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Mountain Gothic and other variants: Samuel Butler and M.K. Joseph.

One problem about being a little land with no history (1) is that it also means being a little land with no mystery. The Gothic by its very name is a literary visit to a mysterious, dark, and dangerous past. A nineteenth-century settler culture has no cashes, no dungeons, no old graveyards, no long-lingering ghosts. For the romance of the repellent, New Zealand had to look elsewhere. I want to sample some variants on the convention of horror that have produced powerful and distinctively New Zealand writing. They might be called mountain Gothic, battlefield Gothic, and time travel Gothic. I will locate them in two authors usually known for more intellectual concerns, Samuel Butler (1835-1902, resident in Canterbury 1860-64) and M. K. Joseph (1914-81), as well as visiting an eccentric short story that is almost certainly the first experiment in the horror genre located in New Zealand.

Mountain Gothic

Butler is not a writer associated with the adjectival macabre. His strength in prose is in unembellished directness, which manages by aptness and rhythm to be evocative, like his famous one-liner about the Rangitata, 'torrent pathway of desolation.' (2) But through his no-nonsense accounts of exploration and sheep farming, which often introduced readers in England to pithy local vernacular, he also wove strands of literary allusion that drew into the text a culture with more sense of antiquity and romance. His so-called 'Forest Creek Manuscript,' for instance, one of the earliest authentic settler narratives, fated to be ponderously edited for the magazine of his Cambridge college, The Eagle, moves to a late paragraph that merges the actual Southern Alps with the convention of romance fantasy among awesome mountains:
   True--the West Coast remains, the tower in which the
   slumbering princess lies whom none can rescue but the
   fated prince--but we know that the great Alpine range
   descends almost perpendicularly into the sea upon that
   side of the island and that its sides are covered with
   dense impenetrable forest of primeval growth. (3)

His use there of 'forest' rather than 'bush,' which he generally used elsewhere, suggests he was keeping the European fantasy joke going in that resonantly creepy last phrase. Describing the New Zealand mountains, Butler often managed to move rapidly between settler pragmatism and echoes of the Romantic or Gothic, in wording like 'huge black and dripping precipices,' 'the river whirls and frets and eddies,' 'he seemed to see some horrible chasm in front of him ... he was on the brink of that gulf which lies between life and death.' (4)

I have discussed in 'From Canterbury Settlement to Erewhon' (5) the way his New Zealand experience fostered the ironic counterpoint that became Butler's characteristic literary procedure, his rapid shifts in perspective, tone, and idiom. From 1861 to 1864 the mountains of the Rakaia and Rangitata dictated the daily realities of his life as a sheep farmer, but in writing he was always capable of transposing them simultaneously into a literary medieval mode, as in the ink drawing of his Mesopotamia property where the terrain's features are marked with accurate heights and indications of the snowline, but also with their dangers labelled in mock-Gothic old English: 'ye horryble glaciers,' 'ye vexacious gullies which are painfulle in ye traversynge,' 'ye horrid mountayne Cloudis Peake.' (6) Butler was well read and always conscious of literary register.

The two most Gothic scenes in Erewhon are the Maori Chowbok's trance in the wool-shed (chapter 2), and the narrator's encounter with the giant guardian statues high on the pass (chapter 5). The text of Erewhon was reworked long and carefully. With those early multi-tonal versions of settlement narrative behind him, Butler in these chapters confidently hits top ironic gear. They are very much more than a springboard of topographical realism to reach the fantasy satiric world of Erewhon itself, as they have usually been taken. Butler, like Swift, is most ironically devious when his narrator is at his most naive. Everything leading to the scene in the wool-shed sets up the straightforward expectation that this is to be a conventional settler romance, as the worthy colonising narrator looks down from the mountainside to contrast the desolate wilderness with the 'two white specks of huts in the distance, and the little square of garden behind them, the paddock with a patch of bright green oats above the huts,' (7) the contrast showing how civilised European tidiness and control is beginning to bring order to the raw wild vastness. That mission extends (seemingly) to the people, when the next chapter introduces Chowbok, or Kahabuka, both versions to an informed reader revealing a condescending carelessness about his name, consistent with the narrator's casual introduction of him as 'a sort of chief of the natives,' (8) and his supercilious mockery of Chowbok's taste for grog.

The first horror episode is set in the wool-shed, which the narrator describes as the nearest thing available to an antique, churchlike, and atmospheric Gothic location: 'A wool-shed is a roomy place, built somewhat on the same plan as a cathedral, with aisles on either side full of pens for the sheep, [and] a great nave ... It always impressed me with a semblance of antiquity (precious in a new country).' There the drunken savage (as the narrator sees him) suddenly goes into a hideous trancelike ritual:
   On a sudden ... he snatched up an empty wool pack,
   threw it like a mantle over his shoulders ... In a moment
   his whole form was changed ... he held his head high but
   quite straight, and his eyes stared right in front of him;
   but he frowned horribly, and assumed an expression of
   face that was positively fiendish ... he now exceeded all
   conceivable limits of the hideous. His mouth extended
   almost from ear to ear, grinning horribly and showing all
   his teeth; his eyes glared, though they remained quite
   fixed, and his forehead was contracted with a most
   malevolent scowl. (9)

If readers in England in 1872 received that as a kind of woolshed Gothic, New Zealand readers will recognise quite well-informed elements of Maori carving and of the haka. The predictable narrator responds Gothicaily, and in cliche even by those standards; 'I felt a sort of creeping at the roots of my hair and over my whole body, as I looked and wondered what he could possibly be intending to signify.' Chowbok goes on to imitate the sound-effects that the narrator will hear three chapters later, made by wind howling through the statues, with his voice ominously 'rising and falling ... till it became almost a shriek,' and the scene ends by cranking up the horror and alluding to five Gothic conventions--panic, crime, the supernatural, madness, and moonlight:
   I was open-mouthed with astonishment.
   Chowbok ... stood before me shuddering as in great fear;
   horror was written upon his face--this time quite
   involuntarily--as though the natural panic of one who
   had committed an awful crime against unknown and
   supernatural agencies. He nodded his head and
   gibbered ... [and] made a run through the wool-shed door
   into the moonlight. (10)

Unfortunately it seems possible to misread this ironic scene in a dutifully post-colonial way as demeaning to the colonised, an expression of 'the utopian myth of idyllic expansion and its imperialist subtext' in which Chowbok is 'a comic if cunning inferior.' (11) On the contrary, it is only the not very bright and very limited narrator who apologetically thinks readers might find 'ridiculousness' in Chowbok's ritual, though on the spot he finds only 'grotesque fiendishness.' The key and repeated point for the observant reader is that the ritual has meanings that completely elude him: 'I wondered what he could possibly be intending to signify.' Having congratulated himself on his scheme to outwit Chowbok and extract information, famously comparing his skill at slow persuasion to churning butter, the narrator finds himself only terrified and bemused, and most important, none the wiser: 'Of his meaning I had no conception. How could I? All I could feel sure of was, that he had a meaning which was true and awful to himself.' (12)

The prominent Gothic elements in the scene dramatise the European's incomprehension, his inability to interpret a significant ritual as anything but demonic and horrible. European tidiness is suddenly irrelevant, and European knowledge futile. Once you understand which of the two is being presented as the 'comic inferior,' the scene stands as a satiric commentary on colonial arrogance, in which the narrator is oblivious to Chowbok's intelligence, his commitment to a living culture, and his adroit manipulation of the intruder to preserve the tapu of his tribal lands.

The meaning of Chowbok's ritual is partly explained when the narrator reaches the statues, which some of his gestures and noises imitate. That encounter, the second Gothic scene, is introduced with one of Butler's most scathing ironic strikes, as the self-congratulatory narrator exposes his own religious ignorance and malevolent missionary arrogance:
   On the evening of the same day that I baptized him he
   tried for the twentieth time to steal the brandy, which
   made me rather unhappy as to whether I could have
   baptized him rightly ... He was indeed stony ground, but
   by digging about him I might at any rate have deprived
   him of all faith in the religion of his tribe, which would
   have been half way to making him a sincere
   Christian ... (13)

I do not want to over-interpret the scene at the statues, and it is too long to quote fully, but while it is undeniably Gothic, it is also, I would argue, at the same time ironically revealing of the narrator's obtuse inadequacy to the experience of encountering another culture. It has, in its mountainous setting, the standard Gothic atmospherics of misty darkness invested with associations of death, such as 'enshrouded with a cold thin vapour, which prevented my seeing more than a very few yards in front of me,' the 'veil of cloud,' 'thick gloom,' 'storm wraiths,' 'howling wind,' a sound 'so unearthly,' and 'ghostly chanting.' It has the standard Gothic physical effects, such as 'the roots of my hair thrilled,' (14) 'a shudder of unutterable horror ran through me,' 'I must have fainted ... sick and deadly cold,' 'my head was going,' 'I clasped my hands in fear,' 'I felt like a rat caught in a trap,' 'I ... felt as though one of them would rush after me, and grip me in his hand, and throttle me.' The narrator suffers the standard defenceless solitude. There is the standard suspense at not knowing what will happen next ('prepossessed with forebodings'), and the standard luridly negative adjectives, including 'supernaturally malevolent,' 'barbarous,' 'cadaverous,' 'cruel,' 'dreadful,' 'unearthly,' 'inhuman,' and 'horrible.' And the explanation surmised is that the whole episode must be the work of some demonic power, 'an assembly of fiends,' 'The inhuman beings into whose hearts the Evil One had put it to conceive these stames.' (15)

That is not a bad total of Gothic conventions in two paragraphs, especially considering that Butler's main intent is ironic. Both scenes show that the supposedly knowledgeable, sophisticated, Christian narrator responds to the unfamiliar with a primitive mix of irrational terror and shallow superstition. Butler also manages to combine Gothic frisson with convincing realism, and conveys a credible idea of the statues as a mix of Maori and Easter Island, though the narrator is much too pathetically discombobulated to recognise that. (16)

Two more episodes in Erewhon reward special attention in this context, although both can be called Gothic only in the most modern way, as horror from an era when the greatest human fear is the loss of individual identity. The narrator, abandoned by Chowbok, finds himself utterly alone: 'It is a dreadful feeling that of being cut off from all one's kind ... I do not believe that any man could long retain his reason in such solitude ... One begins doubting one's identity.' (17)

This perceptive comment obviously derives from Butler's own experience in exploring the Southern Alps, but is also a variant on the loss-of-identity post-Gothic psychological horror that was entering and would continue to enter fiction, in Poe ('William Wilson'), Dickens (the Headstone/Riderhood ending of Our Mutual Friend), Stevenson (Dr Jekjll and Mr Hyde), Wells (The Invisible Man) and (most pertinently) Conrad (Martin Decoud in Nostro mo).

Butler recurs to it in a more sustained passage at the end of Erewhon, when the narrator and his beloved Arowhena escape by balloon. Butler never rode (or is it flew?) in a balloon, but catches the uniquely disorientating aspect of that experience, that there is absolutely no sense of air movement, because a balloon moves wholly with the wind. It is a remarkable piece of writing about a new kind of horror, which I can only try to represent by excerpts:
   And now began a time, dream like and delirious, of
   which I do not suppose that I shall ever recover a
   distinct recollection. Some things I can recall--as that
   we were ere long enveloped in vapour ... then comes a
   memory of my sitting for hours and hours in a thick fog,
   hearing no sound but my own breathing ... Perhaps the
   most painful feeling when the earth was hidden was that
   the balloon was motionless ... I became half frightened
   lest I might not have broken away from [the earth] clean
   and for ever.

   The weary time dragged on. How I longed for my
   unhappy watch! I felt as though not even time was
   moving, so dumb and spell-bound were my
   surroundings. Sometimes I would feel my pulse, and
   count its beats for half an hour together; anything to
   mark the time--to prove that it was there, and to
   assure myself that I was within the blessed range of its
   influence, and not gone adrift into the timelessness of
   eternity. (18)

Linked to the previous passage of solitude in the Southern Alps, this might be called New Zealand neo-Gothic; or perhaps Existentialist Gothic. It is writing that touches a profound and credible sense of horror, and deserves to be better appreciated.

Interlude: the first New Zealand horror story

The first supernatural horror story with a New Zealand setting by a European author was probably R. H. Horne's eccentrically ghoulish 'The New Zealand Zauberflote,' published in three issues of Household Words, under the editorship of Charles Dickens, in 1850. Horne describes the story as 'a curious mixture of the grand and grotesque, and, perhaps, the improbable.' (19) The flute is made by Taonui, a Maori chief, from the legbone of Te Pomar, a slain enemy, and is carved with images of Taonui's victories. Its sound is 'truly strange and doleful,' though it seems that Horne, who never visited New Zealand, did not understand that the nose flute is different from the European instrument. Its magic is less benign than in Mozart's opera, as it is inhabited by the spirit of the enemy from whose leg it derived, and tends unpredictably to 'vibrate with electrical force,'20 and produce lurid atmospheric effects that any Hammer horror movie of the 1950s would be proud of. Another surely unique narrative moment is when a herd of hunted kangaroos (which Horne explains are not native) becomes eerily galvanised by demonic spirits after being killed.

The most horrific scene draws its imagery from the volcanic New Zealand terrain, and from some awareness of Maori carving, with sound effects as seemingly supernatural as Butler's at the statues, though the writing can offer only laborious exclamatory inflation for Butler's agility. Taonui plays his flute in front of a desolately ruined Maori mausoleum (sic), its aged wooden fencing having fallen into decay:

... the tune of scorn and triumph ... by long wailing notes, echoes, and moaning transitions, modulated into the grand death-march of a hero!
   He dropped the flute; but the strain was instantly
   repeated all round his head, in tones of thunder! It
   swelled--it rolled--it was in the air all round him --
   its great gongs and shell cymbals were now thundering
   and bashing and booming round his feet--it came in
   ear-crashing bursts from the funnel mouths of the
   volcano-craters--it again became measured and
   sustained, and swept over the blocks of lava and pumice,
   and over all the rank vegetation, and settled above the
   roof of the ruined mausoleum. Taonui staggered hither
   and thither with each change of place in this tremendous
   orchestra, and, glaring at the roof of the mausoleum, he
   gasped for breath, and whirled his arms aloft, with a sort
   of madly-defying dismay. Whereat, the tall wooden-carved
   figures with pearl-shell eyes, all dropped their
   lower jaws, and extended their arms--seeing which,
   Taonui, with a yell of horror, fled fast away, followed by
   a long succession of similar yells from the fallen jaws of
   the figures of the tomb! (21)

The third instalment features a terror scene of threatened cannibalism, but a romantic marriage turns all to forgiveness and harmony, and Taonui thankfully 'beheld the benign Phantom of Te Pomare slowly rise before him ... ascending into the night, till its shadow mingled with the air.' (22)

Horne was a literary adventurer whose exploits included writing a best-selling epic poem, a literary collaboration with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and commanding the gold escort from Ballarat to Melbourne. Presumably that was when he formed the view included in 'The New Zealand Zauberflote,' that 'The interior of New Zealand contains so many natural wonders, that it need not require any great stretch of imagination among the natives to pass over to the supernatural.' (23)

Battlefield Gothic

M.K. Joseph was one of the most versatile of New Zealand writers, with a wide-ranging literary knowledge that made him an excellent professor of English at Auckland University, and that provided him with resources that enrich his prose and poetry allusively or stylistically. His early scholarly work included Byrvn the Poet (1964), and the Oxford University Press edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1969), so there is no question that he was familiar with and expert in the Gothic of the Romantic period. He recreates it inventively in his war writing, his science fiction, and his historical fiction.

Joseph spent much of his creative life trying to reconcile his Catholic faith and decent belief in human compassion with his wartime experience of calculated killing and unspeakable violence. The scenes that live on in the memory are often his most horrific, but that is partly because they also intersect with compassion, as in the episode in Kaspar's journey (1988), a novel of the debacle of the Children's Crusade, where he recreates the horrific task of picking through a battlefield for a loved fallen friend, or (most famously) the cruel mercy killing that ends A Soldier's Tale (1976).

These are powerfully horrifying, but scarcely connected to the Gothic. That comes most strongly in an episode in I'll Soldier No More (1958). That will be an unexpected location, as the novel is unfortunately known only as a realist semi-documentary of World War 2. It is much more. A centrally placed chapter gives a cosmic overview of the world at war on Christmas Day 1943 (24) that is reminiscent of The Dynasts, and there are two scenes of psychological breakdown, one of them drawing on a Gothic of nightmare vividness. The protagonist in that episode is Harry Gillies, the New Zealander among the novel's small group of central characters (all conscripts in the Royal Artillery), who is usually pragmatic, low-key, and unflappable. That makes it all the more compelling when Gillies loses his sense of direction and almost his sanity at night in a no man's land behind the front, and endures a horrific vision of revivified corpses from among the fallen there.

The dead ground has already been described in terms that evoke repulsion and fear of death:
   ... a ruined, misty, damp, desolate landscape [where]
   wreckage of the earlier battle lies where it fell, skeletons
   of gliders hung with tattered rags of fabric, skeletons of
   men with tattered rags of flesh. One body is quite close
   in, and shows an indifferent grin of white teeth and gold
   fillings: the lads call him Charlie, because he so cheerful.
   Further off is the famous jeep, a nice piece of loot,
   except that both sides have booby-trapped it, and four
   dead Yanks lie around it in tattered uniforms, and the
   whole of the dead ground is thick with mines anyway. (25)

That is a horrific scene, but utterly realistic as an experienced soldier's view of a landscape of death. Another dimension, a more imagined horror, is added in the following night scene. Given Joseph's knowledge of eighteenth-century literature it might be more appropriate to call it 'night thoughts':
   The mist is thickening again, the air turning dark and
   chill. The gap in the hills has disappeared. Turning back
   he finds that the mist has already crept in behind him,
   quite blotting out the wood and the road below ... the
   mist swallows him up ... he sees what look like a few
   shadowy trees ahead. A sudden thinning of the mist
   shows the wreckage of a glider, one wing canted up.
   Now which is that; there are two of them on the edge of
   the minefield ... Listen for noises. Listen. At first there is
   nothing except a faint hiss as if the mist were rubbing
   against the earth, but it's only blood in the ears. A faint
   drumming. No, nothing, perhaps a plane.

   But there is something. Yes, it sounds like a jeep in
   low gear. And it is a jeep and it's coming straight up the
   hill, out of the mist, out of the dead ground. Suppose it
   came driving out now, the weather-stained jeep with a
   dead Yank at the wheel, and one beside him, and two in
   the back, black sockets and withered hands, rags of
   bleached hair under helmets, lolling and swaying broken
   jointed at every kick of the vehicle over the broken

   The sound of the motor is louder; the mist quite
   dark. (26)

My hint that this compelling and finely-cadenced passage is a variant on graveyard poetry (precursive sub-genre of the Gothic) is strengthened by the fact that Joseph had already published a meditative elegiac poem with the same setting, 'Elegy on the Unburied Dead (Groesbeek, 1945),' published in Imaginary Islands (1950). The exact location of the passage in the novel is not named, but the section is sub-tided 'West of the Rhine, February-March 1945,' and the night fears of Gillies come before the crossing from Holland into Germany, which is where Groesbeek lies. Several images (tattered or shredded flesh, booby-traps, mines, gliders) occur in both works.
   Who weeps for these poor bones and shredded flesh?
   Conducts their obsequies among the mesh
   Of booby-traps, the buried maze of mines?
   Erects their monument among the pines
   And shattered gliders and abandoned mounds
   Of trip-flares, mortar-bombs and Piat rounds?

   The rains shall wash them and the piteous snows
   Shroud them, and when the hardy crocus shows
   A newyear innocence, the rooks atone
   For man's uncharity and strip the bone
   Of shabby flesh--like surgeons, purge away
   The tatters of encumbering decay.

   O brothers

   Knowing that by which you set great store
   So used, shall you not laugh for evermore?

   The laughter of your skulls, too keen for tears
   Shall mock when war is done, still-living fears. (27)

By comparison with the psychological intensity that the prose passage achieves from merging realism and nightmare, the earlier poem is hampered by its verbal and metrical echoes of Wilfred Owen's 'Anthem for Doomed Youth.' But it gets power from what here may be called its Gothic elements--bones, shredded flesh, obsequies, monuments, rooks, decay, skulls, tears, fears.

Other Gothic images may be glimpsed in Joseph's poetry. There is 'The raven sitting on the tree / Our executioner shall be' in 'After Jerome Bosch,' a horrific stanza of the London blitz that begins 'Through the dark throbs a sick nerve of sound' in "When the Assault Was Intended on the City (London, April, 1941),' there are 'armoured ghosts upon the march' in 'Below the Sierra,' and a great number of resonant death and decay images in the Romeo and Juliet sequence, 'The Lovers and the City.' (28) But enough to say that I'll Soldier No More gains a visceral power somewhere above physical realism from his literary scholar's awareness that the Gothic, if done well, can be a vehicle for modern psychological narrative. That is not far from what Butler also found the genre could do.

Time Travel Gothic

As a novel's opening paragraph, this is an impressive updating of Gothic horror to twentieth-century time travel fantasy:
   There was a flash of fire and rolling echoes of thunder
   and the stars began to fade out over the dark waters. He
   turned and ran blindly, up spidery stairways and quaking
   catwalks, by the streams and beneath the waterfalls. In
   the green glow of the ghost-tunnel, he met himself. (29)

Joseph's The Time of Achamoth, which won the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction in 1977, is a complex time travel adventure that gives the deeply read author unlimited scope for a virtuoso display of literary allusion and pastiche, and imaginative recreation of a series of historical events. Among many other things, it is often a Gothic nightmare of terror, violence, and (again, as in Butler, and as in the last three words quoted above) disturbing problems of identity and the human psyche.

The plot concept itself is updated Gothic. A relentless force of evil, a 'dreadful mind ... which has sampled all the agony of war,' works over the centuries to destroy the world by possessing psychotic minds and prompting assassinations, cruelties, and conflict. In the late twentieth century, after coming near to success with concentration camps and World War 2, it is intent on hacking and wrecking the time travel programmes of the rival Cold War powers of America, Russia, and China, malevolently interfering with a series of history-shaping past events. It is finally located and destroyed in a violent finale set in a dark vault of Marx's tomb, below the huge stone head in Highgate Cemetery, London. (30) New Zealand enters the action as the location of the only time travel base to escape the destruction, because it is so under-funded. Joseph has his moments of humour as well as Gothic demonism.

The time travel process is interpreted as the traveller occupying a series of living minds of witnesses to historical events, rather than the usual journey in physical person. This gives an extra intensity and sense of involvement to Joseph's evocations of crises or conflicts, as the narrative protagonist gets gassed in the World War 1 trenches, scorched in the fires at the barricades in Paris in 1871, and battered with a whirling spiked ball and nearly drowned in his own confining armour in a medieval tournament.

The overall view of history as dominated by suffering and superstition would resonate as the background to any Gothic narrative:
   ... the Black Death cut the population of Europe by a
   third, and left houses still empty over a century later.
   Well, he remembered empty houses when he was a
   boy ... he had seen the countryside creeping back over
   Barnet and Mill Hill, and whole streets derelict in
   Camden Town and Highbury.

   ... Sterility increased startlingly. There were ugly
   rumours of a mysterious disease, and innocent travellers
   were lynched for spreading it. All superstition: it was fear
   that had almost sterilised the human race. The life-tide
   ebbed, leaving pools, lagoons, swamps ... (31)

One tour de force Gothic episode is when Hollister the time traveller stops in on an early movie show. Joseph loved film. He tided his unpublished autobiography 'A Private Movie,' and always wrote with a strong cinematic sense. Here he revels in an only slightly mocking summary of a 1930s Hollywood horror fantasy:
   A tall figure, cloaked and mitred, paces before the
   camera, halts, and spreads both arms wide in homage ...
   'Bring out the sacrifice,' intones the priest, his voice
   echoing among the pillars, and he turns towards the
   camera the pale saturnine mask of Bela Lugosi.

   A door opens in the massive stone. Boris Karloff,
   hunchbacked and hairy, drags in the struggling figure of
   a woman robed in white; as she tosses back her long
   dishevelled dark hair, it is the terrified and tear-stained
   face of Fay Wray that comes into close-up ...

   An agonised glance at the idol, then resolution. 'I defy
   your god, all-powerful though he may be.'

   'Then, you shall suffer the living death, the death of

   'No! no!'

   At the base of the statue, the hunchback pulls back a
   lever that shrieks in its iron socket. The shuttered lid of
   the idol's single eye grinds open. The woman's mouth
   opens in a prolonged and echoing scream; but a beam of
   light pours down upon her from the baleful eye; the
   body is already rigid; in fading superimposition, the
   draperies turn to stone, the face changes to a petrified
   mask in which only the frightened eyes are alive; they
   close, are blind orbs. The beam of light dies, leaving a
   statue lying like a toy in the immense palm. (32)

In an internet search of many cinematic mummies, masks and ghouls, I have not managed to identify any movie in which Lugosi, Karloff, and Wray all appeared, or other source for this scene. It seems to be an invented composite pastiche. Whether or not that is correct, Joseph is clearly enjoying himself immensely, and has given us something that has to be included in any account of the Gothic from New Zealand authors.

So, too, does the horrific ending of The Tim of Achamoth, in the vault of Marx's tomb, where Hollister uses a bow and arrow to destroy the monstrous embodiment of evil (descended from the Illuminists, a late Gnostic eighteenth-century sect, since with Joseph there is always metaphysical and moral significance within the physical action). The build-up is pure Gothic--antique, dark, and ominous:

Hollister peered cautiously into the lit space of a domed chamber which rose to a height of some five or six metres. Opposite was another archway ... Around the walls, he had a vague impression of maps and charts, of shelves of books, of uncertain shadowy shapes covered by cloths. But what caught his attention was in the centre of the room. A figure was seated at a heavy desk, staring down into something which shone with an interior light. At first it seemed merely bulky and shapeless, a head framed in a straggle of white hair, a body huddled in some kind of loose dark cloak or robe ... (33)

This is 'Sophia, the Divine Wisdom, Achamoth, the last and greatest of the Illuminists, perhaps two centuries old, perhaps more, with a massive square face swollen with power and evil ... A bell began to ring softly ...' (34)

A heroic Russian agent sacrifices himself at the climax, which with its terror, irrational hatred, physical repulsiveness, supernatural psychological power, allusion to death in life, compulsion to destroy, with the imagery of storm and earthquake, with the blood, agony, darkness, and the final grotesque, violently cathartic death, is surely (if it is not a tautology) an extreme Gothic:
   Clutching at her shoulder she whirled about and the
   dark robes fell away revealing the huge pale hairless body
   gross with all the vices, hardened by all the penitential
   rigours. Hollister had the second arrow on the string, but
   before he could draw, the full power of the dark mind
   hit him and he felt himself whirled away in a black storm
   of terror, of desolation and of hatred large enough to
   destroy the world ...

   The tide of terror receded as the creature's mind was
   drawn in on its own pain. It doubled over and swung
   away from him. With the force of his released will he
   drew for the third time; with a wooden sound the arrow
   struck behind the left temple, and the last of the
   blackness cleared from his mind. The room stabilised
   itself. The pitiful thing tottered about in the centre of the
   room, groaning and shaking with pain, with pink froth
   on its lips. Hollister ... drove the fourth arrow straight, not
   for the heart, but for the jugular.

   With the blood gushing, the huge body crashed over
   onto the table and the light exploded, leaving the stone
   chamber in darkness and silence. (35)

Phillip Mann found this ending 'melodramatic,' (36) but read as Gothic, in a book that has played so many conscious variations on that mode, and has made explicit reference to Byron, Mary Shelley, and Hollywood horror, it is within the frame. Perhaps--and I offer this only as a suggestion--Joseph included so much Gothic to provide a base of the familiar in literary terms for a fiction that is in many respects complex, experimental, and post-Modern (respects that I have not explored here).

In these passages, Butler and Joseph managed to bring mystery, among other things Gothic, to a little land and a little literature that otherwise lacked it. In neither case can it be said that the Gothic is central to their work. What is central to both is the intellectual's habit of exploring and testing complex ideas, and also the writer's habit of bringing literary knowledge and literary resources to bear in that task.


(1) Katherine Mansfield, 'To Stanislaw Wyspianski,' in Poems of Katherine Mansfield, ed. Vincent O'Sullivan (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1988) p. 30.

(2) Samuel Butler, Erewhon, ed. Hans-Peter Breuer and Daniel F. Howard (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1981), p. 52.

(3) Peter Bromley Maling, Samuel Sutler at Mesopotamia (Wellington: Government Printer, 1960), p. 54.

(4) Samuel Butler, A First Year in Canterbury Settlement, with Other Early Essays, ed. R. A. Streatfield (London: A. C. Fifield, 1914), pp. 63, 61; Samuel Butler, Erewhon Revisited, (London: Grant Richards, 1901), p. 303.

(5) In James G. Paradis, ed., Samuel Butler, Victorian Against the Grain (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), pp. 21-44.

(6) Canterbury Museum. Reproduced in Maling, p. 54 op. cit., and Paradis, op. cit.

(7) Butler, Erewhon, p. 51.

(8) Butler, Erewhon, p. 55.

(9) Buder, Erewhon, p. 56.

(10) Buder, Erewhon, p. 57.

(11) Sue Zemka, 'Erewhon and the End of Utopian Humanism,' ELH 69 (2002): pp. 442, 451.

(12) Buder, Erewhon, p. 57.

(13) Buder, Erewhon, pp. 73-74.

(14) Buder, Erewhon, p. 69.

(15) Buder, Erewhon, pp. 75-76.

(16) Joseph Jones informatively discussed the sources of the statues in The Cradle of Erewhon (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1959), pp. 138-40.

(17) Buder, Erewhon, p. 68.

(18) Buder, Erewhon, pp. 212-13.

(19) Household Words, 2.30 (19 October 1850), p. 75. The story is noted in the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, ed. Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie (Oxford & Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 244-45.

(20) Household Words, 2.30 (19 October 1850), p. 77.

(21) Household Words, 2.30 (19 October 1850), p. 80.

(22) Household Words, 2.32 (2 November 1850), p. 132.

(23) Household Words, 2. 30 (19 October 1850), p. 81.

(24) M.K. Joseph, I'll Soldier No More (London: Victor Gollanz and Paul's Book Arcade, 1958), pp. 145-48.

(25) Joseph, I'll Soldier No More, p. 210.

(26) Joseph, I'll Soldier No More, pp. 210-12.

(27) M.K. Joseph, Imaginary Islands (Auckland: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1950), p. 11; M.K. Joseph, Inscription on a Paper Dart. Selected Poems, 1945-72 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1974), p. 11.

(28) Joseph, Imaginary Islands p. 44 and p. 5; Joseph, Inscription on a Paper Dart, p. 42 and pp. 71-82.

(29) M.K. Joseph, The Time of Achamoth (Auckland: Collins, 1977), p. 1.

(30) The best account of this neglected novel is by Phillip Mann in the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, p. 541.

(31) Joseph, The Time of Achamoth, p. 137.

(32) Joseph, The Time of Achamoth, pp. 53-4.

(33) Joseph, The Time of Achamoth, p. 176.

(34) Joseph, The Time of Achamoth, p. 176.

(35) Joseph, The Time of Achamoth, pp 176-77.

(36) Joseph, The Time of Achamoth, pp 176-77.
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Author:Robinson, Roger
Publication:JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Jul 1, 2017
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