RIVER of BONES: Villains, Xenophobia and Germans

River_of_Bones2I threw it out to the original readers of Elyora earlier this week: did they have something they’d like to ask in regards to any aspect of the novella. What I had intended as a quick Q & A has evolved into a series of blog posts. This first one deals with the topics of villains, xenophobia and anti-German. The questions came compliments of Sean Wright and Robert G Cook.

SEAN: Australians are very hard on migrants. We always seem to require newcomers to prove themselves. I wanted to ask where you got the idea for the villain of the piece?

The search for the ‘embodiment’ of Elyora’s true antagonist was long and tedious. She was the last of the characters to have an identity honed, which made for interesting writing in the lead up to uncovering her (and perhaps why other antagonist ‘forces’ share the evil mantle with the actual antagonist in the novella). I had all the pieces—a river, monstrous women, singing, male entrapment—but could not get them to fit in a logical fashion. I trusted if I just kept writing actual monster that would hold it all together, would arrive. Eventually.

In the original dream, the women in the river were more akin to sirens or mermaids, yet I couldn’t quite get my head around my ‘villain’ being either (in their most traditional form or any permutation I could spin). I’m not well versed with monsters or mystical creatures so I went to my writing friends asking if they knew of a malevolent being I could put in a river. Bunyips and other Australian bred monsters didn’t fit any better than sirens and mermaids, and like me, my writing friends also drew blanks.

I spent lots of time in Far North Queensland and one of our favourite swimming holes was  the (aptly named) Boulders just out of Babinda. It is a beautiful, eerie and violent place—the ambiance underpinned by the legend of Oolana, the number of recent deaths there and the turbulent waters that hammer through the valley during the wet season. It was echoes of Oolana’s legend that inspired me put Ethan’s wife in the river. In the earliest drafts she didn’t even have a name nor a reason for having died there. She was, for all intents and purposes, a ghost of what was to follow.

I found Eleanor simply by giving up looking for her. I was researching something else in mid-June when I stumbled across a reference to a wiederganger. The name roughly translates to ‘again walker’ and they are part ghost, part zombie and part vampire and date back to the middle ages in Northern German folklore. They are born from a need for revenge and best of all—they use telepathy to lure victims graveside. There, the wiederganger feeds on them.

Immediately all the pieces came together. I made Ethan Lazarus’s wife German—a woman he met and feel in love with while on an architectural tour of Europe. I had them elope to Gretna Green (a nod to my Great-Grandparents) and then forced back to Australia by the impending War (Ethan recalled to run the family property). The singing was easily woven in…Eleanor became an up-and-coming opera singer. The strains of the Andrews sisters were echoes from the war years. And the German background gave me xenophobic angles to play with.

What I like most about Eleanor as the villain, is she is a product of her environment – both as a monster of her native Germany and a predator of those who originally preyed on her in Elyora. We get to know and empathise with her as a woman out of place in life, before we are confronted with her as a monster after death.

ROB: I’m interested in the xenophobic aspects of the townspeople’s behaviour towards Eleanor, the anti-German feeling of the war years and how that spilled over into people’s attitudes and actions towards people who couldn’t reasonably be held to account for stuff that had happened half a world away. Was knowledge of that something that informed the story or something that grew out of it, and either way, how did you go about researching it?

The anti-German angle grew out of finding the wiederganger. It defined and honed the entire second half of the novella and gave weight to what I intended to simply be a ‘scary story’. The narrative evolved to be about intolerance and irrational hatred, as much as it was a story about bad shit happening in a creepy town.

Australia has a rich and trouble multicultural history—and having studied both Australian and modern history I’d seen the same anti [insert your bias here] sentiments repeated throughout history in terms of ‘others’. Australia’s influx of migrants Post WW II saw lots of nastiness unleashed in small towns where migrants ended up. The best example I can think of is the treatment of migrants who worked on the Snowy Rivers Hydro scheme. We watched a fictional mini series in Australian studies in Year 11. In it, a German woman was raped by a gang of men who believe their crime is justified because of the victim’s nationality.

I revelled in the questions the anti-German attitude raised about the ‘monsters’ who live among us: the ones we create, the ones we aid and abet, the ones we push down inside ourselves. In Elyora the hate is fever pitch, it is irrational… but so is the manifestation of grief and trying to understand horrors perpetuated on loved ones. Alain de Botton says bad behaviour is a reflection of suffering and not malice. This is as relevant for Eleanor as it is for people such as Stanley Blessing, Dorothy Briggs and Matthew Gideon. It doesn’t make their behaviour easier to swallow, but it does shine a light into the dark recesses of their motivations.

Small towns have the capacity (like small offices, small organisations, small tea rooms) to magnify intolerance because ‘otherness’ is harder to hide. There is a fear of what others bring and might take. Where I lived in the Riverina my otherness wasn’t just from being out of town: I was caught between mill workers and the older landholders. Add to that the fact I was female (should be seen and not heard, be married, breed and do as I was told) and worked for the most hated woman in town. I well and truly felt the icy blast of small town prejudice. It is easy to alienate someone who is ‘foreign’. In Eleanor’s case, she becomes (in the minds of the locals) the embodiment of the town’s worst fears. She is a soft target. She is an easy target. And she’s an obvious target.

When I was defending the horror genre recently to my MIL (who is of the opinion it is trash and why would anyone want to read/write it) I used the theme of intolerance in River of Bones as an example of what horror does best—putting up a mirror to and exploring the things we are afraid of, or would prefer to not talk about.

Thank you to everyone who has continued to Tweet, Facebook, downloaded and talk to others about River of Bones. As this goes to press the novella is #9 on the free US charts under the horror sub-genre of the occult and steady at #10 in the UK free horror charts.