Robert Hood has long been a well-known name in the realm of Australian horror. A two-time winner of the Ditmar award and finalist many times over for the Aurealis award (both Australia-specific awards), he has penned numerous novels, countless short stories, and weighed in as an expert commentator in several non-fiction pieces on various aspects of the horror genre (he’s a particular expert on Japanese kaiju, or giant monsters) — he even co-authored an article on Australian horror fiction for The Scream Factory, a magazine I co-edited back in the day.
Hood’s sizable fiction collection, Creeping in Reptile Flesh, has a true international flair — originally published in Australia in 2008, it was re-published in late 2011 by Sweden’s Morrigan Publications. I finally got a chance to crack the Hood, so to speak, and found this collection to be a little more of mixed bag than I expected. The primary issue I had with the collection was the extremely varied nature of its contents, which is so diverse as to seem a bit off-putting at times (although others may find that variety to be refreshing).
The title novella, which leads off the book, is probably the strongest tale here and, like the majority of the contents, has a strong, distinctive Australian flavor. The protagonist, a political reporter and confidante, is commissioned to investigate the recently-elected and somewhat mysterious Independent Member John Cowling, who represents the nascent “Feral Party.” Leonard’s investigation leads him into some strange territory indeed, including an assignation with a “tall, cadaverous woman” named Kyla Fauxair, who may not actually be among the living, and a trip to Cowling’s perhaps-chimerical home town deep in the Outback.
A strong understanding of Australian politics would no doubt aid in appreciating some of the details, but even those unfamiliar with government down under will still get likely get caught up in the intrigue and muckraking. It’s definitely a tale with an edge, and it’s unusual enough to keep the reader off-kilter and engaged. The tale is lessened somewhat, however, by several flashbacks and dream sequences that are interspersed almost at random, with no italics or other stylistic variation to distinguish them, making them somewhat confusing and jarring until the reader realizes what’s going on.
Another standout is “Groundswell,” a noirish bit about two Constables whose investigation of a series of possibly-related murders lead them to a remote, abandoned desert town. Effectively set in a near-future Australia, where climate disaster has left much of the continent a literally unlivable place during the scorching heat of the day, there’s a sense of both otherworldliness and constance menace underlying everything, and the characters of the two Constables are well developed. When they spy a lone woman leaving the town, the Constables follow and discover the true cause behind the murders.
“Dreams of Death” starts with female Private Investigator Andy Wolfe meeting an amnesiac client who says he’s been having “dreams of murder”, and possesses intimate details of several recent deaths, all of which appeared to be accidents or suicides. Andy soon begins to suspect her client may well be guilty of murder, and focuses her investigation on him, leading the story into unexpected territory.
In “Lo Que No Asusta,” two old friends who attended university together 25 years previously have an awkward meeting, with the formerly charismatic Anthony now seeming haunted, preoccupied by a heavy fog enveloping the area surrounding their meeting place. Anthony proceeds to remind Alex of all the details he has forgotten about the night they graduated, when their fascination with the eponymous book of philosophy (which, translated, means “That Which Scares Us”) culminated. It turns out that technological advances of the following two decades have allowed Anthony to take their college experiments further, with dangerous consequences… As with several other stories here, there’s a dramatic, unexpected revelation about a primary character at the conclusion.
Also worth mentioning are “Rotting Eggplant…” and “Unravelling,” both of which look at “macro” world-changing events through a micro focus on a handful of characters. The latter is more successful, but both are offbeat enough to stand out.
As described above, there are some definite high points to be found in Creeping in Reptile Flesh,but there are a few too many blemishes in the collection for me to be able to highly recommend it, unless you’re a reader who deeply appreciates a broad variety of tales under one hat.