The beast without and within

landscape

Tim Winton In the Winter Dark Picador 2003 (1988)

This bleak novella is set in an isolated valley called the Sink, somewhere in Western Australia. The inhabitants of three houses — Maurice and Ida Stubbs, Murray Jaccob and Ronnie Melwater — all have secrets which, in the normal run of things, would just stay secrets. Except, with the arrival of an unseen predator which starts attacking livestock — a dog, geese, ducks, a goat, a kangaroo, sheep — these secrets come creeping out of their past, into their dreams and out into reality. What is this predator? A feral cat? A mange-ridden fox? Wild dogs? A Big Cat escaped from a circus trailer? Or something more rare, something out of the Southern Continent’s dark prehistory? And how does its unpredictable presence impact on the guilty feelings of individuals and their relationships with each other?

Tim Winton offers up a claustrophobic tale of terror, told largely through Maurice Stubbs treading an increasingly meandering path through memories and dreams, not just his own thoughts but tapping into the thoughts and experiences of the others: are they imagined or does he truly know what goes on, went on, in their minds? As fear and madness tighten their grips — like the eucalyptus forests which surround the Sink — something, some things, have got to give. And the end results are not pretty.

In the Winter Dark seems to me pretty accomplished writing, not just for its descriptive passages but particularly for its dialogue. At times it has the vividness of a movie script, so I wasn’t surprised to find that it had been made into a 1998 film starring Brenda Blethyn, Ray Barrett, Richard Roxburgh and Miranda Otto. Above all I found it an extremely effective horror story where the external threat, the never seen but undoubtedly present predator, became the catalyst that liberated the beasts within the minds of this ill-sorted quartet, beasts which would prove the undoing of their precarious existence in the Sink.

So, this beast: what is it, and is it important? Winton partly dedicated this novel to the Nannup Tiger, “wherever you are,” supposed representative of a relict population of an otherwise extinct carnivorous marsupial. Thylacinus cynocephalus is believed by many to exist on the Australian mainland, including around Nannup in Western Australia, though the last known thylacine survivor died in the 1930s at Beaumaris Zoo in Queensland. But never are we offered a glimpse of the Sink’s creature except for an indistinct paw print, so we are largely free to imagine what we like. In the long run it doesn’t matter what it is, only that —  Grendel-like — it has incalculable effects on the lives of four individuals, some damaged, all vulnerable. Who’s to say what long-lasting effect it would have on you, on me, if we were in the same position?

'Tasmanian "Zebra Wolf"' (aka Tasmanian Tiger) Thylacinus in Washington DC National Zoo c. 1904 (public domain)
‘Tasmanian “Zebra Wolf”‘ (aka Tasmanian Tiger) Thylacinus cynocephalus (“dog-headed”) in Washington DC National Zoo c. 1904 (public domain)
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2 thoughts on “The beast without and within

  1. From your review it seemed obvious to me Winton is not an American author. I looked into his bio and sure enough, he is Australian. Had Winton been an American, I am quite sure the monster would have been Aliens, as they are always responsible for all our our livestock deaths 🙂

  2. Responsible also for abductions, lights in the sky and destruction of crops in artistic ways.

    Not sure who or what’d be popularly held responsible in Britain — ‘bloody foreigners’ perhaps? ‘Black panther’ sightings are also common, Sari, though to me all the claimed photos of them look like out of focus pet moggies …

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