A Touch of Darkness: Gary Crew

There is a touch of darkness in much of Gary Crew’s work. Indeed, in relatively few years Gary Crew has created a position for himself as one of the leading writers of macabre and horror fiction in Australia. He has produced a significant body of horror-related work — both as a writer (including novels, short stories and picture books) and also as an editor. This is interesting, given that Crew comes from a primarily “mainstream” literary background. But even with his non-horror work, Crew is willing to challenge traditional story telling techniques and to utilise characters who are not immediately attractive.

Gary Crew is a writer who defies convention in other ways as well. Not only in his story telling techniques and characterisations, but also in his ability to transcend age and genre boundaries. Take for example his hugely successful 1990 horror novel, Strange Objects (William Heinemann). Among numerous other awards and nominations, this book won the highly respected Children’s Book Council Book of the Year for Older Readers in Australia. But it was also short-listed in the adult category for the Crime Writer’s of America Edgar Allan Poe Mystery Award! Likewise, while Crew also writes picture books, more often than not they are written for older readers rather than the youngsters you might expect. So while Gary Crew is primarily marketed as a children’s writer, he is not constrained by marketing boundaries. Indeed, many of his books are ageless, able to be enjoyed by children and adults alike.

In the afterword to his story in The Lottery (Omnibus, 1994) edited by Lucy Sussex, Crew writes: “Since childhood I have loved stories about bizarre discoveries of monsters, or exotic rituals, or unsolved wonders, stories that cross over between fact and fiction.” This is interesting when one reflects on Crew’s fiction. It is often shot through with a sense of wonder and presented in such a way that the line between reality and the supernatural is blurred.

Gary Crew burst onto the Australian horror scene with the remarkable novel Strange Objects. It is arguably the best Australian horror novel yet published. I wrote about this book in my column on Australian children’s horror fiction in Bloodsongs #5, but it is worth touching on the story line again. The tale begins when a present-day teenager, Steven Messenger, finds some gruesome relics, an iron pot, a leather bound journal, a gold ring and a mummified human hand, from the wrecked Dutch vessel Batavia which struck uncharted rocks of the coast of Western Australia on 4 June 1629. The Batavia’s tale is drenched in blood, because before help could arrive, over 120 of the ship-wreck victims were murdered by two fellow survivors. Four months after finding the relics Steven Messenger mysteriously disappears without a trace from outside an isolated roadhouse on the central Western Australian coast. The mystery deepens when Messenger’s personal journal is mailed to the Institute of Maritime Archaeology in Perth.

As with all of Crew’s work the story structure is extremely tight, even when he is working outside traditional techniques. This story is told with the presentation of thirty four items called “The Messenger Documents” which include Messenger’s own writings, newspaper articles, police reports, letters and journal extracts, all of which form a gripping multi-layered narrative of intrigue, horror and mystery.

The original title of the book was “In Strange Places” which is a quotation taken from the journal of Francisco Pelsaert (the Captain of the Batavia), where he is on record as saying to the two castaways when he saw them off: “Your luck will be found in strange places.” But while he was writing the book Gary Crew read H. P. Lovecraft’s Dagon and other Macabre Tales, he preferred the Lovecraft quote: “For there are strange objects in the great abyss, and the seeker of dreams must take care not to stir up, or meet, the wrong ones . . .” and used this instead to open the journal.

In the USA Strange Objects has been hugely successful where it has been treated entirely as an adult novel. It was, of course, short-listed for the Edgar Award and Simon and Schuster have recently reprinted the US hardcover edition. This is a significant achievement for an Australian writer. In fact, I understand that aside from Bryce Courtney, Crew is Heinemann’s largest selling Australian author.

In Australia, too, Strange Objects has been very successful, but not without a few glitches. It took a while for the book to find its niche and it has been published in numerous editions, both for children and adults. Because it won the prestigious Australian Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Award for Older Readers, many schools and libraries bought it unread. Some primary schools, of course, found it unsuitable for this age group and this resulted in some book returns and disgruntled letters.

All this aside, Strange Objects broke new ground as the first Australian horror novel of any kind to win major literary recognition in this country (prizes which also include the NSW Premier’s Literary Award, the Alan Marshall Prize for Children’s Literature) and few books rival its supremacy.

Crew followed Strange Objects with a borderline horror novel called No Such Country (William Heinemann, 1991). This is in fact Gary Crew’s favourite book, but possible his least successful in commercial terms. It could easily be categorised as magic realism, but few reviewers (if any) have recognised it as such. The book is set in an imaginary small town called New Canaan which is cut off from the world by sea and swamp. The story is described as a “tale of old guilt, superstition and ghastly secrets” and begins when a series of peculiar events happen which become known to the town-folk as “signs”. As you would expect from Crew, this is a well told tale which I think will interest many horror readers.

After No Such Country Gary Crew returned to the “mainstream” with the novel Angel’s Gate (William Heinemann, 1993), also winner of the 1994 Australian Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Award for Older Readers and the 1994 National Children’s Book Awards. Like his earlier mainstream novels such as The Inner Circle (Heinemann Educational, 1986) and The House of Tomorrow (Heinemann Educational, 1988), there is more to it than first meets the eye. On the surface it is a crime novel, a compelling story of murder in a small rural community. A more searching read, however, reveals a deeper book where an undercurrent of suspicion and mystery pervade a story of alienation and the search for identity. It is a book which explores the dark side of humankind.

Currently in the planning stage is a new novel called The Blue Feather, a book which will be co-authored by Western Australian writer Michael O’Hara. Its themes (among others) will be conservation and the smuggling of native Australian animals, and it will draw on spirituality, myth and lore to tell the story of a mysterious giant bird. The story will be built up historically with various sightings (which have been discredited one way or another) such as a botanist discovering a piece of giant egg, sealers reporting a giant birds making off with a seal, and the sighting of a blue feather maybe a metre long. Crew and O’Hara are due to turn the manuscript in to their publisher before the end of March 1996.

Picture books are another field in which Crew enjoys enormous success and continues to experiment and break new ground. The most recent example of this is the horror/mystery/science fiction picture book, The Watertower (ERA Publications, 1994). This book is written by Gary Crew and illustrated by Adelaide artist Steven Woolman. Like Crew’s earlier picture books, Lucy’s Bay (illustrated by Gregory Rogers; Short-listed for the Picture Book of the Year, 1993) and First Light (illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe; Winner of the Picture Book of the Year, 1994), The Watertower belongs to a new niche in children’s literature, that of the picture book for mid-primary to mid-secondary readers, say kids aged from nine to fifteen. According to Crew it is “based on the notion that children, especially older boys, still love looking at pictures, but are generally intellectually insulted by the childish fare (in both print text and visual text) that they are served up.”

The Watertower was judged by the Children’s Book Council of Australia to be the best of the seventy books entered into the picture book category in 1995. The judges described it as a book of “landmark significance [which] breaks new ground in its unity of text, picture and book design.” This is now the fourth time that Gary Crew has won this prestigious award, making him something of a phenomenon in children’s publishing. Especially given that The Watertower is the second horror book by Crew to win the award.

One of the reasons Crew teamed up with Woolman was because of the illustrator’s interest in the macabre, bizarre fantasy and old B-grade science fiction. Woolman not only illustrated the book but designed it as well, and the design is inordinately innovative. Woolman illustrated the book using a combination of chalk and pencil on black paper, plus acrylic paint on textured board, all to striking effect. To read the book the reader has to gradually turn it through 270 degrees and like the central character, they are metamorphosed, changed almost unconsciously in the actual reading process.

After he had finished writing a firm draft of the story, Crew sent it to Woolman along with a “Rationale” for how he saw the book. The story was written with “deceptively simple” text specifically to allow the illustrator to further enhance the mystery and darkness of the story. In his “Rationale” Crew stated that the illustrations were of the utmost importance and offered suggestions for the illustrator to consider. Crew also wrote that “the illustrator should feel free to utilise pages without print text to demonstrate the ‘other side’ of this dark story. . .that is, the side unseen…” Steven Woolman said the story reminded him strongly of the old Twilight Zone episodes and science fiction/horror movies that he had watched as a boy. So he set out to try to make the illustrations reflect that era and visual style. The result is impressive. His paintings enhance and extend the text in a way which indicates a close collaboration between writer and illustrator.

Gary Crew is a self-confessed “visual” person and the majority of his stories begin with a drawing or a visual. When he runs writing workshops, Crew often gets the students to first draw their ideas because he feels drawing is more elemental than writing. He points out that the pictograph pre-dates written language. When you also consider his background as a Civil and Mechanical Engineering Draftsman, it is not surprising that Gary Crew seems to have a highly developed skill for matching illustrators with stories and being able to “throw” to the artist. This is not to take anything away from the artists who have worked with Crew, on the contrary it is a comment on Crew’s skill to identify artistic talent and work with it to bring out the best in both mediums.

Gary Crew’s horror fiction is not restricted to novels and picture books alone. Although not a prolific short story writer he has written many fine horror stories. Crew would argue that the short story is the perfect literature gem, like a solitaire stone in a ring. He loves the form and the precision that it demands, and this is obvious when you examine his short stories. But to find examples of Crew’s shorter work it is necessary to hunt it out in various anthologies.

The story “Sleeping Over at Lola’s” (which is the basis of his forthcoming book The Bentback Bridge) can be found in Spine-Chilling: Ten Horror Stories (Omnibus, 1992) edited by Penny Matthews. Along with Ursula Dubosarsky’s offering it is probably the best story in the anthology. A truly chilling and thought-provoking piece.

Also worth hunting out is Gary Crew’s contribution to The Lottery (Omnibus, 1994) edited by Lucy Sussex. Although ostensibly a science fiction anthology, Crew’s story “Face to Stony Face” would be equally at home in a collection of horror stories or weird tales.

Nightmares in Paradise (UQP, 1995) edited by Robyn Sheahan is an anthology of stories by Queensland writers which explore the down-side of “tropical paradise”. Not strictly horror, there is nothing supernatural here, these stories could perhaps be described as disturbing or uncomfortable realism. As you might expect, it is Gary Crew’s story “A Breeze off the Esplanade” which lingers in the mind long after the others have faded from memory.

Probably his best horror story to date can be found in Dark House (Mammoth, 1995) edited by Gary Crew himself and subtitled “Stories Compiled by The Master of the Macabre”. This story is called “The Staircase” and is a great introduction to Crew’s short fiction.

Gary Crew clearly loves editing and does a lot of it but most of it is anonymous. He is a structural editor, not a copy editor, and he has garnered a reputation as being tough and demanding and is obviously respected for his ability. Up until recently he was the series editor for Heinemann’s teenage fiction series, although this has gone into hiatus for the moment.

Dark House is the first published anthology of stories selected by Crew. It is collection of horror stories for teenagers by some of Australia’s best genre writers for children such as: David McRobbie, Garry Disher, Victor Kelleher, Gillian Rubinstein and Isobelle Carmody. Not forgetting the fine contribution from Gary Crew himself.

Although some of Gary Crew’s newest work is starting to move away from the darkness prevalent in his books over the last few years, he has numerous projects underway which will interest readers of horror and the macabre. He will shortly be finishing a book called The Valley of Bones, a 64 page book on the Pterodactyl for which he researched the fossil sites of central Queensland with illustrator by Peter Gouldthorpe. It will be an illustrated fiction book based on heavily researched fact.

Crew and Woolman also have another horror book in the works called Caleb which is due out from ERA Publications in March 1996, aimed at readers of all ages. It seems clear that Gary Crew has something of a fascination with the interplay of text and illustration because Caleb, although not a picture book, will also rely heavily on illustrations. Indeed, Crew relies heavily on drawings when he is writing. If he cannot find a picture of something he wants to write about he usually draws it himself and he often links sketches with notes or ideas when he is planning a story.

Like much of his work, Caleb is difficult to categorise. Some might call it science fiction, others macabre mystery and still others dark fantasy. It is set around about 1890, looking at the hey-day of the evolutionary concept. The title comes from the name of the central character, Caleb van Dorrn, who is a fifteen year old scientific child prodigy who has been elevated into university because of his fantastic knowledge of entomology. The story is told in a very Victorian voice, through the eyes of Caleb’s room mate Stuart Quill. Caleb is a very peculiar young man. He is emaciated and wears pincnez in an eccentric manner. Quill observes he exhibits peculiar habits such as sipping rather than eating. He is also unable to relate to human beings on a social level. What the reader finds after a while is that Caleb is actually the son of a very famous entomologist who has disappeared, and little by little, by tracking issues such as evolution and how species survive or don’t (because the story is linked to Darwinism) the reader realises late in the piece that Caleb is actually in the process of evolving himself, or metamorphosing and is actually following the same path as his father and his father before him.

Caleb will be published by Era Publications in Adelaide in March 1996. It is planned to be a quality gift-line book with a very European flavour, both in illustration and presentation with a colour dust jacket and embossed cloth boards underneath.

Another book to watch out for is Rookie Cop, a collection of ten macabre stories for high adolescent to adult readers. It will be co-written with Peter Lawrance (6 stories by Crew and 4 stories by Lawrance), based on case-book stories that cops could not tell. I suspect it will include both writer’s contributions from Dark House and maybe Crew’s story from The Lottery.

Horror readers should also watch out for two new books by Crew in October or November. These are The Barn and The Bentback Bridge (based on “Sleeping Over at Lola’s”). These are the first two horror/dark fantasy books for younger readers in a series of six books by Crew. The series will be called the “After Dark” series and all the stories will have some unreal or “other” aspect to them. The books will be numbered and published as oversized B format paperbacks with colour covers and six to eight internal illustrations.

The planned titles for Crew’s other books in the series are: The Well, The Jetty, The Silo, and The Station. The Well will follow the first two books and The Jetty has just recently been finished by Crew. In fact, he believes The Jetty is perhaps the best thing he has ever written so it will be worth watching out for.

There remains little doubt that Gary Crew is a writer of great talent. His work is rich in symbolism and metaphor and in whatever genre or category he writes, he explores important human themes such as the search for identity or alienation. Interestingly, these are characteristics he holds in common with one of his favourite science fiction writers, Ray Bradbury, who he thinks is wonderful.

Crew has no time for fantasy in the Tolkien/escapist tradition at all. He finds it irrelevant to his life to read a book to escape reality and believes this sort of literature does not inform or enrich or allow anybody to grow. Science fiction, however is completely different. Here he is not interested in Asimov or robots or the technological aspects of the genre, but in the genre’s ability to explore the mystery of life, the awe of the universe and the mortality of humankind — the very strengths which attract him to Bradbury’s writing.

Gary Crew holds the view that books such as The Illustrated Man and Something Wicked This Way Comes are profound. He finds much of Bradbury’s short fiction beautiful in the extreme, including much of his early horror work such as “The Fog Horn” and the stories contained in The Small Assassin. It should not surprise readers therefore to find similar concerns and strengths in Gary Crew’s own work. Gary Crew is clearly a writer of considerable talent.