By LINDY RYAN
For most of us, New Zealand, the land of the long white cloud, is a dream holiday destination, an exotic island in the Pacific, the place you go to visit Hobbiton, sail the harbour, climb a volcano and be mesmerised by steaming bubbly mud. RUE MORGUE’s author-in-resident, Lindy Ryan, caught up with five-time Bram Stoker Awards®-winner, Lee Murray, editor of upcoming Kiwi horror anthology REMAINS TO BE TOLD: DARK TALES OF AOTEAROA (Clan Destine Press) and some of the anthology’s contributors, to talk about the horror inherent in the Aotearoa landscape.
By its very nature, the landscape of New Zealand “presents myriad terrors, with its towering peaks, rugged coastline, and impenetrable bush,” says Lee. “There is the merciless isolation of small towns and farms, and the cold indifference of our bustling cityscapes.”
In her foreword to the anthology, Lee also speaks of something “inherently uncanny” about the landscape. She refers to the ‘savage spirit’ that Katherine Mansfield described in her iconic murder tale “The Woman at the Store”:
“There is no twilight in our New Zealand days, but a curious half-hour when everything appears grotesque—it frightens—as though the savage spirit of the country walked abroad and sneered at what it saw.”1
Lee claims that ‘savage spirit’ “doesn’t just sneer, it sucks unsuspecting victims into watery graves, yanks them into cosmic hell, or crunches them between bloody teeth.”
“The ocean is angry today,” writes Sir Julius Vogel Award-winner Nikky Lee in “What Bones These Tides Bring” by way of an example. “Its waves pound the sandbar; pummel the beach in a roar of white static.”
“The ground heaved like a great beast trying to shake off vermin,” writes Tracie McBride in “Her Ghosts”, a story inspired by her Māori heritage. “It threw Callie to her hands and knees. She dug her fingers into the soil and clung to the earth as if she might at any moment spin off into space. Time lost meaning as she endured the dual onslaught from the land and the ghosts.”
In “Fires of Fate” Jacqui Greaves takes us back to the late 1800s when New Zealand women had just obtained the right to vote, the first country in the world to afford women this right: “Beyond the crest of the hill, the track cut a straight line through charred, flat land studded with blackened stumps. Moira’s eyes stung from the smoke hanging thick in the listless air. It reminded her of Hades: all it lacked was the burning stench of sulphur in her nostrils and a three-headed dog. She rode on, the horse skittering beneath her.”
Lee’s Path of Ra co-author, Dan Rabarts, whose haunting story “Spare the Rod” opens the anthology, explains the local preoccupation with the landscape: “We live on a string of major fault lines, on the spines of any number of volcanoes, surrounded by violent and unpredictable oceans and everything they bring with them, including regular floods, cyclones and tornadoes. We live with a constant edge of isolation, both in our rural and suburban communities, and even within our own neighbourhoods.”2
Co-contributor Celine Murray agrees: “There is a pervasive external threat posed by the landscape we live on,” she says. Acclaimed screenwriter and playwright Kathryn Burnett, who makes her short fiction debut in Remains to be Told with body horror tale “Hook”, believes the threat resides in “the quiet and the darkness of the landscape,” where there are “plenty of places for people to hide and to hide terrible things,” adding that “it’s also a country drenched in blood – our dark history and the existence of industries that rely on killing such as meat production.”
Māori people trace their lineage back to the ancestral landscape that nurtured them; this notion is more than just a metaphor as this statement from Merata Kawharu’s landmark paper reveals:
“For Māori, landscapes are imbued with metaphysical values as well, not least when tribal groups’ stories tell of gods, mythological heroes or ancestors carving or shaping the environment. The stories of the demi-god Maui are well-known throughout Aotearoa and in wider Polynesia, and it was he who fished up the North Island. Tribal groups have many traditions about more recent ancestors who achieved great feats in relation to the environment which are recalled in proverbs, songs, place-names and in the landscapes themselves. Stories are remembered because they tell of protocols, practical and ethical ways to care for places and people.”3
Since 2014, laws have been established in which give legal personhood to natural features of significance to Māori, much in the same way a registered company operates as a legal entity separate from its owners. These laws offer iwi (tribes) the means to protect their ancestors. Examples of protected areas include Te Urewera Forest rohe (region), the Whanganui awa (river) and more recently Taranaki maunga (mountain).
The official wording from section 3 of the 2014 Te Urewera Act which saw the forest region gain personhood provides vital insight into the importance of landscape to all New Zealanders:
Te Urewera is ancient and enduring, a fortress of nature, alive with history; its scenery is abundant with mystery, adventure and remote beauty.
Te Urewera is a place of spiritual value, with its own mana [prestige] and mauri [life force].
Te Urewera has an identity in and of itself, inspiring people to commit to its care.
Fulbright scholar Gina Cole, the author of acclaimed Pasifikafuturism novel Na Viro, says, “As island dwellers on very narrow strips of land located in the South Pacific Ocean, Kiwi horror is grounded in our relationship with the environment, including whenua (land) and moana (sea), and how those elements impact on us humans.”
Yet it isn’t only those with Māori and Pasifika heritage who acknowledge an underlying spirituality in the New Zealand landscape. In his 1998 book, Mapping the Godzone, American William Schafer noted the significance of Māori mythology and culture in the development of Aotearoa gothic:
“A common cultural link between Pākehā [European] and Māori is a belief in the hauntedness of the landscape, the sense that Aotearoa New Zealand is a land of sinister and unseen forces of imminent (and immanent threat), of the undead or revenant spirits.”4
Writer Tim Jones, author of the forthcoming climate fiction novel Emergency Weather, tells of just such an incident from his past: “What comes to mind is the stairwell leading to the Unemployed Rights Centre in Dunedin, back when I was in my early twenties. Once, leaving last after an evening meeting and descending the stairs in half-darkness, I was struck with a powerful sense of an unfriendly presence, watching. Was it just a cold night, just the wind, just an old building? I don’t think so—but I never went back to find out.”
Gina Cole also recalls an incident that reveals the universal respect New Zealanders afford the land and its spiritual guardians. “One time hiking in the bush in Aotearoa, the guide told us there was a guardian sitting on a rock in front of us and he was angry because no one spoke to him or greeted him as they walked past the rock. We made sure to greet him as we walked past.”
Tracie Mc Bride says, “I talked to my father once about this peculiar sensation whenever I returned to Northland after a long absence; while I was away, I would be perfectly content, but as soon as I returned, I would be filled with a powerful urge to stay. He told me that it was my Māori blood calling me home.” Given the land embodies the spirits of Māori ancestors, it seems likely McBride has been affected by the hauntedness of the landscape that Schafer mentions.
The artwork for the book also reflects the haunting atmosphere of the New Zealand landscape. Sir Julius Vogel Award-winning artist, Emma Weakley, who created the cover and interior artwork said working on the anthology was her dream job, and that she’d felt vindicated in keeping thousands of photographs of the New Zealand landscape taken during various road trips, which she then used as her inspiration for the images. “From the perspective of a visual artist who loves to draw lonely, unsettling landscapes, Aotearoa/New Zealand is an endless [source of] inspiration,” she says. “For me, it’s about contrast and isolation. The contrast of such peaceful and beautiful islands that any darkness stands out starkly, every detail sharp and clear. If all you hear is birdsong, a cry of fear or anger is piercing. The isolation creates a sense of unease and vulnerability. There’s no one else to turn to, nowhere to run. We are stuck with each other on volatile land in a huge, harsh ocean.”
Letters from Elsewhere author, Jacqui Greaves, sums it up the conflict posed by the landscape beautifully when she says, “Aotearoa is isolated. This distance and separation from the rest of the world has resulted in a unique environment. Where both land and waters are violent. This country is beautiful, but deadly. Only the naïve wander our wild areas unprepared. Everything about the country is imbued with meaning—nature, place and people. Much violence has been perpetuated in our short human history. Our stories find their birth in myths and legends, waves of immigration, the consequences of colonialism and the landscape. This isolation, this violence, this history, this land, contribute to an underlying darkness. Those of us who live here, who call this place our home, embrace that darkness in our sense of humour, in the way we dress, in our resilience and in our stories.”
Featuring uncanny disturbances, death, and the dank breath of the native bush, Remains to be Told: Dark Tales of Aotearoa is an anthology of dark stories and poems mired in the shifting landscape of the long white cloud, and deeply imbued with the myth, culture, and character of Aotearoa-New Zealand. Laced with intrigue, suspense, horror and even a touch of humor, and comprising a range of subgenres, the volume showcases some of the best homegrown and Kiwi-at-heart voices working in dark fiction today, including stories and poems by Neil Gaiman, Owen Marshall, Gina Cole, Tim Jones, Lee Murray, Dan Rabarts, Marty Young, Debbie Cowens, Paul Mannering, Tracie McBride, Kirsten McKenzie, Jacqui Greaves, Nikky Lee, William Cook, Bryce Stevens, Kathryn Burnett, Celine Murray, Denver Grenell, Del Gibson and Helena Claudia. Foreword by six-time Bram Stoker Award-winner, Lisa Morton.
- Mansfield K. (1912) The Woman at the Store. Rhythm. Spring.
- Rabarts D. and Murray L. (2017) Underworld Gothic. HWA Halloween Haunts.
- Kawharu M. (2009) Ancestral Landscapes and World Heritage from a Māori Viewpoint. Journal of the Polynesian Society. Vol 118, pp319-320.
- Schafer. W J. (1998) Mapping the Godzone: A Primer on New Zealand Literature and Culture. University of Hawaii Press.