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WORK IN PROGRESS

A fairy-tale infused historical novel for adults set in the late 18 th century, moving between Imperial China and France during the ‘Terror’ of the French Revolution, and inspired by the true story of a quest for a blood-red rose.

The novel will draw upon ‘The Blue Rose,’ a fairy tale set in China about a quest for an impossible rose.

Kim Wilkins

The first time I met Kim Wilkins, I told her she looked like the evil queen in my book.

She laughed and took it as a compliment which, indeed, it was. My evil queen – who has blue eyes and a black bob just like Kim - ensorcels people with her beauty and charm. Of course, not having read my novel Kim had no way of knowing I meant it as a compliment.

It was a hot oppressive evening in Melbourne, and we were shouting above a noisy crowd while waiting for the announcement of the 1997 Aurealis Awards for Speculative Fiction. My first book Dragonclaw and Wilkins' first book The Infernal had both been short-listed for the fantasy award.

The Aurealis Awards are the only prizes in Australia for fantastic fiction. Writers in this genre are often ignored – or even worse, sneered at – by the literati in Australia, so there are few critical accolades for those writers who roam outside the boundaries of the known and the acceptable. This is a polite way of saying that anyone shortlisted for an Aurealis wants it bad.

Kim's book not only won the fantasy award that night, but walked away with the prize for horror as well. To add insult to injury she was looking absolutely gorgeous in velvet and a starry tiara while I was barely able to waddle, being eight months pregnant and, to put it politely, feeling the heat.

So I tell her she looks like an evil queen and she gets the prize – not a very propitious start for a new friendship, you may think. Yet our friendship continues to flourish, even though we live in different cities and only get to meet once a year if we're lucky - and despite hectic lives that have seen us produce a total of eighteen books and four children between us.

When we do meet, usually at a literary festival or fan con, we sit up half the night, drinking red wine and talking about Blake, the Brontë sisters, the nature of angels, the importance of crisis and resolution in narrative, and our shared passion for velvet and faux fur.

Most recently we met at the Popular Writers' Festival at the NSW Writers' Centre in Sydney. We were both on a lively and impassioned panel discussing the use of myth and magic in our work. For although Kim and I write very different types of books, we are both dipping our ladle into the same well of ideas, a well that has been drilled down into the sunless sea of myth and history and fairytale. I write what is usually called fantasy, and Kim writes what is usually called horror – though a more accurate term would be supernatural thrillers or, as Kim likes to say, "gothic bodice-rippers."

"I'm still waiting for someone to describe my work as Stephen King collaborating with the Brontë sisters," she says wryly.

One could say horror is the dark face of fantasy's moon. Or, if you prefer, fantasy's evil twin. Both genres are concerned with probing the nature of good and evil, fate and self-resolution. And both genres share a fascination with all things magical, mysterious and macabre.

I had never read horror before I met Kim. I had even mocked it, not understanding that, like "fantasy", "horror" is a very narrow term for a supple and vibrant genus of imaginative literature. I bought The Infernal that muggy night in Melbourne and began to read it a few weeks later, pacing the floor with early contractions and desperate for distraction. I became so instantly absorbed that I, incredibly, forgot about my coming baby. I emerged hours later, petrified, shaken, exhilarated and without a contraction in sight. The Infernal literally scared them away.

Lisa Sheehan is a singer for a Brisbane underground band whose fans start getting murdered. She is haunted by nightmares which seem frighteningly real. These dreams form the secondary narrative thread of the novel. Set in the seventeenth century, they tell the story of Lady Elizabeth, a widow who arouses powerful satanic forces. Lisa begins to suspect that Elizabeth's life has somehow become horribly entangled with hers.

Many writers use the device of interweaving different historical periods but few manage to bring both so successfully to life. Lisa's voice is natural and lively, and she is very much a child of her age, with a Celtic tattoo, multi-hued hair and a liking for Doc Martens worn with floral slip dresses.

The sections told by Elizabeth are very different. Intelligent and worldly, she chafes against the restrictions of her class and gender, and derives immense pleasure from the sense of power that her dabblings in the arcane bring her. She writes A Treatise Condemning the Subjugation of Women In The Form Of A Dialogue in her spare time, and has a cool aristocratic voice quite different from Lisa's hip style.

Both women and their worlds are vivid and compelling, and the suspense created by the slippage between them is at times almost unbearable. I was enormously impressed, and forgave Kim for beating me to the Aurealis Award - almost.

Reading in her biographical note that Kim had been bass player for the 'ill-fated noise band The Vampigs' and was married to a musician, I thought 'well, that explains why Lisa seemed so real!'

Yet how to explain the vibrancy and persuasiveness of each successive book, when each as been so very different?

Holly, the heroine of Kim's second book Grimoire, is a postgraduate student of Victorian literature who becomes romantically entangled with the ghost of a magician's apprentice. Well, Kim has an honours degree in literature, a masters degree in writing, and is currently working on her doctorate so that explains the veracity of the lives of her university students.

Yet what about Maisie, the protagonist of The Resurrectionists? She is the unhappy, neurotic daughter of a brilliant concert pianist and a internationally renowned conductor who slowly comes to realise she has inherited her mysterious grandmother's psychic powers – and must face the dark powers that killed her. Kim's parents are certainly not wealthy musicians and as far as I know her grandmother was not murdered by resurrectionists' wraiths.

'I went out on a bit of a limb with (Maisie), I feel, because she's a spoilt middle-class girl with a very self-indulgent case of melancholia,' Kim has written. She goes on to say that Maisie is 'actually the character most like me of all the characters I've written. Except I'm not from a privileged background. But I'm definitely given to fits of melancholia and it's very self-indulgent, really.'

The Resurrectionists remains Kim's favourite book. 'I think it's because it's my favourite premise for any book or any movie: a young woman goes to live in a creepy village at a haunted house, and finds mystery, desire, and strange powers.'

'But (it) might have some competition soon from the book I'm writing now called The Snow Witch which is a grand Russian saga of magic and storytelling, with a firebrand of a female character at the centre of it all.'

Sophie, the heroine of Kim's fourth book Angel of Ruin, is a freelance journalist who becomes dangerously fascinated with an old woman's story about the three daughters of Milton and the fallen angel of his great poem. Moving back and forth between the London of today and the time of the plague and the Great Fire of London, Angel of Ruin casts a spell on the reader – in more ways than one.

I loved every single one of these books. They are clever, sexy, witty, and very, very creepy. All of them have the power to chill your spine and make your skin crawl, which is why Horror World has called Kim "without doubt the most exciting writer of supernatural fiction working today".

With her two most recent books for adults, Kim has steered her craft in a new direction. Published as a triptych under the title 'The Europa Suite', The Autumn Castle, Giants of the Frost and the forthcoming The Snow Witch are all inspired by Northern European folk and fairy tales.

I have always loved books which draw upon fairytales. Imbued with the gorgeous and the grotesque, they have the power to speak to us of our own fears and desires through the medium of metaphor and symbol. It is no coincidence that so many psychological complexes have been named after fairy tales.

I have a particular warm spot for The Autumn Castle, which contrasts the grey, crumbling world of modern-day Berlin with a magical land called Ewigkreis where a queen called Mayfridh – stolen from our world as a child – reigns with the help of a shape-shifting wolf and a grisly old witch called Hexebart who is kept locked down a well. I am not alone in relishing this particular creation – Kim has a rabid fan club, based in London, called Hexebart's Well.

The Autumn Castle is much more romantic than some of Kim's earlier works, though Hexebart and a cruel faery hunter called Immanuel Zweigler keep its edges whetted - and Kim is always aware of the price that must be paid for the consolation of a happy ending. It is this romantic element, as well as the fairytale quality, which makes The Autumn Castle my all-time favourite of Kim's books.

I have another, more personal, reason for loving this book. On page 361, Kim has quoted three lines of my poem 'Autumn' as a preface to Part III, putting me in the same glorious company as the Brothers Grimm, Percy Bysshe Shelley and E.T.A. Hoffman. There is no greater compliment to give a poet and shows, I feel, great discernment. (Imagine a smiley face here.)
With her latest book, Giants of The Frost, Kim has continued with a softer, more fantastical feel. 'I think that I was just ready to change gears and do something that was more sophisticated and subtle,' she says. 'It probably comes from growing a little older. I find that I just don't have the stomach for violence anymore, especially since becoming a mother. I want to spend as much time writing about what is beautiful as well as what is strange.'

With a compelling love story at its heart, and some of Kim's most lyrical and moving writing, Giants of the Frost definitely fulfills this desire.

'There is something missing from love,' the novel's heroine Victoria says in the opening chapters. 'Love should be stellar and lunar and pull your breath from your body and make your teeth ache and your nerves sing; but I have not felt that.'

Yet.

For Victoria, scientist and hardened sceptic, is about to experience love and fear and desire, the great driving emotions of humankind, and along the way discover the world is far more mysterious place than she could ever have imagined.

Victoria is a fascinating character. With degrees in mathematics and geophysics, she is an insomniac who obsessively calculates the dimensions of the world around her, from every step taken to how many fingers and toes were in the room at one given time: "139 – Carsten was missing the pinky off his left hand (which made) an average number of digits per person (19.857142 recurring)."

Fleeing a failed love affair, Victoria takes a job at a weather station on an remote island in the Norwegian Sea. She finds meteorology utterly compelling, part of her need to obsessively understand and control every aspect of her life. But her work on Othinsey will shake all that up, for Victoria is troubled by a nightmarish sense of déjà vu. Then she meets Vidar, a beautiful and enigmatic man to whom she is instantly and illogically drawn ...

'The ideas for Giants came from reading Old Norse mythology books,' Kim says. 'Odin has a son who's rarely mentioned, but who is very important in the fate of the old gods. I started to think about what would make a good conflict, and decided that if he fell in love with a mortal woman that could really upset everybody's destiny.'

Giants of the Frost was the most challenging of all her books to write, Kim says, and not just because she was writing a novel set in a remote Norwegian weather station while living in a sun-drenched Brisbane flat.

Heavily pregnant during the writing of The Autumn Castle, she had turned in the manuscript only two days before her son Luka was born. 'There's this note in my diary about how glad I was to be able to have some time off before the baby came …(but) he came two weeks early,' she laughs.

'I worked on the research and planning of (Giants of the Frost) while I was breastfeeding in the early weeks. I'd have Luka in one arm, and my notebook on the sofa next to me, scribbling away. I found the two a.m. feed a really creative time! It was also the reason I made the main character Victoria an insomniac. I was so intimately acquainted with the darkest hours of the night.'

As Australia's queen of gothic literature should be.