Tasmanian Gothic

“It’s a place that devours its inhabitants.” Melanie Calvert on Tasmanian Gothic and her novel Freycinet

Published in READ IN A SINGLE SITTING

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Hobart, Tasmania (image from FlickR Commons)

Disconnected from the mainland of Australia and known for its profuse and rugged landscape, Tasmania is a place around which a mythology of sorts has sprung up. There’s a sense of its being a closed door, a place into which many of us look on from afar, hearing only snatches of its narrative. It’s a place where ghosts thrive.

“Tasmania has a dark, brutal history, from the cruelty of the convict era, to mistreatment of the Aborigines, to more recent times with the truly terrible Port Arthur massacre,” says Melanie Calvert, author of the recent novel Freycinet.

“Ever since England’s convicts were first sent to ‘the ends of the earth’, Tasmania has been associated with brutality and cruelty.”

This is something she captures when she writes:

The Europeans named the island Van Diemen’s Land, and then Tasmania; the name change a futile attempt to shake off its malicious repute. But the names seem apt with their evocation of maniacal demons (anyone who’s stood on the West Coast might think they were being assaulted by demonic, torturous wind sprites). Tasmania is extremely capricious, and while it may have a temperate climate, it is a rugged place.

Australia as a whole has been caught up in a narrative of violence and potential treachery, she says: from Azaria Chamberlain to Picnic at Hanging Rock the possibility of the country turning on its human population has been a eerie, constant undercurrent.

“Perhaps this is due to a certain lack of confidence stemming from the fact that our inhabitants in the main were from ‘elsewhere’. Like a motherless child they have had to face the elements without any intrinsic knowledge or cultural heritage.”

Whatever the cause, the concept of a land that may consume its inhabitants can certainly be applied to Tasmania. She writes in Freycinet:

Tasmania has long been the site of fatal shipwrecks, and bushfires, heat-waves and floods. As recently as 2001, Tasmania’s most popular tourist destination, Cradle Mountain, effectively devoured four people and injured 14 others when a landslide sent a tourist bus hurtling down a ravine. In Tasmania, bridges come crashing down, severe floods break dams and wash whole towns away, scorching bushfires carve hot paths through homes and people.”

And the aesthetics of the island fittingly suit this dramatic, dark history.

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Image from FlickR Commons

“Tasmania has impenetrable bushland and untameable forests. The indigenous creatures look strange and distorted, bizarre and freakishly beautiful; the vegetation sometimes grotesque and gargantuan. The Tasmanian forests evoke uncivilised, prehistoric times, with an environment thought to be similar to that once found on that original ancient landmass, Gondwana.”

Moreover, with a third of the island designated National Parkland, much of the state is inaccessible, which only adds to its mysterious appeal.

“The bush is eerie, because there are things there when you hear that rustle; there are snakes and Devils and sometimes evil men.”

And yet, as Melanie explores in Freycinet, Tasmania’s rugged wildness is blanketed with a strange Englishness, a veneer of what she calls “civilisation and neat safety” that scarcely obscures the disturbing nature at its heart.

Tasmania was strange. First, it had a tamed, English country garden aspect. In Launceston, Julian and I had wandered through manicured gardens, clipped, neat parks, Victorian-era buildings and colonial manors. And then, right in the middle of this English-looking city, it was punched with the gaping chasm of the Cataract Gorge, with its rock cliffs and clefts and wild torrential flooding.

And the rest of Tasmania was the same; all conservative and controlled, English and quaint, then around a corner and bam! Wildness, wilderness, danger, cliffs and horizontal scrub, lakes with no bottoms, wild seas and ice-needle sea-spray and a surprising amount of small but particularly vicious animals.

Melanie mentions a quote from author Nicholas Shakespeare, who describes the island thus: “There is the Tasmanian light, and then, all over the island, there are pockets of extraordinary darkness,” (Tasmania, 2004).

Or, as she describes it in Freycinet:

Tasmania has the inglorious distinction of being both hospitably habitable and fiercely uninhabitable, being at once both bland and perilous, as if the whole island is a type of mind-numbing, deathly trap.

Growing up amongst the ghosts of Tasmania

Having grown up in Tasmania, Melanie was raised amongst “ghost tales and tales of the Aboriginal Australians and Tasmanian Tigers who had once been commonplace; tales of ghost cars that appeared then disappeared at night on the Sidling Road, tales of Ghosty Downs who ploughed his wife’s dismembered body into the fields of Devil’s Halfacre; tales told to me by my sisters in bed at night of a one-wooden-legged man outside our window.”

It’s possible, she says, that she was raised to find ghost and spooks where others would find none.

“I wanted to write about the things that I find interesting. I wanted to write a story like Picnic at Hanging Rock, and I decided to set it in Freycinet National Park, which has its own haunting triptych of uncanny rocks – the Hazards – hanging ominously over the inhabitants. It would be about some young women who went missing in the wilderness.”

It wasn’t until some time later that she learnt of the German backpacker, Nancy Grunwaldt, and Italian tourist, Victoria Cafasso; Nancy who had disappeared never to be seen again, and Victoria who was found on a lonely Tasmanian beach, stabbed 40 times. And both, she adds, not far from Freycinet.

“So they too became entwined in the story. I suspect it is my ghost-story-riddled childhood that drew me to these dark narratives, and as Tasmania in the novel became her own character, she fell easily into her threatening and eerie role.”

Melanie believes that Tasmania, and particularly Freycinet, is a fabulous backdrop: it’s dramatic and colour-filled and glorious.

“And I’m of the Anne of Green Gables school of thought: write about what you know.”

The gothic influences in Freycinet

Freycinet fits firmly within the Gothic tradition, with a number of elements that position it so. It features, for example, a subplot that draws on the ballet narrative La Sylphide, as it is at this ballet that Ginny and Julian, the novel’s main characters, first meet. The foregrounding of this subplot means that the novel is effectively framed from the outside by a Gothic/Romantic narrative.

“In La Sylphide, James is meant to marry Effie, but becomes obsessed with the beautiful, unattainable Sylph, a forest nymph. James accepts a scarf from a witch, who tells him the scarf will allow him to capture the Sylph. It does so, but the scarf is poisoned and the Sylph dies in James’s arms.”

In Freycinet, we see something similar, only translated into a modern urban setting.

“Julian takes the part of the brooding James, treating his betrothed, Ginny, in a manner that is nothing short of villainous. Julian’s gloomy and often violent temperament proves to be due to his obsession with the beautiful ballerina, Vivienne, now a missing person in the wilderness of Freycinet National Park.”

The Gothic backstory is reinforced by a close adherence to Tasmanian history in order to establish an ominous backdrop to match these fictional proceedings.

“The result is a story that melds ghostly apparitions, dream visions, faux-aboriginal myth, doppelgangers and elements of both horror and romance, framed by the realistic-seeming proceedings of a police search and rescue mission.”

There are numerous supernatural elements in Freycinet, says Melanie. Her character Ginny is haunted by ghostly, gory visions of two young woman who soon afterwards go missing; she imagines herself floating off into the forest in a strange, red-shoed trance; and when she finds the journal of the missing Ruth, finds that Ruth has a distinctly witch-like persona.

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Image from FlickR Commons

“Evocative of the Gothic, Freycinet also contains the castle-like, imposing Devil Lodge – a sparkling beacon against the dark Hazards – the Hazards themselves whose mere presence frightens Ginny to distraction, and hidden passages carved through forest bushland.”

The setting of the Gothic novel is commonly a character in itself, Melanie points out, and in the wild Tasmanian terrain, Ginny finds strange and murderous objects everywhere she looks:

A body here might not be immediately discerned amongst the bulky clumps of jet-black seaweed. Splayed along the beach are several long, blackened hunks of wood. There are murderous weapons everywhere under this fairy floss, soft sky. Nor would the sound of screams be conspicuous here; snatched away by the stealing wind and camouflaged by cracking waves.

However, in her work Melanie has also reinterpreted the landscape of the Gothic and made it her own.

“Rather than the infertile, desolate or bare land of traditional Gothic, Freycinet depicts one of hyper-fertility, one in which the characters are indeed at risk of being consumed by their environment.”

Now I too lie down. With my eyes closed I’m struck by the pungent, cinnamon smell of the bush. In the mottled firelight, I reach out, but not towards Julian. I reach away from him, on the other side, out into the shadows. My fingers find cushion-soft moss, knife-edge stones, brittle cracking leaves, damp loamy chocolaty dirt, whip-like ferns, all alive, overly alive, trying to consume and decompose me; to incorporate me into their own fecund, compost-like environment. I grasp a moist handful of the earth, and hold it tightly in my hand, curl my cold fingers around its life, and close my eyes.

“In this passage Ginny almost seems to relish her potential integration into the landscape,” she says.

“But at the edges of this fecund realm also lie signs of encroaching decay, rot and sickness; creatures with rotting cancerous growths that evoke the current crisis in the Tasmanian Devil population, and water edged with bile-like pollution.”

It is a setting that not only evokes an atmosphere of horror and dread, she says, but that also speaks of the potential deterioration of this world.

“The hints of decay and decrepitude warn of real-life threats to the pristine state and nature of Tasmania.”

On unreliable narrators

“Ginny, for reasons revealed later in the novel, is the ultimate unreliable narrator,” says Melanie, adding that this unreliability allows a certain freedom for her as an author.

Although there are events in the novel that a reader may question, Melanie is able to get around this issue by the very fact that she is describing not necessarily how things occur, but how Ginny perceives them to occur.

“The narrative is potentially unconstrained by reality or the physical world. For instance, the key to the supernatural elements of the novel lie in Ginny’s unreliable narration. In fact the novel itself postulates that the entire story may never have really happened.”

And I am left with the distinct impression that this is all a dream, all of it, and I am only an ordinary tourist visiting Freycinet, who has had a curious dream one long, dark night. As if all I have experienced here is only the echoed sliver of a very real and unbearably callous murder, and these visions and thoughts I have had are mere reverberations and splintered echoes of the madness of that abhorrent act.

It’s a weird feeling of … unrealness. As if I am a mere figure in a dream, or a character in a painting or a novel, only an imagined, powerless creature myself.

“There is a lot that Ginny has forgotten,” says Melanie, “and what she does remember is in a distorted, confused way. The question is even posed as to whether not only her beliefs and thoughts, but perhaps even her entire personality is a mere construct.”

Melanie says that discarding or blocking out memories may allow an individual a way of coping with moments of outright horror, grief or disbelief—those moments that push a person beyond the limits of their own comprehension, or quite literally out of their mind.

In Freycinet Ginny has suffered such an event, and because of her questionable relation of events, there is nothing in the novel that can really be believed. Ginny is a fictional character in every sense of the word.

“If a reader senses their narrator is unreliable, their instinct may be to sift through information, to attempt to assess which information is true and which is false. This may serve to draw a reader into a story. They must pay attention, remember past events and judge these against new ones. They are drawn into being the sleuth in the mystery.”

Melanie adds that it’s essential that readers attempt to read between the lines rather than taking what Ginny says at face value, as there is nothing in the narration that is not intrinsically about Ginny herself.

“The novel in fact revolves around the psychology of the descent into insanity, and it is therefore madness that filtrates and filters this narrative.”

On writing a literary thriller

Freycinet, although containing a mystery of sorts, is not a murder mystery novel in the traditional “whodunnit” sense. Rather it’s a literary thriller, a genre that Melanie has always enjoyed.

“I’ve always loved thrillers, particularly psychological thrillers. I love the 1973 horror film Don’t Look Now, adapted from the short story by Daphne du Maurier, where a man is haunted by glimpses of what seems to be the ghost of his dead little girl, and is eventually driven to a terrifying madness.”

She adores the film for its combination of intrigue, the interesting aspect of the psychological state of the characters, the shock of the ghostlike presence, the supreme backdrop of the haunting labyrinth of Venice, the poignant image of the lost child in the bright red coat, constantly fleeing just beyond the grieving father’s reach.

In Freycinet she sought to achieve something similar, although her key goal was to write something that she would like to read herself.

“The novel explores elements that I find interesting: Tasmania, beautiful cinematic scenery, missing person stories, unsolved mysteries, the supernatural, fairy tales, ballet narratives, psychoanalytical theory, the concept of obsession, and the compelling children’s tale, The Red Shoes. I never thought of it as an ambitious project so much as an interesting one.”

The reception to Freycinet thus far has been very positive, with readers telling Melanie that they’ve thoroughly enjoyed the novel and would love to see more work from her – a response with which she couldn’t be happier.

“I hope that people find Freycinet thought-provoking, interesting, entertaining. I would like it to make Tasmanians appreciate what they have, and to draw people who haven’t been lucky enough to go there, to go there. I want to produce a thing of beauty, and have others find it beautiful too, to have their hearts leap a little or fall in love just a little with a beautiful scene or image or idea, to learn something new, or to see the ordinary in an extraordinary way.”