John Richards was shortlisted for the Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Award in 2021 and the Glendower Award for an Emerging Queensland Writer in 2022. So his fiction debut has been eagerly anticipated.

The Gorgon Flower, six stories and a novella, published by UQP, doesn’t disappoint. It is both compelling and atmospheric.

Readers drawn to gothic settings and dark supernatural elements will relish the unsettling historical, medical, scientific and art-historical characters and worlds of several period stories in this collection –  juxtaposed with more contemporary but equally peculiar tales.

Perilous plants were closely associated with the Victorian imagination and in the tale, The Gorgon Flower, the reader is drawn into an epistolary account of a botanist’s ill-fated expedition to the Congo where he searches for a rare, elusive flower that was the obsession of his late father.

This story of botanical colonialism written as journal entries captures the particular fin de siècle anxiety and unease about unknown corners of the world and the botanical monstrosities that lurked there.

“Petals as large as elephant ears, streaked deep yellow and the glossy red of ruby lips that have the texture of softly brushed velvet. At the centre of the petals nestles a deep-set cup of phosphorescent lime-green mucilage, out of which thrust three tentacles, as tall, straight and motionless as spears.”

In Jacksi Packsi, a tale of love, mathematics, multiverses and Tiger Balm (and perhaps my favourite story in this collection), Richards creates captivating characters including a brilliant mathematician whose mysterious disappearance leads her much-loved granddaughter narrator on a quest to understand the magnitude of her loving Nana’s dangerous discovery.

From the warmth of Nana’s apartment, the granddaughter’s description of the view through the apartment window chills the reader to the bone: “There was a streetlight on the pavement in front of the bookshop and beneath this, day and night, staring always at the windows of Nana’s apartment across the road, stood the Man Who Watched.”

Richards, who previously worked as a lawyer, lived in Singapore, Manchester and London before settling with his family in Brisbane. In Emanation, his characters walk the streets of Victorian London with an intimate knowledge of geography and sweep us up into his imagined dark environs – streets, laneways, hansom cabs, hospitals and morgues – in this tale of an unnatural corpse, William Blake, angel-lore and early medical research.

For readers who hanker for stories reminiscent of Charles Dickens or Arthur Conan Doyle and enjoy the gothic-infused ghost stories of Susan Hill, these stories will intrigue and delight with their wide range and unexpected plot twists.

The Gorgon Flower by John Richards, UQP, $32.99 

Dr Jane Frank is a Brisbane poet, editor and academic. Her most recent collection is Ghosts Struggle to Swim (Calanthe Press, 2023). 

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