Margo Lanagan. Here’s a woman after my own heart. She can look in the dictionary and find a horror story.
“What sparked ‘The Goosle’
Goodness knows what I was looking up in The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary in the second half of 2005, when my eyes wandered from their task and found this:
gunsel n. US slang. E20 [Yiddish gendzel = G Gändslein gosling, little goose; in sense 2 infl. by GUN n.] 1 A naïve youth; a homosexual youth, esp. a passive one kept by a tramp. E20. 2 An informer; a criminal, a gunman. M20.
That first definition, ‘A naïve youth…’ etc., made me sit up: In what kind of time and place and culture would tramps be sufficiently powerful, motivated and invisible to keep boys as sex slaves—and so commonly that such boys would attract a term of their own? Clearly, from the definition, they could do so in early twentieth-century North America—but my mind went flying further back into the past, to a Europe depopulated and rendered lawless by the Black Plague.
I wrote in my notebook: ‘Hansel the Gunsel’ and I copied down the first definition. You can see that the word itself straight away set off the idea of using ‘Hansel and Gretel’ somehow. So once Hansel escaped the witch, how had he ended up falling in with this sneaky, criminally minded, self-interested wanderer—see how definition 2 snuck into the mix too? I decided that Hansel wasn’t in fact homosexual, but that he’d been naïve enough, and hungry enough for affection, to be beguiled by Grinnan. And then couldn’t extricate himself from their arrangement, just as he hadn’t been able to get out of the cage in the witch’s house. Gretel had had to free him—and the witch had eaten her as punishment.
So the sound of the word gunsel itself sent me off to ‘Hansel and Gretel’, where I found all the necessary background to build against; definition 1 gave me the central character and his problem; definitions 1 (with ‘tramp’) and 2 (with ‘informer’ and ‘criminal’) gave me Hansel’s antagonist; and the Yiddish and German origins of the word, ‘gosling, little goose’, gave me some pet-names that Grinnan might use on poor Hansel, helping define their relationship.
These last, ‘gosling’ and ‘little goose’, I ended up mashing together with gunsel to make the word ‘goosle’, and this malformed word marks the strongest point of my revulsion from Grinnan’s exploitation of Hansel. That endearment, whispered by Grinnan as he strokes Hanny’s back to relax him prior to another rape, makes my throat close off and the back of my neck prickle; it has the added strength of suggesting goose-flesh, which is pretty much what I want Grinnan’s personality and actions to provoke in readers. In the end, after all I’d put poor Hansel through, it was the only word that would stand as the story’s title.
‘The Goosle’ was first published in The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Ellen Datlow, in 2008 (Del Rey). It was reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2009); The Year’s Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Bill Congreve and Michelle Marquardt (MirrorDanse, 2010); and Award Winning Australian Writing 2009, edited by Marleena Forward and Adlolfo Aranjuez (Melbourne Books, 2009). In the Ditmar Awards for 2008, ‘The Goosle’ won the Best Short Story Award.“