Mountain Gothic and Other Variants: Samuel Butler and M.K. Joseph

By Robinson, Roger | Journal of New Zealand Literature, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Mountain Gothic and Other Variants: Samuel Butler and M.K. Joseph


Robinson, Roger, Journal of New Zealand Literature


One problem about being a little land with no history1 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 castles, 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 Erewhon5 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 Māori 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. …

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