The Road to Woop Woop and Other Stories by Eugen Bacon
(Meercat Press, 2021)
Reviewed by Ivy Roberts
Eugen Bacon’s The Road to Woop Woop and Other Stories invites readers into an eclectic world of Gods, demons, shape shifters, bounty hunters, and spirits. This loosely connected web of tales weaves together themes of death, memory, and relationships. Beneath stories of ancient beasts and heroes lie profoundly modern problems: how to deal with breakup, struggles to overcome trauma, surviving the death of a loved one… Bacon’s fantasies blend effortlessly with modern day contexts ala American Gods.
The Road to Woop Woop accomplishes the remarkable feat of making myth, fable, and indigenous folkloric tradition relevant to the modern situation of 21st century readers. The anthology’s main arch resides in the African-Australian fables and mythology. Bacon being of Afro-Australian descent provides here a provocative contribution to AfroSF. Illustrations speckle this volume, too, evocative of Black women and fantasy, illuminating links between African fable and modern-day diaspora.
Bacon’s lyrical, at times poetical prose carries tales told in short bursts. Of the 24 short stories anthologized in this volume, 7 are new. The bulk of The Road to Woop Woop consists of stories by Bacon that have been published elsewhere, in literary magazines and in her previous story collections. Of the new stories, the book’s titular first chapter stands out. Written in the second person voice, “The Road to Woop Woop” chronicles “You,” an otherwise unnamed protagonist, on a road trip from Broome to Kununurra along Australia’s Northwest coast. “Woop Woop” in this occasion derives from Aussie slang: the middle of nowhere, or else the end of the world. “You” and River form a despondent couple hoping a vacation will iron the creases of their relationship. Keeping her feelings close to her chest, the female narrator is thinking of ending things with River. But before she can come to terms with these troubling thoughts, the car drives through a bizarre atmospheric event, a colourful fog of sorts that causes her to hallucinate River’s body disappearing limb by limb. Dreamlike interjections of this sort occupy many of Bacon’s other stories, punctuating a mundane situation with a fantastical event in order to dig into underlying emotions and hidden agendas. As with many of the stories in Bacon’s new volume, “Woop Woop” begins with a mundane premise and quickly moves into the territory of the fantastic.
This familiar theme of voyage into nothingness resurfaces in the last story, “Playback,” which could be considered a novella compared to the other relatively short vignettes. “Playback” prognosticates the death of Liam Keen, turning back time to follow the years leading up to his untimely demise. Again, as in “Woop Woop,” Liam faces the challenge of overcoming the breakup of a serious relationship with Audrey. This piece of soft SF hints at a larger universe in which an intergalactic war landed native Bathoxian Liam on Earth. He feels like he doesn’t belong here, surely a feeling familiar to many would-be readers. Upon the advice of a friend, Liam seeks the help of Sugar Sweetman, a “body artist.” Over the course of untold months, Sugar exorcizes the smell of Audrey off him. “He made love to her with the intensity of a man about to go on a trip to Woop Woop—the end of the world.”
Ultimately, Bacon’s evocative universe of humans and magical creatures depicted in The Road to Woop Woop constitute a diaspora. This world is ‘concretized’ in “The Maji Maji Chronicle,” one of this volume’s most evocative tales. Zhorr and his apprentice, Pickle, travel back in time from the kingdom of Diaspora to witness a terrible war between the White colonizers and the native Ngoni and Ngosi villagers. This tale brings to the fore themes of traveling cultural traditions and the gods and beasts that travel with them across lands and seas and time.
Bacon is at her best when spinning yarns of fantastic creatures and otherworldly beings, many of which derive from African or Australian traditions. “The One Who Sees,” channels African fable and legend, showing how ones’ spirit animals connects them to ancient homelands. Tales of mermaids and shades, phoenixes and demons populate this volume. “A Nursery Rhyme” tells of a woman, Venus, whose memory was altered after she was kidnapped by the cult of Ganymede, a vicious and immitigable demon. In “Beatitudes,” a frog and a mermaid exchange stories about transfiguration reminiscent of “Snow White” and the Brothers Grimm. Bacon also draws on myth and legend from other traditions, including Roman, Greek, and Chinese.
Death is eminently present in “Woop Woop,” and only sometimes comes in the company of fantastic beasts. From the disappearance of River in the first tale, Bacon holds a special place for death and the grief and denial that come with it. The Angel of Death plays a game of the life of Bluey in “Dying,” Groundhog Day style. “A Pining” is told in the second person, recounting your loss of a child and wife, and your subsequent suicide.
Trauma announces itself in its absence, is broken memory and forgetting. In “He refused to name it,” a man suddenly becomes a widower, shackled to a newborn he never knew existed. Refusing to come to grips with the news, he wanders at the whim of Nature, and lives in a house haunted by trauma. Many of Bacon’s stories feature protagonists who either reluctantly take trips down memory lane, or have their memory stolen from them.
The Road to Woop Woop and Other Stories would be an essential addition to the collection of anyone drawn to indigenous fantasy and AfroSF.