What a lovely gem of a novella: dark and menacing, it’s definitely not to be read alone late at night that’s for sure! Set in a brooding countryside valley known as ‘the Sink’, bordering a state forest, the story opens with our narrator, Maurice Stubbs, looking back on the events of a year ago. Before this, he sees his neighbour Jacob “drunk as a mongrel” and shares with us the strange way in which he sees the dreams of the other characters – Ida, his wife, and Ronnie, a heavily pregnant girl who lives across the valley alone after her boyfriend leaves her.
The opening chapter, his introduction to the story, finishes thus:
He’ll [Jacob] be sober enough to start drinking again by now. Since the day we dug a grave and drove to the hospital, the day we sat together like friends and drank half a case of Japanese scotch and talked and talked it all out, we haven’t said a word to one another. It’s a year.
The four characters rarely had much to do with each other until a series of strange attacks on their livestock begin to occur. Both Jacob and Ronnie are city or town folk, whereas Ida and Maurice are country people. Jacob sees a shadow in his fields, but thinks he imagined it. He soon comes into the life of Ronnie who drops acid after her boyfriend leaves and wanders around the valley tripping. Meanwhile, Maurice and Ida’s dog is cut in half by something and only the head remains. Maurice trudges the garden trying to find a trace of the creature and finds a large cat’s paw-print. Drawn together by more livestock loses on Ronnie’s farm, the four of them plan their response.
Is it a feral cat? Or a larger cat escaped from an overturned circus truck that Ida recalls driving passed many years earlier? Or is it someone playing a cruel joke on them? Is it a strange form of karmic revenge for the actions of Maurice as a boy, committed after his brother was blinded by the woman who lived in the house that Jacob now owns?
History. Yes, that was when history started in on me. The day after the dog was taken, the day Jacob found Ronnie half-crazed down by the river. If only we hadn’t had so many things to hide, so many opportunities for fear to get to us. You can keep it all firm and tidy 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.
Very quickly, things in the valley begin to unravel. Whilst the men go hunting one night, the women stay at home and get drunk. Ronnie is very nearly shot by Jacob soon thereafter as she wanders drunk on his property one night. He misses her but hits the umbrella she holds against the rain.
The fear begins to eat away at them and ultimately gives rise to a horrifying event, something that the men are still waiting for a verdict on one year later.
Written back in 1988, in typical Winton prose, poetic and sparse, and as alive as the menacing thing in the winter dark, this is a chilling, spine-tingling story. It offers a glimpse of what Winton is capable of as a story-teller on the odd occasion he leaves his signature, saurian-laced coastal tales.
I’ll never go walking at night again!
In The Winter Dark by Tim Winton
Source: The Local Library.