The opening story of Chris Womersley’s collection A Lovely and Terrible Thing, Headful of Bees, feels almost like a statement of intent for the whole collection. It is a little nostalgic, a little suburban, focussed on a bit of an outsider and then twisted and strange. Many of the other stories will go down similar but very different pathways, often detouring to forgotten spaces – coastal shacks, empty swimming pools and desert hotels.
A particularly a nostalgic view of Australian suburbs and country towns, feature heavily in this collection:
Head Full of Bees
The streetlights came on. My God, those suburban evenings, so full of hope and all its little victims. That smell of muddy grass, the clatter of spoon against a dog’s dinner bowl, a puddle of wine on the kitchen table.
The little place was different in those days; this was before the organic grocers and the prayer flags arrived, long before the rich lesbians, on their yoga-and-quinoa retreats.Dark the Water, So Deep the Night
Many of the stories focus on young people, teenagers on the verge of or just coming out of adolescence. Head Full of Bees is seen through the eyes of Mike a fourteen year-old – “young, on the brink of adulthood, those few years when almost everything in your life really happens.” The story Petrichor starts with “So many things to recall about the summer I turned sixteen”. In Where There’s Smoke the narrator recalls himself as a nine-year old “kicking a football around in the back garden late in the afternoon” when he stumbles upon something strange. Many of these stories are set in the 1970s and 80s and seen through a lens of lost youth.
Another group of stories focus on drugs, the main characters are addicts, constantly searching for the next hit or being led astray by their addiction. These include The Possibility of Water, Middle of Nowhere (“Drug addiction is ninety-eight per cent famine, two per cent fest; you get accustomed to bad news”) and Crying Wolf. Many others are just creepy, haunted tales, effective little pieces of terror designed to leave readers disturbed and thoughtful. Stories like Age of Terror and The Other Side of Silence are effective for what they do not say as much as for what they do.
This is an assured and effective collection of stories. The suburban setting and horror stylings feel like a cross between the suburban ennui and everyday terror of Raymond Carver and the small-town horror and nostalgia of Stephen King.
The title story, A Lovely and Terrible Thing begins with “What a burden it is to have seen wondrous things, for afterwards the world feels empty of possibility”. That story is about a man who works for Ripley’s Believe It or Not who finds something truly miraculous. But it could easily apply to this collection as a whole: wondrous, often dark stories with terror at their heart that nonetheless leave the reader feeling a little forlorn at the end that there are not any more.