Danged Black Thing, by Eugen Bacon

By coincidence, I’ve just read an article at Seesaw in which Upswell publisher Terri-Anne White asked ‘Where have all the adventurous readers gone?’ I like to think I’m adventurous: I’ve tackled Finnegans Wake and Ulysses; I love reading B.S. Johnson and Brian Castro and Gerald Murnane; I’ve shared my adventures with Mud Map, Australian Women’s Experimental Writing; I’ve twisted my brain in knots with Coetzee (pre-blog) and I still think that Catherine Chidgey should have won the Ockham for The Beat of the Pendulum.  I’ve got some experimental fiction by Marianne Fritz and Susanna Gendall (and more Coetzee) on the TBR that I haven’t yet got round to as well.  This blog gives me the freedom to read and review widely, and I don’t have to be an expert on the books I read.  In fact, the strength of my reviewing is that readers can feel encouraged to do the same, i.e. read anything they like no matter how challenging and enjoy themselves without feeling that they ought to ‘get it’ more than they do. But it is true that of the more than 2400 reviews on this blog, only about 40 of them are Speculative Fiction and of those, with the exception of Jennifer Mills’ recent The Airways, none are, as Terri-Anne would have it, particularly ground-breaking or innovative books. Speculation is not, IMO, necessarily innovative in its execution — and of course, it doesn’t have to be.  Dystopias and Cli-Fi in particular are commonplace these days and they have an important role to play in raising awareness about the risks in our future. Danged Black Thing, however, is both speculative and innovative.  It’s a collection of short stories that explore love and migration, gender and class, patriarchy and womanhood while traversing the West and Africa.  Born in Tanzania, Eugene Bacon is an African-Australian writer from Britain who is attracting international attention for her powerfully magical stories which bring the scarred and adrift together with the magical and the mundane.  As you can see from her website, her work has won, been shortlisted, longlisted or commended in national and international awards. The first story in this collection is ‘Simbiyu and the Nameless.’  Written in the second person, it begins in an unnamed African country, recalling the childhood of Simbiyu, at eighteen months, at four, five, seven and nine, continuing to adolescence and migration to Australia on a sporting scholarship.  The reader can almost smell the scent of guava and sour yams in the forest and he contrasts his pillow-soft mother with the harshness of Aunty Prim, but this is no sentimental yarn.  Children die on the riverbank when a black octopus climbs from the water’s surface.  There is a menace approaching, human, nonhuman, waving tentacles. The boy is sent away to Aunt Prim because these repeated tragedies changed how people saw you.  Sent on to Australia, he is told to make ‘us’ proud: Does ‘us’ include your mother?  You haven’t seen her in years.  Sometimes, you wonder about her, then forget. You lost your mother the day Tatu died.  She stopped breastfeeding you that same evening, and her touch hardened. (p.10) The dark power he wields won’t stand for any difficulties from racist immigration officials or a young woman who will take one look at you and remember to remotely lock her car. or a barman built like a fridge but there’s heat in his dislike. He has a name in his head that’s a voice and a ghost and a storm all at once.  An allusion to Cthulhu near the end of the story is a lightbulb moment for the bemused reader who, (thanks to Google) can link what’s gone before with H.P Lovecraft and the world of literary horror: A crack of lightning, and the devil himself plods from twilight.  Then he’s you, and you’re offside in your leap from the bed.  You land knees and knuckles on the ground.  Your skin heals and takes you back to yourself and your bed.  The devil smiles and wets his parched throat from a brook as you like awake counting words and dreams sprouting from a future that insists it knows what’s best before sunrise. (p.21) Wikipedia tells me that an ongoing theme in Lovecraft’s work is the complete irrelevance of mankind in the face of the cosmic horrors that apparently exist in the universe. These include a loose pantheon of ancient, powerful deities from space who once ruled the Earth and have since fallen into a deathlike sleep.  His main characters’ minds can’t cope with even a glimpse of what exists outside their perceived reality. He emphasized the point by stating in the opening sentence of the story that “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” I’m not familiar with Lovecraft, but it seems to me that Bacon’s story explicitly rejects this mercy: You finally understand the nameless.  And the darkness that rose from the river those many years ago — how it chose you.  Because it’s also you. (p.21) ‘The Water Runner’ is more obviously a dystopia set in

Danged Black Thing, by Eugen Bacon

By coincidence, I’ve just read an article at Seesaw in which Upswell publisher Terri-Anne White asked ‘Where have all the adventurous readers gone?’

I like to think I’m adventurous: I’ve tackled Finnegans Wake and Ulysses; I love reading B.S. Johnson and Brian Castro and Gerald Murnane; I’ve shared my adventures with Mud Map, Australian Women’s Experimental Writing; I’ve twisted my brain in knots with Coetzee (pre-blog) and I still think that Catherine Chidgey should have won the Ockham for The Beat of the Pendulum.  I’ve got some experimental fiction by Marianne Fritz and Susanna Gendall (and more Coetzee) on the TBR that I haven’t yet got round to as well.  This blog gives me the freedom to read and review widely, and I don’t have to be an expert on the books I read.  In fact, the strength of my reviewing is that readers can feel encouraged to do the same, i.e. read anything they like no matter how challenging and enjoy themselves without feeling that they ought to ‘get it’ more than they do.

But it is true that of the more than 2400 reviews on this blog, only about 40 of them are Speculative Fiction and of those, with the exception of Jennifer Mills’ recent The Airways, none are, as Terri-Anne would have it, particularly ground-breaking or innovative books. Speculation is not, IMO, necessarily innovative in its execution — and of course, it doesn’t have to be.  Dystopias and Cli-Fi in particular are commonplace these days and they have an important role to play in raising awareness about the risks in our future.

Danged Black Thing, however, is both speculative and innovative.  It’s a collection of short stories that explore love and migration, gender and class, patriarchy and womanhood while traversing the West and Africa.  Born in Tanzania, Eugene Bacon is an African-Australian writer from Britain who is attracting international attention for her powerfully magical stories which bring the scarred and adrift together with the magical and the mundane.  As you can see from her website, her work has won, been shortlisted, longlisted or commended in national and international awards.

The first story in this collection is ‘Simbiyu and the Nameless.’  Written in the second person, it begins in an unnamed African country, recalling the childhood of Simbiyu, at eighteen months, at four, five, seven and nine, continuing to adolescence and migration to Australia on a sporting scholarship.  The reader can almost smell the scent of guava and sour yams in the forest and he contrasts his pillow-soft mother with the harshness of Aunty Prim, but this is no sentimental yarn.  Children die on the riverbank when a black octopus climbs from the water’s surface.  There is a menace approaching, human, nonhuman, waving tentacles. The boy is sent away to Aunt Prim because these repeated tragedies changed how people saw you.  Sent on to Australia, he is told to make ‘us’ proud:

Does ‘us’ include your mother?  You haven’t seen her in years.  Sometimes, you wonder about her, then forget. You lost your mother the day Tatu died.  She stopped breastfeeding you that same evening, and her touch hardened. (p.10)

The dark power he wields won’t stand for any difficulties from racist immigration officials or a young woman who will take one look at you and remember to remotely lock her car. or a barman built like a fridge but there’s heat in his dislike. He has a name in his head that’s a voice and a ghost and a storm all at once.  An allusion to Cthulhu near the end of the story is a lightbulb moment for the bemused reader who, (thanks to Google) can link what’s gone before with H.P Lovecraft and the world of literary horror:

A crack of lightning, and the devil himself plods from twilight.  Then he’s you, and you’re offside in your leap from the bed.  You land knees and knuckles on the ground.  Your skin heals and takes you back to yourself and your bed.  The devil smiles and wets his parched throat from a brook as you like awake counting words and dreams sprouting from a future that insists it knows what’s best before sunrise. (p.21)

Wikipedia tells me that an ongoing theme in Lovecraft’s work is the complete irrelevance of mankind in the face of the cosmic horrors that apparently exist in the universe. These include a loose pantheon of ancient, powerful deities from space who once ruled the Earth and have since fallen into a deathlike sleep.  His main characters’ minds can’t cope with even a glimpse of what exists outside their perceived reality.

He emphasized the point by stating in the opening sentence of the story that “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”

I’m not familiar with Lovecraft, but it seems to me that Bacon’s story explicitly rejects this mercy:

You finally understand the nameless.  And the darkness that rose from the river those many years ago — how it chose you.  Because it’s also you. (p.21)

‘The Water Runner’ is more obviously a dystopia set in a climate-ruined future, but the horror arises more from betrayal than from the grotesque method of harvesting water from dead bodies.  By contrast, ‘Phantasms of Existence’ seems more domestic in scope, showing the diversity of story telling in this collection.

Some of the stories were written in collaboration with other authors: Andrew Hook, a European writer of slipstream fiction – ‘the genre that bends the others’; Seb Doubinsky, a writer of dystopias, and E. Don Harpe who writes SF and collaborated on the titular story.   The ‘danged black thing’ is a laptop called Embu —a rival for the affections of the owner’s lover, and one who fights back!

For an adventurous reader, Danged Black Thing is a stimulating collection…

Author: Eugen Bacon
Title: Danged Black Thing
Cover design by Peter Lo
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2021
ISBN: 9781925760842, pbk., 240 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge