WHO WOULD have guessed that a regular guest on the decades-long children’s TV show, Mr Squiggle & Friends, would go on to become one of Australia’s leading horror writers?
Terry Dowling, who appeared on the ABC show as a resident musician for eight years in the 1970s and 1980s, is today best known for his Tom Rynosseros series (1990-2007), a fantasy saga he describes as “Arabian Nights in the future, with kite-drawn sand ships crossing the deserts and Aboriginal princes”, and for his horror fiction “which delivers a certain kind of fear,” Dowling says.
As well as his 14 novels, he has written more than 100 short stories of horror, science fiction and fantasy, designed three computer games and worked as a musician, actor, editor and journalist: a “fantasist”, as he calls himself.
And his 1999 short story, The View in Nancy’s Window, is re-published on COSMOS Online this week. Dowling spoke to COSMOS intern Mischa Vickas about all things weird, platonic, doom and gloom.
Vickas: Your work has been described in Supernatural Literature of the World: An Encyclopaedia as “the most sophisticated and extensive use of the weird mode in contemporary Australian literature.” Do you think your stories are “weird”?
Dowling: People want wonder, and they need an edge to it otherwise it just becomes overwhelming. I combine – and that’s where you get your weird from – I tend to combine wonder with a bit of fear, which is why I have ended up writing a lot of horror stories; why my horror does really well for me internationally, because I have a knack for that.
Was there a particular stimulus for writing The View in Nancy’s Window?
Yes, it was the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, because I have a degree in archaeology and I’m very interested in civilisations and what civilisations are. But I’m aware we are going to have a post-human future; we’re going to have a very different kind of future with uploaded personalities and all this sort of thing. So it was really just taking that ancient Seven Wonders that Herodotus identified back in, what was it, the 1st Century AD, or whenever he went to Egypt, and just speculating what that could be in the future with a twist.
An important part of your story is Plato’s Cave, an allegory from Ancient Greece in which our perception of reality is merely a shadow on a wall. Would you like readers to reflect on this allegory?
The average person doesn’t get to cherish the civilisation they live in very much. Most people you meet have never fought in a war, they’ve never defended the country, so they have citizenship without consequences. How do we make people care for the beautiful level of civilisation they have?
So, if I put it at risk in a science-fiction story like The View in Nancy’s Window, I then make, hopefully, people cherish their son or their daughter or their dog or the fine day out the window. You know, all those things that are just there all of the time.
As well as being a part of gothic horror coursework in Texas, your fiction has been used in a university forensic psychology course in Virginia. How did that come about?
The course was in delusional states and rape trauma, and this was a course that had forensic specialists from Quantico, giving lectures on methodology, and they wanted stories for their fiction component that would illustrate delusional states and obsessive behaviour and paraphilia, you know, the usual string of things. And that’s how it happened.
You recently completed a PhD examining computer games, and computer narratives, as a form of storytelling. How does telling a story through a computer compare to telling a story on paper?
It’s a one-word answer here and the word is ‘invisibility’. If I’m reading a story, watching a film or playing a game and I don’t notice the act of doing it, [the story teller has] achieved invisibility, and that’s what story telling is all about. So, if I make something compelling enough, you’ll read it, and you’ll forget that you are reading it. If it’s a computer game and the narrative is strong enough, you’ll forget that you are playing that game and how uncomfortable the chair might be. And it’s the same with film-making: you’re not meant to notice sitting in a cinema. You’re meant to be involved, so it’s all about emotion.
I’ve written three computer games with a Polish design team, which did very well for us [to date, there are 17 language translations]. I had to learn that craft. Again, it was trying to make the story mysterious enough, compelling enough with enough wonder and mystery that people would keep reading. And that’s the great secret, and where a lot of people fail, is they don’t manage to maintain the mystery and if they do, they don’t manage it with pay-off.
I think that computer games, and in my case adventure games with a bit of role-play involved, I think is really one of the fabulous mediums of storytelling that is limited only by the technology.
[In computer games], the individual is the enabler and I think about impressionable young people who are disempowered in the world, just because they are young and they play a computer game where they are making the world happen. You can argue that, “No, the system and the software is making the world happen”, but really, that young person can switch the game off and start again. That’s God-like. And how many opportunities do we have to be that powerful?
You can tell that I really admire the game as a story-telling form. [Laughing] I convinced myself when I wrote my doctorate, put it that way.
Is there any particular field of science that fascinates you and motivates your writing?
It’s mainly sociology, psychology, and philosophy, naturally. My interests are in archaeology and anthropology. My scientific knowledge is limited, but it’s based on great respect for scientific accuracy.
I try to peg everything with science. And I make a few mistakes: I had somebody from the Powerhouse Museum point out that I had the moon rising to midnight instead of falling. But you know? Larry Niven had the Earth rotating the wrong way in Ringworld; they had to do a re-print. And Robert Silverberg had the full moon visible at midday! So they made mistakes too, so I’m OK with that. I’m canny enough to go and find my science when I need it.
In your biography you remark how “pinning down formative influences can be so reductive”. So instead, is there anything that you try to avoid in your writing?
You know, I don’t end up doing doom and gloom. And if I’m going to write horror it will always be with a touch of human redemption to it because I don’t believe we need to have the world pointed out in its misery and its dark side. I think we really do need to celebrate the potential. So I tend to avoid just post-apocalyptic sort of settings, unless there is something redemptive, to use that nifty five-dollar word. There has got to be something in it that gives hope for the race…
I guess generally it’s just, don’t write a bummer of a story. Give people something they can draw in their heart of hearts.