Writing Indigenous Vampires: Aboriginal Gothic or Aboriginal Fantastic?





That Blackfella Bloodsucka Dance!, Aboriginal vampire, Aboriginal gothic, Aboriginal fantastic, Horror literature, Vampire novel

How to Cite

Starrs, B. (2014). Writing Indigenous Vampires: Aboriginal Gothic or Aboriginal Fantastic?. M/C Journal, 17(4). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.834
Vol. 17 No. 4 (2014): gothic
Published 2014-07-24

The usual postmodern suspicions about diligently deciphering authorial intent or stridently seeking fixed meaning/s and/or binary distinctions in an artistic work aside, this self-indulgent essay pushes the boundaries regarding normative academic research, for it focusses on my own (minimally celebrated) published creative writing’s status as a literary innovation. Dedicated to illuminating some of the less common denominators at play in Australian horror, my paper recalls the creative writing process involved when I set upon the (arrogant?) goal of creating a new genre of creative writing: that of the ‘Aboriginal Fantastic’. I compare my work to the literary output of a small but significant group (2.5% of the population), of which I am a member: Aboriginal Australians. I narrow my focus even further by examining that creative writing known as Aboriginal horror. And I reduce the sample size of my study to an exceptionally small number by restricting my view to one type of Aboriginal horror literature only: the Aboriginal vampire novel, a genre to which I have contributed professionally with the 2011 paperback and 2012 e-book publication of That Blackfella Bloodsucka Dance! However, as this paper hopefully demonstrates, and despite what may be interpreted by some cynical commentators as the faux sincerity of my taxonomic fervour, Aboriginal horror is a genre noteworthy for its instability and worthy of further academic interrogation.

Surprising to many, Aboriginal Australian mythology includes at least one truly vampire-like entity, despite Althans’ confident assertion that the Bunyip is “Australia’s only monster” (16) which followed McKee’s equally fearless claim that “there is no blackfella tradition of zombies or vampires” (201). Gelder’s Ghost Stories anthology also only mentions the Bunyip, in a tale narrated by Indigenous man Percy Mumbulla (250). Certainly, neither of these academics claim Indigeneity in their ethnicity and most Aboriginal Australian scholars will happily agree that our heterogeneous Indigenous cultures and traditions are devoid of opera-cape wearing Counts who sleep in coffins or are repelled by crucifix-wielding Catholics. Nevertheless, there are fascinating stories--handed down orally from one generation to the next (Australian Aborigines, of course, have no ancestral writing system)--informing wide-eyed youngsters of bloodsucking, supernatural entities that return from the grave to feed upon still living blackfellas: hence Unaipon describes the red-skinned, fig tree-dwelling monster, the “Yara Ma Yha Who […] which sucks the blood from the victim and leaves him helpless upon the ground” (218). Like most vampires, this monster imparts a similarly monstrous existence upon his prey, which it drains of blood through the suckers on its fingers, not its teeth. Additionally, Reed warns: “Little children, beware of the Yara-ma-yha-who! If you do not behave yourselves and do as you are told, they will come and eat you!” (410), but no-one suggests this horrible creature is actually an undead human.

For the purposes of this paper at least, the defining characteristics of a vampire are firstly that it must have once been an ordinary, living human. Secondly, it must have an appetite for human blood. Thirdly, it must have a ghoulish inability to undergo a permanent death (note, zombies, unlike vampires it seems, are fonder of brains than fresh hemoglobin and are particularly easy to dispatch). Thus, according to my criteria, an arguably genuine Aboriginal Australian vampire is referred to when Bunson writes of the Mrart being an improperly buried member of the tribe who has returned after death to feed upon the living (13) and when Cheung notes “a number of vampire-like creatures were feared, most especially the mrart, the ghost of a dead person who attacked victims at night and dragged them away from campsites” (40). Unfortunately, details regarding this “number of vampire-like creatures” have not been collated, nor I fear, in this era of rapidly extinguishing Aboriginal Australian language use, are they ever likely to be.

Perhaps the best hope for preservation of these little known treasures of our mythology lies not with anthropologists but with the nation’s Indigenous creative writers. Yet no blackfella novelist, apparently, has been interested in the monstrous, bloodsucking, Aboriginal Undead. Despite being described as dominating the “Black Australian novel” (Shoemaker 1), writer Mudrooroo--who has authored three vampire novels--reveals nothing of Aboriginal Australian vampirology in his texts. Significantly, however, Mudrooroo states that Aboriginal Australian novelists such as he “are devoting their words to the Indigenous existential being” (Indigenous 3). Existentiality, of course, has to do with questions of life, death and dying and, for we Aboriginal Australians, such questions inevitably lead to us addressing the terrible consequences of British invasion and genocide upon our cultural identity, and this is reflected in Mudrooroo’s effective use of the vampire trope in his three ‘Ghost Dreaming’ novels, as they are also known. Mudrooroo’s bloodsuckers, however, are the invading British and Europeans in his extended ‘white man as ghost’ metaphor: they are not sourced from Aboriginal Australian mythology.

Mudrooroo does, notably, intertwine his story of colonising vampires in Australia with characters created by Bram Stoker in his classic novel Dracula (1897). He calls his first Aborigine to become a familiar “Renfield” (Undying 93), and even includes a soft-porn re-imagining of an encounter between characters he has inter-textually named “Lucy” and “Mina” (Promised 3). This potential for a contemporary transplantation of Stoker’s European characters to Australia was another aspect I sought to explore in my novel, especially regarding semi-autobiographical writing by mixed-race Aboriginal Australians such as Mudrooroo and myself. I wanted to meta-fictionally insert my self-styled anti-hero into a Stoker-inspired milieu. Thus my work features a protagonist who is confused and occasionally ambivalent about his Aboriginal identity. Brought up as Catholic, as I was, he succumbs to an Australian re-incarnation of Stoker’s Dracula as Anti-Christ and finds himself battling the true-believers of the Catholic Church, including a Moroccan version of Professor Van Helsing and a Buffy-like, quasi-Islamic vampire slayer.

Despite his once revered status, Mudrooroo is now exiled from the Australian literary scene as a result of his claim to Indigeneity being (apparently) disproven (see Clark). Illness and old age prevent him from defending the charges, hence it is unlikely that Mudrooroo (or Colin Johnson as he was formerly known) will further develop the Aboriginal Australian vampire trope in his writing. Which situation leaves me to cautiously identify myself as the sole Aboriginal Australian novelist exploring Indigenous vampires in his/her creative writing, as evidenced by my 312 page novel That Blackfella Bloodsucka Dance!, which was a prescribed text in a 2014 Indiana University course on World Literature (Halloran).

Set in a contemporary Australia where disparate existential explanations including the Aboriginal Dreamtime, Catholicism, vampirism and atheism all co-exist, the writing of my novel was motivated by the question: ‘How can such incongruent ideologies be reconciled or bridged?’ My personal worldview is influenced by all four of these explanations for the mysteries of life and death: I was brought up in Catholicism but schooled in scientific methodology, which evolved into an insipid atheism. Culturally I was drawn to the gothic novel and developed an intellectual interest in Stoker’sDracula and its significance as a pro-Catholic, covert mission of proselytization (see Starrs 2004), whilst simultaneously learning more of my totem, Garrawi (the Sulphur-crested White Cockatoo), and the Aboriginal Dreamtime legends of my ancestral forebears. Much of my novel concerns questions of identity for a relatively light-complexioned, mixed ancestry Aboriginal Australian such as myself, and the place such individuals occupy in the post-colonial world. Mudrooroo, perhaps, was right in surmising that we Aboriginal Australian authors are devoted to writing about “the Indigenous existential being” for my Aboriginal vampire novel is at least semi-autobiographical and fixated on the protagonist’s attempts to reconcile his atheism with his Dreamtime teachings and Catholicism. But Mudrooroo’s writing differs markedly from my own when it comes to the expectations he has regarding the audience’s acceptance of supernatural themes. He apparently fully believed in the possibility of such unearthly spirits existing, and wrote of the “Maban Reality” whereby supernatural events are entirely tenable in the Aboriginal Australian world-view, and the way these matters are presented suggests he expects the reader to be similarly convinced. With this Zeitgeist, Mudrooroo’s ‘Ghost Dreaming’ novels can be accurately described as Aboriginal Gothic. In this genre, Chanady explains, “the supernatural, as well as highly improbable events, are presented without any comment by the magical realist narrator” ("Magic Realism" 431).

What, then, is the meaning of Aboriginal Gothic, given we Aboriginal peoples have no haunted castles or mist-shrouded graveyards? Again according to Chanady, as she set out in her groundbreaking monograph of 1985, in a work of Magical Realism the author unquestioningly accepts the supernatural as credible (10-12), even as, according to Althans, it combines “the magical and realist, into a new perspective of the world, thus offering alternative ways and new approaches to reality” (26). From this general categorisation, Althans proposes, comes the specific genre of Aboriginal Gothic, which is Magical Realism in an Indigenous context that creates a “cultural matrix foreign to a European audience [...] through blending the Gothic mode in its European tradition with the myths and customs of Aboriginal culture” (28-29). She relates the Aboriginal Gothic to Mudrooroo’s Maban Reality due to its acting “as counter-reality, grounded in the earth or country, to a rational worldview and the demands of a European realism” (28). Within this category sit not only the works of Aboriginal Australian novelists such as Mudrooroo, but also more recent novels by Aboriginal Australian writers Kim Scott and Alexis Wright, who occasionally indulge in improbable narratives informed by supernatural beings (while steering disappointingly clear of vampires).

But there is more to the Aboriginal Gothic than a naïve acceptance of Maban Reality, or, for that matter, any other Magical Realist treatments of Aboriginal Australian mythology. Typically, the work of Aboriginal Gothic writers speaks to the historical horrors of colonisation. In contrast to the usually white-authored Australian Gothic, in which the land down under was seen as terrifying by the awestruck colonisers, and the Aborigine was portrayed as “more frightening than any European demon” (Turcotte, "Australian Gothic" 10), the Aboriginal Gothic sometimes reverses roles and makes the invading white man the monster. The Australian Gothic was for Aborigines, “a disabling, rather than enabling, discourse” (Turcotte, "Australian Gothic" 10) whilst colonial Gothic texts egregiously portrayed the colonised subject as a fearsome and savage Other. Ostensibly sub-human, from a psychoanalytic point of view, the Aborigine may even have symbolised the dark side of the British settler, but who, in the very act of his being subjugated, assures the white invader of his racial superiority, moral integrity and righteous identity. However, when Aboriginal Australian authors reiterate, when we subjugated savages wrestle the keyboard away, readers witness the Other writing back, critically. Receivers of our words see the distorted and silencing master discourse subverted and, indeed, inverted. Our audiences are subjectively repositioned to see the British Crown as the monster. The previously presumed civil coloniser is instead depicted as the author and perpetrator of a violently racist, criminal discourse, until, eventually, s/he is ultimately ‘Gothicised’: eroded and made into the Other, the villainous, predatory savage. In this style of vicious literary retaliation Mudrooroo excelled. Furthermore, as a mixed ancestry Aborigine, like myself, Mudrooroo represented in his very existence, the personification of Aboriginal Gothic, for as Idilko Riendes writes, “The half caste is reminiscent of the Gothic monstrous, as the half caste is something that seems unnatural at first, evoking fears” (107). Perhaps therein lies a source of the vehemency with which some commentators have pilloried Mudrooroo after the somewhat unconvincing evidence of his non-Indigeneity? But I digress from my goal of explicating the meaning of the term Aboriginal Gothic.

The boundaries of any genre are slippery and one of the features of postmodern literature is its deliberate blurring of boundaries, hence defining genres is not easy. Perhaps the Gothic can be better understood when the meaning of its polar opposite, the Fantastic, is better understood. Ethnic authorial controversies aside and returning to the equally shady subject of authorial intent, in contrast to the Aboriginal Gothic of novelists Mudrooroo, Scott and Wright, and their accepting of the supernatural as plausible, the Fantastic in literature is characterised by an enlightened rationality in which the supernatural is introduced but ultimately rejected by the author, a literary approach that certainly sits better with my existential atheism. Chanady defined and illustrated the genre as follows: “the fantastic […] reaffirmed hegemonic Western rational paradigms by portraying the supernatural in a contradictory manner as both terrifying and logically impossible […] My examples of the fantastic were drawn from the work of major French writers such as Merimee and Maupassant” ("Magic Realism" 430). Unfortunately, Chanady was unable to illustrate her concept of the Fantastic with examples of Aboriginal horror writing. Why? Because none existed until my novel was published. Whereas Mudrooroo, Scott and Wright incorporated the Magical Realism of Aboriginal Australian mythology into their novels, and asked their readers to accept it as not only plausible but realistic and even factual, I wanted to create a style that blends Aboriginal mythology with the European tradition of vampires, but ultimately rejects this “cultural matrix” due to enlightened rationality, as I deliberately and cynically denounce it all as fanciful superstition.

Certainly, the adjective “fantastic” is liberally applied to much of what we call Gothic horror literature, and the sub-genre of Indigenous vampire literature is not immune to this confusion, with non-Australian Indigenous author Aaron Carr’s 1995 Native American vampire novel, The Eye Killers, unhelpfully described in terms of the “fantastic nature of the genre” (Tillett 149). In this novel,

Carr exposes contemporary Native American political concerns by skillfully weaving multiple interactive dialogues with horror literature and film, contemporary U.S. cultural preoccupations, postmodern philosophies, traditional vampire lore, contemporary Native literature, and Native oral traditions. (Tillett 150)

It must be noted, however, that Carr does not denounce the supernatural vampire and its associated folklore, be it European or Laguna/Kerasan/Navajo, as illogical or fanciful. This despite his “dialogues with […] contemporary U.S. cultural preoccupations [and] postmodern philosophies”. Indeed, the character “Diana” at one stage pretends to pragmatically denounce the supernatural whilst her interior monologue strenuously defends her irrational beliefs: the novel reads: “‘Of course there aren’t any ghosts,’ Diana said sharply, thinking: Of course there were ghosts. In this room. Everywhere” (197). In taking this stock-standard approach of expecting the reader to believe wholeheartedly in the existence of the Undead, Carr locates his work firmly in the Aboriginal Gothic camp and renders commentators such as Tillett liable to be called ignorant and uninformed when they label his work fantastic.

The Aboriginal Gothic would leave the reader convinced a belief in the supernatural is non-problematic, whereas the Aboriginal Fantastic novel, where it exists, would, while enjoying the temporary departure from the restraints of reality, eventually conclude there are no such things as ghosts or vampires. Thus, my Aboriginal Fantastic novel That Blackfella Bloodsucka Dance! was intended from the very beginning of the creative writing process to be an existentially diametric alternative to Magical Realism and the Aboriginal Gothic (at least in its climactic denouement). The narrative features a protagonist who, in his defeat, realises the danger in superstitious devotion and in doing so his interior monologue introduces to the literary world the new Aboriginal Fantastic genre. 

Despite a Foucauldian emphasis in most of my critical analysis in which an awareness of the constructed status and nature of the subject/focus of knowledge undermines the foundations of any reductive typology, I am unhesitant in my claim to having invented a new genre of literature here. Unless there is, undiscovered by my research, a yet-to-be heralded work of Aboriginal horror that recognises the impossibility of its subject, my novel is unique even while my attitude might be decried as hubristic. I am also cognizant of the potential for angry feedback from my Aboriginal Australian kin, for my innovative genre is ultimately denigrating of all supernatural devotion, be it vampiric or Dreamtime. Aboriginal Fantastic writing rejects such mythologies as dangerous, fanciful superstition, but I make the (probably) too-little-too-late defence that it rejects the Indigenous existential rationale somewhat less vigorously than it rejects the existential superstitions of Catholicism and/or vampirism.

This potential criticism I will forbear, perhaps sullenly and hopefully silently, but I am likely to be goaded to defensiveness by those who argue that like any Indigenous literature, Aboriginal Australian writing is inherently Magical Realist, and that I forsake my culture when I appeal to the rational. Chanady sees “magic realism as a mode that expresses important points of view, often related to marginality and subalternity” ("Magic Realism" 442). She is not alone in seeing it as the generic cultural expression of Indigenous peoples everywhere, for Bhabha writes of it as being the literature of the postcolonial world (6) whilst Rushdie sees it as the expression of a third world consciousness (301). But am I truly betraying my ancestral culture when I dismiss the Mrart as mere superstition? Just because it has colour should we revere ‘black magic’ over other (white or colourless) superstitions? Should we not suspect, as we do when seated before stage show illusionists, some sleight of (writing) hand? Some hidden/sub-textual agenda meant to entertain not educate? Our world has many previously declared mysteries now easily explained by science, and the notion of Earth being created by a Rainbow Serpent is as farcical to me as the notion it was created a few thousand years ago in seven days by an omniscient human-like being called God. If, in expressing this dubiousness, I am betraying my ancestors, I can only offer detractors the feeble defence that I sincerely respect their beliefs whilst not personally sharing them. I attempt no delegitimising of Aboriginal Australian mythology. Indeed, I celebrate different cultural imaginaries for they make our quotidian existence more colourful and enjoyable. There is much pleasure to be had in such excursions from the pedantry of the rational.

Another criticism I might hear out--intellectually--would be: “Most successful literature is Magical Realist, and supernatural stories are irresistible”, a truism most commercially successful authors recognise. But my work was never about sales, indeed, the improbability of my (irresistible?) fiction is didactically yoked to a somewhat sanctimonious moral. My protagonist realises the folly and danger in superstitious devotion, although his atheistic epiphany occurs only during his last seconds of life. Thus, whilst pushing this barrow of enlightened rationality, my novel makes a somewhat original contribution to contemporary Australian culture, presenting in a creative writing form rather than anthropological report, an understanding of the potential for melding Aboriginal mythology with Catholicism, the “competing Dreamtimes, white and black” as Turcotte writes ("Re-mastering" 132), if only at the level of ultimately accepting, atheistically, that all are fanciful examples of self-created beyond-death identity, as real--or unreal--as any other religious meme. Whatever vampire literature people read, most such consumers do not believe in the otherworldly antagonists, although there is profound enjoyment to be had in temporarily suspending disbelief and even perpetuating the meme into the mindsets of others. Perhaps, somewhere in the sub-conscious, pre-rational recesses of our caveman-like brains, we still wonder if such supernatural entities reflect a symbolic truth we can’t quite apprehend. Instead, we use a totemic figure like the sultry but terrifying Count Dracula as a proxy for other kinds of primordial anxieties we cannot easily articulate, whether that fear is the child rapist on the loose or impending financial ruin or just the overwhelming sense that our contemporary lifestyles contain the very seeds of our own destruction, and we are actively watering them with our insouciance.

In other words, there is little that is new in horror. Yes, That Blackfella Bloodsucka Dance! is an example of what I call the new genre of Aboriginal Fantastic but that claim is not much of an original contribution to knowledge, other than being the invention of an extra label in an unnecessarily formalist/idealist lexicon of literary taxonomy. Certainly, it will not create a legion of fans. But these days it is difficult for a novelist to find anything really new to write about, genre-wise, and if there is a reader prepared to pay hard-earned money for a copy, then I sincerely hope they do not feel they have purchased yet another example of what the HBO television show Californication’s creative writing tutor Hank Moody (David Duchovny) derides as “lame vampire fiction” (episode 2, 2007). I like to think my Aboriginal Fantastic novel has legs as well as fangs. 


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Author Biography

Bruno Starrs, Institut Teknologi Brunei

D. Bruno Starrs is an Indigenous Australian who holds Masters degrees from Bond University and the University of Melbourne and a PhD from Queensland University of Technology. He is widely published in cultural studies and has lectured at universities in Australia, China and Thailand. He currently occupies the post of Senior Lecturer in Cinematology at the Institut Teknologi Brunei. Starrs is a champion competitive bodybuilder and a published playwright and novelist.