Set in a fictional Australian setting akin to that found in Melbourne’s Dandenong Mountains, this deeply atmospheric novel starts with an astrological omen of death. As Adam crosses the river guitar in hand a storm is brewing one that could see him trapped in The Cabin for hours. Struggling against a rising sense of panic he continues his journey to The Cabin Music Session unwilling to let his mentor Benny Muir down. But bad news awaits him and as the story unfolds it is not the worst his fateful Christmas Eve will hold.
Told from the third person viewpoints of Adam and Philip, the town’s plumber, the evening is mapped out in slow eerie detail that at once manages to evoke Burton’s fanatical cult history while also acting as a harbinger of the disaster to come. In between the two male viewpoints, is the delicate first-person voice of Eva, the breath holder, whose recollections shed an unsettling light on the characters in The Cabin.
The Cabin Sessions is a delicately balanced psychological novel, its horror not so much in the events of the evening (as shocking as they are) but in the sinister histories and disturbed mental states of its characters. I don’t normally ready such dark fiction but found myself gripped in horrified fascination by Blackthorn’s subtle storytelling and accomplished prose. This is a must read for all who like to be profoundly disturbed by their reading. Or for others, like me, who are simply keen to see the best of what this genre can hold.
What was the catalyst for this story?
There were several catalysts, but initially the idea was to set a novel in an open mic. Back in 2011 I was attending an open mic hosted by my then partner, Scottish troubadour Alex Legg. Every week we’d travel up the mountain to Olinda in the Dandenong Ranges. I’d help him set up and pack away at the end of what was usually a very long night. Alex was a superb songwriter and musician keen to support other artists in the area and they all came up to play. I watched, listened and absorbed the ins and outs of what made an open mic. The sorts of musicians who went. The setting seemed compelling and I had Alex to hand to provide me with all the technical details. A plot emerged and Alex helped me craft some characters. They are all exaggerated to the point of the grotesque and the humorous but together they represent the array of musicians who attend a regular open mic.
I was about four chapters in when Alex and I split up. I was devastated. I lost inspiration for the story. Two years later, in December 2014, Alex suddenly passed away. It came as a shock to everyone. I had moved interstate by then and had put the past behind me, but it came flooding back. He came flooding back. He was right there with me, in my living room. I couldn’t look at his photos and I couldn’t listen to his songs, especially the one he wrote for me. But a strange thing happened. I’d written a short story based on his life in Australia. It is called ‘All Because of You’, named after a title of one of Alex’s songs. The character in the story is Benny Muir, who is really Alex, and it is written in Scottish dialect. Sitting alone feeling Alex’s presence, it came to me in a flash what I needed to do with The Cabin Sessions to make it work. I made use of Benny Muir.
You call The Cabin Sessions dark fiction, rather than horror. What is the difference?
Some would say they are one and the same. With horror the keynote is dread. Horror often involves the supernatural or paranormal. Vampires and ghosts. Then there’s horror that revolts as much as horrifies, such as splatterpunk or slasher horror, which speak for themselves. There are other forms of terror and revulsion. Creature horror, for example, giant insects or alien predators. There’s no end to it and the human appetite for horror is boundless.
Dark fiction is more likely to veer in the direction of the disturbing. The themes are dark and often psychological. That is not to say that scenes of horror are not present. The dark fiction label serves to distinguish, in my mind at least, between stories that might be more akin to thrillers or literary fiction, and those that sit squarely in horror, such as the aforementioned slasher and splatterpunk styles.
What made The Cabin Sessions fit into horror was the emergence of a minor character, Eva Stone, who hijacked the narrative and, in a strange way, me as well. She isn’t at the open mic. She writes a diary and what she has to say about the town of Burton is chilling and adds psychological complexity. The novel sets out to disturb and revolt. In my mind was the issue of whose side do you take and who do you believe? The Cabin Sessions has Gothic elements, the cabin in the woods trope, the dark and stormy night, even the Blood Moon. In a sense the novel plays at the edges of horror.
What draws you to write dark fiction?
I have so far lived 55 years on this planet and right from birth I entered a situation that was horror and torture and there was no escaping it. I have experienced more than my share of domestic violence, and psychological and sexual abuse and have studied, so to speak, perpetrators at close range. I know what it feels like to be trapped. I know what it feels like to live with the illusion that things are okay when they are not, and what that ends up doing to your mind and your body. People can put on a smiling face and be toxic to the point of being lethal, even without raising a fist.
Dark fiction allows me to explore such themes in depth and with raw realism. I can be graphic if I want to. Dark fiction confronts the reader with themes they would rather not think about. I like to explore what lurks beneath the facade. I also like to stretch things to the absurd. Horror shades into comedy very easily; there is such a fine line between the two. It is the comedy aspect, the stretching to the absurd that appeals to me most.
I come out of the British dark comedy/horror bag. One of my favourite films is ‘Sightseers’ directed by Ben Wheatley, concerning a couple who go on a caravan holiday that turns out to be a murder spree. I like the ordinariness of the settings and the characters, the matter-of-fact way they go about what they do and justify it to themselves. The whole mad and horrific unfolding triggered by someone failing to pick up a piece of rubbish.
Why do you think people should read dark fiction?
I read a lot of novels these days as I write book reviews. There is fiction out there for every taste and every type of reader. There are straight ahead feel-good books. Stories that take the reader into realms of fantasy and science fictional realities. There are those that delve into history, serving to educate or enlighten. There are page turners, books that are light and race along to the finish line. Novels that pull on the emotions. Romance tugs at the heart, crime has us puzzling as armchair sleuths, thrillers have us on the edge of our seats. Horror readers love to be scared or shocked or confronted by the macabre. All the genres and the books in them serve a purpose.
Literary fiction sets out to stimulate deep questioning and to enlighten in a fashion that is far more complex and challenging. Quite a lot of literary fiction is dark. Toni Morrison’s Beloved springs to mind.
While the horror genre exists to entertain in its own unique fashion, dark fiction, if the hair split is permissible, has that literary element that invites reflection of the questioning mind. It challenges as much as instils dread or revulsion. By dwelling in the dark places, we come to understand motives otherwise obscured. We wrestle with morality. Better to expose than repress, in my view. It is denial that twists and distorts. Bring the darkness into the full light of day and something sensible can be done with it.
We can too easily exist in a false reality where everything is fresh milk and roses in full bloom. Dark fiction is the counter-balance to all that is sunny and warm. We all have darkness in us, we all have shadowy realms.
Milk sours. Roses wither and rot.
I’ve heard you say this is a mirror book to A Perfect Square. Can you tell me how? Why?
I wrote The Cabin Sessions and A Perfect Square at the same time, in the space of two years. I also chose to write both in a very old-school dense and strong style. I don’t always write like that. I was in a very lonely and difficult phase of my life, I’d returned to a place I should never have gone back to, and I was carrying a lot of hurt. I had to sell up and move again to put distance between myself and that phase of my life. I think both stories emerged out of all that hurt I was feeling, but not in any direct way. More that I buried myself in both novels to shut out the world around me. I call it my crab shell phase.
Yet buried deep in both novels are elements of my own history. A Perfect Square leans more towards the occult, and in some senses it is a lighter book, but it is a dark mystery, and that darkness unfolds slowly. I think of the two novels as my dark twins.
I am working on two horror/thriller novels. Another set of twins! They are both fast paced and great fun to write. One is almost finished, the other well on the way. I shall say no more about them. Don’t want to spoil the surprise!
Buying links to Isobel Blackthorn’s books can be found on her website.