Bushfires vs nuclear holocaust

Another Phoenix and the Darkness of Wolves review has hit the web, and this time, it’s a bit of a mixed one. HorrorNews reviewer Anton Cancre (a delightfully outre name, don’t you think? Although I’m in no position to dissect outre names!) appreciated the realism of Damon’s post apocalyptic plight (which is heartening to read as I invested a lot of the story into getting that part right) but wasn’t so convinced about the ending.

Most intriguingly, the reviewer found the magical conflagration at the heart of the novella as an allegory for a nuclear holocaust to be a bit insulting. This came out of left field. I was fascinated as I do, in fact, mention the word ‘nuclear’ twice (once as a simile describing the force of the fire as it consumes the protagonist’s home, and once from supporting character Bill – a man in his fifties or sixties – recounting the nuclear winter hysteria he suffered through as a child in the cold war). In comparison, the word ‘fire’ appears 111 times, ‘burn’ 34 times, ‘flame’ 31 times, ‘blaze’ 7 times, ‘inferno’ 3 times, and ‘conflagration’ twice.

However, despite the similarities, I had no intention of comparing my magical conflagration (i.e. an intelligent, super-Bushfire) to a nuclear holocaust.

I’m wondering whether the nuclear aspect comes through strongly (and perhaps insultingly, going by the reviewer’s reaction) for American readers who have lived with the threat of a nuclear holocaust for many years? Death by nuclear weapon isn’t much on my radar as a writer or a person simply because I live in Australia – it’s kind of an abstract threat these days, particularly when more immediate dangers are present.

For me, an immediate danger is a bushfire. I’ve been exorcising this threat in my work for a number of years. Phoenix and the Darkness of Wolves and my short story “Stealing Fire” (a revenge fantasy where a man who loses his family is able to strike back at the elemental essence of fire through sheer force of will) are the most notable published examples, although I’ve written a story entitled “In the Absence of Heroes”, which is too personal to publish.

Bushfires are on my mind as a writer because my family has a long, dark history with fire. My uncle was a volunteer firefighter who died in 1980 when his firetruck was overrun by flames on the Uloola track near Waterfall in the Royal National Park, south of Sydney. Coincidentally, I reference his death in that fire in my latest short story “The Abandonment of Grace and Everything After”. I’ve attended several NSW Rural Fire Service memorials, and when my grandmother was still alive, for many years, I accompanied her on an annual trek to the place where Uncle Bill died. It’s quiet and lonely out there on the Uloola track, but it’s beautiful, too. Whenever I visited that memorial, the occasion had a palpable, sombre weight to it, like I was in the company of ghosts but couldn’t quite see them.

My mother and step-father have served in the Rural Fire Service for many years, too. Mum was a trainer until cancer prevented her from continuing on in the role.  My cousin Shannon (Uncle Bill’s son, who was 1 year old when his father died in the fire) served in the Rural Fire Service for a number of years, too. My father-in-law was the local fire captain in his town in Tasmania, and from all accounts, only a lucky wind change saved his life one day during a particularly fierce blaze that swept up the mountain towards him and his mates.

I’ve lived through a number of bushfires (our house was on the southern fringe of Sydney, close to the Royal National Park) and the times when the smoke choked the sky and the sun burnt a hazy orange are amongst my strongest memories as a child.

Fire is in the blood for me, and for many Australians, I think. Americans may read Phoenix with overtones of nuclear holocaust, but I think many Aussies will be able to connect to the story on the level I had intended. Except for residents of Japan, nuclear war is a hypothetical threat. It is like the boogeyman. It’s scary but few believe it will actually affect them in the real world. Bushfires, on the other hand, are like personal armageddons for those who have survived them or had their lives affected in some way. They’re a constant threat and even living in a city like Sydney, Canberra, or Melbourne does not make one immune from their reach. Aussies understand fire, heat, and the pain these things bring.

This threat, this pain, is what Phoenix and the Darkness of Wolves is really about.