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In the Winter Dark by Tim Winton

In the Winter Dark (1988)

by Tim Winton

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This book offers the reverse side of the coin to ‘That eye the sky’. There the emphasis is on what rewards come to someone with faith. In this book the focus is on the Henry Warburton type of character, someone who carries his burden of guilt with him throughout life. Warburton always felt guilty about his relationship with Bobo Sachs and now Maurice Stubbs, the narrator, feels oppressed by what he did in his youth when his brother was shot and blinded by the woman whose orchard they were raiding. Now he has to continually confront the fact that he set fire to a cat and consequently to the woman’s house and then killed the woman herself. Being all told in retrospect Stubbs has also to face up to the fact that he shot his wife as well and has caused the miscarriage of Ronnie’s baby by his reckless driving.

So, throughout the book, we have both a heavy, depressing feeling coming from a narrator burdened with guilt (and from the way he describes the weather) and a feeling of tension about what will happen as a result of the savage mangling of the animals.

Stubbs is not the only one to feel the guilt. Murray Jaccob, his neighbour in the ominously named valley ‘The Sink’, has also killed a cat, something he’d rather forget. This time the cat, he believes, has suffocated his baby and this has led to the break-up of his marriage. He, too, is trying to escape his past, retiring to this valley but unable to find peace there. Ronnie sums up the feeling they have when she asks Jaccob, ‘Haven’t you ever done anything bad? . . when you knew you couldn’t help yourself, wouldn’t help yourself? That’s what I do. Do you?’

This leads on to the idea that the menace outside isn’t really outside but in themselves. It’s themselves that they’re not comfortable with. Stubbs thinks that he’d always been waiting for the day when he was going to confront his Nemesis or whatever, but he realised, as did Ronnie, that it’s ‘No use looking out there . . It’s us’.

The style of narration is interesting. Stubbs narrates, but whole passages are told from other characters’ viewpoints as he claims to be living their lives at times or at least knowing them intimately: ‘the dead leave their dreams in the earth where you bury them, only to have them rise to meet you in sleep . . . It’s terrifying to think you can remember things you shouldn’t possibly be able to.’ This is the surrealistic element cropping up again, but this time it’s more a technique of narration than an integral part of the plot as in ‘That Eye’. Making Stubbs call himself Legion, as if he carried many devils and spoke for them all, is an effective analogy, and conjures up appropriate ideas of evil. He also seems to be the victim of his forefathers: ‘My dreams are not symbols, they are history. Even the ones I don’t understand, the ones I don’t even know the characters in, they are all full of the most terrible truths.They settle on me, the guilty running silhouette. Yes, call me Legion for we are many.’ This has echoes of Ida’s “You think we’ve done something? _ _ Like ‘the sins of the fathers’ and everything?” “Ida, I’ve tried to tell you. The answer is yes”.

What is this book about then? It’s about the way you can’t escape the past. Whatever you’ve done will come out. ‘If only we hadn’t so many things to hide, so many opportunities for fear to get us. You can keep it all firm and tidy in you for a time but, Godalmighty, when the continents begin to shift in you, you can’t tell tomorrow from yesterday, you run just like that herd of pigs, over the cliff and into the water.’

There is no redemption in this novel, just some respite at the end as Stubbs waits for people to become aware of what has happened. Even in this respite he’s not comfortable. While Jaccob just gets drunk, Stubbs talks to the dark, confessing: ‘The dark begins to open up like the ear of God and I babble it all out, try to get it straight in mg mind, and listen now and then for a sigh, a whisper, some hint of a solution and comfort on the way’ (which never comes). Even in this respite he's not comfortable. While Jaccob just gets drunk, Stubbs talks to the dark, confessing: ‘The dark begins to open up like the ear of God and I babble it all out, try to get it straight in my mind, and listen now and then for a sigh, a whisper, some hint of absolution and comfort on the way’ (which never comes. Even the love Stubbs had for Ida isn't described positively: ‘We loved each other, but I gather sometimes it's less than enough.’ Mostly relationships are harsh. Ronnie‘s father has apparently beaten her and even when Ronnie and Jaccob feel a liking for each other, they're not able to express it, instead abusing each other. Are the letters ‘that she sends him, those warped, crazy love notes’ that Stubbs burns at the end, Ronnie trying to reestablish contact with Jaccob? It seems possible and, whoever sent them, we feel critical of Stubbs for interfering and burning them. Stubbs says ‘I can't redeem myself’ and I think we have to agree with this. Stubbs hasn’t been that bad a man but he has an unpleasant side to him, one his wife recognizes. He tells Jaccob not to interfere with Ronnie. . .

All the shooting is a disturbing force. Stubbs shooting the fox which ‘shook with pain and didn’t even look at me’ is depressing enough, but then there’s Jaccob shooting at Ronnie, and Stubbs later killing his wife after shooting through the ceiling. And then, for Stubbs, it all started when the woman shot out his brother’s eyes.

The dreams which they all have, and which Stubbs experiences too, are all negative: Ida’s is one where she loses her children. This leads to Stubbs’s ‘She never told me about this fear. Maybe I wouldn’t have listened. You understand yourself late enough to discover you’re the sorriest bastard who ever was.’ Jaccob’s dream is of the cat suffocating his baby girl, while Ronnie has a ‘floating nightmare’.

Why doesn’t Winton ever identify just what the menace is? Partly it’s to maintain the suspense and ominous feeling. The unknown has more fear in it. It’s also, as pointed out earlier, to allow the blame to be pointed inwards since an outside source can’t be identified. The witchcraft people from Bakers Bridge or the escaped cat from a circus are possibilities. Or is it one of the mascots dropped off from American subs – cougars, mountain lions? And the way the sweet honey smelling cast (why is this stressed?) could be a human fist brings us back to human involvement in this destruction.

The fact that Ida’s children are described as conventional but unappealing epitomizes the way every aspect of life is cast in its worst light in the book. The rational, everyday world outside the Sink is kept at bay, partly because the nearest town is such a ‘small, hopeless little place . . . on the wane’ that it seems closer to the Sink than the more balanced world we know and partly because Winton manipulates events so that Jaccob arrives in it looking for help on a Sunday when everything is closed. And then he bumps into Ida who steers him away from the place (after stigmatizing the town with an undrinkable spearmint milkshake), apparently because Maurice wouldn’t want people investigating in the valley - another rather contrived way of isolating the characters.

The main element of the style is Stubbs’s personal account yet his being able to tell everyone’s story. This makes it more intimate and claustrophobic. Then there’s the way his brother’s blinding and what then happened gradually unfolds in snippets throughout the novel - one of the few elements to be clarified. The way it seems to be raining all the time and Stubbs is looking at his gun or bullets adds to the bleakness. When the wind stops blowing, we are told the wind was ‘dead’. This sort of description is bleak. Even Ida’s joke about the pig with the artificial leg is an example of black humour.

So the book offers a nihilistic view of life: Ronnie goes out as ‘That dark thing in the dream, that angry crucified thing was coming at her for every bad thing. Stubbs seems to suggest life is a choice between the rational which is too cold and the hysterical and, as indicated earlier, says finally ‘I can’t redeem myself’. What has he done wrong, though? Setting fire to the cat was bad, but understandable under the circumstances – after all it’s an overreaction to shoot at kids raiding your orchard.

Killing his wife was an accident, and his motives always seem to be fairly reasonable. Perhaps Winton is saying how difficult it is for the average person, someone who hasn’t done much wrong though I see in a letter Winton says of Maurice “Stubbs knows there’s something out there he’s ‘confessing’ to, but he’s not quite contrite enough, he’s too proud to see what Ort might see”. I guess it’s once again Winton’s faith dictating outcomes. ( )
2 vote evening | Jul 16, 2012 |
I haven't read anything by Tim Winton (who comprises one third of the Holy Trinity of Australian writers, alongside Patrick White and Peter Carey) since high school, when I was obliged to force my way through Cloudstreet for English Lit. I suspect I'd like Cloudstreet a lot more now that I'm older and appreciate good literature, but I do still suspect Tim Winton of being similar to Cormac McCarthy - an excellent author, but one whose novels all tend to be pretty much the same.

In The Winter Dark caught my eye because of its horror themes:

Night falls. In a lonely valley called the Sink, four people prepare for a quiet evening. Then in his orchard, Murray Jaccob sees a moving shadow. Across the swamp, his neighbour Ronnie watches her lover leave and feels her baby roll inside her. And on the verandah of the Stubbses' house, a small dog is torn screaming from its leash by something unseen. Nothing will be the same again.

Winton mentions the darkness itself quite a lot throughout the book, including the quote in the epigraph, and I was half-expecting him to pull something metaphysical. He doesn't. As in all good horror literature, the monster is never quite seen or explained, but as huge amounts of livestock are found mangled and mutilated, there is no doubt as to its tangible existence.

Winton does, however, focus more on the characters than anything else; this is a literary novella with horror elements, not vice versa. The climax was somewhat contrived, and while he manages a foreboding note here and there, there aren't many parts in the book that are actually frightening. It's not a bad book at all, but it's not particularly worth seeking out either.

In any case, it did bring me up to 25 books before the mid-point of the year. With luck I may be able to beat 2008's 50-book streak. ( )
  edgeworth | Jul 3, 2011 |
A short, but rather good, novel.

The plot revolves around three households in a valley in Australia where something weird starts happening.

At first its shadows seen out of the corner of the eye and then animals start being killed. But rather than go to the police or the council they try to deal with whatever it is themselves.

The characters get sucked into mutually destructive relationships never quite liking each other and never understanding the motivations of the others, but not able to escape either.

Winton builds to quite a grisly climax but the horror and weirdness never get out of hand in what I thought was a really well written novel. ( )
  andrewkbrown | Jul 17, 2007 |
Chilling. Every sentence is beautifully formed. The only problem was that it was too short. ( )
  DannyMorris | Sep 19, 2006 |
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There is such a thing as the pressure of darkness. Victor Hugo
for Denise and Jesse
and for the Nannup Tiger
wherever you are
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It's dark already and I'm out here again, talking, telling the story to the quiet night.
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Book description
Night falls. In a lonely valley called the Sink, four people prepare for a quiet evening. Then in his orchard, Murray Jaccob sees a moving shadow. Acorss the swamp, his neighbour Ronnie watches her lover leave and feels her baby roll inside her. And on the verandah of the Stubbses' house, a small dog is torn screaming from its leash by something unseen. Nothing will ever be the same again. Winton delivers a truely spine-tingling thriller
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Night after night, Maurice Stubbs, an old farmer, keeps vigil on his verandah. In the darkness of his heart, all he has is remorse and the broken dreaming of the dead. This is the story of the relationships between the residents of the valley and the events which lead to Maurice's situation. A menacing short story from the ever-interesting Australian writer Tim Winton, this is a thrilling venture into dark and macabre territory that focuses on a few people who live in a secluded valley that seems to also be inhabited by a mysterious creature that preys both on their animals and their worst fears..… (more)

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0140274030, 0143204718

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