The Suburbs of Hell | Randolph Stow | Book Review

Our first book review on the new-look website is here ladies and gents. THE SUBURBS OF HELL from Randolph Stow was originally published in 1984 in Australia. Stow is considered a lost literary genius but thanks to the smarts and likewise genius of Text Publishing they are re-releasing these fantastic stories under their Text Classics umbrella. New spiffy covers and available in both paperbacks and e-books. A superb way to archive and to also repackage for new generations. THE SUBURBS OF HELL is available now, you will find it in the classic or literature section of most bookstores or you can obtain it HERE. Kernel Fi gives it her usual intellectual analysis – I actually had to look up the meaning of diegesis – (FYI – a narrative or plot, typically in a film.) Enjoy Fi’s review……….all the best……..JK.


Julian Randolph “Mick” Stow was born in Geraldton, Western Australia in 1935. His novel TO THE ISLANDS won the 1958 Miles Franklin Literary Award. Set in the bleak outback of Australia’s north-west, it follows the final days of an Anglican missionary and has been lauded as an Australian classic.

Perhaps his most famous novel is THE MERRY-GO ROUND BY THE SEA. Set in Geraldton, Western Australia during WWII, it traces the life of six year old Rob and his adored older cousin, Rick. When Rick is sent to war he finds himself a captive in a Thai internment camp and later returns to Australia a changed man. Certainly one of Stow’s themes seems to be self-reflection and the bleakness that tragedy and death visit upon the human psyche.

In 1969, Stow settled permanently in England and lived out his days in Essex. The influence that his time in this part of the UK had on his writing is apparent in THE SUBURBS OF HELL. Set in the East Anglian sea-faring town of Old Tornwich, it is said to be a thinly disguised version of Harwich where Stow was residing at the time of his death in 2010.


The Suburbs of Hell Author image



THE SUBURBS OF HELL’s diegesis centres on a killer who is terrorising the town and causing fear and suspicion amongst the residents. As the body count rises and the killer remains at large, the finger of blame is pointed carelessly and recklessly at neighbours and friends alike. The story was inspired by the real-life serial killer, Eric Edgar Cooke, who was known as the Night Caller or the Nedlands Monster and incidentally was the last man hanged in Western Australia (1964). From 1959-1963, Cooke committed 22 violent crimes and murdered 8 people.

Stow has taken this true crime case and replaced the Perth suburb of Victoria Park with the fictional Essex town of Old Tornwich. He has masterfully created a climate of foreboding and suspense and the idea that any one among us could harbour psychopathic tendencies. How well do we ever know our family members, our lovers or our friends?

Stow himself, described THE SUBURBS OF HELL as a modern version of Chaucer’s PARDONER’S TALE with its parable of death. Where and when will Death appear and claim another life? Is there a pattern to the devastation or does Death operate randomly, reaving and ravaging? Stow’s style is heavily laden with symbology and he has an entrenched preoccupation with loneliness and alienation. The isolation felt by the book’s only black character, Sam, is palpable. As fear and mistrust sweep through the town like wildfire, it becomes easy for Sam’s employer, his customers and his lover to cast aspersions. Traumatised, Sam seeks death himself.


The Suburbs of Hell Original Cover image



With his poignant ability to address certain subject matter with clarity and honesty and an authentically described coastal setting, it’s easy to imagine Stow as a kind of forebear to Tim Winton. The salt spray and the gulls are as clear to the reader as the desolation and feelings of personal exile. And while we are swept along with the veracious portrayal of life in a small seaside town and the hidden agendas of its occupants, we tend to forget that this book is actually a cleverly crafted whodunit.

Patricia Highsmith was fond of creating suburban tension where a seething malevolence bubbles beneath a mask of propriety. Many of the characters in THE SUBURBS OF HELL are not who they first appear to be. As a reader, in whom can we invest our emotional energy? Who will go the distance and who will hideously disappoint? Our stalwart is Harry Ufford, the friendly old seadog who looks out for his neighbours and relies on his whiskey for company. His dialect is pure East Anglian with his “go” pronounced as “goo” and his “that’s” as “thass”. Initially the dialogue is slightly off putting but eventually it seems to fit perfectly with the characters and the foggy town of Old Tornwich.


Ultimately, Stow is an example of the high calibre of Australian writers of yesterday. Many of these authors have been forgotten or perhaps overlooked. It’s pleasing to see that Text Publishing released this edition in 2015 and continue to foster some of Australia’s buried talents by re-publishing under Text Classics. For fans of the psychological thriller and those readers who enjoy a foray into a metaphorical tale, Stow delivers the goods.


4 Pops


Kernel Fiona was a criminal defence lawyer in a former life and now critiques books and writes short stories. She can’t resist spending large tracts of time in libraries, book shops and at writer’s festivals. Hopelessly in love with the written word, she told JK when applying for a writing position that “I would rather read then breathe” – I knew I had my next reviewer right then. You can catch her and her tweets at @FionaJayneFyfe1

** All images courtesy of various sources on Google or direct from the publisher – credit has been given to photographers where known – images will be removed on request.


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