Along the speculative fiction spectrum, horror is probably my least visited corner of the continuum. However, The Last Days of Kali Yuga is about as far from splatter punk and evil killer clowns as you can probably get. While supernatural entities do abound, more often than not the stories are about those nastiest of monsters – people. The language is raw, visceral and genuinely disturbing. It was an excellent read.
First for some general comments. When I heard my first Paul Haines story (The Devil in Mr Pussy on the TISF podcast) I was genuinely impressed but hadn’t realised that Mr Haines was so widely admired in the antipodean speculative fiction scene. The introduction to the collection contains short discussions by a number of other authors and editors about their experience of knowing not just Paul Haines the author, but also Paul Haines the man. I found these descriptions to be interesting and in many ways moving, but they also put me in the right frame of mind to read the rest of the book by giving me a hint of what to expect (from a perspective of tone, not content). If, like me, you are relatively new to Mr Haines’ work I would recommend not skipping over this introduction – it did add to the reading experience.
After each story is a brief afterword by the author describing the circumstances of the story you’ve just read, as well as a description of the general reaction it received and some insight into Mr Haines’ creative process. As a (very) amateur writer, I found these afterwords fascinating although they were slightly depressing in that they highlighted just how clumsy my own process is.
There are twenty stories in the collection, all of them excellent. If I was to write something about every story you’d still be here tomorrow, so I’ll just highlight a couple of the stories I found particularly compelling.
The collection opens with Doorways for the Dispossessed, a story exploring the dangers of seemingly harmless spiritual exploration. It was one of many stories in the collection inspired by Mr Haines’ actual travels across Asia and India. The premise is simple enough – imagine “astral projection” was actually possible but left you vulnerable to unsavoury outside forces. But the writing is so visceral in charting the emotional descent of the narrator that the very dark ending is shocking but, on reflection, perfectly logical.
Burning from the Inside amused me greatly with the concept of the city of Adelaide as an anti-spiritual nexus to offset the likes of Byron Bay. (For any overseas readers – Adelaide the capital of a small Australian state, Byron Bay is where people had traditionally gone to drop out of mainstream society and live the surfing/hippie lifestyle – although it is so expensive now that you need to be a really rich hippy to live there). It would certainly explain a few things about the two years I lived in Adelaide. I should hasten to add that the story isn’t amusing – more dark horror – but my amused reaction to the characterisation of Adelaide persists.
Several of the stories show the shallow side of urban living in the early 21st century. Taniwha, Swim With Me is probably the most blatant example of this, dealing as it does with a corporate retreat (an example of possibly one of the most shallow of modern day activities). As well as being a great story, I was particularly interested in the use of New Zealand mythology, which I haven’t seen much of in speculative fiction.
Mr Haines writes from some very unsympathetic perspectives – and his tendency in some stories to use himself as the protagonist means that he would be more at risk of readers ascribing some of the less savoury motivations of his characters to himself. It added a lot to the stories – making them darker and more disturbing. Father, Father is an excellent example of this style of story.
It is probably fair to say that Mr Haines doesn’t have a problem with depicting highly sexual content. Her Gallant Needs is a good example of this, with a sexual predator at the heart of the story. Mr Haines does not shy away from uncomfortable content in this regard – with potential victims being quite young. Giving the 80s setting, I found myself vicariously reliving my own desire to own an Atari 2600 during that time. I particularly liked the end of this story – achieving an outcome and happily ever after don’t always go hand in hand.
Towards the end of the book is the novella Wives. By far the longest work in the collection, it does the most world building and character development. It paints a picture of a dystopian future Australia where declining fertility and a general preference for male offspring has meant that women are few and far between, especially in rural locations. The story charts the course of Jimbo based in the Victorian town of Shepparton and his attempts to gain (buy) a wife and family. The world is brutal and hints of the attempts by an organisation known as the Cartel to establish a new society using their control of the supply of women and technology as levers (amongst others). There is little to like about Jimbo, and the displays of misogyny and racism almost distressingly overt but yet utterly believable. It certainly didn’t paint a rosy picture of our ability to overcome future challenges. But despite the bleak feel to the story and the lack of sympathetic characters (at least the lack of sympathetic male characters), I found myself unable to put the book down and read the novella in one sitting. The writing was compelling and the world was richly structured. You wanted Jimbo to redeem himself. I couldn’t even begin to guess at the ending and the story kept me hooked, wanting to know what would happen in the end.
The very last story (The Past is a Bridge Best Left Burnt) was the only previously unpublished piece in the book. It had an almost autobiographical feel, describing a version of Paul Haines having a mid life crisis. The story was deliberately disjointed, and I found myself having to read it a bit more slowly and carefully to know what was going on. It has a very unreliable narrator and jumps between the present and the past unpredictably. But it is a story worth a careful read.
I’ve tried to pick a scattering of stories to give a sense of the collection, choosing stories that I thought were representative. The collection as a whole is excellent – I highly recommend it.
I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.
This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.