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Tabula Rasa

The Dreaming

by Queenie Chan, TokyoPop, 2005

A Review by Kyla Lee Ward

The Dreaming, by Queenie Chan
"But let's face it--if the three of us can't outrun an old woman lugging an axe, then perhaps we deserve to be chopped up."

A myth of the old world is mapped onto the new, with terrifying results, in this three volume graphic novel by artist/writer Queenie Chan.

Jeanie and Amber are twins, who have learned to rely on each other in place of their distant parents. Arriving at the prestigious Greenwich Private College, located in the depths of the Australian bush, they are told they have been enrolled as sisters born a year apart and to not reveal the truth. "There are rumours about this school," their Aunt tells them, "And I suppose the Vice Principal believes in some of them." As nightmares follow the discovery of disturbing paintings by a former student, it is revealed that Mrs Skeener does believe the rumours about what twins can awaken within the ancient bush and for a very good reason.

This is a complex narrative combining tropes of gothic horror, a manga aesthetic and indigenous mythology in a way that, while it may not satisfy purists, is both consistent and interesting. On one level, it is yet another story about why bringing a psychic into a haunted house is a bad idea—at least Amber is sufficiently cluey to protest the slumber party séance. But on another, it is concerned with the gothic idea that the crimes of the past stain the future, given a colonial resonance. The Australian setting is introduced subtly yet powerfully, in the discovery of the trees that "weep blood" and history of Ms Anu, gradually revealed to be an indigenous girl who attended Greenwich on a scholarship, returning as a teacher with her own agenda. Even the school's original purpose, as a dumping ground for the unwanted, seems a reflection.

There are many reflections, morphings of arms into branches and hair into water, and repeating motifs of mirrors and moons. But visually, I never found these books confusing. The strong, flowing lines of the artwork create direction within the pages. The use of odd angles and receding perspectives of corridor and grove keeps everything dynamic, as well as suggesting the off-kilter world of the school. Details, of the pattern of wall paper or the ornament of lamps, provide variation without distraction; there is a definite flavour of Art Nouveau as well as of traditional manga.

In her original afterword to the first volume, Chan explains that her inspiration lay in the fate of a former classmate, who vanished while hiking in Tasmania. This is Australia as the vast unknown, that swallows up the unwary with never a trace. Many have drawn on this wellspring, to vastly different results. The Dreaming was released in the same year as the film Wolf Creek (Wr. & Dir. Greg McLean, AFFC et al.) and the differences between the two narratives could not be more marked (incidentally, The Dreaming was optioned by Odins Eye Productions in 2010). In Wolf Creek and its subsequent spin-offs, the danger of the bush is incarnated by a middle-aged white man. The Dreaming utilises an older symbolism, the legendary of the Yalanji indigenous nation.

I grew up with The Quinkins (Percy Trezise, illustrated by Dick Roughsey, Collins, 1978) and for this reason, they shall always haunt the bush for me. This kind of borrowing from an indigenous culture has become increasingly problematic for a non-indigenous author, but I support Chan's decision. As indicated, she consciously and visually maps a European-style fairy tale over the Australian setting. The fairy tale is how the girls, all aliens themselves, make sense of the horror that is engulfing them (in the same way that Jeanie quotes Tolkien and the character Millie, of all things, H. P. Lovecraft). They have no direct access to the Quinkins or to the original perspective that created them. The heroic Ms Anu is aware of them as a tradition of her people, but even she has to wade through the mire of colonialism to rediscover it. The Yalanji knew better than anyone how cruel their home could be and Chan adapts their iconography to suggest what is really out there, not to appropriate it for her own narrative.

The key to both the narrative of The Dreaming and its art is slippage--of form through form, identity through identity and time through time. More recently, Chan has created the Fabled Kingdom and illustrated a series continuing the adventures of Dean R. Koontz's Odd Thomas in comic form. But I still find The Dreaming to be among her most intriguing works. If the conclusion drawn by this tale of female friendship and betrayal is harsh, there is no denying the beauty of the telling or the validity of the emotions involved. "I wasn't wrong," Mrs Skeener says to Jeanie. She may not have been right, but who can say with certainty they would have done any different? Sometimes, even the things you are most sure of can slip irresistibly away…


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