Cover of book: What Fear Was

Ben Walter
What Fear Was

The “Tasmanian Gothic” may have been identified back in 1989, but it seems there’s still something haunting Tasmanian fiction. From Richard Flanagan and Carmel Bird to Danielle Wood and Robbie Arnott, Tasmanian writers continually demonstrate a bent for the fantastic. What Fear Was, a debut collection of short stories by Ben Walter, ostentatiously leans towards the uncanny.

Some of Walter’s stories resemble dreams, as in the case of “Flathead Out One Day”, in which the narrator observes a sequence of disappearing and reappearing boats, as well as talking and walking fish. Like the most memorable of our dreams, the story suggests the possibility of a grave meaning hovering somewhere behind the apparent nonsense, just beyond our reach. Other dreamlike stories are more whimsical. “It’s All Happening Here” features a resurrected Tony Greig, the former cricketer and cricket commentator, while “We Are All Superman” and “Surely You Can’t Be Serious” – featuring the late actor Leslie Nielsen – echo the surreal and comic pop-culture short stories of the Australian writer Tom Cho.

Walter’s fiction often relies on surprising images and juxtapositions, which is part of a surreal aesthetic but also consistent with Walter’s other work as a poet. In the case of “Beast Evolving”, Walter uses the extended – and somewhat heavy-handed – metaphor of a pet gone rogue to depict the recent Tasmanian bushfires. At the beginning of the story, which employs the childlike refrain “Can we keep him?”, the prospective pet is “bounding up the hills, fetching sticks to burn and lapping up pools of water”. By the end, the creature “bites”.

What Fear Was is defined as much by its interest in environmental matters as in fantasy, though the work is rarely didactic in articulating those concerns. “Below Tree Level”, in which a bushwalker seeks refuge in a cave-like hut, suggests an uneasy kinship between the man and nature, despite the bushwalker’s preference for solitude: “Over the past week, I’ve become more dirt and the hut has become more me. Given time, I’m sure we’ll rot into each other like a married couple.” While resembling a fairytale in its forest setting and plot, the moral or message is hauntingly elusive.

Walter is not interested in character and plot as they are traditionally conceived, but this is precisely what allows him to perform these arresting experiments in storytelling, these lyrical exercises in the oneiric. You might not want to bushwalk alone after reading them.

Maria Takolander

Puncher and Wattmann, 176pp, $29.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 12, 2022 as "What Fear Was, Ben Walter".

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