(Imported from Blogger; formatting glitches need to be fixed)

Award-wining Fantasy writer Tansy Rayner Roberts ventures across to the dark side in her review of horror writer Kirsten McDermott’s Madigan Mine. Tansy writes:

I hesitated at first over the challenge to review a work outside my usual genre – not because I didn’t want to do it, but because I have such eclectic genre tastes.  I’m known as a fantasy and science fiction writer, for instance, but also write YA and for children, and am shortly to have a new crime series published.  I read quite a bit outside those three genres as well, especially chick lit, with the occasional romance, and classic literature.  I almost went for ‘modern literary’ as a genre but after hearing so much anti-genre sentiment from those in the literary scene in talks surrounding the Stella Prize,* I really felt the need to wave a genre flag quite dramatically.

Which brings me to horror. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the genre, and after several years reading short stories for review, was willing to dismiss the whole lot of it as misogynistic, shlocky and unpleasant.  But it was Kirstyn herself, a friend and colleague, who called me (and my fellow presenters on the Galactic Suburbia podcast) on my bias.  As she pointed out, I had over the past couple of years raved happily about several works of Australian horror,
and dark fantasy.  I enjoy her work, and the work of people like Kaaron Warren, Peter Ball, Margo Lanagan and Paul Haines.  Was I not just falling into the trap of saying that all the stuff I liked was, by definition, not really horror?

Given that our podcast has an ongoing theme of examining your own prejudices as a reader, I was utterly shamed by this comment, and have done my best since not to contribute to the way that horror is often summarily dismissed as worthless.  After all, exactly the same thing happens to fantasy all the time, and I hate it when I hear a fantasy or science fiction classic “re-classified” by a non-genre reader who doesn’t want to admit that the thing they just read and loved was actually fantasy or science fiction.

But here’s the thing – I still don’t like horror.  When it’s brilliant, I will read it and appreciate it, can even marvel at how it does that thing very well, but I don’t enjoy it.  Kaaron Warren’s Slights was a masterful horror novel, and it made me feel icky for weeks afterwards.  I still haven’t quite recovered from
reading the brilliant and disturbing “Wives” by Paul Haines.  And don’t get me started on what Peter Ball did with unicorns in his acclaimed novella “Horn,” or how I can’t reread Margo Lanagan’s “Singing My Sister
Down” [short story in Black Juice] because I have had children since the first time I read it and I’m pretty sure it would break me into pieces.

I’ve still only read one Stephen King novel, It, which I loved and hated all at once.  I gratefully took the ‘out’ offered to me when someone (I can’t even remember who) told me that if you’ve read It, you pretty much don’t have to read any other Stephen King novel ever because it does all the things.  And so I didn’t.

I recently overcame my own discomfort with horror as a genre to present a seminar at the Hobart Women in Horror film festival, Stranger With My Face, and to be a judge of their horror script competition, and found myself drawn with fascination to discussions of the female gothic, and the various other tropes that were examined, turned over and reimagined in the scripts I read.

I still don’t like horror.  But it intrigues me.  The idea that a genre can be formed from a feeling, from a few overlapping emotions, rather than plot formula, character expectations or a particular kind of world or idea… that is deeply fascinating and compelling.

All of which is a terribly long way around to saying that it took me a year to pick up Kirstyn McDermott’s Madigan Mine (when you like a person you really don’t want to hate their book) and found it compelling, disturbing and thought-provoking all the way through.  I’m pretty sure I still don’t like it, but that’s okay, because this isn’t a book that wants to be liked.

It’s a book that kinda wants to freak you out and Kirstyn, you achieved that for sure!

Madigan Mine is the story of a not-as-young-as-his-lifestyle artist drop out type bloke called Alex, who begins the novel trying to deal with the death of Madigan, the young woman he has loved since childhood, who became his lover but was never entirely his.  Madigan was the talented one, the one with all the personality and the passion and the drive and the emotional issues – Madigan, in short, is far more interesting than the hero, and it’s hard not to think she would have made a far more interesting protagonist.

Luckily for the readers, Madigan totally agrees with this sentiment.  As Alex drifts back and forth through grief, flashbacks and day to day life, Madigan is working to bring him down, steal his body and come back to life through his physical presence.  Or… is she doing it at all?  Is Alex having a mental breakdown?  Has his obsession with his angry tragic girlfriend pushed him over the edge?

It’s to the author’s credit that a bunch of utterly unlikeable characters come so beautifully off the page in all their self-absorbed glory.  The balance of horror with reality is subtle enough that I am reminded more of ‘literary’ thrillers like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History or Barbara Vine’s A Fatal Inversion than any other horror work I have read in recent years.

Wow.  Do you see what I did there?  I totally tried to make Madigan Mine sound awesome by claiming it wasn’t really horror.  And I wasn’t even trying to make a point.

But yes, unpleasant characters, sinister goings on, art, the horrors of upper class Melbourne suburbs, and all manner of powerful visual descriptions that pop off the page. This is a horrible book, really.  But I couldn’t stop reading it.

Kirstyn McDermott has done something very clever here, making a male character into the ‘haunted woman’ prototype often seen in gothic fiction.  She has also, in Madigan, created a marvellous monster who
wreaks destruction as much when she is alive and human than when she is a ghost, or a figment, or an obsession, of the protagonist.

I may be a little bit more afraid of Kirstyn’s brain than I was before I read her book.  And that’s what horror is all about, right?

Tansy Rayner Roberts is the author of fantasy novels Power and Majesty, The Shattered City and Reign of Beasts (the Creature Court trilogy). She also recently authored a short collection, Love and Romanpunk
(Twelfth Planet Press). She blogs at tansyrr.com, podcasts with Galactic Suburbia, and can be found on Twitter as @tansyrr.

In 2011, Power and Majesty won both the Ditmar for Best Novel and the Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel. The Shattered City and Love and Romanpunk both received Aurealis Award nominations for this year.

* Tansy writes: At a recent discussion panel in Hobart, for instance, one of the panellists made belittling, dismissive comments about all manner of genres including chick lit, romance and science fiction, implying that women’s work in these fields was unimportant and that only Literature
was worth discussion – despite the fact that the Stella Prize itself has overtly stated that it is inclusive of genre fiction.