Kill Your Darlings’ First Book Club pick for November is Lois Murphy’s Soon (Transit Lounge). Read an extract from the novel, read the author on the book’s inspiration and writing process, and hear an interview with the author on the latest KYD Podcast.
One evening, the residents of Nebulah watch as a line of mysterious SUVs drive down the main road towards the cemetery. The odd procession leaves town soon after, but that night, a strange mist appears. Much to the horror of this rural community, inside the mist are the ghostly figures of the town’s dead – people who have been buried for years. Those who come into contact with the mist are taken by it; their bodies disappear, but their ghosts return within the mist each night, often sporting gory injuries, or trying to lure their loved ones outdoors. From sunset to sunrise, the town’s remaining inhabitants must seal themselves in their houses, lest the mist take them too.
The fate of the unlucky souls who aren’t able to find shelter before darkness falls is unclear – the mist does not leave their bodies behind, and as such those it takes are officially regarded as ‘missing’ rather than dead. Over the course of months, the mist drives nearly all the townspeople away. Six stragglers remain, including retired policeman Pete. Pete and the remaining townspeople have become experts at keeping the mist at bay. Each night they seal up their doors and windows, draw their curtains and wait for the horror to pass. When Alex, a stranger with psychic abilities, arrives in Nebulah and narrowly avoids a run-in with the mist, she warns Pete that if he wants to live beyond winter solstice, he must leave the town for good.
One of the most frightening things about Soon is that Lois Murphy’s fictional town is based, in part, on a real one – the West Australian town of Wittenoom. As of 2016, there were three remaining residents living in Wittenoom. The town receives no government services, and its name has been removed from official maps and road signs. All of the shops are abandoned, and many of them have rotted and collapsed. The three people who still live in there have been offered money to leave, but they stay on, citing a love of the solitude and of the land.
One of the most frightening things about Soon is that Lois Murphy’s fictional town is based, in part, on a real one.
As far back as the 1940s, it had been recognised that the mining of blue asbestos in Wittenoom had created a hazardous environment. People were becoming sick at that time, but throughout the 50s and 60s, Wittenoom was the only Australian supplier of blue asbestos, and the mines remained open. It took until the late 1970s for the government to begin phasing down the town and surrounding areas. Residents of the area campaigned for the town to be cleaned up instead of shut down, and there was a plan to remove ten centimetres of topsoil from Wittenoom as a way of removing the contamination left behind by the asbestos mines. This plan never came to fruition; Wittenoom became a ghost town instead, its residents encouraged to move away, in some cases given money by the government to make this easier. The remaining residents of Nebulah are not so lucky – all of their money is tied up in their properties, which have become completely worthless. They remain because they have no choice.
At one point in the novel, the town’s remaining residents discuss the fact that even before the mist appeared, there were no Indigenous people in the area, and that no Indigenous person would step foot there. Although it’s never properly realised, there is a sense that this is something ancient, something that has happened before, and that a major disconnect with the land had a part to play in Nebulah’s miserable fate. Beneath the abject horror of the mist, Murphy has laid down a clear environmental subtext. After the mist first appears, several residents become victims through sheer cynicism. Keen to prove the apparition is a hoax, they go outdoors after dark willingly, never to be seen (alive) again.
Beneath the abject horror of the mist…there is a sense that a major disconnect with the land had a part to play in Nebulah’s miserable fate.
At the time of Alex’s predictions about the winter solstice, Pete and his remaining neighbours have accepted that the mist is real, supernatural and dangerous, but Pete struggles to convince his friends that her warning should be taken seriously. Such wilful ignorance is reminiscent of the way Australians dismiss warnings about impending environmental catastrophe on an alarmingly regular basis. Those suffering through the already devastating effects of climate change – drought, rising sea levels, extreme weather events – are, like Nebulah’s remaining residents, overwhelmingly (perhaps even intentionally) forgotten about by the rest of the world.
Murphy’s choice to use first-person narration aids in her creation of a sense of suspense and mystery. Her readers experience the happenings in Nebulah as Pete does. As a result of this, Pete’s multiple near misses with the mist are that extra bit capable of getting readers’ blood pumping. While many elements of this novel are in line with traditional supernatural thrillers, she does not sacrifice the quality of her prose to accommodate pacing. Loneliness and isolation are prominent themes in Soon, and rather than expressing these ideas by focusing on physical landscape, Murphy explores them by dissecting her characters’ mental landscapes. The mist is depicted as a living entity: it reflects the fears and anxieties of the person viewing it, it attempts to lure them into its clutches, it changes from terrifying to enticing depending on who stands before it. In this way, Murphy shows rather than tells the reader all we need to know about her characters’ psyches.
Loneliness and isolation are prominent themes in Soon… Rather than focusing on physical landscape, Murphy explores them by dissecting her characters’ mental landscapes.
At times, Pete’s voice is uncomfortable to read. His persona has a tendency to shift into country-bumpkin territory, especially in scenes that detail his relationship with his estranged daughter and her children. He is painfully aware of his own flaws, even though he is apparently unable to make any attempt to change them. Pete is a misfit in his own life: at multiple points in his narration, he muses that being a husband, father and police officer were not things he ever felt particularly good at. Moving to Nebulah was, for him, a way to escape this.
Rural Australia lends itself well to the horror genre. Its isolation, tight-knit communities and unforgiving natural environments evoke a spooky sense of unease. The enduring love of tales such as Picnic at Hanging Rock and Wolf Creek prove that the horror of isolation in a hostile landscape is a mainstay of the Australian popular imagination. Lois Murphy’s Soon takes these fears of isolation and the unknown, and adds the extra horror of a mysterious, human-eating mist to the mix. The result is a novel that harnesses elements of the supernatural to remind its readers of the real fears of many rural Australians – loss of industry and livelihood, being left behind by society, and most of all, loneliness.