Australia has a thriving community of horror writers but only rarely does local horror find a mainstream readership. Lois Murphy’s classy, clever debut, Soon, deserves to be that rare example.
Soon is a haunted house story – except it isn’t the houses that are haunted. Soon is set in Nebulah, a tiny settlement in Western Australia, three hours from the nearest town. It’s a ghost town, for a very good reason. As soon as the sun sets, a nightmarish mist descends on the streets and yards and if you’re caught out of doors… well, it’s not good. Almost everyone has cleared out and schools, shops and offices are deserted and derelict. There are no birds in the trees. Ex-cop Pete is one of the few holdouts who can’t bring themselves to leave their homes, along with retired widow Milly, farmer Li, ne’er-do-well Sticks and annoying couple Gail and Tom. It only takes one mistake – a broken-down car, an unnoticed cracked window – for the town’s population to drop messily.
It’s a thrilling set-up, but it’s Murphy’s intelligent manipulation of horror genre conventions that shines. The houses are safe, for a change, and the ghostly dangers are outside. The narrator, Pete, hits all the clichés – divorced, drinks too much and is estranged from his daughter – but he’s a bit hopeless, and he’s focused on survival rather than detection. There’s also a real depth and believability to the mindset of these people who can’t bring themselves to leave despite the dangers, because after all, all the residents need to do to escape their fate is pile into a car during daylight hours and floor it. In this, Murphy was inspired by Wittenoom, the deserted town in Western Australia that was once Australia’s only blue asbestos mine, where a couple of holdout residents even now refuse to leave despite government warnings.
In her clever characterisations, Murphy has given each of her residents a reason why, for them, the world away from Nebulah is even less appealing than the terror of the mist. The obstacles that need to be overcome are mental and psychological. The battle for survival is both without and within.
Stephen King can keep his maniacally grinning clowns – Soon made this reader get out of bed to check the windows were closed. If there’s any justice, there’s a queue of filmmakers outside Murphy’s door right now, chequebooks at the ready. LS
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 7, 2017 as "Lois Murphy, Soon". Subscribe here.