#TasmanianLitMonth: Zane Pinner on Tasmanian Gothic

Written by guest contributor, Zane Pinner, introduction by Bec Taylor

I would like to pay my respects to the traditional custodians of the land, the Palawa people of Tasmania, and to their Elders, past, present, and emerging. I acknowledge their deep spiritual connection to the land and their ongoing contributions to the culture of this nation.  

Photo courtesy of the author.

Zane and I met at Launceston College, a secondary school for Grade 11 and 12 students in the north of the Tasmania more than 25 years ago. As a predominately low-density populated state, all publicly educated students ended their compulsory schooling in Grade 10 and students were encouraged to do pre-University courses at a matriculation college or undertake a trade through TAFE, the largest public provider of vocational education and training in Tasmania.

As a child of regional Tasmania, I impatiently looked forward to attending Launceston College, the alma mater of my father. It required me, and all my university-bound peers, to move away from our rural homes at the tender age of 15, and take the bus to ‘the big smoke’ two hours away where we boarded in various institutions for the working week.

Zane and I bonded over our love of literature – both creating it and consuming it. He introduced me to my fictional soul mate, Richard Rahl, schooled me in late 90s grunge appreciation, and inducted me into the gravy-on-chips appreciation society. Zane pushed my writing boundaries and self-belief as we created content for our school newspaper and Writer’s Workshop creative writing class.

Right from the start, I was a starry-eyed fangirl of the long-haired, urbane, gentle giant (he had at least a foot on me). Around him, I felt immeasurably smarter and more confident, as if just being in his radius conferred on me extra talent. Upon graduation we were intent on making our mark in the literary world, me as the next George Negus, he in as many ways as possible. A string of awards later for novels and screenplays, as well as film production and design, Zane has more than made good on his intent.

Today he takes us on a dive into Tasmanian Gothic, one of Tasmania’s most prevalent writing genres.

Tasmanian Gothic

Tasmania comes alive in the dark.

When the first European settlers came here, they were terrified of the Tasmanian nights. The dense, menacing bush is never still after sunset; tea-tree branches rub together in the wind making a sound like creaking floorboards, the voices of nightbirds chortle and mock, Tasmanian devils feed and possums mate with hideous grunts and screams. From the remote cliffs and their gnashing seas to the windswept hollow plains of the interior, there is an otherworldly presence wherever you go in Tasmania. Even the most hardened convicts refused to venture too far at night for fear of spirits and sorcery.

The landscape could be brutal. Crowded wooden ships sank in deep bays around Bruny Island. The Palawa people were first driven off the land they had cultivated for tens of thousands of years and then systematically murdered. Convicts escaped from the notorious prison colonies on the west coast and, starving in the treacherous terrain, killed and ate each other.

Colonial missionaries, in their attempts to convince the Christian god into taming this wild and timeless land, built churches in the style of Middle-Age Europe and falsified a sense of European history across the outpost. The juxtaposition of straight sandstone walls against the twisting crags of the bush spoke of a tension between dual narratives, an opposing set of truths that still exists today – a façade of civilization built on a foundation of genocide and madness, a desire to celebrate and protect the wild forests while destroying them in the name of resources and progress.

As time passed, many places around the island state came to be regarded as haunted or spoiled. Strange events and apparitions were recounted around drinking holes and campfires. Unsolved murders festered in the hearts of otherwise peaceful small towns. Violence and degradation simmered beneath a veneer of social propriety.

Dark places inspire dark stories.

Traditional ghost tales told by Chinese and Irish immigrants still circulate amongst the Tasman Peninsula and the North-East mining communities. Tales of bizarre crimes and twisted characters, unnatural events and secretive communities were told and re-told. Writers and artists and filmmakers all looked to the darkness, the landscape and the fragmented stories for inspiration and, in translating what they found, eventually molded a small but distinguished sub-genre of Australian literature, Tasmanian Gothic.

While Marcus Clarke’s novel For the Term of His Natural Life (1874) was arguably the first literary contribution to Tasmanian Gothic, contemporary Tasmanian writers continue to expand upon this examination of darkness. Julia Leigh’s The Hunter (1999) is a quiet examination of the mysteries the Tasmanian bush can keep. In The Alphabet of Light and Dark (2003), Danielle Wood demonstrates the juxtapositions of the Gothic mode – “Its message is composed in the alphabet of light and dark. Flash, eclipse, flash, eclipse” – when the past and present intertwine at a lighthouse on the remote Southern tip of Bruny Island. Award-winning authors like Richard Flanagan (Gould’s Book of Fish, 2001) and Rohan Wilson (The Roving Party, 2011) have grimly illustrated the brutality and madness that festered in Tasmania’s isolated colonial outposts.

Elements of the Gothic sub-genre are often incorporate into contemporary work to amazing effect – Kyle Perry’s The Bluffs (2021), Brendan Colley’s The Signal Line (2022), Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron (2020) are excellent examples – with conflicting narratives, layers of truth and landscapes that are so influential they almost become characters.

However, some of the darkest and most thrilling examples of Tasmanian Gothic are found in the realms of independent publishing; Darcy Daniel’s fast-paced thrillers reveal some of Tasmania’s darkest contemporary characters; the splatter-punk horror of Simon McHardy delves into the most degenerate corners of the Tasmanian bush and is not for the faint of heart; Danny Gunn’s middle-grade horror shines a light into the darkest places and is a fantastic starting place for younger readers.

The success of recent screen projects in the genre – Vicki Madden’s The Kettering Incident (2016) and Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale (2018) are perhaps the best recent examples – show that audiences are drawn to Tasmania’s darkness and contradiction. The Museum of Old and New Art, along with its annual art and music festivals, revels in the darkness and have brought the inherent Gothic tropes of Tasmania to the world. The Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival is an annual celebration of crime literature in southern Tasmania and its popularity amongst both writers and readers is a testament to the pervasive appeal of Tasmanian Gothic literature.

The darkness is still alive and still powerful in today’s Tasmania and a thriving community of writers, artists and filmmakers will continue to confront it again and again.

Additional reading about Tasmanian Gothic

Mikhaeyla Kopievsky‘s, Tasmanian Gothic (2022): “A modern gothic thriller set in a decaying urban environment and lush mutant wilderness.”

Many more titles that can be considered part of the genre, as well as criticism of how Tasmanian Gothic can become too narrow, written by Professor Philip Mead.

About Zane

Zane Pinner is a Tasmanian author and filmmaker whose novel about a haunted cinema, Encore, continues the tradition of Tasmanian Gothic.

Shortlisted for the 2022 University of Tasmania Prize for the best new unpublished literary work by a Tasmanian writer, “Last Saturday in Invermay”.

Zane on Goodreads

Zane on Twitter

About guest curator, Bec Taylor

I’m Bec Taylor, the EY3 – Grade 2 cybrarian* at the International School of Beijing, China. I’m a global nomad with Australian roots and a Chinese family home – all my immediate family have lived and worked in Beijing as international school teachers for many, many years.  

Overly enthusiastic about everything especially children’s literature, Australian Rules Football (go Doggies!) and food, glorious food, I am easily bribed with coffee and dark chocolate. I am a passionate advocate of social justice, female financial literacy, and finding ways to tread more lightly on the planet. Alongside the demands of a busy family and professional life, I enjoy cultivating community through volunteer work that focuses on healthy families.

I am the current Chair of the Chinese international schools reading promotion, the Panda Book Awards. Titles chosen for the shortlists of the Panda Book Awards meet selection criteria that focus on social justice, diversity and inclusion by up and coming authors and illustrators from across the world. There is an added spotlight on titles that feature Asian settings, characters or creators. 

The educational hills I will die on are:

  • a child’s right to choose what they love to read,
  • there is serious magic in reading aloud,
  • and the belief that schools are happier, more equitable places with better academic outcomes when the properly funded school library is well staffed with qualified, collaborative and passionate professionals.

*a fancy name that formalises and acknowledges the incredible work teacher librarians do each day to find authentic ways to integrate and explore educational technology in order to capture, expand, and enhance student learning.

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