The Australian Gothic Experience

The doomed German explorer Ludwig Leichardt travels through the Australian bush, 1842-44.

Long before the fact of Australia was ever confirmed by explorers and cartographers it had already been imagined as a grotesque space, a land peopled by monsters. The idea of its existence was disputed, was even heretical for a time, and with the advent of the transportation of convicts its darkness seemed confirmed. The Antipodes was a world of reversals, the dark subconscious of Britain. It was, for all intents and purposes, Gothic par excellence, the dungeon of the world.

Gerry Turcote “Australian Gothic”, 1998.

Definition: The word “gothic” was originally a pejorative term to describe the Northern European tribes in the 4th-6th centuries. It carried negative connotations of ugliness and barbarism. Later in the 12th-16th centuries the term “gothic” referred to objects that were non-Classical and hence viewed as repellant and grotesque. In the 18th century there was a renewed interest in the Middle Ages, at this stage “gothic” became connected with decaying medieval architecture. In turn the gothic literary genre became intrinsically identified with scenes of love and degeneration.

The Roots of Australian Gothic: It was an important coincidence that the British colonies in Australia were in the process of being established during this period. For the convicts and prison guards alike Australia was a nightmarish location, its foreign terrain provoked feelings of fear and alienation. Gone was the British Gothic landscape of moors and heaths. In its place were deserts, bush-fires, floods and droughts. The comfortability of the known European landscape was replaced by this new unstable setting.

The Australian Soundscape and Colonial Perceptions: Integral to the colonisers sense of dislocation and dread was the Australian soundscape. Reading journals and novels from this era it is evident that the aural dimensions of the Australian landscape were strongly perceived in Gothic terms of enclosure and entrapment. The vastness of the outback unsettled the first explorers who continually remarked upon its deathlike silence. The silence instilled a sense of claustrophobia, this being quite paradoxical in an open space. Meanwhile the sheer volume of unfamiliar sounds in forested areas induced intense feelings of fear and disorientation. In the Australian Gothic tradition the landscape sounded alive, observing the colonists, waiting …

Marcus Clarke (1846-1881), a celebrated Australian writer, described the local landscape in these aural terms:

The Australian mountain forests are funereal, secret, stern. Their solitude is desolation … In the Australian forests no leaves fall. The savage winds shout among the rock clefts. From the melancholy gums strips of white bark hang and rustle. The very animal life of these frowning hills is either grotesque or ghostly. Grey kangaroos hop noiselessly over the coarse grass. Flights of white cockatoos stream out, shrieking like evil souls. The sun suddenly sinks, and the mopokes burst out into horrible peals of semi-human laughter … From a corner of silent forests rises a dismal chant, and around a fire dance natives painted like skeletons. All is fear-inspiring and gloomy.

This description is quintessential Australian Gothic. Clarke’s disdain and unease towards the native landscape is clear while his description of Indigenous groups chanting in a forest is typical of several explorers’ journals of the time. Could it be said that this sense of dislocation, of loathing and fear, brought upon by auditory experiences, partly triggered the genocide of the Indigenous population during the colonial period? How much the local soundscape contributed towards this act is open to debate.

Contemporary Australian Gothic: For better or for worse the colonial experience created a way of listening that continues to be part of our culture today. The Australian Gothic tradition is still alive and well in our contemporary arts with critically acclaimed movies such as Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Proposition utilising field recordings of the local surroundings to reinforce Gothic themes.

Watch this space for my own contribution to the Australian Gothic genre in weeks to come …!

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