An introduction to Australian Gothic literature

Rosalind Moran 20 April 2021

Australian Gothic fiction offers insights into the country’s history and culture, as well as a powerful lens through which to imagine the future

With its lack of gothic hallmarks such as medieval ruins, decaying mansions, and frozen winters calling for dramatic haberdashery, Australia might not appear a natural setting for gothic fiction. Yet the Australian Gothic genre forms a complex, thriving tradition within Australian storytelling. It is also one that continues to evolve and challenge readers. 

Australia as “other”

Long before the British colonised Australia, myths surrounding the uncharted Antipodean world already flourished in the European imagination. First posited in antiquity, the hypothesis of a great southern land became a popular subject in the imaginary voyage genre as European sea exploration expanded in the 17th and 18th centuries. Such fiction entrenched ideas that any land in the southern hemisphere unknown to Europeans would likely be uncanny—even grotesque.

Uluru rock in AustraliaThe beautiful Uluru rock in Australiathe country's history is not as picture perfect though. 

When the British colonised Australia from 1788 onwards, how they perceived the continent’s environment reinforced their biased imaginings of it as being a strange reversal of their homeland. The plants were unfamiliar; the seasons reversed; the swans black instead of white. To the colonisers, these qualities were a perversion of a European norm and, therefore, indicative of Australia being not only an unknowable, unforgiving land, but also a godless, spiritually corrupt place.

"British colonisers saw Australia as a godless, spiritually corrupt place"

Coupled with the fact gothic literature was booming in the 19th century, conditions were ripe for the gothic literary genre to take root in Australian soil.

Development of the Australian Gothic

Gothic literature can be broadly defined as writing that explores themes of horror, the macabre, and sometimes romance through narrative devices such as melodrama and suspense. Works in this genre exude an atmosphere of mystery, fear, or dread, typically against a menacing or darkly picturesque backdrop.

Consequently, while the genre’s European origins invite connotations of Transylvanian castles (Dracula) or gloomy houses on Yorkshire moors (Wuthering Heights)—settings that embody gothic literature in popular imagination—such wintery locations are not essential to the genre itself. Gothic motifs include psychological drama, supernatural threat, mystery, haunting, and wild, destabilising settings. These were motifs Europeans historically associated with Australia, and to some extent still do.

The Australian Gothic thus emerged in part because gothic frameworks lend themselves to communicating the malaise and dislocation of colonial experience. Early examples of the genre include Marcus Clarke’s 1870 serial His Natural Life and Rosa Praed’s 1893 novel Outlaw and Lawmaker, along with a raft of derivative fiction that sensationalised life in the so-called “new” land.

Indeed, owing to the Eurocentric values shaping them, early Australian Gothic novels are often marked by offensive conceptualisations of what constitutes old and new, civilised and uncivilised. Many contain racist depictions of Indigenous Australian peoples and cultures, as well as onesided interpretations of the continent as being harsh and haunted.

"Many early gothic novels contain racist depictions of Indigenous Australians"

More modern Australian Gothic texts are therefore interesting not least due to their increased awareness of the prejudices marbled throughout early Australian colonial writing. Joan Lindsay’s pseudohistorical Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967), for example, contrasts colonial culture with gothic landscapes as a means of highlighting the disquiet of colonisers’ existences in a land that does not belong to them or resonate with them spiritually. The silence of the landscape following the disappearance of the tale’s schoolgirl protagonists evokes the troubling silence surrounding colonial Australia’s history of Indigenous genocide and attempts to erase Indigenous cultures.

Some of Australia’s most complex modern gothic literature addresses these injustices directly. Novels such as Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (2005), Gail Jones’s Sorry (2007), and Kim Scott’s Taboo (2017) are all noteworthy for employing gothic motifs in their explorations of Indigenous Australian and settler experiences and injustices.

Moreover, while Aboriginal cultural beliefs exist independent of the gothic tradition and should not be equated to it, some Indigenous authors write in ways that either complement the gothic or subvert it.

The work of Yankunytjatjara/ Kokatha poet Ali Cobby Eckermann, for example, often explores the violence and silence inherent to Australia’s colonial history. Eckermann’s reflection on these atrocities evokes the Australian Gothic’s preoccupation with a haunting national past and present.

Gomeroi writer Alison Whittaker, meanwhile, refers directly to Picnic at Hanging Rock in the opening lines of her 2017 poem MANY GIRLS WHITE LINEN. She writes: “No mist no mystery/ no hanging rock only/ many girls white linen/ men with guns and/ harsher things”. In this way, the poem not only examines the exploitation of Indigenous women in the context of domestic labour and more broadly, but also questions the gothic romanticism of Picnic at Hanging Rock and the elevation of the tale into Australian folklore. Whittaker critiques the whitecentric, gothic trappings of Lindsay’s fiction that have so appealed to audiences; MANY GIRLS WHITE LINEN challenges its audience to face a real story instead.

Gothic Futures

By using the gothic as a vehicle to explore past wrongs and present injustices, many contemporary examples of the Australian Gothic subvert the genre’s early uncritical depictions of colonial fears and prejudices. The genre is therefore not only home to unique stories but also indicative of how conversations and attitudes in Australia have evolved, particularly in relation to colonialism and interpretations of the Australian landscape.

"I would argue the Australian Gothic has a strong and important future ahead of it"

I would argue the Australian Gothic also has a strong and important future ahead of it. Gothic fiction can serve as a gauge of cultural fears and social dilemmas. As Australia grapples with a changing climate—the effects of which are already manifesting, such as in Australia’s nightmare fire season of 2019-20—the country’s fiction will continue evolving along with its home environment.

The Australian Gothic therefore has the potential to capture the zeitgeist, as well as further explore the relationship between Australians and the hospitality of the land they inhabit. This is particularly the case in combination with emerging crossover genres like cli-fi. There are many ways yet for us to reimagine Australia.

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