Wish We Could Fear the Tropics Again

Is it impossible to fear nature anymore?

My original plan was to write about “environmental gothic” or “ecogothic.” While reading Sharlene Teo’s debut novel Ponti and Janette Turner Hospital’s Oyster, the term gothic loomed like the cloudy backdrop of an ominous movie, in that shapeless way. In Teo’s novel, claustrophobic tropical rainforests with unearthly creatures and a shady history are summoned at the urban center of Singapore. In one of the Australian writer’s most successful novels, the terrifying openness and relentless heat of the outback draw out the humans’ most heinous dimension. Both novels are an odd mixture of mundane daily lives, such as taking a bus to school or making a casserole, and mysterious happenings including the myth of gut-ripping spirit or desert cult. Though there is no overt blood-spilling, both novels have a dark and macabre undertone with the deep foliage of the rainforest and the sizzling outback sun unhinging the people’s minds. At first, Ponti and Oyster seemed like perfect gothic stories with a natural space in place of a castle or rotting mansion. So, I started researching “fear,” “nature,” and “gothic.” And very soon, the term ecogothic popped up.    

I didn’t expect to find, though, so many definitions of ecogothic. No one was certain what ecogothic was or what it did. Is it a sentiment that humans feel such as phobia? Is it a literary genre? Mode? Style? Is it about monster-like trees and bears or natural disasters like tsunamis? Or perhaps the unruly wilderness that humans can’t conquer? How is it different from ecohorror, if at all? The discussion went on and on.

And apparently the most fundamental question: why do we need ecogothic? Perhaps this must be asked, since environmental literature usually has a visible commitment or purpose to make humans less myopic and more respectful toward the nonhuman world. So the idea goes that in ecogothic, a mysterious and fearful nature can potentially make us realize our own insignificance as a species. The nature’s unfathomable power will shock us into being more reverential. I thought of the first time I stepped into a dense forest in Indonesia. The branches blocked the sun, making the forest dark even at 1PM. There was no established walking path. The shady cavities between the trees seemed to be sucking me in, sort of liquifying my body into nothing. I thought of how on the return flight my mind was still transfixed by those cavities. I thought of how they stayed with me, prompting me to look for forest protection nonprofits for the first time.  

However, when it came to the two novels, the nature’s moral power wasn’t so clear cut. In terms of pushing readers toward reverence, Ponti and Oyster seemed very distracted. Before the shocks of the grisly affairs—monstrous creatures in the rainforest, the slave labor and rape inside a desert mine—sank in, the novels would jump to curiously long and detailed descriptions that dissipated the suspense. Ponti would drift into a disgruntled teenager’s complaint about the pore-widening humidity that explodes oil on her T-zone. Oyster was strangely preoccupied with the pungent smell of a spice jar. Are these two novels, then, failures? Are the rainforest and desert outback mere backgrounds?      

Well, neither view seemed right. Though I didn’t exactly close these books in reverence, my senses were so stimulated with the presence of those natural places, triggered by moments like these:

A mangrove swamp slurped every other corner of her neighborhood. There was no way to escape it, […] The roots of the mangroves poked out of the water like turnip stalks or witchy fingers.

Sharlene Teo, Ponti
Oyster by Janette Turner Hospital

If rain had come, things might have turned out differently, […] perhaps the worst thing, was a sort of mephitic fog, moistureless and invisible, that came and went like an exhalation of the arid earth itself.

Janette Turner Hospital, Oyster

I was slowing my breath imagining the thick mangroves closing in. I imagined my skin cracking with the parched outback air. Descriptions like these abound Ponti and Oyster, so much so that the plots seemed to disintegrate, let alone drive a moral.

After a winding exploration, I dropped the research on ecogothic. I decided to simply follow the encounters with natural spaces, full and raw on the body.

I dropped the research on ecogothic. I decided to simply follow the encounters with natural spaces, full and raw on the body.

Besides their hot climates, Ponti and Oyster barely have anything in common. Unlike Teo who started her novelist career with Ponti, Hospital was already an established writer in Australia and beyond when Oyster came out. Likewise far apart are the lives and sentiments of the characters. Ponti is about two plain Catholic school teenagers and one of the girls’ beautiful but emotionally cruel mother, a one-time B-horror film actress. And they are uniformly bored in their “hot, horrible” island. On the other hand, there isn’t a drop of languid moisture in Oyster’s suffocating silence. The brutal sunlight mixes with the awful stench of decomposing animals, “the Old Fuckatoo,” threatening sanity. Sizzling beneath the dusty calm is the greed for opal and a horrific drama of religious fanaticism that explodes into an apocalyptic fire. Yet the two vastly different novels shared a kind of desire—to look, smell, and touch natural places with all their terror and mystique.  

Tropical rainforest in Southeast Asia was, and still is to an extent, a place of excess. Excess humidity, excess vegetation, excess historical violence. Naturally, the tropical forest has been a steady presence in local folklores, postcolonial fictions, and popular films. Thriving flora and fauna, thick air that is almost visible, and muddy river are the sources of ever-pulsating life and unending death. The shadows of tropical trees provide covers for runaway plantation workers as the swamp swallows their pursuers. But the same swamp also hoards the bodies of the powerless. Those who perished unjustly linger in the scenes of the crime. They absorb the forest’s energy and terrorize the living or seek bloody revenge on the perpetrators.

A still from the horror film Roh (2019), set in Malaysian rainforest.
A still from the horror film Roh (2019), set in a Malaysian rainforest
(image source: Aljazeera)
An illustration of orang minyak (image source: Superpower Wiki)

Evoking the “witchy fingers” of the mangrove swamp, Ponti nods at the haunting legacy of the tropical forest. Lurking in the hot, sinister swamp is the orang minyak (“oily man”), the black grease-covered monster that sexually preys on young women at night. And then there is the dreaded pontianak (or kuntilanak), the enraged and vengeful female ghost, which inspired the novel’s title Ponti. Pontianak figures as a young woman who died of childbirth or a victim of patriarchal murder for being infertile. The shade of banana trees is both her cover and ambush spot. Half-concealed in the faint, moist air, she disguises as a beautiful young woman and lures unsuspecting men. She rips her victims’ guts out and feasts on their organs. It is as difficult to see through one’s lovely bride as through the dense tropical foliage—will her smooth fingers gently stroke my stomach or claw it open? The physical violence a pontianak wreaks is surely gruesome, but it is her ambiguity that makes her truly terrifying.

Film Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam 2 (2005) (image source: IMDB)

If pontianak is viscerally horrific, why are the three women in Ponti perpetually drawn to her? Well, it is because she is so visceral, practically the only visceral thing in their dull lives. In the urban center of contemporary Singapore, long gone are the mystique of the rainforest and sensational / sensuous violence that pontianak personifies. To Szu and Circe, everything is “overfamiliar,” from the radio announcement on the bus to school to the skyscrapers that all look the same. Their days go by, dabbing fingers at the foods in the fridge and jealously admiring the pore-free skins of Japanese girls. Szu and Circe long for some mystery, something stimulating. And pontianak, with her morbid glamour, gives the girls just that.

Szu’s mother Amisa, a haughtily beautiful and taciturn woman who stays locked in her room, is a pontianak incarnate to Szu and Circe. Appropriately, Amisa came from a kampong surrounded by “slurp[ing]” mangroves. Like a witchy spirit, she used to roam alone in those mangroves and make love with whomever she wanted. Her otherworldly beauty disconcerts even her parents and leaves others “slightly sick.” Her working on not-so-glamourous jobs—skinning shrimps in a city fish market in rubber boots, scrubbing the shit-spattered toilets in a cheap movie theater—highlights, then tarnishes, her enigmatic allure. In fact, the abject sensuousness of her jobs, pungent and slippery, seems to become Amisa. In all likelihood, when an ambitious, self-proclaimed auteur offers her the leading role of the pontianak in his new horror films, she could be that entrancing presence in the dark.

Yet on Amisa’s first day of shooting, she is declared, albeit unfairly by the tyrant director, “hopeless.” Stripped of her cryptic charms, she stands exposed to the entire filming crew’s reproachful stare. The monster makeup is caked on her face, making her look more like a tacky “papier- mâché” than a bewitching apparition. The blood smeared on her white dress is “slightly too pink to be fully convincing.” The filming locale appears quite authentic with wet rice paddy and hanging tropical leaves in the pale moonlight—only if the lighting wasn’t too sharp to flatten out the layered shades of the trees.

Circe seems to be the only one who is truly under the spell of “spectacular, spectral” Amisa. On their first meeting, by then painfully ill and thin Amisa makes Circe “gawk” with her “ghostly” beauty and regality as if she’s “an exquisitely etched stencil.” Circe, discontent with her nondescript and affluent urban life, is electrified by somber Amisa and her run-down bungalow that appears to be the perfect abode for this ghostly heroine.

It’s as if the bungalow has replaced the mangrove swamp as the mysterious backdrop, a far remove from “the tidy familiarity” of Circe’s modern apartment:

The house was crawling with large red ants. The walls bore long, snaking cracks, half the paint peeled off in jagged archipelagos. […]

Its dirty windows and closed doors appear in my dreams from time to time. I felt glad to return to the tidy familiarity of my own home, and yet I wanted to go back to Szu’s. I looked forward to revisiting the off-white building at the end of leafy driveways, containing its beautiful discontent. […] The melt-down candles, the orange lamps, the palettes of fine pink powder that I assumed Amisa applied to her smooth, ghostly skin.

Giving itself away to ants and “archipelag[ic]” cracks, Amisa’s house threatens to return to a “natural” state. The house’s decrepit look deliciously haunts Circe’s “dreams”—a “ghostly” goddess putting on “pink powder” in her dim chamber filled with the once-vivid ornaments. In Circe’s sluggish life, nothing could be more appealing.

Unfortunately, Amisa’s sepulchral appeal does not last long. She dies undramatically after a long illness that slowly consumes her. She never makes it big in the film industry. Her commanding beauty perishes, achieving not much more than briefly enchanting a nondescript and timid husband who runs away. Amisa fails to leave lasting marks even on Circe, who moves on with her tedious life working as a “social media manager.” “I always refused to watch the films,” says Circe of Amisa’s films, when she gets to think of Amisa by pure chance. For a long time, Circe couldn’t afford to let the actual footage break Amisa’ spell on her. If that spell’s gone, how is she supposed to manage yet another dreary day? And Circe was right to avoid watching. In the footage, Amisa looks heartachingly youthful and “so happy.” Far from a shrouded monster with lethal charms, Amisa is just a vulnerable, aspiring young woman who invites homey sympathy.

In Ponti’s hot, asphalt city, there is no magic left. The sumptuous rainforest now exists only in Amisa’s childhood memories, who herself exists only in Szu and Circe’s memories just barely. There is always some sort of development project going on, not very different from the previous one, consuming what’s left of the forest. The banal life, with all natural mystiques lost, can make people sadly pathetic. Circe, for instance, conjures up a ridiculous kind of stimulation. She imagines the tapeworm in her guts “travel around my body, take a gander, have a look-see,” which makes her feel “exquisite and almost sexy about how alone I am with this knowledge.” Life was hot and horrible twenty years ago. It is still hot and horrible, only more lackluster and pitiful.

The banal life, with all natural mystiques lost, can make people sadly pathetic.

“A great Singaporean novel” that “best evokes ‘spirit of a place,’” one review said of Ponti. And in capturing the city’s flat, glossy spirit, Ponti excelled. Take, for one, Gardens by the Bay, a cosmetic botanical garden-cum-theme park. Instead of obscure mangroves, there is vivid, non-indigenous tropical flora carefully juxtaposed against the sculpture-like columns. The paths are brightly lit and dressed in stones with a natural-looking finish. The sheen of the immaculate glass dome has rubbed off the messy shadows of vegetation. There is no depth because everything is out in the open. In here, you can never get lost.

When it comes to the lost natural mystique, the Australian outback doesn’t seem to do much better. Coober Pedy in Southern Australia, an opal mining town that inspired Outer Maroo in Oyster, is now “the opal capital of the world,” attracting about 150,000 opal fossicking tourists every year. The town has frontierish charms for adventure-seeking visitors. Besides open mines, there are characteristic underground facilities from café to church where visitors can enjoy exotic isolation in modern comfort. The town is fully equipped with cool underground airbnbs, spicy attractions like an old mine shaft turned into a museum, cave-dwelling made by an eccentric former crocodile hunter, and of course, the opal “noodling” area which is open to all (according to the Coober Pedy website, the word “noodling” allegedly came from “wet noodle” meant to chaff a man who is not manly enough to go down the mine for opals). The desert sublime of Coober Pedy is exciting rather than intimidating. It provides just the right mood for an immersive outback experience that is challenging enough to boost adrenaline but perfectly safe.

I don’t know if Coober Pedy was less beaten-down when Hospital visited to research the novel. What is clear, however, is that Hospital was determined to restore the outback’s silent pull before comfy tourism. Reviving the uncompromised touch of the desert was crucial for her novel. While Hospital had some childhood memories of the Queensland outback, she decided to spend many weeks in the isolated opal mining towns in South Australia and Queensland to fully expose her body to the arid atmosphere. Even after she moved to the US, she made frequent trips to the Queensland outback to keep their intense “sensory memories” alive. And her memories crystalize in the fictional outback town Outer Maroo, in their most sensuous possible form.

(left, right) “A Changing Vision Of The Bush” by Wenthworth Gallery featuring Artist Russell Drysdale’s desert painting series; Sturt’s Stony Desert, Queensland, Australia (image sources: Wentworth Gallery Instagram, photo by Arthur Chapman on Flickr)

Desert turns everything into nothing, turns human body into “the dust of which it is composed.” The fear of desert is the fear of non-order. Outer Maroo, which officially does not exist on the map, is a manifestation of non-order. The town sits in the middle of nowhere, over 100 kilometers away from the nearest city of Brisbane. Very few people come in and even fewer get out. In fact, only three people survive to tell the story where everything turned literally into dust. A week before the novel begins, a devastating explosion happened in the underground opal mine where Oyster’s young followers cum slave laborers lived, annihilating all signs of the living. The cult drama must have made a compelling story in itself, reminding many of the horrific mass death of the Heaven’s Gate or Jonestown cult groups.

Magnetic and gripping though he is, Oyster doesn’t enter till more than half-way through the novel. Instead, what fills the pages is the texture of the arid outback fog:

There is always a fine rufous mist in the air … no, not mist, moisture being one of the many absences, but the air nevertheless has the appearance of mist, the particles of red earth lifting themselves in thermal updraughts, drifting, wisping about like rust, floating down again, coating saltbush and gidgee, coating the mind so that ridges of thought become visible, showing up like welts or like maps drawn with a finger on a dusty ledge.  

Nothing looks clear, besides the vague outline of one’s body and thoughts with all their ugly “welts.” The shadiest corner of the mind constantly threatens to surface. For the residents of Outer Maroo, spiritual elevation in the open desert is an outsider’s luxury or simply a non-idea. For them, desert means daily struggles to stay sane in the hot, rufous fog, to avoid facing the worst of oneself. The residents would hang on to anything, if it can distract them from their dust-beaten minds—protecting the town’s religious and moral purity (nothing but the Bible for girls), keeping the town off the map to avoid taxes, and scaring away the unwelcomed outsiders. To keep the status quo, the residents are willing to kill, whether that’s their daughters’ chance to go to city schools or an impudent woman. For calling out the obsessive, dusty mind of Outer Maroo, Susannah Rover, a sharp-tonged teacher imported from Brisbane, is beaten and thrown to feral pigs.

Australian black opal (image source: photo by Dave Ault on Flickr)

With Oyster’s timely pull, the Outer Maroo’s thinning thread of sanity finally snaps. Armed with the sinister charisma of an unhinged prophet like David Koresh, Oyster is the mastermind behind the greed, fanaticism, lust, and mass death in Outer Maroo. No one knows his origin, past, or real name, as if he has just emerged from the scorched end of the desert. For the Outer Maroo residents who were shriveling under the “doldrum stretch of baked heat,” Oyster’s first appearance is a lurid shock. He is clad in violent white from head to toe, eyes unnaturally pale blue, with crimson blood smeared over his leg. And as much as his physical seduction, his sermon of the coming Armageddon is arresting albeit deranged. Yet, what really comes through to the thirsty residents is Oyster’s tactile and slurpy temptation. At the end of his sermon, Oyster slowly opens up his palm to reveal precious black opals. For the residents, the opals are the most concrete distraction from the “mephitic” haze of Old Fuckatoo that never goes away.

It was “2.23” in the afternoon when Oyster first stepped into the town bar, remembers Jess, known as “Old Silence” to the town residents. The hottest and the most stupefying hour of day when the air is like a “thick scorched sandpaper,” making “vaporous plume” out of a beer drop. Jess is one of the few survivors and reporters who try to retrace what happened in Outer Maroo. A former government cartographer of the state of Queensland, Jess’s mode of recording is naturally “mapmaking.” She follows and connects each dot of the Outer Maroo’s tragedy, hoping that a legible order will surface. But this is a discreet pursuit, since any sort of recording in Outer Maroo is dangerous. Making things overt is reckless, even lethal. And Jess knows this too well: “Susannah [Rover] kept hearing stories and she could not resist setting to work, snip snip snip, with her scissoring mind. […] they’ve got very good power of suction, Pete, oysters have. Oyster would ha’ made an uncommon fine oyster himself if he’d been born in that station o’ life.”    

But Jess is not doing that well mapping the truth out. “I should stop myself from remembering this sort of things out of sequence, because it skews things,” she admits. Despite her determination, Jess is lost even from the start. She attempts to start when the foreigners arrived a week ago to look for their disappeared children who joined Oyster’s cult. “The beginning of the end,” puts Jess solemnly. This assertive moment is but brief, though. “Beginnings and endings have always puzzled me. How can we tell one from the other, since they so inevitably swallow their own tails, their own tales?” The ex-cartographer is not naïve enough to believe that maps have an illuminating power. Maps are rather “magic systems” with “hocus-pocus of precision instruments and of time.” What good are they, then, in the outback where visual markers are none and time is stalled at eternal present? “I don’t know, I don’t know.” Jess tries “Two Weeks Ago,” “This Week,” and even “two years ago.” And the only thing that comes out of this experiment is hazy confusion.

Unlike Jess, sixteen-year-old Mercy Given, born and raised in Outer Maroo, instinctively knows that precision is useless here. Naïve but perceptive, Mercy relies on her senses to record things. She takes “messages as they come.” Because anything might prove important, she pays full attention to whatever that touches her. Now, she looks at a stranger who has walked into the shop: “Rivulets of sweat trickle from his hair and leave route maps in the dust on his face. […] When he lifts his arm, a gust of something like sweet flyblown fruit reaches Mercy and she swallows quickly and rests her hand on the spice jars behind her and concentrates on cinnamon sticks and thyme.” Mercy’s mind is an overflowing archive of sensory memories. Even Mercy herself can’t handle such abundance—it makes her “dizzy.”

Still, the richness of the sensory archive seduces Mercy. She even makes a physical equivalent in an abandoned opal mine called Aladdin’s Rush. The “forbidden books” (since they are not the Bible) of her teacher Miss Rover are tucked away in the dark tunnel. In her secret wonderland, Mercy learns new words to read Outer Maroo: “faith,” “power,” “noodling,” “opal,” “oyster,” “sensual.” With “faith” and “power,” she detects the burning tension in the town church between her faithful father and a pseudo-faithful Dukke Prophet who colludes with Oyster for the opal profit. With “sensual,” she sees a hint of life in the plump lips of a stranger: “His lips are not like the thin hard lips of men in Outer Maroo, but full and soft.”

But something about Outer Maroo, perhaps the same fogginess that confounds Jess, does not let Mercy navigate easily. Mercy decides to look for her brother Brian who joined Oyster’s cult and lost contact with the family. Out of desperation to find Brian, Mercy follows Oyster to his Reef, a furbished opal mine shaft. He rapes her there, before it blows up for an unknown cause. The illusion of spiritual salvation or a distraction from the maddening outback life shatters. Everything (re)turns to the original dust, Mercy’s archive included.

Oyster starts and ends at this ground zero. As if the desert’s dire pull, or whatever one may call it, doesn’t want to be understood. The desert resists mapping. Mercy learns this after the nightmare at Oyster’s Reef. And finally, she decides to leave the outback for the first and hopefully the last time:

And Mercy imagines Brisbane, the golden city. She imagines the great river with water in it. She thinks of grass, ferns, trees, ocean, sand. She imagines herself running into the ocean as into the world. She will let the world crest and froth about her.

She is driving back on to the map. She imagines that some qualitative change will occur. Perhaps the light will be different. Perhaps the pull of gravity will shift.

The Warrego Highway stretches ahead, and in the distance, always floating, beckoning, shifting, sometimes upside down, sometimes not, the golden city shimmers in the heat.

The desert resists mapping.

The “golden city” stands clear “on the map,” “beckoning” Mercy. Though thirsty for rejuvenation as much as Mercy, we don’t get to see her reaching Brisbane. The novel ends with Mercy still coursing through the outback toward the faint shimmer. Maybe she will touch the ocean—if the outback ever lets her go.

What should we make of the stories about a hot, boring concrete city or a graphic desert cultism which doesn’t even make the central plot? Ponti and Oyster have confused and frustrated many reviewers for their apparent pointlessness. Some couldn’t see why one needs near 300 pages of apathetic non-happenings. Others complained about the lack of “the anticipated shocks or revelation” from an absorbing cult mystery. If one expects a thrilling, chilling drama of tropical supernatural or an anatomy of the cult psyche, one will surely be disappointed.

Ponti and Oyster are about the lack of this emotional drama. They are not about fear itself, but rather the loss of fear. And in a tropical rainforest or desert that used to make us shudder, such void can’t be hollower. Without the chilling vibrations that nature used to provide, human lives are insipid. As the two novels show, this insipidity itself can be terrifying.

Ponti and Oyster want us to restore the nature’s grip on us. They want us to imagine again those disquieting natural bodies. They want us, before we notice, to find ourselves walking into those bodies’ grasp.

Work Cited

Atlas Obscura. “Crocodile Harry’s Underground Nest & Dugout – Coober Pedy.” Atlas Obscura, 2 Jun 2014, https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/crocodile-harry-s-underground-nest-dugout.

Bliss, Carolyn. “Review of Oyster.” World Literature Today, vol. 71, no. 4, 1997, pp. 861–861. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/40153485.

Coober Pedy SA. https://www.cooberpedy.com/.

“David Koresh.” Wikipedia, Accessed 24 April 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Koresh.

Greiner, Donald J. “The ‘God Itch’: An Interview with Janette Turner Hospital.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction vol. 48, no. 4, Jul 2007, pp. 331–43.

Hospital, Janette Turner. Oyster. Knopf, 1996.

Teo, Sharlene, Ponti, Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Milne, Rosie. “Ponti is a great Singaporean novel – compelling, evocative coming-of-age tale and portrait of a nation.” South China Morning Post, 9 Apr 2018, https://www.scmp.com/culture/books/article/2140522/ponti-great-singaporean-novel-compelling-evocative-coming-age-tale-and.

Monk, Nicholas. “Desert Gothic: Cormac McCarthy, Paul Bowles, and Don Waters.” The Cormac McCarthy Journal, vol. 17, no. 2, 2019, pp. 171–86. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.5325/cormmccaj.17.2.0171.

Cover images credit: (left, right) photo by Cristian Grecu on Unsplash, photo by Jeff Finley on Unsplash

Leave a Reply