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REVIEW: Riptide by Dan Rabarts


Short story review by Lee Murray

A multiple winner of the Australian Shadows and Sir Julius Vogel Awards, Kiwi Dan Rabarts (Ngāti Porou) is well known in Antipodean horror circles, his body of work comprising novels, novellas, short fiction, screenplays, and poetry. Of these, his short story, “Riptide”, which appears in Simon Dewar’s anthology Suspended in Dusk II (2018, Grey Matter Press), is arguably his most powerful work and my personal favourite. Perhaps the story appeals to me because it is set on a nameless beach in Aotearoa, somewhere that I might have walked myself, or because Rabart’s prose is gritty, poignant, and resoundingly beautiful. Or possibly, the tale speaks to me because, as a sufferer of depression and anxiety, I recognise in it a monster that I have battled often over the years, even before I could give it a name.

At its core, “Riptide” is a heartbreaking tale of mental illness and loss, told with breathtaking authenticity. That sense of shared connection broke me when I first read it—the notion that other people have experienced this darkness, that I am not alone in feeling this—was overwhelming. And it must be true, because here it is on the page, wedged between the lines like sand between your toes, and in the unspoken dialogue between a man and his wife, and in the story’s haunting windswept imagery.

Loosely structured to follow the seasons, “Riptide” tells of a Māori diver who has brought his family to the beach for the holidays—the same place he spent his summers as a child, near a rugged headlands and an old pōhutukawa tree, and where the ocean shifts and seethes to the shore. Now, he is back with his own children, Mārama and Rā, his sun and moon, and Stephanie, his beautiful and brittle wife, where their intent is to play with their tamariki on the beach, eat BBQ sausages wrapped in bread, and laze away the Kiwi summer, putting aside the worries of their everyday. But a strange tension hangs over the family, a spooling haze of untold secrets and unresolved grief, and when the summer ends, the diver must return to the beach and confront the monster standing between him and the family he loves.

There is a lot to unpack in this tightly crafted short story. The importance of dialogue. The way unanswered pain reaches across generations. The solace and sadness of rituals.
Of note is the manner in which Rabarts leans into his Māori heritage, revealing his deep respect for the land of his birth and the seas that crash upon its shores. In a unique approach, he employs the taniwha, a supernatural creature and powerful local symbol, as a metaphor for mental illness. Typically taking the form of a lizard or serpent, taniwha beasts lurk in waterways and caverns, hiding in isolated shadowy places, where they kidnap maidens and devour unsuspecting travelers.

As the protagonists tells his children: “Every place has its taniwha. Some we can see, some we can’t. Some live under the ground, and some swim in the sea, and in the spaces in between. They come in all shapes and sizes, and they’re really good at hiding, so they can pop out and gobble you up when you least expect it.”

Pop out and gobble you up when you least expect it.

The protagonist’s wife, not being Māori, doesn’t believe her partner’s nonsense, but that doesn’t make the monsters any less real, and anyway she has her own monsters…and thus, Rabarts quietly demonstrates the cultural juxtaposition of modern Western and traditional Māori attitudes towards mental illness and grief.

An understated but deeply unsettling story, I recommend “Riptide” as an excellent example of how to address the monster of mental illness in our writing, tackling difficult issues with sensitivity and insight, and wrapping them all up in a compelling story that will stay with readers long after they put it down. But Rabarts doesn’t stop there, “Riptide” offering readers a final kernel of kindness: the hope that the monster might one day be tamed. And isn’t that the very point of horror, after all?

About the Author: Dan Rabarts is an award-winning author and editor, four-time recipient of New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award and three-time winner of the Australian Shadows Award. He is author of the five-book steampunk-grimdark-comic fantasy series, Children of Bane, co-author of the Path of Ra crime-noir thriller series from Raw Dog Screaming Press, and co-editor of dark fiction anthologies Baby Teeth and At the Edge. Dan’s science fiction, dark fantasy and horror short stories have been published in numerous venues worldwide. He also regularly narrates and produces for podcasts and audiobooks. Find him at dan.rabarts.com.

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