Jewish Australian Speculative Fiction Event

by Sevgi Osman

After reading The Time of The Ghosts by Gillian Polack, I decided to participate in an event organized by my lecturers, where Jewish Australian authors gathered and talked about speculative fiction, specifically Jewish Australian speculative fiction. Since I was very interested in getting to know the author herself and what motivated her to write the book, I decided to listen, take notes, and afterwards write a blog post.

The event started with everyone introducing themselves. Gillian Polack started introducing herself by saying that as an author, she wrote eleven books. Next, Jack Dann introduced himself as someone who wrote over 75 books and won many awards which I found very impressive. Jason Franks introduced himself as an author who was born in South Africa but went to Australia later. Nonetheless, he wrote books that had a considerable number of Australian words in it, which is why he considers himself a Jewish Australian writer. Lastly, Rivqa Rafael, also a Jewish Australian writer, said that she has only written short stories and is an award-winner. She also studied psychology as well. Looking at all authors in one, they’re all very diverse but have one thing in common: writing Jewish Australian speculative fiction!

After the introductions were over, the lecturers of my Blogging Australian Speculative Fiction class asked the first question, which is: Do you, as an Australian speculative writer, see yourself as Jewish-Australian? Polack started by saying that she does see herself as Jewish Australian but had an identity struggle at first. Dann answers by telling us how he can consider himself Jewish Australian even though he is an Atheist. The other two writers, Franks and Rafael, also see themselves as specifically Jewish Australian although Franks didn’t consider himself to be that until he lived there and had also moved around (living, for example, in Japan for a time) and didn’t see himself as Jewish until recently.

Continuing the discussion, the question of how they deal with critique because of being a Jewish writer and what makes being a Jewish writer so different arose. Gillian Polack had to deal with bullying while growing up because of being Jewish. For her, writing speculative fiction means that she can express her feelings through telling stories. She was taught to tell stories, for example, about family history; what happened to her ancestors. They all agree that by writing Jewish speculative fiction one can improve the world a little bit more, because there is always someone out there who is going to relate to the stories and learn from it. Then there is Jack Dann, whose writing is not all Jewish-themed but he sees it as an overall exploration. At first he didn’t start writing about Judaism because he felt like he was in danger for being Jewish. He thought that if people perceived him as a Jew, they were going to point a gun at him. All four of these creative authors explain that they see Jewish speculative fiction as approaching tragedy through the realms of fantasy and science fiction.

Rivqa Rafael mentioned that Polack’s writing is a mirror to her experience, that she writes her stories by remembering her past. Gillian Polack has mentioned that she didn’t have it easy growing up: she was being put on the spot as a Jewish author, people have asked her to deny the Holocaust and bothered her since she was of a very young age. As a medievalist, Polack had to answer quite a lot of weird and antisemitic accusations, for example that she supposedly “drinks babies blood”, or killed Christ. As difficult as it may have been from a young age, Polack does not let others make her feel uncomfortable for being Jewish. She sees her writing as therapeutic and wants to share her life through fiction.

All in all, speculative fiction is now breaking boundaries and awards are being presented, which makes Jewish Australian writers more visible. All four of these Jewish Australian authors share a mutual opinion about their writing: it is the journey to discovery, especially since it is also a part of a Jewish cultural tradition to tell stories and use humour to talk about hurtful things to cope with their past. But all authors are unique and never write in the same forms, they all share their different experiences and put them into little stories for others to read and relate. This was an overall wholesome event and I enjoyed listening to successful authors talk about their work and share their thoughts on Jewish Australian writing. By having read The Time of The Ghosts and seen where these Jewish Australian authors got their motivation to write from, I am looking forward to reading more Australian speculative fiction in the future.

10 Questions with Gillian Polack on The Time of the Ghosts – and one bonus!

Before we move onto the second phase of our student blogging, let’s end our series of blog posts about Gillian Polack’s The Time of the Ghosts with an interview with Gillian herself!

1. Why is the novel entitled The Time of the Ghosts – which ghosts were you thinking of when you named it? And what makes now the time of the Ghosts?

I love making bad jokes. I ought to apologise for this, but I find my own tendency to bad jokes amusing, so I won’t. My working title for the novel was “One Cup of Tea at a Time” because that was pretty much how my heroes saved Canberra. This wasn’t catchy enough to sell the novel, nor did it make me chuckle inside.

The “Time of the Ghosts” is a time when Canberra is haunted, my characters are haunted … and I am haunted. (I was trying to see Canberra from ways that reflected my own culture and mainstream Aussie culture kept rudely haunting me.) I had to ask a friend to give me a ghost tour. This friend is bicultural (Indigenous Australian and European Australian) and was able to help a great deal. Since haunted Canberra gave me the solution to my own haunting, The Time of the Ghosts was perfect. (Not all my titles have this kind of history.)

2. We noticed that there was a lot of ‘mapping’ in the novel – the gardens were mapped, the magic was mapped. Any particular reason for mapping to play such a prominent role?

Well-spotted. I actually have an annotated street directory of Canberra. I can take pictures of it if you want to see it. I superimposed a Ptolemaic universe and all the important Canberra hauntings on the city and I used that as a base for the movement in the novel. Earth in that universe is around Commonwealth Bridge. Every single bit of ghost or haunting or creature that I added, fitted the Ptolemaic universe imposed on Canberra.

I did this because Canberra is a planned city and the people who did the planning were Theosophists. I also did this because I wanted a reason for Sebastian to be able to find Melusine. It gave me a sense of creating a tiny world that was coherent. Other alternate Canberras I’ve written about are not nearly this coherent.

3. In general, a lot of our students felt that the cover we had gave the wrong impression of the text. How do you feel about it? How much say did you have in it?

I had no say in the current cover. It was designed to fit sales paradigms for Amazon. I had some say on earlier covers by other publishers, but not as much as I’d like.

There was a reason for this. Some novels are really hard to do cover designs for, and my novels almost always feel into that category. When I get an exceptional cover that reflects the novel and is lovely in its own right (and I’ve had several of those) I want to throw a party.

I’m better off than some of my friends, having said that. Russian editions of Australian fantasy novels of 20 years ago have particularly bad covers. Three friends of mine who write fantasy trilogies used to show us their covers and, while we envied the translations, we did not envy the unicorns and the palm trees and the totally wrong characters.

4. In The Time of the Ghosts, you have a positive vision of a bushranger playing a big part in assisting our protagonists. We found this super interesting, since bushrangers are looked at more and more critically these days. Why did you make this choice?

There are many bushrangers linked to my region. In the 19th century, it was known as the Monaro, and there were turf wars by bushrangers at various times. Also, Jackey-Jackey’s treasure is actually supposed to be buried on Black Mountain. That’s where I began.

I’ve been interested in bushrangers since I was in primary school. When I was in Grade Six, I did a project on Ben Hall. “The Streets of Forbes” (a song) is still one of my favourites. I was never a fan of Ned Kelly and John Dunn was a mass murderer, so I didn’t depict Jackey-Jackey as a good bloke because of being in love with the notion of bushrangers.

I researched his life (which was fun) and realised that I couldn’t possibly depict the actual person. He was complex and fascinating and doesn’t easily fit in descriptions such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. He was polite to people and didn’t cause as much damage as many and he actually stood up for human rights in some difficult circumstances. There was enough charm in the real person and conscience in the real person to make his character credible. He made a good ghost. The Clarke brothers, on the other hand, have only ever been loved by their family. That family lives around Araluen way (not too far from me, very close to Jackie French). They stopped chatting with me when the novel came out…

5. Lil, at one point, describes that she sees convincing non-Australian ‘myths’ etc. to leave Australia as part of her task – yet Melusine goes to Australia because she perceives it as empty at first. Can you tell us about this development in her character?

When Australia was settled by Europeans, a doctrine known as Terra Nullius was established. It was nasty. It assumed that there were no humans here ie that settlement was just fine. It became the way that Australia was depicted – even if people knew that there have been humans here for tens of thousands of years, they tended to assume that most of the land was empty or that the people were fading or in some way lesser. It’s a pretty horrible doctrine. It was, however, part of what made Melusine feel that Australia was empty at first, and why she discovered she was wrong.

The other part of it came straight from my childhood. I grew up with Holocaust survivors who were friends of my parents and grandparents and who dropped in for a cuppa. Melbourne is one of the places that many survivors came to. More, proportionately, than went to the US. When I was an adult, I finally plucked up the courage to ask them, “Why Melbourne?”

There was no doubt that they had to flee. So much of Jewish history contains other people forcing Jews to flee or die, that I’ve known about that element since I was about six. I didn’t understand why this very British and somewhat racist country was a desirable destination.

The answer was distance. We were as far from the Shoah as it was possible to get. Australia was not well-known to Europeans in the 1940s and 1950s. It’s only recently that Europe has started to see us as a country. That is where some of the emptiness lies: in Melusine’s perception of Australia as a continent. It was free of a lot of the things she knew from Europe and thus… it was empty.

6. One thing we noticed was that each of Melusine’s tales began with a traditional “storytelling” approach or phrase. In one case, Once upon a time… In another, you introduced the date-setting a la 1984. Did you intend for each tale to reflect on a different kind of storytelling, even from their outset?

I did. I wanted to play with the idea that all stories have cultural bias and that every single introduction sets up an expectation for the reader and that part of that expectation is bias. I set up the different atmosphere and mostly retain it, but I’m doing it in order to undermine what readers think they trust.
If you want to compare this to a novel which uses a more standard fairy-tale structure, The Art of Efffective Dreaming uses the Sleeping Beauty story. It’s still subversive, but in a different way.

7. As this interview is published on a blog… Why did you decide to present Kat’s blog posts without distinguishing them much from the rest of the text (unlike Melusine’s tales, for example)?

Let me shamefully admit that I was just messing with readers’ minds. Some readers complain they have to read every word I write and I’m afraid that is entirely intentional on my part and Kat’s blog is an example of how I force long-suffering readers into that terrible hard labour. Where I am most evil in this regard is in The Year of the Fruit Cake.

8. Of course, one aspect we focused on was the novel’s Jewish and Jewish-Australian elements. By making Melusine a (quasi-immortal) Jewish fairy, you create a space for discussing Jewish experiences throughout history. Can you tell us a bit more about this decision?

This historian side of me is faced every day with the erosion of Jewish history. Just yesterday I read a blog post about the history of pasta that claimed that the first mentions of pasta outside China and its region were Arab… but the examples and terms given were from the Talmud. Since I am (by training) an historian of Western European history, I know Western Europe best and it was the obvious place to look. There are a bunch of Medieval family-origin stories (the one about Melusine as a guivre is the Lusignan one) that I looked into and that gave me a path.
There are heaps of Jewish supernatural creatures I could have used, and some of them appear in The Wizardry of Jewish Women, but I thought that a Jewish fairy based on the family ancestor stories would be more fun for readers in the context of the story I wanted to tell in The Time of the Ghosts. I needed the length of life, and I needed that European connection. When Melusine flies in the story, she looks exactly like Melusine does in the illuminated manuscript of the Duc de Berry. That’s a moment when our world touches that of the novel.

9. One thing our students noticed was that Kat’s perception of the older women doesn’t always seem to line up with their behavior. In a way, this caused the characters to ‘blend’ together into a more cohesive unit for many of them. Did you play off of Kat’s reliability in this way mainly for this effect, or more so to represent her teenage voice?

I wanted Kat to be distinctive and showing what she thought of people as a contrast to what those people did was an easy way to do this without undermining the tale itself. It also meant I could show her growing in the way teenagers do, as a contrast to the way the other characters grew, so I guess her teenagerhood was an element.

10. Last but not least, are all the recipes that are described in the book ones that you use?

Yes and no. I’m an ethnohistorian and part of my historical research is often into food and foodways. I’m also a foodie. I can cook (and have cooked) most of the recipes in the book but they reflect the foodways of each character. You can tell a lot about a person by what they cook and how they serve it. Mabel cooks traditional Australian English-origin food, for example, and will make scones in just a few minutes if anyone drops in. She will serve them with cream and with her own jam. Her recipes mostly come from my own childhood, but there will be variants in any CWA (Country Women’s Association) cookbook until the late 1970s, when Australian foodways changed a bit.

I put just one scene in to act as a path in, for anyone who wants to explore this, and that’s the scene where Kat makes the three older women coffee.

And since one of our students wrote to Gillian on her website, we’ve also got her response to his question!

Dear Gillian Polack, my name is Ben Königsfeld and I study English at the Heinrich-Heine University in Düsseldorf. I take part in a course about Australian speculative fiction taught by Lucas Mattila and Tina Burger, who you might remember from the event two weeks ago called ”Jewish Australian Speculative Fiction Writers in Conversation”. We are currently writing blog posts about your book The Time Of The Ghosts and I am focusing on the stories of Melusine. I was wondering if you could tell me if anything particular inspired you to write these stories and how much, if at all, the Melusine of European folklore influenced them. Furthermore, I was wondering what your intention behind the stories were. I hope these questions aren’t an inconvenience. Sincerely, Ben Königsfeld

Dear Ben,

I was going to write you a separate reply, but most of my answer to you overlaps with the answers to the other questions. The important bit that doesn’t is that Melusine stories as I know them (the 15th century one by Jean d’Arras is the one I know best) are more ancestor tales than fairy stories. I dragged her into another genre and she is nothing like the French Melusine except in that she is magic and her non-human form is the same. It wasn’t that Jean D’Arras didn’t influence me. I took that influence and asked “What story would I have liked if I were Kat’s age? What would have grabbed her interest enough for her to read something she really shouldn’t?” The story I wanted was one of survival and of cultural survival. I wanted readers to see what certain aspects of Europe might have looked like through Jewish eyes, but needed to make those eyes privileged. I wanted to change the stories we often hear about our ancestors… that survival is enough. Survival is never enough. This is why I wrote Melusine the way I did.

I don’t know if I succeeded in my goal. I do know that I learned a lot in writing the novel. I’ll keep trying.


Follow Gillian on Twitter!

This interview was carried out via correspondence by Tina Burger and Lucas Mattila.

Judging a Book By its Covers: The Time of the Ghosts

by Theodora Charalambous

Everyone knows the age-old saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, and although most of us try to implement it in our daily lives, when it comes to the book buying experience things seem to be a bit different. If you’ve ever visited a library or a book store you know quite well how tedious the process of finding the “perfect” book can be when there’s an overwhelming amount of literature and more waiting for you on the shelves. You make your way to the aisle of your preferred genre and now what? What’s the deciding factor that makes one choose a book? Let’s be honest, it’s the cover! Whether it’s a beautifully illustrated cover, a hard cover with interesting engravings on it or a very minimalistic one, the one that manages to steal your attention, is the one getting picked up first.

On this blog post, I will be discussing how the three book covers made for the novel The Time of the Ghosts, written by Jewish Australian author Gillian Polack, reflect on its story and whether or not “Don’t judge book by its cover” is bad advice.

Let’s start with the original 2015 cover by Satalyte’s in-house designer, Marieke Ormsby. The design, as the writer described it, is more of a contemporary fiction cover. There is what resembles mist on top of a faded dark green background, with the main focus being four small
white figures of women, each floating on top of a white tea cup. This cover also includes the

Someone has to write this down.
Someone who has seen it all.
Seen the ghosts.
Eaten the food.
Even washed the dishes.

Polack‘s favorite cover edition is the second one, that was designed by Book View Cafe, more specifically by writer and cover designer Maya Bohnhoff. It consists of four photos; the very first, is one of an older woman in a white dress and a straw hat, hugging a bouquet of carrots under a tree. The other three are, a straw hat on top of a small garden table, a tea cup and lastly a picture of a road. The background is a grayish ripped cloth overlapping a deep purple one, which compliments the sepia toned photos perfectly. The cover has the writer’s personal touch, as the images of the teacup, the road and the background cloth are pictures taken by Polack herself.

Lastly the 2021 edition cover art is by NextChapter, and the one I personally own as well as the reason behind the idea of this blog post. The book cover is outlined with a small detailed design reminiscent of a golden picture frame. Two open doors reveal a rundown corridor and its rusty wooden floor, with a single window shining light to reveal the figure of a white woman wearing a wedding dress, or perhaps a gothic Victorian nightgown. Exclusively in the 2021 edition, the phrase “Enchanted Australia Book 1” hovers above the title.

When I first got my hands on this novel, looking at the recent cover, my expectations of what the story would be about definitely did not fit the actual plot. The novel follows the lives of three elderly women and the teenage girl runaway, who they’ve taken in, as well as their adventures chasing away ghosts and other supernatural creatures to protect Canberra. The Time of the Ghosts is so much more than your typical ghost story. It’s about friendship, bonding over tea, protecting the place you call home and overcoming your own inner ghosts. The first two cover art designs, undoubtedly encapsulate the essence of the novel perfectly, the women, the tea and the hidden mysteries of Canberra.

So, should we trust book covers or not? The answer is yes…but maybe not always. Covers are usually very carefully designed and picked to provide just enough information about the book to the potential reader. For example, the cover usually indicates the genre of the book, as certain trends tend to show up more across specific categories. Consequently, some covers can be misleading, as they are designed to reel in a particular demographic that would normally not be interested in the book. In the case of The Time of the Ghosts the 2021 cover art is quite deceiving, as it leads one to suspect that the novel’s genre is horror. Additionally it can create the misconception that the novel is a part of a trilogy called Enchanted Australia. However, the reason behind this design was to sell copies on Amazon, which is why it doesn’t represent the novel’s story as closely in comparison to the first two editions. Even so, my experience reading the book was a good one, making the cover’s deception a minuscule problem, if one at all.

Most of us judge books based on a list of certain criteria and not solely on one factor. Whether that list includes the title, the author, the description and so on, we cannot dismiss the importance of the cover design. Perhaps, next time you’re looking to bring a book home, try choosing it simply by its cover.

Images Used

Ormsby, M. J. (2015). The Time of the Ghosts cover art, 1st edition [Illustration]. The History Girls.

Bohnhoff, M. (2018). The Time of The Ghosts cover art, 2nd edition [Book cover]. Amazon.

NextChapter. (2021). The Time of the Ghosts cover art, 3rd edition [Illustration]. Amazon.

Antisemitism in the Melusine stories

by Adesua Atamah, Ben Königsfeld, Kathleen Reiswich & Lisa-Marie Richter           

Gillian Polack is an Australian writer and medievalist who was born in Melbourne. She has been nominated for numerous awards throughout her career as an author and won the Ditmar Award for Best Achievement and Best Novel respectively in 2010 and 2020. Polack has released nine novels and in this blog post we will talk about the topic of antisemitism in her sixth novel The Time of The Ghosts,which was published in 2017, focusing particularly on the Melusine tales.

The idea of Melusine first appeared in European folklore, where she is depicted as a woman with the characteristics of a fish from the waist down, resembling a mermaid. Although, the Melusine of The Time of the Ghosts does not share this attribute, it is hinted at throughout the novel as Ann, who is a friend of Melusine, gifts her the figurine of a mermaid, as it is believed that if you give a mermaid an image of herself, she becomes a fairy and is young again.

The Melusine tales are told in parts through the duration of the whole novel and do not only follow her personal life for several centuries, but also automatically include the history of Judaism and antisemitism, as Melusine herself is Jewish and experiences discrimination in a Christian dominated historical society.

Antisemitism in the Melusine tales

Antisemitism means hatred targeted against Jews. One of its origins lies in Egypt and the Greeks and Romans spread the hatred by retelling Egyptian stereotypes in short stories. Therefore, the Greek and Roman empire created the roots for European antisemitism. During the Middle Ages Jews were often the scapegoat when misery and disease plagued a society. People in the Middle Ages believed that Jews were bewitched by an unholy power due to making a pact with the devil and this superstitious belief caused many Jews to be wrongly persecuted and thus allowed antisemitism to spread worldwide.

In the first Melusine story, which takes place in Kiev in 1643, it becomes obvious that there is shame in appearing Jewish in public. Melusine emphasizes that some people comment on her appearance by pointing out that she does not look Jewish (cp. p.7). This further illustrates the idea that Jewish features are viewed as undesirable in this Christian society. Further, evidence for antisemitism can be found in the first Melusine tale when non-Jewish peasants “decided that Jews [are] vermin” (p.7). Throughout the tales Melusine feels like an outcast due to her Jewish heritage, but she still tries to fit in by partly giving up her parts of her Jewish identity (cp. P.45). Additionally, this phenomenon can also be found in chapter seven, when Melusine visits a village in Germany where she notices that a lot of Jewish people converted to Christianity. The hatred towards Jewish people reached its peak during the Second World War, when millions of Jews were gruesomely murdered by the Nazi Regime. This horrifying historic era is also mentioned in the Melusine tales, when the reader learns that every Jew in the village is murdered by the Nazis 20 years later (cp.122-143).

In conclusion, the novel does a great job in presenting the deep-rooted hatred Jewish people have faced throughout too many centuries. It illustrates the antisemitism Melusine encountered closely and demonstrates how even small comments, such as saying she does not look Jewish, are hurtful. Gillian Polack’s novels often deal with Judaism and her novel The Wizardry of Jewish Women does the same while also catching your interest with topics such as feminism and family.


  • Polack, Gillian. The Time of the Ghosts. Next Chapter, 2021.

The Gothic Origins of Kat’s Nightmare in “The Time of the Ghosts”

When you go to bed at night, you know that once you fall asleep anything can happen. There is a good chance that you are about to go on a great adventure. Indeed, dreams tend to be larger than life. They can make you escape the mundane and experience the exciting. Or they can make you re-live the everyday and put a neat spin on it. Those are the kinds of good dreams attending to our inner hopes and ambitions, yet there are also bad dreams fueled by our deeper fears and sorrow. Nightmares trap you in the most unpleasant situations that fill you with utter despair. Even after you wake up from them and you catch your breath, you are still haunted by them. They are so sinister in nature that they are hard to forget and even harder to overcome.

In The Time of the Ghosts, nightmares are one of the major recurring themes. Kat keeps having them over and over again. No matter what she does, they creep back into her mind and become all the more intense with each new iteration. Kat first confesses her nightmare to Ann:

It’s like I wake up, but I’m still asleep. And there’s something. It sits on my chest and I tell it to get off. It doesn’t. I try to scream, but nothing comes out. And it sits on me heavier and heavier and heavier and I’m suffocating and I can’t do anything. (28)

As she keeps returning to this place of misery, the picture starts to clear up and she realizes that it is “[a]n animal sitting on her chest, pressing the air out of her” (117). She also notices that the “heavier and heavier and heavier” pressure on her chest transforms into a force that “drained and drained and drained” all of her joy (28, 117). Moreover, she suddenly catches the sight of two eyes “piercing [her] soul” that even follow her into the real world (117–118, 190–191).

This disturbing image is by no means unfamiliar to us. Nightmares in which we are unable to move, scream, or breathe are quite common and the overall aesthetic of this vision portrays a rather prototypical example of Gothic terror. But even though this nightmare might not shock us anymore, it still intrigues us as if we had encountered it for the very first time. As modern readers, we pride ourselves on our ability to recognize any literary trope. We think that our intellectual capacity can expose any manipulative attempt to grab our attention. And yet, while reading about this nightmare, we still inch our way towards the edge of our seat. In this rare instance, our reason is outweighed by our imagination, as the Gothic spectacle stands supreme. There simply is something so curious about this nightmare that we cannot help but to give into it. We feel such a strong reaction to the prospect that Kat could die in her dreams, because she has been our character of identification. And this danger seems so real and imminent, because Kat has been portrayed as so innocent and unstable. The Gothic nightmare escalates the tension of this novel, significantly, and imbues it with a greater sense of gravity. After all, it was Edgar Allan Poe who openly proclaimed that “the death … of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world” (165).

However, this passage does not just evoke a literary significance, but also a visual one, because the vision seen by Kat is also eerily similar to one painted by Henry Fuseli:

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781, Oil on Canvas, 102 x 127 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts.

The Nightmare was first exhibited at the Royal Academy summer show of 1782, where it enthralled thousands of visitors. Initially, art critics were puzzled by this image, though, since it “did not make explicit reference to a particular literary or mythological source” (Frayling 11). Consequently, they tried to decipher what inspired this painting by comparing it to similar scenes in established texts like King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and Paradise Lost. This debate clouded the painting in “an aura of mystery” that drew an unusual amount of visitors who tried to make sense of it on their own (11–12). Chief among them was Horace Walpole, the writer of the first major work of Gothic fiction, who exclaimed that The Nightmare was a truly “shocking” sight to behold (10). As the exhibition came to a close, critics reconsidered the work and reaffirmed its impressive execution which justified it as a “well conceived” piece of art regardless of its source (12). Afterwards, an unprecedented amount of printings of The Nightmare were distributed all around the world, “until it became the way of visualising bad dreams [and] the design for depicting monsters of the night” (13). Therefore, it should be of no surprise that this exact picture has also made its way into the Australian mindset. Whether it is the author or the character who consciously or unconsciously evokes The Nightmare in their description, it is apparent that the impression of this painting has become part of their mental lexicon.

So, after looking at the literary and visual meaning of this nightmare, one might as well analyse it on a semantic level. Thus, it suddenly becomes interesting how Samuel Johnson actually first defined a nightmare:

n.s. [night, and according to Temple, mara, a spirit that, in the heathen mythology, was related to torment or suffocate sleepers.]

A morbid oppression in the night, resembling the pressure of weight upon the breast.

“Saint Withold footed thrice the would,
He met the nightmare, and her name he told;
Bid her alight, and her troth plight.
[And aroint thee, witch, aroint thee!]”

(Shakespeare, King Lear 3.4.119–123)

It is quite astonishing how almost everything discussed so far can be contained in this small definition from 1755. First, Johnson examines the etymology of the word and remarks that “mara” can be traced back to its origin as a tormenting spirit in Germanic Neopaganism. Afterwards, Johnson presents his actual definition of a nightmare: “[a] morbid oppression in the night.” This specific term is not unfamiliar to readers of The Time of the Ghosts, though, since Polack also described Kat’s nightmare as “[a]n oppression surrounding her” (117). Furthermore, Johnson explains that the dreamer experiences “[a] pressure of weight upon the breast,” which is also prominently featured in Fuseli’s and Polack’s work. Finally, Johnson references another work of art, King Lear, which was also the same text that critics consulted to make sense of The Nightmare. However, Fuseli, who “made his name as a ‘painter of Shakespeare’” (Frayling 10), has actually cut ties with this canonical piece of literature, since he does not depict a witch or sorceress as the source of evil. Instead, Fuseli refers back to the folkloric explanation of this phenomena. In The Nightmare, a “mara” — a demonic and apelike incubus — sits atop of its defenseless victim and stares relentlessly at the viewer of this scene. And in The Time of the Ghosts, this sensation is being vividly recalled:

I feel strange, she thought. Like those eyes were piercing my soul. Like a hurt lay inside. I don’t know if they made it worse or were investigating to see what it was that hurt. They were clinical, though. Those eyes didn’t care. They may have been human, once. They may have cared, once. But when they were looking at me they were cold and clinical. Yucky. Very, very yuck. (117–118)

We have come full circle. One Gothic nightmare was felt very strongly in a very similar way by two different people, at two different times. And if you have ever experienced a nightmare like this, you know exactly why they stand united in their interpretation of it. Nightmares are truly intense and uniquely distinct.

Works Cited

Frayling, Christopher. “Fuseli’s The Nightmare: Somewhere between the Sublime and the Ridiculous.” Gothic Nightmares. Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination, edited by Martin Myrone, Tate Publishing, 2006, pp. 9–20.

“Nightmare.” A Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson, 1755,

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Philosophy of Composition.” Graham’s Magazine, vol. 28, no. 4, 1846, pp. 163–167. Internet Archive,

Polack, Gillian. The Time of the Ghosts. Next Chapter, 2021.

Strong Women in Gillian Polack’s The Time Of The Ghosts – Kat in Chapter Six [p.96-99]

Anyone that has read at least a few pages of the novel can tell that the four main protagonists; Lili, Ann, Mabel and Kat; could not be more different from one another, yet they complete each other perfectly. Three grandmas and a teenager is an odd combination to begin with but facing ghosts together makes for an even more special hobby.

As Kat has only joined them recently, she has never had any real experience with ghosts before. When Ann first meets her, Kat is without a family. Homeless and inexperienced. Ann shares her thoughts about Kat and her personality right in the beginning of the novel.

Ann had never met a teenager like Kat.
Compact and self-contained.
Passionate beyond belief.
Willing to do anything for other people.
Not a scrap of an idea of how to take care of herself.
Sharp as a razor. Emotionally whipped red raw.
Full of contradictions.

page 4

It is that passion and will to do anything for others that allows Kat to stick up for her grannies when they were confronted with a group of lubbers in chapter six. When Ann tries to chase them away by telling them to leave Canberra and Australia in general, the situation escalates and she is suddenly surrounded by a big crowd of “manlike creatures with big eyes and bigger mouths” (page 96). The creatures also notice Mabel when she takes two steps back; they start swarming around her pressing her back into a big letterbox.

Kat is shocked by what she is experiencing in that moment.

Kat stood there, stunned. Her grannies were being attacked by little manlike things.

It was indecent. It was wrong. It froze Kat to the spot. Silent. Hurting.

page 96

Kat awakes from her frozen state when she hears Lil crying behind her and loses her temper. Stepping forward, she pokes one of the lubbers. She tries to get them to leave by verbally assaulting and insulting them.

At the back of her mind she saw Mabel scared, she saw Ann trapped. “You hurt my grannies, I hurt you.”

page 97

What also stands out to me was that Kat takes one step forward while Mabel takes two steps back. Even though Kat is scared and also mentions that she “didn’t like what she saw.”, she still stands up for her grannies as the feeling of anger overpowers her fear.

Harnessing her rage, she expounds a speech on how thousands of teenagers will watch for the creatures and know what to do.

Just a bunch of teenagers, standing and looking, standing and looking, standing and looking.

Have you ever seen how a teenager can stand and loom? It’s the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen.

It shrinks you inside. It makes you tinier than tiny. […]

But that’s not even the worst thing that will happen to you.”

page 97

As Kat keeps threatening them, the lubbers start to back off. The grannies finally find their voices again and help Kat to chase the lubbers away. In the end Lil praises Kat more than once for her act.

“That was so well done of you” […] “We were lucky. […] We had Kat.”

page 99

As mentioned before, Kat’s act in this scene shows perfectly how passionate she is for others. She overcomes her fears because she can’t see the people who are really important to her suffer. This makes her a really strong female character in Gillian Polack’s novel. After she has not had a real family in so long, she grew closer to the grannies and claimed them as her own grandmothers.

Overall The Time Of The Ghosts has a lot of scenes that show that these four women have really strong personalities. This scene in particular stood out because it was the first time that Kat had to protect the grannies and not the other way around.

Reference: Polack, Gillian. The Time of the Ghosts. Next Chapter, 2021.

“The time of the ghosts”: a diverse ghost story? (Review)

What happens when three old ladies take in a 15-year-old runaway? And what happens when these three old ladies are not just your regular neighbourhood grandmas but hunt ghosts as a hobby? 

These questions and many more such as ‘How does one have a relationship with a ghost?’ or even ‘How to spend your retirement?’ are answered in Gillian Polack’s novel The Time of the Ghosts. 

The story revolves around three elderly (very old) ladies Ann, Mabel and Lil. When Ann meets the teenager Kat, who had run away from home, the three ladies decide to take her in. Over many years the grandmas have spent their time hunting ghosts in Canberra to send them back to where they came from. Once they take in Kat they decide to try and teach her their ways, especially now that some sort of evil spirit is threatening Canberra. 

Now judging by both the title and the cover of the book The Time of the Ghosts can easily be classified as a ghost story. And obviously ghosts are very important in the story since the three grandmas spend a huge part of their time hunting them. Furthermore, the novel definitely displays the dark and mysterious undertones of a ghost story. The ghosts presented are all very different in nature and character, ranging from friendly bushrangers to evil spirits. 

 However, Polack’s novel has much more to offer than that. When it comes to the mythical creatures that occur in the story the different types include ghosts, werewolves, and even fairies, which actually are a huge part of the story. 

As explained above, in addition to the unquestionably engaging theme of ghost hunting, The Time of The Ghosts touches on a variety of different subjects that are equally as interesting and important to the story. 

Apart from the ghost hunting, the story also follows the personal struggles of the characters that tackle tough issues like divorce, an abusive household or confronting your past as well as the idea of aging. Throughout the novel, these struggles continuously test the friendship between the grandmas especially since one of them seems to be keeping a secret. 

From themes like food and nature to the topic of Jewishness throughout different time periods and colonialism to such heavy topics such as abuse and even child loss, the story provides an insight into many troubles one might face in their life mixed with mythical elements, therefore making it very engaging to read. These themes are not only discussed in the main story but also in the Tales of Melusine, a many-century-old fairy, that are interjected in the outer story of the novel. These tales not only give the reader a view into different mythological creatures and stories throughout the centuries but also become relevant in the discussion of who these three, ghost-hunting old ladies really are. 

The switch between a third person narrative, the Melusine Tales, which at first seem to be disconnected from the outer storyline, and a first-person narrative in the form of blog posts that Kat is writing alongside the unfolding story adds a captivating depth to it. In the tales of Melusine, the story openly plays with the question of how reliable a narrator is, by mentioning that the narrator of the stories (Melusine herself) is a fairy that likes to play with the truth and is prone to lying. The blogposts, which are never labelled as such and can’t be pinned down to a specific time, give an intimate look into Kat’s thoughts and provide additional information about what she has been doing away from the three old ladies that she calls her ‘grandmas’. Even though these switches in perspective might seem confusing in the beginning, they are tied in together very nicely.

So all in all, The Time of the Ghosts is much more than just a ghost/ ghost-hunting story. It is a diverse story about friendship and family, Jewishness, aging and mystery. 

Traces of Jean d’Arras’ Melusine in Gillian Polack’s “The Time of the Ghosts”

Heinrich Vogeler creator QS:P170,Q213734 , Vogeler, Heinrich – Melusine – Barkenhoff Worpswede, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons

Not Like Other Sirens – The Melusine’s Craving for a Human Soul

Tales of water-associated women, resembling a dragon, fish, or snake, have made appearances in one way or another all over the world. Mentions of sirens, mermaids, figures like the Medusa, to name some of them, aren’t uncommon. But the Melusine, who shares some features with these mythological beings, also vastly differs from them.

Appearing as a normal woman, the foundress of the Lusignan line, a medieval chatelaine and matriarch during six days of the week, the Melusine was cursed by her mother Presine to transform into a serpent, or fish, from the waist down once a week. While other monstrous beings like the siren lured men into traps, effectively murdering them, the Melusine craves for a pure human soul.

The Mother Dragon

To achieve the life she longs for, she must keep her fairy-self hidden from her husband. Her transformations all depend on the betrayal by the male figures in her life. First by her father who broke the promise not to see her mother in childbed, and later by her husband Raymond who spies on her in her monstrous form while she takes a bath. As a result, Melusine is forced to turn from a half-fairy to half-serpent, or half-fish, sometimes even depicted with wings, and lastly into a dragon.

Not only is she burdened with having to give up on her chance of becoming human, but the Melusine also must let go of her husband, status as a noblewoman, and her home. The biggest sacrifice she has to make, aside from relinquishing her human-self, however, is letting go of her children. While she stays away from her husband, she nevertheless continues to visit her children occasionally, even as a dragon, not fully a monster, but a caring mother instead.

Jewish Fairy, Jewish Soul

Over the years since the story of the Melusine was first told by Jean d’Arras, the events and the half-fairy’s appearance have been retold and changed many times. She continued to capture the interest of different cultures all over the world, who adapted her to fit their image and even today, the Melusine still appears in literature and other forms of media.

The Time of the Ghosts by Gillian Polack is only one example in which the Melusine plays a huge role in modern times, but it proves to be an interesting comparison to the old medieval texts that first explored the history of the half-fairy.

In the medieval texts, the Melusine often didn’t only crave to be human, but also for a final Christian death once she had managed to acquire a human soul. The situation in The Time of the Ghosts is similar. While Lil, who is the Melusine in the novel, longs to be human as well, she does not crave a pure Christian soul, but a pure Jewish soul instead.

One of the biggest differences to Jean d’Arras’ Melusine is that Lil is able to give up on her immortality and her winged serpent form. She does so by choice at first and isn’t forced to take on her serpent form at all. On the contrary, Lil can’t take on her fairy form at all throughout most of the novel, even if she tries several times. She does succeed at the end of the novel due to a number of reasons, including her husband and her descendants.

A Fairy’s Family

The Melusine’s family also plays a big role in The Time of the Ghosts. Lil finds a husband she loves in Sebastian and together they have two children. Before they are born, however, Sebastian disappears without a trace. Prior to her husband vanishing, Lil was traveling a lot but ultimately settles down with her children once he’s gone. This starkly contrasts the medieval figure of Melusine, whose husband’s betrayal forced her to leave her home and wander instead.

In The Time of the Ghosts, Sebastian’s disappearance could thus be seen as a betrayal which causes this reversed plot. But just like Jean d’Arras’ Melusine, Lil suffers due to losing her husband and ultimately also her children.

Her son dies early, and her daughter grows up to despise her and her magic, sending Lil away and forbidding her contact with her family, whom she loves more than anything. She continuously attempts to watch over her descendants but can’t reconnect with them due to her fairy-self.

In addition to losing her family, Lil also had to let go of several of her old identities throughout her life, leaving many friends behind as well. Giving up her identities can be compared to Jean d’Arras’ Melusine losing her high status. This aspect is particularly apparent in the novel’s “Tales of Melusine”, where those who knew her fairy-self throughout life had a high opinion of her but eventually ended up dying before her, taking her status to the grave with them. Forced to be alone for years, Lil thus decides to give up on her fairy-self and immortality.

Melusine’s ability to live happily at the end of the novel is only possible due to her husband finally returning and still being in love with her, as well as through the discovery that Kat is a descendant of hers. Kat who, instead of pushing her away like her daughter, longs to spend more time with her. She cares about Kat as she would about her own children and only manages to take on her fairy-self again because she wants to see her grow up and be with her husband again.

Jean d’Arras’ Melusine does not get to experience this happiness as her relationship with Raymond doesn’t end well. Gillian Polack thus flipped the medieval Melusine’s story upside down.

A Fairy’s Form

Another very significant common ground between the two versions is the Melusine’s fairy form. Gillian Polack’s Melusine is also depicted as a woman with a serpent’s tail and golden wings, as well as scales, when she finally shows herself to Kat. In addition to her otherworldly appearance, she is also described as young and powerful, hinting at the magic and special abilities she possesses, just like her counterpart by Jean d’Arras.

Aside from taking on her fairy form, she is also able to fly, use telepathy, and can convince everyone to do what she desires. Furthermore, the novel hints at her ability to see the future when Melusine writes about giving a man the gift of foresight. This power was said to be used by the medieval Melusine. Lil also uses other types of magic, though what exactly she can do is never described in detail. Throughout the time when Lil doesn’t deny her fairy form, she is also described as incredibly beautiful, enticing, and initially immortal.

A Fairy Tale Ending?

In conclusion, while Gillian Polack’s and Jean d’Arras’ Melusines share many traits with each other, like their powers, the loss of those they love and wanting to die as a human in the end, there are also stark differences between the two.

Lil was betrayed by her husband and child, not by being discovered as a Melusine, but by Sebastian’s disappearance and her daughter being unaccepting of her magic. She does, however, end up getting a happy ending. Nevertheless, her ability to give up on her immortality and her fairy-self instead of being forced to shift once a week is the biggest difference in my opinion. But perhaps it is for that very reason, that Gillian Polack’s Melusine is allowed a happy ending and can continue to live with her family, as she accepts her true self and is accepted as such by others.

Interpretative Approaches to Women in “Time of the Ghosts” – Academic Musings

by Benedikt von Laufenberg 

This blog post is concerned with the way female characters are presented in Gillian Pollack’s The Time of the Ghost. Before the interpretation of the novel can be started, it is necessary to justify the chosen approach.

Interpretative Approaches

An interpretive approach, which completely transforms the regarded artwork is in need of justification because there are certain risks associated with it. First, there is the danger of ideologically manipulating the artwork. One might analyze Kafka’s Metamorphosis within a psychoanalytical framework but this inevitably validates the theoretical framework. X no longer means X but Y and this Y is defined outside of the work itself. Second, there is the risk of burying the artwork under a heap of theoretical assumptions. X no longer means X but might mean Y or Z. In both cases there is the danger of obscuring the artwork by interpretation instead of uncovering some elements of it. These negative consequences of interpretation are summarized by Susan Sontag: “(…) interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art” (Sontag 7). Sontag’s rather polemical solution is: “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art” (14). This last statement is too general to be applied to every artwork. But why not analyze Polack’s novel in a way that is more immediate and not so reliant on interpretation? The answer is to be found in the novel’s subject matter. As the title indicates, it is about ghosts and if one does not take this at face value, one is interpreting because the subsequent question is: what do the ghosts stand for? An answer might be patriarchy, the bourgeoisie, the Dionysian element in human consciousness, or the subconscious itself. An interpretative approach could completely transform the novel in such a way that all these answers are possible. Thus, there is always a contingent factor in interpretation because someone is choosing a path to derive this answer and not another one. The justification is the novel’s subject matter which demands to be interpreted in such an emphatic manner that it is difficult to conceive of another approach to it.

“The Three Had Action Down to A Fine Art”

The chosen interpretive approach is concerned with the way female characters are portrayed and how this representation challenges representation of female characters in the past. Jia Tolentino, writing about female characters in novels, asserts: “If you were a girl, and you were imagining your life through literature, you would go from innocence in childhood, to sadness in adolescence to bitterness in adulthood – at which point, if you hadn’t killed yourself, you would simply disappear” (Tolentino 95). It is noteworthy that the three women, who assist Kat in tackling the ghosts, are about 70. Thus, they have not killed themselves nor have they disappeared. Besides that, they have profound knowledge in fighting ghosts:

“The three had action down to a fine art. They didn’t even have to think about it anymore, so often had they moved. Mostly it was for settling restless spirits (which really didn’t take action at all) or for investigating something that turned out entirely phony, but these things were obviously preparation for now. Because now, they knew what to do”

(Polack 84)

This fighting of ghosts, which is of real importance in the novel since ghosts are supposed to be existent, has a real-life counterpart, which is described by Tolentino: “Women are hunted by memories and stories of one another – shadow selves, icons, obsessions, ghosts” (Tolentino 123). Thus, one might read the ghosts in The Time of the Ghosts as physical manifestations of the psychic processes described by Tolentino (cf. ibid.). A reading which might be substantiated. However, it has to be noted that the novel is composed under the premise that ghosts are real and that they can be fought by certain techniques which of course cannot be transferred in our world.  Thus, Tolentino’s description of Ferrante is not entirely applicable to Polack’s novel: “It is transcendent, in the way de Beauvoir meant it, to watch Ferrante’s narrators triangulate themselves from these images, in their emotional and intellectual project of asserting selfhood and control” (Tolentino 122f.).

Real Life Implications

 Even though the real-life implications of Polack’s novel are not as profound as Ferrante’s might be, the case can be made that the constellation of female characters, who assert themselves and male spectral characters, who are controlled by the female characters, do have real life implications. This is due to the fact that the reader of novels has certain expectations (cf. Tolentino 95), which stem from other books. These expectations, indoctrinated by readings, influence the way we perceive the world. Tolentino mentions Emma Bovary, the heroine of the eponymous novel: “(…) Emma, a pretty and suggestible farmer’s daughter with a taste for romance novels, gets married to a doctor named Charles Bovary and finds herself confused. Marriage is much duller than she expected (Tolentino 115). In the end, after many failed affairs, she commits suicide (cf. ibid.). Emma, disillusioned by life with no opportunity of asserting herself, does not see any other solution except from killing herself. These storylines influence perception. But our perception is equally, if not more profoundly, influenced if stories differ from those we are used to. In that sense, Polack’s novel might influence the perceptions of the readers for the better.

            It was demonstrated that an interpretative approach which adds something to the novel is justified in this case because the subject matter is open for analysis and difficult to handle without an interpretive approach. After this it was shown that Pollack’s novel differs substantially from historical representations of women.


  • Polack, Gillian. The Time of the Ghosts, edited by Stephen Ormsby and Vonda N. McIntyre, Next Chapter, 2021.
  • Sontag, Susan. “Against interpretation“. Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Penguin Group, 2009, pp. 3-14.
  • Tolentino, Jia. “Pure Heroins“. Trick Mirror Reflections on Self-Delusion, 4th Estate, 2020, pp. 95-129.

Narrative(s) and Structure in Gillian Polack’s “The Time of the Ghosts”

Something that immediately caught my eye while reading is that Gillian Polack’s novel The Time of the Ghosts consists of three different narratives: the main story, Kat’s blog and the ‘Tales of Melusine’. All three narratives have their own content, structure and narrative situation and they take turns throughout the novel. While the narratives differ in these aspects, they ultimately combine into one narrative. 

The First Narrative

The first narrative, the main narrative of the novel, follows the story of the three old women Lil, Ann and Mabel who take in the rebellious young girl Kat, who was homeless. Kat forms relationships with her “grandmothers” and together they explore the world of ghosts, spirits and monsters. This narrative has a third person narrator but what is important to note is that most of it is told from Kat’s perspective, which makes her the main focaliser. The novel uses several spaces and a black line, to indicate that a certain scene is over. The following part of the text then is a time skip, a change in location, one of the ‘Tales of Melusine’ or one of Kat’s blog posts.

The Second Narrative

The second narrative is Kat’s blog. It is asynchronous, as she is writing her blog rather irregularly throughout the novel and the entries are not closely tied to the surrounding narrative. Mostly the topics of her blog include research she has done on monster and ghost sightings, reviews of the ‘Tales of Melusine’ she has read so far or a journal of events involving her grandmothers. Kat calls her infrequent posts “snippets of lives” (p. 162) and compares them to the ‘Tales of Melusine’ (cf. p. 162).  Sometimes she writes about her past, her family and her nightmares. In this narrative Kat is a first-person narrator. That, and the fact that she is writing about her own experiences, gives the reader a much closer look into Kat’s character compared to other characters in the novel. For this reason, I found it easy to connect with her character more deeply. Another important thing to note is that her blog posts are unlabeled. They do not have a title and, as mentioned above, are mostly identifiable through breaks in the text and a switched narrator. Therefore, at first glance they may look like a continuation of the main narrative but these posts have their own voice. As Kat is a fifteen-year-old girl and she is also writing a blog rather than a literary mode, her language is more colloquial and she is often voicing her opinion on whatever she is writing about. 

The Third Narrative

The third narrative consists of the ‘Tales of Melusine’. They are little snippets of the life of the fairy Melusine, later revealed to be Lil, over the last 500 years and they are written like fairy tales. I would argue that the novel wants the reader to see them as such most of the time, as some tales which appear in the novel start with “once upon a time” (p. 13). Another special feature is that the tales are, unlike Kat’s blog posts, labeled and sequenced, yet also achronological. For me this was interesting as in some tales there was no indication in which century they took place, which made them seem more mystical and mysterious. What these tales also do is point at issues connected to Jewishness and Jewish-Australianness. The tales are written in third person narration and have Melusine as the focaliser. Looking at these tales in terms of narrative structure, I would say that they are an embedded narrative, a story within the story so to speak, with the main narrative as the frame narrative.  

In the end, the three narratives combined make for a great novel. While the switch of narrative often felt pretty random, one still sees the connection of the narratives by the end of it. The change in perspective, writing style and narrative elevates the mysteriousness of the story and while sometimes the order or the switch of the narratives seems illogical, by the end of the novel one still got the feeling everything made sense and the mysteries were solved.