Further to my musings about the nature of horror, as a literary genre, as evidenced at the recently announced and fabulously conducted Aurealis Awards in Brisbane, the judges’ reports are now up at the awards site. I’m still grappling with the horror content of the winning novel, I confess. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the bush, but I don’t share the sense of menace supposedly posed by the landscape in Red Queen at all. And I wasn’t aware of the characters reacting that way. Why would country boys respond like that? The only thing they were frightened of in the Australian bush was other people — in this case, plague carriers. I think it’s very cool that a book like this can nudge ahead of a field with comparatively quite strong horror tropes; it certainly broadens the horizon. Anyway, food for thought, and I’ll continue to digest. (I certainly concur with other comments in this report, though not all.) (My musings shouldn’t detract in any way from the decision, by the way, nor the fact that Red Queen is a solid debut novel with plenty to recommend it; that’s not the purpose of this blog. I write ‘horror’ stories, call them what you will. I’m always interested to know what other people think of as horror.)
Brisbane’s run as host of the Aurealis Awards appears over, with the end of Fantastic Queensland’s tenure as organisers of the awards, and the likely replacement coming from down south. In that time, the awards have gone from being a drab adjunct to an insular convention to an event in their own right, with sponsorship, attendance and attention from major publishers. It’s a hell of an achievement; FQ have earned their rest.
This year’s awards ceremony was another packed event at the Judith Wright Centre and didn’t disappoint, hosted by FQ committee members, and featuring readings from seminal books published outside the awards’ timeframe. Book seller Justin Ackroyd (of Slow Glass Books) was acknowledged, and in an emotional moment, late Brisbane writer Kris Hembury’s contribution to the community was memorialised with a new award for emerging talent, awarded to artist and writer Kathleen Jennings.
The awards were also expanded to include picture books. A list of finalists and winners is here.
I was most interested in the horror finalists this year, because the breadth was large: paranormal romance, ghosts, witches, noir unicorns. And Red Queen, by HM (Honey) Brown, the one title I had not read, and the winner. It’s a good, solid debut thriller. Set in the Victorian bush, two brothers are living in isolation while a virus devastates the Earth. Into that scenario enters a woman — one with secrets that are not fully revealed until an action-packed ending. The bush, the characters, the situation are all well-drawn, and the prose is accomplished, but I found myself wondering: where’s the horror?
This is always an argument with the old horror beastie – it’s a mood, an emotion, where other genres within the speculative fiction umbrella are easier to qualify based on content. If the story is set in the future, chances are it’s science fiction. If it is otherworldly, with magic, well, it’s probably a fantasy. But horror lends itself to many stories.
Unfortunately, the judges’ reports aren’t online yet, so it’s hard to know just what it was about Red Queen that swayed them to choose this book over the other four, which to my mind are all identifiable as horror stories (menace, suspense, fear, a dark slant on what we accept as the real world). Red Queen has some suspense and a touch of the Gothic — it’s an effective thriller — but seems pale by comparison.
Andrew McGahan’s win in science fiction might offer a similar genre-bending experience, based on its synopsis, but I’ve yet to track it down to make my own opinion.
That’s the beauty of awards, I guess. They stretch our perceptions, challenge our biases, and introduce us to new stories and writers and ways of thinking about our craft and our stories.
I had no such qualms with the best young adult novel, Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, a rollicking steampunk novel set in an alternative Europe at the outbreak of World War I. It follows the adventures of two teens thrust into the conflict, one English, one Austrian. There are mechanical marvels such as tanks on legs and bio-tweaked creatures such as zeppelin-like whales. Some pushed my limit of disbelief, but mostly I was able to sail along and enjoy the action and the likeable hero and heroine, and the adults around them, as they are pushed together by the vagaries of war and politics.
I hope next year’s awards provide not only a similar level of professionalism and camaraderie, but also enhance my reading list as equally.