Janette Turner Hospital

The acclaimed Australian author tackles the Waco- style gurus that haunt the late 20th century.

Words: Sue Wilson

After the Waco siege, the Japanese nerve-gas attacks and the comet- hopping suicides in San Diego, charismatic cult leaders are rapidly becoming major bogeymen of late 20th century society.

Leading Australian author Janette Turner Hospital certainly thinks so. Her latest novel Oyster attempts to sound a stark, fearful warning of what she sees as an ominously proliferating danger.

Set in the tiny outback opal-mining town of Outer Maroo, a place so remote that it has (deliberately) eluded all map makers, Oyster evokes a world of fire-and-brimstone fundamentalism, festering secrets and barely-repressed violence. Hostility towards outsiders runs so deep that those who do arrive have a nasty habit of disappearing, leaving no trace beyond whispered, horrific rumours.

Not, however, the eponymous Oyster, a self-appomted DaVid Koresh-style guru who stumbles out of the drought-parched desert, preaching millennial apocalypse and elective rebirth. Meanwhile, he covertly brokers a deal With the local church and business leaders over the more lucrative plans for an opal-mining Commune.

lncreasmgly disturbed by the numbers of starry-eyed acolytes arrivmg in his wake, the townspeople silently avert their eyes to the signs as

’The spiritual void people are sensing these days, combined with global instability, makes them inclined to look for magic solutions.’ Janette Turner Hospital

events at Oyster's Reef build inexorably toward their cataclysmic conclusion.

Far-fetched? Not at all, says Hospital, who researched the book by visiting numerous Outback towns and reading exhaustiver about cults and their leaders.

'The outback is so frighteningly reactionary, in political terms, With this us-and-them siege mentality, and so full of hotbed fundamentalism,’ she says.

'It was when l was Visiting one of these places that I heard about the Waco disaster, and I suddenly realised it was absolutely ripe for something Similar to occur. I think the kind of


Janette Turner Hospital: exposing the late 20th century's major bogeymen

Spiritual void more and more people are sensing these days, combined with global instability, makes them inclined to look for magic solutions.’

The novel brilliantly but harrowingly dramatises the kind of terrifying mind control exerted by figures like Koresh. Hospital admits, though, that the phenomenon remained beyond her comprehension.

’What makes all these intelligent, educated people submit so completely in the first place, that did remain an enigma partly because these charismatic gurus are such enigmas themselves,

’I thought initially that they'd be figures of great moral torment, but the more I read about them the more I came to feel that they were actually psychopaths which makes them kind of like a black hole. There was no moral torment because there were no morals, no feelings, lUSI this nothing at the core.’

Lending the novel much of its compellingly infernal atmOSphere is HOSpital's marvellous evocation of the outback landscape, its awesome primeval vastness offering, paradOXIcally, the only hint of shade from the narratives relentless glare.

’The true Outback is JUSI a mesmerising place,’ says Hospital.


’There you face your ultimate fears of being alone in the universe. You're JUSi this tiny insignificant dot in something that’s millions of years old, and once you face that, somehow you experience this incredible exhilaration and euphoria; you’re just filled with this kind of manic laughter.’

Between Two Worlds (Book Festival) Janette Turner Hospital, Guy Vanderhaeghe and Rory MacLean, ESPC Studio Theatre, Mon 25 Aug 5pm, £4 (£3.50). Oyster is published by Virago at £7.99.


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