Since it’s been out for a couple of weeks this is a little after the fact, but I wanted to say how delighted I am my story ‘The Inconvenient Dead’ has been selected for this year’s Best Australian Stories (which comes complete with a spiffy redesign). The volume, which was put together by Sonya Hartnett, also includes stories by a bunch of good people such as David Astle, David Sornig, Romy Ash and newcomers like Rebecca Harrison, and while I haven’t read all of it yet, I’m happy to report that what I have read is fantastic.
I’ve also added three reviews to the site: my pieces on Patrick Flanery’s striking and often unsettling exploration of trauma, memory and complicity, Absolution and Dana Spiotta’s stunning third novel Stone Arabia (if you haven’t read it run, don’t walk to your nearest shop and buy it now), both of which appeared in The Weekend Australian earlier this year, and my review of Peter Heller’s haunting excursion into apocalyptic fiction, The Dog Stars, which ran in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age a few months back. And while we’re on the subject of reviews you might also want to check out my piece on James Meek’s The Heart Broke In, which appeared in The Weekend Australian a few weeks ago.
And the novel? Nice of you to ask. It’s grand: not there yet but close-ish to a (very rough) first draft, which is nice.
The Rat-King on display in the Mauritianum Museum, Altenburg, Germany
I was reminded last night of one of the more repulsive bits of cryptozoological folklore, the Rat-King. And since the two people I was with had never heard of them, I thought I might share the concept with the world. A Rat-King is created when a rat nest (a horrible concept all on its own) becomes so crowded that the tails of the rats become physically entangled, and slowly but surely, the separate rats begin to fuse into a single organism.
Perhaps not surprisingly the concept of the Rat-King is regarded with some scepticism by contemporary science, but belief in their existence has persisted in European countries, and particularly Germany, since the Middle Ages, and over the years various specimens have been displayed in museums and private collections.
Of these the most famous is probably the one owned by the Mauritianum Museum in Altenburg, which is comprised of the mummified remains of 32 rats, and was reportedly found in a miller’s fireplace in Buchheim in 1828, although specimens from as far afield as Java and New Zealand have also been collected through the years (Wikipedia has a brief survey of the various extant specimens, and you can see images, including x-ray images of one of the Dutch specimens on the Museum Kennis website).
As someone who’s not keen on rats at all, the Rat-King is a thing of nightmares. But I’m not sure you’d need to be as phobic about rats as I am to feel there’s something deeply unsettling about the whole idea, and not just because the thought of all those rats, scrabbling and hissing and seething together is inherently repulsive. Rather I suspect that just as the idea of zombies, and vampires, and the living dead break down the ontological categories which order our world, the idea of several creatures merging into one super-organism, something smarter and more malign than any of its individual constituents, so offends our most primal suppositions about individual identity that we have few reactions open to us beyond fear, and disgust.