“Australia is a cruel, dangerous place filled with murderous psychopaths and deadly animals.”
This is everything I know to be true about Australia, taught to me by their film industry.
Movies like Greg Mclean’s Wolf Creak, Russell Mulcahy’s Razorback, and Brian Trenchard Smith’s Dead End Drive-In (and to a lesser-extent BMX Bandits) have taught me that the island nation is a harsh, unforgiving place that would eat me alive if I ever thought of stepping foot on it.
Australian author Aaron Dries’ debut novel, House of Sighs, does absolutely nothing to sway that belief.
I haven’t read any other reviews of Sighs, but I’m guessing that the names Ketchum and Laymon are going to be dropped as descriptors of Dries’ hardhitting, normal-day-descending-into-chaos setup. They’re not wrong, these hypothetical reviewers that I’ve just tried to pigeonhole, but they’re not wholly right either.
What’s horrifying about Jack Ketchum’s most widely-read stories is their universality, the idea that they could happen anywhere (I can’t even remember where The Girl Next Door is set, that’s how nondescript its suburbia is). Dries story can only be told in a small town in New South Whales. That’s a virtue, not a drawback.
And this could just be an East coast American with a very limited view of the world finding novelty in places the author didn’t intend it, but I don’t think it is. House of Sighs is meant to be an Australian tragedy.
House of Sighs begins with an ill-fated bus ride helmed by a conductor who’s got a dangerously tenuous grip on reality, and devolves into a situation that can only be described as chaos. The human evils of abuse, drugs, and mental anguish collide with Australia’s hostile climate and wildlife to disastrous effect.
The cover and title could lead you to think that you are getting a haunted house story, but what we have here is firmly in the genre of “real-world” horror. We have a group of flawed protagonists and antagonists (in some cases the categories are interchangeable) thrust into a situation that gets worse with each chapter. Coincidence, misunderstanding, the natural world, and human cruelty mix together until finally ending in a crescendo of violence that’s almost absurd in its senselessness.
In the final chapters, we are left with an aftermath that would be impossible to parse without knowledge of the inciting events and the players involved, and that’s the appeal. The tragedies that Dries constructs would be unbelievable if he didn’t make us believe them, if he didn’t show us how they happen (in some cases diving back to character’s childhoods to show us their dark origins). Luckily he does, with several narrative gutpunches successfully delivered throughout.
If your definition of horror is limited to imaginary ghosts and ghouls, than you should probably stay away. But for those of you who want to be sobered by your scares, I heartily recommend House of Sighs.