Are There Lesbians? Yes
Five short stories set in a town named Gulpepper, which has a habit of swallowing people. There’s a reason the locals call it “The Gulp”.
CW: Horror and all that comes with it. Lots of people get their throats ripped out and skin peeled off, it’s quite disgusting really.
Right before I read this I read the other great Australian small-town horror classic Wake In Fright, and as such, my brain couldn’t help but to compare the two. For someone who professes to not like Australian literature as much as I do, I sure have been reading a lot of it latetly. Also for some reason my brain kept wanting to refer to The Fall as “The Yell” so Alan, if you’re thinking of writing a third one of these and are stuck on a title: you’re welcome.
Unlike that other town of great Australian horror – the Yabba – The Gulp is afforded some level of civilisation. Perhaps this simply because it is situated on the coast rather than the inhospitable red centre of hell itself; perhaps it is due to the deep alien intelligence that lurks in the periphery of its stories. Gulpepper is every small town on the coast of New South Wales and none of them. Unlike in towns of the interior, the water of the coast is ever-present, in creeks and dams and waves. It is not just a memory but a real and vicious presence haunted by things beyond our understanding. And with La Niña wreaking havoc on so much of the east coast at the moment, the presence of water lurks in the back of people’s minds and reminds us that while Australia is a land nurtured and harrowed by fire, water is both a precious and inundating commodity. Yet, perched in a precarious strip of bushland between the water and a hard place (one road in, one road out is enough to send a shiver down the spine of any in a country of sweeping fires) the Gulp doesn’t cling to existence, it thrives, and in its thriving echoes the hubris of every colonial settler. Because it does not belong here, the town itself is as unnatural as every single event that takes place in it.
“The Gulp swallows people up, but every now and then it spits someone back out.” The stories vary from the perspectives of outsiders swallowed up by the Gulp, to those long residents who have escaped its teeth until now, and their process of being chewed and swallowed by the town they live in. After a short while, asevents ramp up to their chilling conclusion, “Things are always wierd in the Gulp” starts to ring like “I didn’t think the leopards would eat my face”. The Gulp has been a known evil to its residents for so long that they are used to the strangeness, and this complacency becomes the downfall for many.
Alan Baxter’s background in martial arts comes through strongly in the fight scenes he writes. The weight of each punch hits heavily and bloodily, and in a world of slick, clean MARVEL superhero fights it’s nice to have a little bit of tension surrounding a fight. This type of fight scene lends itself well to the surrounding horror because in a series of supernatural events, it can be easy to forget that humans are perfectly capable of committing violence on one another. It also reminds us that these are not hero’s but flesh and blood and they have the same strengths and limitations as any of us. The human body can be surprisingly strong, but it can also be surprisingly fragile.
From the very first page of this book I knew I was in for a treat. I am a total sucker for lighthouses so the black and white lighthouse image splashed large over the page had me hooked right away. Yes, sometimes it’s as simple as that. Each story takes you a little further into the lore of the Gulp, and each weaves itself into a large plot arc that ultimately culminates in the final short story, aptly named “The Fall”. It’s at this point that I should probably mention that I hadn’t yet read The Gulp and while I didn’t find this to be a huge problem, there are a few references to the first book. I went back and read The Gulp after and so many pieces fell into place and I had some reverse “oh shit” moments. So while I definitely think you don’t have to have read The Gulp to enjoy The Fall, I think if you do, maybe you will have your “oh shit” moments in the right places (though is there truly a right moment to have the scales fall from your eyes?)
“Gulpepper Curious” was a delightful introduction to the Gulp and it felt very fitting that it was told from the perspective of an outsider like us readers. For the length of the collection, we too are trapped in the Gulp and so must go through the same rights of passage in order to be held there. I don’t generally like to give too many spoilers but I will say that one point in the story had me cheering as it mirrored the prison scene in Shanghai Noon, which was one of my favourite films as a kid, so that’s a little tidbit of trivia from my life for you.
As soon as I started reading “Cathedral Stack” I was sure it was going to be my favourite. This is primarily because it started on a boat and I am a huge sucker for the ocean and ocean-related horror. Later in the story glowing killer mushrooms are also introduced so I was absolutely thrilled to have two of my special interests included in the one story. This story was incredibly gross and I loved it, and it married gore with creeping horror very well since not only did you know these people one hundred percent shouldn’t go into the stack, you didn’t know why. “Cathedral Stack” also reminded me a little of Annihilation in a few parts, especially the winding staircase down into the stack which had the back of my brain saying “where lies the strangling fruit…”
Having just said that I knew “Cathedral Stack” would be my favourite, I was absolutely not prepared to have my socks blown off by “That Damn Woman”. There were just so many little innocuous details that somehow all came together at the very end in a way that was so incredibly satisfying that even while terrible horrible spooky things were happening, I couldn’t help but cheer and turn the page because honestly, this story is a masterwork. To mention a minor spoiler the particular detail of the wine glass going through Ginnie’s eye and effectively replacing it is *chefs kiss* – the devil is in the details and Alan Baxter is the very devil himself. The story also manages to get a handle on that strange horror trope of the man in the dress. While so many stories attempt to pathologise the trans women they feature, this story is so matter of fact about the husband dressing as his wife, inspired by his daughters trans girlfriend, and clearly shows his line of thinking, I feel like I can confidently say that this is one of the better representations of cross dressing in horror. All the men concerned about one anothers mental health due to high rates of suicide in the country is such a wonderful and healing representation of the often toxic ideal of good old fashioned aussie “mateship” and yet, even this, is just one more peice of the puzzle in this story. In fact there are so many small pieces that you will be on edge wondering where the final stroke will fall from, and when it does… oh but the catharsis is divine!
By the time I got to “Excursion Troop” I had very much learned that mushrooms in and around the Gulp are not to be touched, eaten, or otherwise messed with. So when one of the kids in the troop had a special interest in mushrooms (and slime moulds and, I assume, lichens) I knew that this was not going to end well. I liked how this story built on the previous one, going into a little more detail on some of the mentioned elements, and perfectly setting up the last story in the collection.
As the final story in the collection, “The Fall”, wraps things up neatly but leaves a lot unsaid. It is also the culmination of everything that has happened in the Gulp since the first collection of the same name, and it was this that gave me the most “oh shit” moments when I went back to read The Gulp, so I would assume that if you did things in the correct “order” this would be the chapter that would do just that for you. But frankly it was full of those moments even without having read the first collection, which only proves how deeply satisfying it is.
The Fall is like if Round the Twist was way, way, worse in the best of ways. This collection made me regret very much that I slept on picking up anything by Alan Baxter earlier, and so I was all the more grateful to get to read it. It deeply pleases me that Australian horror is alive and well and this incredibly satisfying.
I received an ARC of The Fall from the author in exchange for an honest review. The Fall is available in paperback and kindle formats and is currently available for preorder. It is due to be published on 12 April.