Horror and Ghost

by anonymous

Some things are scary. It can be the unknown in a dark alley, an old doll at a flea market, some irremovable stains, or simply the monsters under our beds. Sometimes it’s not physical, but only some unreasonable feeling in our guts. And sometimes it’s a whole composition of deeply rooted human fears, a cursed or blessed item, and the gut feeling combined.

That is what the woman in “Sleeping Dogs”, a short story written by Kirstyn McDermott, experiences. The story is part of Cthulhu Deep Down Under Volume 2, a collection of horror short stories published in 2018.

Our protagonist, a thirty-year-old woman called Ghost, is asked by her newest client to locate and secure a figure with only a sketch of the item. After a horrific nightmare, Ghost has a hunch about where to start and travels to Australia. A few weeks without any positive developments pass before she finds a new lead and eventually detects the required item. But as soon as she acquires it, her gut feeling and the people around her start to behave in strange manners, as if they are driven by other forces.

Ghost – a rather fitting name for the main protagonist of a horror short story, don’t you think? – has the ability to detect lost items. Not in the way a common detective would, but rather in a paranormal way. She is no magician or witch, yet always accompanied by a feeling in her guts that works like a metal detector, intensifying when her target gets closer.

Said gut feeling isn’t too scary, to begin with, but what makes the story sort of uncanny from the very beginning is the object Ghost has to locate. According to her client and her assistant, the last time the figure had been seen was about sixty years ago, and there are only two living people who ever caught a glimpse of it and could describe it.

But Ghost is encountered with the first real horror when she finds herself seemingly drowning, choked by muddy water, and surrounded by darkness and cold. A dream? A vision? It feels like it’s best to not know the answer.

The unknown which lingers in the darkness, in the “utter blackness that has never known the touch of light” (McDermott, 16), is something commonly feared by humans. It’s a deeply rooted instinct trying to protect us from potential dangers which remain unseen. Such invisible dangers and fiends are harder to deal with since most humans solely rely on their ability to see, instead of using their other senses.

Our protagonist luckily doesn’t have to face the fear of darkness for much longer but the next horrific element she encounters isn’t less frightening in any way, introduced by a strong inexplicable pain in her head. Ghost calls it a migraine, but a pain described as “colors [that] fracture and pulse in the centre of her vision, spreading rapidly, [making] her temples throb, [and causing] a dull ache […] along her jawline” (McDermott, 21) seems way too intense and sudden for a normal occurrence of migraine. This pain, and the fact that it was caused just by removing a wax seal from the figure’s box, revives the uncanny atmosphere in the short story. A strong migraine might not sound too scary for most readers but it is followed by a scene in which people around Ghost and the object start behaving oddly; somebody tries to steal the bag with the figure, and other people try to forcefully enter her hotel room. Ghost calls it a “matter of the walking dead” (McDermott, 25), referring to the people as zombies, which already sounds alarming. I think the idea of the stereotypical zombie would feel less sinister, considering that there is a visible cause that leads to people being zombified, but in the short story’s case, there is no disease, no chemical weapon, no virus; just an old figure. An old figure that erodes some sort of aura, strong enough to affect people close to it, within an unknown radius. This aura leads to people being externally controlled, by some force neither explained nor further investigated, but it’s safe to say that the affected people are not in charge of their bodies.

The short story makes use of several ways to create horror, angst, and an uncanny feeling. Deeply rooted fears, voices without origin, nightmares, and the fear of not being in charge of their own body; though luckily, our protagonist doesn’t have to experience them all. Using those different kinds of tropes creates a rich diversity of moments that might make you shiver in fear and expectation. Additionally, an allusion to a city mentioned in one of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories, “The Call of Cthulhu”, guides the reader’s mind into deeper spheres of horror.

The story begs the question: Should we always “let sleeping dogs lie” or should we, just like Ghost, wake them up and face them? Or is such adventurous behavior exclusive to stories and tales only?

What horrors might await once you start digging deep enough? You may go on a journey yourself, or maybe you prefer to follow another story’s protagonist. Either way, let me ask you: “What are your feelings about finding a lost city?” (McDermott, 30).

Pat Grant’s “Blue” – A Reading Diary

by Jo Hoffs
cartoon boy shown doing several steps of surfing

Pat Grant’s Blue is a graphic novel about surfing, about community, about migration and conservatism. First and foremost, it is a story about xenophobia, and about a blue alien race migrating to the fictional town of Bolton. We meet Christian, a Bolton citizen who starts off his story by complaining that the blue aliens “pretty much own the whole town now” (Grant 25). Christian is angry and frustrated – he wants everything to remain the way he knew it from his childhood, a time he spent surfing and having fun with his friends.

Once Christian starts telling the story of how he went looking for a corpse along the train tracks, I was immediately reminded of the novel The Body by Steven King – a similarity which was intended, as Pat Grant explains in an essay at the end. A huge theme in The Body is friendship and finding a sense of belonging somewhere. The four boys in The Body come from difficult family situations where they are either abused or neglected. During their adventure together, they find a sense of community and make some – not always positive – memories. In Blue the feeling of community and friendship also plays a part. Here, it is expressed through one of Pat Grant’s passions: Surfing. Christian, the protagonist of the story, like Geordie from The Body, tells the audience about his youth: A time where he often missed school to go surfing with two of his friends, “the only ones with families lousy enough to let them get away with it” (Grant 38). Christian still longs for this time, because it was a time when there were no blue people in Bolton yet. “You play spot the Aussie around here these days”, he tells the reader. As an introduction to his character, this is perfect because it immediately shows some of his main characteristics: He is a racist middle-aged man missing the days when he was not confronted by the existence of other cultures yet. At the time when Christian and his friends are looking for the body, the blue people have just arrived in Bolton, making it a huge topic of discussion among them. The first time they meet a blue person themselves the friends are already prejudiced wanting the immigrants to go back to “Oogety-Boong Land” (Grant 55).

from: Grant, Pat. Blue. Top Shelf, 2013.

The allegory of immigrants as a blue alien species in this graphic novel is interesting but at the same time confused me a bit. In my opinion, the political implications weren’t always clear, which doesn’t have to be a bad thing but in a story so heavily focused around a political issue, it weakens the material. On the one hand, the inhabitants of Bolton are biased against the immigrants for xenophobic reasons, as it becomes apparent on page 28, when racist slogans like “we grew here, you flew here” are shown. On the other hand, the blue aliens according to Christian do not take good care of the city, as there is garbage everywhere and the plants are dead (page 25). Without reading the author’s essay at the end, I would not have been sure if this story is actually pro-immigration.

When it comes to the visuals of the story, I like the drawing style and the use of the light blue color in contrast to the black, grey, and sometimes brown colors used for the Bolton natives. Sometimes there are dozens of panels on one page, which gets overwhelming to me personally if there are many word balloons to read (e.g., Grant 58). Another nice touch to the story was the Australian slang words in the dialogue. However, this also complicates the reading experience for those who are not familiar with Australian slang. Footnotes would have been helpful here.

While I enjoyed the story and its different themes – community, racism, generational conflicts, bullying – it left me a bit confused as to what to take away from the story. It feels to me like the author attempted to take the story into multiple interesting directions but failed to properly work out any of them. There is no character development on Christian’s part, no other characters to give some kind of a satisfying conclusion and especially, there is not much of a take-away from the story. Nevertheless, I would recommend this graphic novel, as I think it’s possible to have many different views on it and speaking from experience, every re-read helps you discover new aspects.

Works Cited

Grant, Pat. Blue. Top Shelf, 2013.

Human Beings Playing God

by Mara Geißen

My first intuition about a book titled Ghost Species was that it would be about ghosts in some way. However, it is not about the living dead haunting somewhere, but much more excitingly about the re-creation of past and forgotten DNA – the topic that occupied me the most while reading the book. The creation of life that no longer exists. Not only animals, like mammoths, but the creation of a Neanderthal kept me very engaged. In short, people are playing God in the book, and I wonder how that is morally feasible. The creation of autonomous, independent, and above all intelligent life seems to be no longer the exclusive province of the divine. Evolutionarily speaking there are a few reasons why for example dinosaurs, mammoths and other human species no longer exist. Natural life evolves, improves, and learns from ‘mistakes.’ It becomes more robust against diseases and adapts to new environmental conditions.

Although Eve is created out of supposedly good intentions, it is rather questionable and interferes with nature. The aim is, of course, to solve a major problem on our planet; global warming. Davis states that the human and the environment no longer make sense and that it is up to human beings to re-engineer the world (cf. p. 19).  But should a human-made problem be solved by another intervention in nature? What problems would arise then? In the Jurassic Park and Jurassic World films, for example, you can very clearly see the negative effects of human intervention in nature and in the restoration of extinct living creatures. After that, the dinosaurs that already exist are not ‘enough’, and people start experimenting. How far would the experiment ‘Eve’ go? Eve would most likely be just the beginning of an experimental series, which goes beyond the actual intention of saving the world and possibly ends in mixing the DNAs of different Homo species to create the ‘perfect’ human who doesn’t get sick, who is strong and highly intelligent at the same time.

From the very beginning, Kate wonders if what they are about to do is right. A living person in a laboratory feels morally wrong (Bradley 43). From a scientific point of view, it would be a huge achievement to resurrect Neanderthals though. Kate in particular shows that despite her scientific nature, she thinks the whole project is morally wrong. This is shown, of course, when she kidnaps Eve from the lab and to prevent her from being treated like an experiment and an object. It is also acknowledged, as it is mentioned in the book, that it is definitely a breakthrough in science. No question about it! Nevertheless, one should consider how inseparable human reconstructions behave, feel and weigh the consequences carefully. No human being on earth would probably like to grow up in a laboratory, having to go through all the tests without being allowed to lead a ‘normal’ life. This raises the question of why these people are created at all if they are not allowed to be human.

Ghost Species – about the Fallacies of Capitalism

by anonymous

The Australian novel Ghost Species by James Bradley talks extensively about the nature of human life, nature vs. nurture, finding your place in the world, etc.

Underlying its positive messages to these topics is a frankly horrifying depiction of how far a human being can go in pursuit of glory. This boils down to one character: Davis Hucken, a mogul who tries to use his vast fortune and technology to supposedly “solve” humanity’s woes that they caused themselves and to be seen as a hero for it (Totally not Elon Musk).

Though the focus is on Kate Larkin and her adopted daughter Eve, a resurrected Neanderthal who was born through a surrogate mother, Davis exists as a necessary device for the plot to happen in the first place, as the story is really about Kate and later Eve trying to get by in a world that is slowly falling apart around them. Davis might not be responsible for the state of the world, but he uses it as an opportunity to make money. To “wow” what is left of the world. To play God.

Though it is not what the novel was going for, the lack of focus on that conflict is a bit disappointing. Aside from Kate’s perspective, with her only friend being Yassamin, another mother, the readers don’t really get a glimpse of what the rest of the world does or what it is thinking. Unlike the Hunger Games, the book acknowledges the existence of non-English continents and that other people do actually exist in that world and are just as concerned about the state of the world as anyone else is. Yet, there is never a focus on these global issues.

But that begs the question: If nobody is there to witness these “wonders” Davis is pulling out of his sleeve, why is he is doing this? Besides the obvious, clear case of Savior’s Syndrome that he seems to have, with Kate clearly stating that he’s too sociopathic to be on the spectrum (Thanks, Kate!). But is he? While he is a modern Frankenstein (as others have pointed out) in more ways than one, he not only creates a thinking being out of nothing but then tosses it into a world to fend for herself. One might argue that he might’ve read Frankenstein and realized that refusing to take responsibility for his creation might be a bad idea. But then again, why is he doing this without anyone there to tell him how “great” he is?

Easy answer: To play God. When a person is presented with limitless power in a world that is more concerned with keeping itself together, something goes “crack” inside that person’s mind. They delude themselves into believing that they can not only do anything they want but also get away with it. That’s why Davis ‘should care: He would care about the glory if someone gave it to him, but he seems to be mostly bored out of his mind.

However, Davis disappears from the story once Eve takes over as the main character. What might’ve happened in those thirty years when Kate and Eve lived in hiding, then accepted funding from him for a good home? While he still had some power before they disappeared, it is most likely that his efforts were fruitless and that he should’ve focused on fixing the earth first, then bringing back the extinct species. While a few lines of dialogue do imply that he did try to counteract Global Warming, why is this supposedly just a side project that none of the main characters bat an eye at?

What is telling is that Kate and Jay were truly the only people who questioned him at any point. As far as the readers know, the other scientists might’ve accepted Davis’s money with a smile only to whisper “What a lunatic” under their breath.

Ghost Species shows exactly what happens when you let a megalomaniac man-child with too much money out in the world. They start building palaces and cathedrals out of glass. Then they use the same material to build animals and believe that they can actually be livestock. Then they build people, believing that not only do they actually think, but they also happen to enjoy their company and aren’t just here because they can’t run away. But glass has a tendency to crack and break.

Let’s speculate about de-extinction!

James Bradley’s novel Ghost Species is part of the genre of Australian speculative fiction. A main topic of his speculations is based on the de-extinction of extinct species such as the thylacines (also known as the Tasmanian tiger or wolf), woolly mammoths, and Neanderthals (cf. 20, 21). But would this be possible? Well, let’s find out!

         But before we can think about whether it is possible in real life, let’s see how de-extinction works in the novel. Apparently, to ‘re-create’ (Bradley, 20) species you only need a sample of the genetic material, an egg, and a surrogate of a related species. The first successful example in the novel are thylacines. Thylacines are apparently a ‘good choice’ (Bradley, 16) as their genetic material is ‘relatively intact’ (Bradley, 16). Additionally, Dunnarts were used as surrogates and an artificial pouch to raise them as they were born undeveloped (cf. 17). The de-extinction of the neanderthal Eve was similar with a DNA sample and human surrogate (cf. 40f.). 

         So now that we established how the novel approaches de-extinction; let’s think about how it would work in real life. According to Nancy Huang resurrecting extinct species depends on the DNA. Nearly identical to the process in the novel, to resurrect an extinct species we need the nearly complete DNA of a species, an egg, and a surrogate of a related species (cf. Huang). To successfully clone an animal, one needs an intact nucleus which can be put into an egg that had its nucleus removed. The egg then has to be implanted into a surrogate of a closely related species (cf. Huang). And apparently this has been tried. According to Charles Q. Choi there has been an attempt to de-extinct an extinct species, but the clone died just minutes after birth. In 2003 frozen skin was used to clone a bucardo (also known as Pyrenean ibex) with domestic goat eggs and Spanish ibex or goat-ibex hybrids (cf. Choi). This attempt was unsuccessful as many of the implanted eggs did not result in successful pregnancies and the only to term carried bucardo only lived a few minutes. (cf. Choi).

         This shows that de-extinction is possible but complicated as a close relative of a species is needed. And even if the pregnancy is a success, the survival of the baby is unknown as is whether they can reproduce. There are many other open questions that only time and technical innovations can answer. Until then, we have to speculate. But as shown here, speculation isn’t that far off!



Bradley, James. Ghost Species. Hodder Studio, 2020.

Choi, Charles Q. “First Extinct-Animal Clone Created” https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/news-bucardo-pyrenean-ibex-deextinction-cloning. Accessed 19 Dec 2022.

Huang, Nancy. “How Close Are We to Resurrecting Extinct Species?” https://now.northropgrumman.com/how-close-are-we-to-resurrecting-extinct-species/ Accessed 19 Dec 2022.

How not to Shape the Future

by anonymous

The question of whether reproduction is still a morally responsible thing to do has been a highly debated topic which has recently even expanded onto the mainstream discourse. The predominant approaches we’ve seen are firstly the assumption that the earth is overpopulated by humans and that humans should induce population decline by simply having fewer kids. This mindset is popular, especially among younger, liberal western audiences. On the other hand, many deny the current problems resulting from too densely populated areas and the mismanagement of resources. Conservatives mostly believe that overpopulation and even climate change are myths created to pacify and scare the population. Their desire to form an opposition and to guarantee an advantage to their associated group fuels the rejection of such problems. Lastly, the most rational and humane approach comes with the realization that there are enough resources for even more humans, but current systems favor an uneven distribution that gives superficial advantages to those few hoarded resources. The novel Ghost Species represents a fourth approach to this conflict through the character Davis. Davis believes that reshaping the natural balance will secure a future for humanity. He reappropriates many aspects of the aforementioned views, but they ultimately get warped by his narcissistic and megalomaniac personality. He believes in human-made climate change, but his snooty nature also leads him to believe that he’s able to manipulate and control nature. I believe he also sees himself as a philanthropic person that uses the resources available to him for what he deems the greater good. His logic is flawed though. He sees how humans destroyed micro and macro systems through pollution resulting in changed parameters, interspecies relationships, and population numbers. He thinks he’s not only able to reverse this process but to improve the now damaged systems by inserting new species into them and even emulating natural selection.

Now let’s take a look at how Davis tries to achieve the goals that his twisted ideology established for him. He tries creating new more effective ecosystems to combat the declining state of the earth and the resulting end of the human species. He does this by resurrecting extinct species. Most importantly for us, the Homo Neanderthalensis depicted by the neanderthal Eve. The end of the book goes to show that he not just failed to succeed with his plan to conserve the modern human world but also possibly created a new apex species that are better adapted for the new harsh world to come.

Him creating life is immoral because he doesn’t create Eve so that she can flourish but to help his own species. Unborn life in general is never able to consent to its own creation. Eve is to be born into a specifically non-sustainable world as an experiment to regain balance. Davis doesn’t intend for her to become a being but only to deliver harmony to humankind. Like Kate who refuses to have children because she was born into an inappropriate environment, Davis also should refuse to bring life into a dying world. Eve is unable to follow her predetermined path which leaves her stranded in an uncertain world. He bans himself and the whole world from a livable future by seeking to bring back the past. Davis didn´t succeed and now the future lies in the hands of Eve.

The thoughts and actions of Davis who thinks of humans as the superior race, that together conquered the need for a god, ironically dooms humanity for an apocalypse and gives rise to a world beyond his imagination.

Davis and his God Complex

by Janine Braune

While reading Ghost Species, one character in particular caught my eye, Davis. Let me give you a short introduction, to who Davis is. Davis Hucken is a white male in his thirties with a slim figure and blond hair. He is a tech billionaire and the founder of Gather, a social media network. Davis likes to dress in jeans with band t-shirts or hoodies. So contrary to the typical image of a wealthy businessman, he likes to be comfortable. His parents are both psychiatrists.

I wish to analyze if he really is just a wealthy man with a scientific vision and a god complex, or if there is more to him. Therefore firstly, I need to identify how his god complex is expressed.

Davis plans to re-engineer the world’s relationship with nature, and he states to achieve this, we need to let go of the idea that we’re distinct, separate, and unique. He plans to de-extinct other species, while always stating that his mission is only to make the world a better place. He tries to justify his actions as if they are for the benefit of everyone. At the same time, he states that all humankind isn’t distinct from each other, but he declares himself a savior. It is clear that he sees himself as the messiah of the world, and only his vision can be the only solution.

His behavior from the perspective of other characters is often described as odd and as a mode of performing. Kate frequently explains that while talking to him, she feels like she is watching some sort of rehearsed performance. According to Kate, there is some awkwardness, as his reactions are not natural but somehow acquired. Davis seems like a different kind of being. On the one hand, his earlier statements show that he is trying to play God, but on the other hand, we could argue that Davis is only trying to portray the image of God. And he isn’t necessarily convinced of his own divinity. Davis is highly intelligent and totally understands which customs and conducts are expected from him. By making use of this knowledge, he tries to manipulate and control his external perception. However, as his behaviors aren’t always unforced, outsiders may perceive his behavior as odd or weird. Those cracks can be seen on many occasions. For instance, while holding a speech in the spotlight, Kate describes him as weirdly uncomfortable looking, like an animal caught in a trap. This is interesting because shouldn’t people with a god complex enjoy getting all the attention they can? We can see that maybe his true self doesn’t align with the image he is trying to portray. I wonder if in this particular instance he failed to uphold his mask because he isn’t receiving instant feedback from the faces of the audience? From personal experience, I know how hard it is to recognize anything while a bright light is shining on you. If we now speculate that Davis learned his social cues in conversation with people and always matched his performances based on their reactions, then in this situation the foundations for his manipulation would be missing.

Another interesting situation is his interaction with Eve as a newborn. Eve is the product of his vision and goals, the product of all the things he stands for, and yet he cannot hold or touch her. The question to ask is why? Is the reason that he simply is unbothered by ordinary human desires too long after closeness? Or could the reason be that in front of the child, he just cannot put on his mask, and his insecurities surface? One interpretation is that because of his intelligence, he may have considered the possibility of forming an emotional connection with Eve through physical touch and wanted to avoid risking forming a connection. When we consider all his actions in the novel, we may think this thesis is very unlikely, but if we regard all these actions simply as his mask, it would be possible.

The conclusion I came to is that Davis knows exactly how to act in social settings and to say the right things people want to hear. He clearly has a god complex, but there is an inconsistency between his image and his true self. Even if his public persona is totally fake, the fact that he believes he is capable of fooling the whole world testifies to his complex.

Impressions and Review of Safdar Ahmed’s Graphic Novel Still Alive: Notes from Australia’s Immigration Detention System

by Angela Agelopoulou

I decided to analyze Safdar Ahmed’s Still Alive: Notes from Australia’s Immigration Detention System for the class “Migration in Visual Narratives”, which deals with the migration journey portrayed in various types of visual narratives.


As I had already participated in a seminar that dealt with migration to Australia and the conditions in Australia’s detention centres, I was very interested to read Safdar Ahmed’s graphic novel. While the full graphic novel was published in 2021, a small part had already been published online as the webcomic Villawood: Notes from an immigration detention centre in 2015. I will make a close comparison between these two narratives in the following subpoint, however, I want to first summarize the plot of Still Alive briefly.  The graphic novel shows the stories and lives of refugees being kept in an immigration detention centre in Villawood, Sydney.  These people find themselves seeking asylum in Australia due to war and violence in their home countries. While it is the task of the Australian government to protect the refugees, the graphic novel shows the cruel reality of those needing protection: The refugees are faced with great challenges during their journey by boat but also upon arrival. All stories told in Still Alive are based on true events, as Ahmed ran art classes in Villawood and there met refugees willing to share their stories.


Even though I do have some knowledge about Australia’s detention centres, going through Still Alive was a very heartbreaking experience for me, as I felt deep sorrow while reading and seeing the stories of the refugees. I was overwhelmed by a sad and sickening feeling while going through both, the graphic novel and the webcomic. One thing I found especially shocking was the slogan of Serco, being “people are our business”. The slogan emphasizes that asylum seekers are not seen as human beings but as objects. Furthermore, it was also horrifying to read about the terrible treatment of the refugees (being physically and mentally abused and not being allowed to mourn their loved ones). The webcomic and the graphic novel do have some minor differences, for example, the graphic novel, unlike the webcomic, does not make use of colors, further emphasizing the hopelessness of the refugees. Moreover, the graphic novel has considerably more panels that are clustered together (emphasizing the feeling of being trapped) and uses a horror aesthetic, which should make it easier to talk about difficult topics, such as trauma. While these two narratives differ from one another, the effect they have on their readers stays the same: engaging with the graphic novel and the webcomic takes an emotional toll on the readers and shows the cruel reality of the world we are living in.

Art as a way of coping with trauma

The asylum seekers arriving in the detention centre knew that their migration journey would be long and dangerous. They knew that they decided to go on a journey, where they might be abused, experience loss, or even die. What they didn’t know was that their struggles would continue once arriving in the country that should keep them safe. The conditions in Australia’s detention centres are beyond cruel. The refugees are being controlled 24/7 and moving is heavily restricted. Detention centres resemble high-security prisons, where the guards abuse those detained for no reason. They are also the reason for self-harm, depression, and anxiety. Still Alive shows how the refugees deal with these feelings by drawing out their experiences, their situation, and also their migration journey. One refugee’s drawing for example shows a chessboard surrounded by barbed wire, while another shows a Taliban soldier holding four heads with the title of the drawing being “Death”. Especially in detention centres, where recordings are strictly prohibited, drawing is an effective way of expressing one’s feelings. Moreover, it is a way for the refugees to be in control and also to experience freedom. In the graphic novel, Ahmed describes the importance of art as followes: “Art and storytelling allow trauma to be visualized, externalized, and re-embedded in its context, which provides a greater feeling of safety and distance from it over time.” (22)


Still Alive by Safdar Ahmed gives a voice to the people who don’t often have one. The drawings and photographs portrayed in the graphic novel remind the readers of the lives being abused in Villawood, but also in other detention centres. It is a call to rise up and support the refugees and reject Australia’s detention centres that do not recognize the refugees’ lives. 

A Supernatural Family Drama

by Joshua Gormanns

The novel Ghost Species by James Bradley on the surface seems like your stereotypical science fiction novel, dealing with the dangers of climate change and how humanity caused the problems and now tries its best to preserve the species. However, diving deeper into the novel, there are times the reader can easily forget those topics and the novel almost seems like a family drama with the slight change that the main character is not a homo sapiens, but a Neanderthal.

In the beginning, we get to know Jay and Kate, two scientists who are recruited by rich mogul Davis Hucken to work on a project for his Foundation. Their task is to revive the lost species of the Neanderthals. They succeed and when the first Neanderthal baby Eve is born, Kate soon forms a bond with her. One night Kate, who has ethical problems with keeping Eve like a lab rat, decides to take the baby and leave her old life behind to live a secluded life with Eve while hiding from the foundation.

After Kate takes Eve the novel shifts in tone and topic. We only hear about scientific topics and the problems of the world through the news, while we basically read a family drama. We see the first years of Eve’s life through the eyes of Kate. We see how Kate struggles with the situation, always in fear of being caught by the foundation and getting Eve taken away from her.

Although not much really happens during this time, to me this is the most interesting part of the novel. I think the author manages to portray Kate’s character very well. We become familiar with her past trauma which shaped her and although she does not practice as a scientist anymore, we can still see the scientist in her. The way she observes every situation and how everything is described, the reader can see her scientistic approaches. This becomes very clear when Eve interacts with Sami, the son of a friend of Kate. Kate acts as an observer, comparing Eves and Sami’s physical attributes, psychological attributes, and the way they develop.

When Eve and Kate are taken by the foundation again the narrative does not return to scientific topics but rather keeps focus on Kate and Eve’s personal problems. After Eve is told about her real identity, the perspective shifts to her. We learn about her insecurities, about how she avoids other people due to her difference in appearance and her slow articulation. We witness her teenage years and eventually how she has to take care of her dying mother while the world around her seems to end.

All in all, I think that it was a good choice by the author to focus more on the two main characters instead of the science fiction plot. Especially focusing on Eve was a great choice because the reader gets to know her differences but also her similarities to homo sapiens. We get to know how she questions herself, feels insecure, and how she in the end can look after herself and go as far as to travel around the whole world finding other Neanderthals.

Voyeuristic Curiosity: Thoughts on Safdar Ahmed’s “Villawood”

Safdar Ahmed’s Villawood: Notes from an Immigration Detention Center depicts the treatment of immigrants in Australian detention center, Villawood. Through his webcomic, Ahmed shares the stories of several refugees while also showcasing the center’s cruel conditions and unfair treatment of its residents. 

Voyeuristic Curiosity

In a particular poignant panel set, a woman asks a refugee about his past, wondering why he left and the traumas he endured. Instead of answering, the man turns the tables and demands the woman spill her worst trauma. In three simple panels, Ahmed shows the danger of entitlement to someone’s life story. Migrants are more than stories to be read. They are real people affected by their past and living in the present. They are not here to satiate someone’s morbid curiosity. Even Ahmed notes that he feels “like a prick for being so voyeuristic in the first place.” 

Humanizing the Human

Ahmed, then, is tasked with a difficult objective: he must humanize the Villawood residents without turning them into palpable packages of trauma for the average reader to consume and feel good about themselves. He must skirt the line of “trauma-porn” while also showcasing the cruel realities these migrants are subjected to. A webcomic like his attracts the morbid voyeur, so how can he tell a story that doesn’t serve to satiate the sadist in us and instead serves as a platform for the Villawood residents to unearth their experiences? Ahmed does this in several ways that, as a reader, I found both impactful and respectful. Through the use of voice and perspective, Ahmed allows specific individuals to tell their own stories. As they narrate, he gives us information on who they are and formats their experiences in webcomic form. His own perspective sits on the sideline. In this way, Villawood becomes neither a feel-good story or an onslaught of oppression and trauma. It transcends to something higher: a true story about true people told to highlight the oppressive system and the specific people it affects.

The Story of Villawood: Told from the Inside

In the first chapter, “First Impressions,” Ahmed sets the scene of Villawood’s strict rules and regulations. Ahmed begins the comic by stating what’s not allowed in Villawood: no phones, cameras, cash, or sharp objects. After being searched, Ahmed is thrust under the watchful eye of a security camera. The center reads more prison than safe haven. Tall fences and barbed wire. Handcuffs and guard dogs. With such harsh imagery, it’s easy to imagine the people there must also be cold and hardened. Ruthless criminals rather than refugees seeking safety.

While the chapter begins with Ahmed’s first impressions and his own perspective, it ends with artwork created by people Ahmed met in Villawood. Pencil drawings of their life before. We see they fled the threat of death and oppression for a prison of a different variety. They tell us this through their art, and they begin to take control of the narrative. Ahmed’s thoughts quickly give way to the voices of the people inside Villawood.

The second chapter, “Ahmad,” focuses on the specific experiences of Ahmad Ali Jafari, a Hazara refugee. Ahmed humanizes him by sharing specific traits of Ahmad’s in the beginning of the chapter. He is not a faceless name or a blanket character for the whole of the refugee experience to be thrust upon. He is a real person with individual quirks. An artist, a poet, and a victim of Villawood’s cold cruelty. Ahmed even includes a photo of Ahmad in the webcomic, putting substance to the man besides pencil drawings and cartoons. One important thing to note is that Ahmed uses a photo that Villawood residents hung up as a form of protest and call to action. The residents themselves want the truth of Ahmad’s death to be spread. The story is shared, not appropriated. 

In the third chapter, Ahmed continues to share their story. He follows specific people as they speak about education, loneliness, and mistreatment. The residents speak for themselves while Ahmed illustrates their experiences, a trend that seems to fill the majority of the webcomic. The difference between the voyeuristic woman demanding to know a man’s trauma is that she demanded answers while the residents take control of their own voice. The reader must trust that Ahmed only tells what the residents wanted to tell and that he only shares the artwork they wished to share.

What Next?

The final set of panels in the webcomic is especially telling. Refugee Haider Ali is granted release from Villawood. He is ecstatic while his caseworker tells him he can leave while his claims proceed. The caseworker, however, laments the extra load of paperwork on her part. The comic ends with Ali staring open-mouthed and shell-shocked, the phone still to his ear. He has endured the cruel conditions of the detention center, yet he is met with complete apathy when his situation changes. If someone as close to the system as a case worker cannot recognize Ali’s humanity and joy of escape, then what does that say not only about the system itself but how the rest of society treats migrants? Isn’t the burden of paperwork and overtime worth the goal of basic human decency and humane treatment?

The last panel suggests that Ali’s journey is not over. As a refugee, he will also be tainted by the knowledge the society in which he lives does not welcome him. He’s seen as a burden, unfairly throwing paperwork on someone who chose to make filling out that very same paperwork her profession. He escaped the Taliban only to be thrust into the hold of Villawood. And he has escaped Villawood only to be treated with apathy, his celebration cut short before it truly starts. In this way, Ahmed challenges our own role within the “refugee crisis,” questioning our presuppositions while also maintaining we have no right to demand these stories from these people. Any story we listen to must be freely given, and we cannot listen to the stories until we learn to humanize people like Ali—people who experience joy and pain. People whose victories must be celebrated, no matter what may come next. And, ultimately, we must take up the burden of paperwork—doing what must be done to reform the system and help the people it was designed to hurt.