Call of the wild and weird: how emigration and dislocation led to inspiration

by J. Ashley-Smith

I moved to Australia in the early 2000s, just after I turned thirty. It was a turning point in my life as significant and mind-blowing as the birth of our first child a few years later. The landscape just sucked me in, that vastness, its untameable nature. That wild heart, and the ex-pat’s sense of wrongness and disorientation, has been my constant inspiration ever since.

I grew up in the UK, where all the true untamed wildness is in the past—in fairy stories, in myth. In England, there’s almost nowhere you can get to where you can’t see or hear a road. You’d have to work really, really hard to get lost. And it’s so populous. You could drive a hundred miles in either country, but it would feel twice as far in the UK: you’re in constant traffic; towns and cities blur into one another, with next to no space in between.

As soon as you arrive in Australia you have this sense of wildness just beyond the city limits. There’s civilisation, sure—good coffee, pastries, colour supplements in the weekend newspaper. But the farther you get from the cities, the more you venture into that untamed space. For a while we lived in the Blue Mountains and could literally have walked out the back gate for ten minutes, twenty minutes, a week, and been lost in wild forest that stretches uninterrupted for kilometres—you stray from the path out there and you never find your way back.

There’s an ancientness too. Of the landscape, of the Indigenous culture that bloomed here for tens of thousands of years before Western civilisation was even a thing. There’s a sense of deep magic, deep time. All of that struck me over the head the moment I arrived.

And yet, as deep a response as I had to the landscape on arriving—and still have, whenever we get out in it—I don’t feel part of it. I don’t belong here. And this applies both to that ancient Australia as to the modern civilisation clinging to its coasts. Anyone who’s ever left one home to start another will know this feeling—you’re the eternal outsider. No matter how well you assimilate, a part of you will always be a stranger, not fully integrated. And when you go home, the same is true. Something gets broken or lost which can’t be replaced, and you never truly belong anywhere ever again.

When I first moved here, I was struck by how different things weren’t. They sold the same packets of cereal, had the same queen on their coins. Everyone spoke a language I was used to from the country I’d departed. But things weren’t quite the same; everything was just a little off. The cereals looked familiar but had weirdly different names. The queen’s head was identical, but the coins were the wrong sizes and shapes. Everyone spoke the same language but with no shared cultural references. When making new friends it would seem like we were connecting, like everything was making sense, only to find neither of us knew what the other was talking about. The similarities between here and there were so striking it distracted me from the true and fundamental differences.

It was like that scene from Philip K Dick’s Time Out of Joint, where Ragel Gumm goes up to the bathroom and reaches for the light cord in the darkness—only it’s not there, because this house he thought he’d always lived in doesn’t have—and never had—a light cord, only a switch on the wall. It’s that glitch in the Matrix moment where you realise things aren’t quite as you thought them to be. It opens a breach between you and your sense of reality—and out of that breach crawl all the interesting things, which, to me, the weird is made of.

It’s that sense of being out of sorts with the world you inhabit that shows up in my work more than anything. Things are familiar, but wrong somehow. There’s a strangeness, an impalpable edge of paranoia, or hostility. I’m aware that I’m always writing from the outside. I live here, am Australian to all intents and purposes. But I didn’t grow up here. Don’t have that entrenched experience. So everything I write, no matter how deeply and truly I inhabit and empathise with the individuals in my stories, it’s always an outsider’s view. I’m always seeing the weirdness, with no nostalgia to tame it.

And right outside the gate, the vast and untamed wilderness, beckoning.

J. Ashley Smith is a British–Australian author of dark fiction and co-host of the Let The Cat In podcast. His first book, The Attic Tragedy, won the Shirley Jackson Award. Other stories have won the Ditmar Australian Shadows and Aurealis awards. He lives with his wife and two sons beneath an ominous mountain in the suburbs of North Canberra, gathering moth dust, tormented by the desolation of telegraph wires. You can find him at, performing amazing experiments in electronic communication with the dead. His debut collection, The Measure of Sorrow, is out now from Meerkat Press.


RELEASE DATE: June 6, 2023

GENRE: Collection / Dark Fantasy / Horror




Shirley Jackson Award-winning author J. Ashley-Smith’s first collection, The Measure of Sorrow, draws together ten new and previously acclaimed stories of dark speculative fiction. In these pages a black reef holds the secret to an interminable coastal limbo; a father struggles to relate to his estranged children in a post-bushfire wilderness; an artist records her last days in conversation with her unborn child; a brother and sister are abandoned to the manifestations of their uncle’s insanity; a suburban neighborhood succumbs to an indescribable malaise; teenage ravers fall in with an eldritch crowd; a sensitive New Age guy commits a terminal act of passive-aggression; a plane crash opens the door to the Garden of Eden; the new boy in the village falls victim to a fatal ruse; and a husband’s unexpressed grief is embodied in the shadows of a crumbling country barn. Intelligent and emotionally complex, the stories in The Measure of Sorrow elude easy classification, lifting the veil on the wonder and horror of a world just out of true.

BUY LINKS: Meerkat Press | Amazon |

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