprehending only Discord and Harmony
The Tongue a little moisture fills, a little food it cloys
A little sound it utters & its cries are faintly heard
So, for me, the title suggests something transcendent hidden in corporeal form, a reversal of the idea of the reptile backbrain. The novella’s narrative concerns ferality, specifically in a political setting, and the weirdness that lurks behind apparent normality. Other stories reflect this theme of repressed or hidden realities, and the invasion of the non-human by human nature and vice versa. Ferality and feral invasion is (roughly speaking) the loosely unifying concept.
The above cover (another brilliant creation by Cat Sparks) wonderfully captures the feeling evoked within the different stories.
Where Did The Concept Come From
To quote from the Preface:
“Creeping in Reptile Flesh” has been a long time in the writing. Its original impetus came from the years I spent as research assistant to a well-known historian, fascinated by the divergent realities I found to exist in the old newspapers I was given to scour. I should point out that the connection between the real-world historian and the one depicted in the story is remote, and neither should be confused with the other in any detail. By the same token, the politicians, political parties and feral creatures depicted in the title story (and in the other stories as well) are fictional creations and are not meant to bear any resemblance to persons or creatures living or dead. Even the story ‘Casual Visitors’, which was inspired by real incidents involving a Sydney-based scifi convention, Harlan Ellison and a flying saucer, is otherwise totally fictitious.
Yes, you heard right. A Sydney-based scifi con, Harlan Ellison and a flying saucer… I’m not going to explain that one. You’ll have to get the book and read the story to find out what it means.
Creeping in Reptile Flesh
The Black Lake’s Fatal Flood
Dreams of Death
Rotting Eggplant on the Bottom Shelf of a Fridge
Lo Que No Asusta
Getting Rid of Mother
The Slimelight, and How to Step Into It
You’re a Sick Man, Mr Antwhistle
Of these all but three have been published before, yet won’t be familiar to many people. Several were published in US magazines, one — “Dreams of Death” — in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine back in 1990. Some were published in small magazines that had a minor profile. A few first appeared years ago in Aurealis or Eidolon — once Australia’s two premier genre markets. “Creeping in Reptile Flesh”, “Unravelling” and “Getting Rid of Mother” are new stories, published for the first time in this collection.
It’s a strong collection, I reckon, and one that hangs together well. I’m aware that many readers will head straight to the shorter fiction, but my recommendation would be to read the stories in the order they have been placed — which is very deliberate. In many ways, the longest — the title story — sets a tone that percolates through the others. I like the way they form a sort of attenuated unity.
As a tease, here is a short extract from “Creeping in Reptile Flesh”, which paints what may be a rather deceptive picture of one of the main characters:
Cowling arrived almost immediately. His long body slammed through the door; though he managed to avoid colliding with anyone, he gave me an uneasy feeling that disaster could strike at any time.
He looked straight at me and waved. “Townsend,” he yelled across the Café. “How are you? Not too civilised, I hope!”
“No, Mr Cowling,” I said, smiling in spite of myself, “not too civilised.” It was, I’d been told, his catch-phrase.
“But civilised enough to get on in this bugger of a business, eh?” He was towering over me by this time, slamming his big hand on my back. “Call me Yipper,” he added. “I prefer to be called Yipper.”
“I’ve always wondered,” I said, “is that your real name? I mean, is it the one your parents gave you?”
“Derived from ‘Bunyip’,” he said. “Traditional thing.” He didn’t explain further. Instead he lowered himself into the chair Kyla had been sitting in. “Ah,” he exclaimed, “Ms Fauxair has just left.”
“She kept your seat warm for you.”
“Hardly that.” Grinning, as though with secret knowledge, he indicated the cup in front of him. “But she ordered me a coffee.”
“It’s not fresh. I’ll get you another.”
He fixed me with a stern glance, as though I’d said something wicked. “I like my coffee cold.” To prove it, he lifted the cup and, still holding my gaze, took a big sip. He grunted. “Still warm. Pity.”
“Why don’t you order an iced coffee?” I asked.
“It’s not the same.”
A strange one, that’s for sure. He gulped a mouthful of lukewarm coffee and smacked his lips theatrically. “Now, Mr Townsend. What is it you’re supposed to be doing? Remind me. A book, is it?”
It is being launched by US author and convention Guest-of-Honour, Jack Dann, at Conflux 5, which is on from Friday 3 October to Monday 6 October 2008. The actual launch takes place on Sunday 5 October at 4 pm. Copies will be on sale at the convention all weekend.
One way or the other make sure you pick up a copy. I’m sure you won’t regret it.