This year’s Westerly Centre Randolph Stow Memorial Lecture saw Dr Donna Mazza, senior lecturer in arts and co-ordinator of ECU’s South West arts program for the School of Arts and Humanities, speak eloquently on Randolph Stow’s To the Islands and the Australian Gothic to a fascinated audience at the 2018 Perth Festival Writers Week. Donna’s novel The Albanian (Fremantle Press, 2007) was awarded the TAG Hungerford Award, and she is the 2018 Mick Dark Flagship Fellow for Environmental Writing at Varuna Writers House. Donna has also contributed to Westerly in the past, including her short story ‘The Exhibit’, which was the co-winner of Westerly‘s 2015 Patricia Hackett Prize.
Before dark Justin and Heriot entered the hills, passing a wide pool at the mouth of a gorge and directing the horses along the flat shelves of rock above it. Beyond the pool, glimmering greyly among spidery pandanus, the stream broke over rapids, the cliffs above grew steadily huger, until there was only a narrow echoing chasm with a strip of grey sky over it and deep shadow filled with the rush of water all around. Great boulders, cast down from the crumbling cliffs, lay across the rock platforms, and the horses slithered and snorted, sliding past chunks of stone twice as high as themselves. In the stillness that overlaid and crushed all sounds of horses and water, Heriot sang softly and interminably to himself. (92)
To the Islands is Randolph Stow’s third novel, written in his early twenties, and it comes from the sweet spot between innocence and experience where the author’s idealism and youth are still evident in the loose structure, ornate writing and slight melodrama of the protagonist. There is something wild and unrestrained in the way the novel moves, a lack of self-conscious crafting that makes it raw and exciting. Set between the wars in a Kimberley mission, it traces the spiritual reckoning of Heriot, who has run the mission for many years and is seeking escape, mainly from himself, but also from the confines of life in the mission. The first part of the novel concerns itself with the relationships and background of Heriot and the characters in the mission—a place which revolves around the literacy, Christianity and health needs of local people, disconnected from their traditional lives. It brings attention to their terrible suffering with European diseases like leprosy and glaucoma and their reliance on the mission for basic needs, a result of colonial dispossession. The mission is haunted by the Onmalmeri massacre, based on historic events, and this horror underpins the torment of Heriot and the signs of rupture within the society of the mission. The second half of the novel traces Heriot’s spiritual and physical journey into the wilderness as he seeks the islands of the title and a sense of justice for his own wrongdoings and, more broadly, for the collective wrongs of colonisation.
The sound, one most Australians have some familiarity with, seems to echo through that simple line and sets the scene for an uneasy awakening.
When I read To the Islands recently, many years after my original reading as an undergraduate student, images of Frankenstein pursuing his demon through the harsh landscape of Mont Blanc came to me as Heriot heaved his way through the gorges and rugged terrain of the North West. It was a puzzle at first—what link is there between the snow-capped Alps and the Kimberley; between a mad scientist and an Anglican minister, a monster and an Australian mission? Digging into this question I was led to the Gothic nature of both works and quickly realised the uncanny nature of Stow’s novel.
European Gothic was a melodramatic style of fiction, already established with a strong (and oft-swooning) readership by the time Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus was published in 1818. This timeframe coincides with the establishment of British colonies in Australia, and there is no doubt that many mouldy Gothic novels made their way into sailing ships bound for our shores. Once Australian authors found their own narrative voice, it echoed some of the features of the Gothic fiction of those days. Writers such as Barbara Baynton, Marcus Clarke, Rosa Praed and Henry Lawson drew from that style to articulate some of the challenges of life in Australia. Those colonial writers used the toolkit of the Gothic to express settler anxieties, particularly around relationship to place. The uncanny nature of place and settlers is something that has been explored at length by literary theorists over the past couple of decades, who have hammered out some parameters around what we now consider Australian Gothic. This is still rather mutable and responsive so it is a form that is resistant to clear definitions and one that can equally apply to a variety of creative works, including film, music and the visual arts. With that in mind, I will make some headway into clarifying exactly what it means and then consider its relationship to Stow’s novel and hopefully shed some light on why it echoes Frankenstein.
Australian Gothic fiction is characterised by its depiction of landscape as a source of threat and violence—a place where the truth is veiled and its inhabitants are trapped. Some narratives link this to the horrific events of the past, including the treatment of Aboriginal people and the violence of the penal colonies. Considering the many hidden truths of colonisation and the ongoing mistreatment of Aboriginal people, there are going to be many more Gothic stories to tell. Authors of Australian Gothic works draw on the landscape to entrap characters, often in a vast panorama such as the Kimberley, where the scale of the place makes it equally as inescapable as a cell. Settings drawing from the Gothic tropes include eerie bushland, abandoned homesteads, small isolated towns, wide open deserts and remote stations, all of which are presented as claustrophobic. A pursuit often leads the narrative through the landscape, whether it is a literal pursuit or a pursuit of truth—one often held in the past, or caught up in family secrets.
The figures in these stories are often isolated, either in a social or physical sense, and sometimes this leads them to altered states of consciousness, including madness, haunting and visions, which further distort the truth and, often, the reliability of the protagonist’s insights. These stories leave the reader with a lingering sense of loss or a sense that violence, tragedy and trauma are unresolved. The characters rarely have any hope of a happy ending and it is usually clear that this was their fate—that disaster was inevitable. There is an ongoing theme in these stories that this fate is a legacy, sometimes linked to transgressive relationships—including rape, incest and interracial relationships—and the breaking of taboos, or the loss of a parent or child in tragic circumstances, or an unspoken or less tangible transgression.
The fact that much of this is built upon the reality of life in colonial Australia gives a sense that Australian Gothic stories speak to our history. It is undeniable that terrible violence was meted out by the colony and settlers against Aboriginal Australians and that many people, particularly children and women in childbirth, died in tragic circumstances, while others were victims of awful violence. For the settlers, the landscape was filled with strangeness and the constant threat of being irretrievably lost in an unknowable landscape. Animals, especially birds or the call of birds, often act as signals or play the role of a lure to follow deeper into the bush. History is littered with tales of those lost in the desert or the bush—from Burke and Wills, to the Duff children, to Azaria Chamberlain—and it seldom ends well. The wilful pursuit of being lost which is undertaken by Heriot is something at odds with this mortal fear so prevalent in colonial Australia and more akin to the classic Gothic trope of the wandering Byronic hero in search of some ambiguous truth. Fiction, and history, often put hope of finding the lost in the hands of those who know the landscape best—the Aboriginal people, compounding the sense that the settlers do not belong in the same way or have such a close relationship to country. This all brings about the unresolvable bind of the uncanny, which merges home with the uneasy sense of home never being possible because it is a threat. Belonging can never be resolved, but is perpetually in a cycle of retreat and return.
… the real pursuit in the novel is internalised. He is running from himself and his own life, seeking the islands of the dead.
Reading a literary work such as Stow’s To the Islands through the lens of Australian Gothic I get the clear sense that these ideas are built into the cells of his writing; a clear sense that his literary DNA is wrapped around the landscape of Western Australia.
Stow opens the novel, ‘A child dragged a stick along the corrugated-iron wall of a hut, and Heriot woke’. The corrugated iron evidently doesn’t provide much of a barrier between Heriot and the land outside or the heat—it is makeshift and temporary—and the fact that the child has nothing else to do tells the reader this place is a bit bleak. The sound, one most Australians have some familiarity with, seems to echo through that simple line and sets the scene for an uneasy awakening. So the novel immerses the reader, from the outset, in the disturbed psyche of Heriot. The sound is soon joined by the ‘restless crying’ of crows ‘over the settlement’ and Heriot speaking to a lizard about old age, giving away early on that he is somewhat eccentric. The first few paragraphs quickly establish the inhospitable environment and that Heriot is under siege from the landscape and himself. So, although his hut is his home it is also a very unhomely place, where his learning is being eaten away by mould and insects and the heat deprives him of sleep and comfort.
What builds from here is a deep sense of enclosure and the improbability of liberation or relief. Heriot is a tragic figure unable to escape his role as leader of the remote mission and haunted by loss, failure and the untimely death of his wife and his Aboriginal god-daughter, Esther.
There are secrets in this story, as there are in all Australian Gothic works, and they are only ever partially revealed. Stow hints at transgressive relationships and the ambiguous parental role that Heriot plays in the life of Esther. Heriot refers to her always as his daughter, and she is named Esther Margaret after Heriot’s wife. Both Esther and Margaret die very young and experience miscarriage. In addition, Esther marries Rex, who is violent towards her and precipitates her death while carrying his child. In naming Esther after Heriot’s wife Margaret, Stow summons the doppelgänger—another part of the Gothic tool-chest (notably used in Wuthering Heights, Jekyll and Hyde and Frankenstein, where monster and creator are often conflated)—and in so doing creates an uncanny affect, especially when we learn of the lost babies and tragic deaths of the two. Esther’s husband Rex provides the central source of conflict for Heriot, who reacts with a level of anger that seems excessive to all around him. Late in the novel we learn that Heriot shares his first name with Esther’s brother Stephen and Stow throws a shadow over Heriot’s godfather status. That Stephen and Esther are Heriot’s biological children remains unspoken and unproved but that mystery itself is Gothic, invoking the breaking of cultural taboos and the veiling of truth.
Rex’s return to the mission, with the young Stephen, after a period in prison is a crucial turning point in the novel. It is clear that it will not end well from here, that Heriot and Rex cannot both live in the mission and tragedy will ensure that only one remains. The transition in the novel comes as a violent cyclonic storm, an archetypal Gothic trope used by authors from Ann Radcliffe to Mary Shelley, who used the lightning to bring life to the monster, an image not entirely at odds with Stow’s cyclone, which releases Heriot’s demons. The scale of the storm assures the reader that this landscape is a source of threat and violence:
In the swirling dust, at midday, and at the height of the wind, Heriot plodded through the village, his clothes flapping, his wild white hair on end like the crest of a crane. The village was indoors, sheltering behind its mud walls and threatened roofs from the possible violence about to come. The road was deserted, dotted with small fallen boughs. (81–82)
The fringe of the cyclone returns us to the corrugated iron of the opening line, which provides an eerie reminder of the fragility of this small community.
The wind was reaching its peak, filling the air not only with dust but also with leaves and grass, tearing down branches. The loose sheet of iron clattered on the roof, a continual assault on his nerves. He walked with his head down, his hair tormented into white wisps. (84)
With the shriek of a mad bird the flapping iron tore itself free from the roof and crashed among the trees. (85)
It is not the corrugated iron that nearly kills Rex, but Heriot, who literally casts the first stone (he believes it was first thrown at him but truth is veiled here). In a melodramatic act that demonstrates his lack of power to bring about justice, Heriot bashes Rex in the head with a stone, rendering him unconscious. This serves to alert the reader that Heriot himself is not without sin and is, therefore, not in a prime position to pass judgement on Rex. The storm and its events form a pivot point in the novel, unleashing Heriot’s inner demons and sending him into exile, where he wanders through the landscape in search of his soul, of retribution and death.
Heriot’s pursuit of his inner demon is not unlike Frankenstein’s pursuit of his animated demon. Descriptions of the cliffs, jagged rock faces, and caves in the gorges of the Kimberley are peculiarly reminiscent of Shelley’s descriptions of Mont Blanc, with its enclosed valleys, ‘abrupt sides of vast mountains’ and ‘ragged bare ravines’ (97), or the vast desolation of the Arctic where, half-mad, Victor Frankenstein gives voice to his self-hatred and loathing of the ‘demon’. It seems the internal landscape of Heriot is not dissimilar and the pursuit of the demon a kind of wandering driven by a very similar compass.
When he woke again there was a rock hanging above his head, and he remembered all his journeying past cliffs rising out of their ruins, the huge size of the boulders that strewed the valleys, and the debris of vast and ancient landslides. Because of this his eyes fastened apprehensively on the cliff overhanging his sleeping-place; he saw the cracks in it, thought he saw them widen, thought he heard the grating of moving surfaces and sharp sounds of fission. He hauled himself upright on his aching bones and ran out into the camp area. (144)
Fear, self-loathing and regret spur Heriot to trek on into the landscape, accompanied by Justin, who follows him from the mission and faithfully cares for the old man to the end. There is a literal pursuit by a posse from the mission who try to track him, without success, and by hawks, who follow his trail. But the real pursuit in the novel is internalised. He is running from himself and his own life, seeking the islands of the dead. Here, Justin foregrounds Heriot’s exodus:
‘I been talking with Brother Heriot. He real sad tonight. He been talking with old man Galumbu about this islands, and that old man nearly crying, wunong. This old men, they don’t like you talking about that.’
Dixon asked curiously: ‘What islands?’
‘Oh, islands in the sea. Where spirit goes. Spirit of dead man, you know, bungama.’
‘Where are they, the islands?’
Justin pointed, reluctantly. ‘That way, brother. They don’t like you talking about it.’
‘So a lost man,’ Gunn said, ‘might go through lost man’s country, and finish up at the islands.’
‘Might be,’ Justin said. ‘If he dead.’ (51)
Heriot is very much ‘the lost man’ and his long journey is a saga of internal suffering and regret featuring long laments, and punctuated by mood swings and bouts of raving very like those of the mad scientist. His odyssey through the landscape is very loose, literary wandering and often seems more like being lost than on a journey. Several characters give an insight into the struggle of life in the remote Kimberley—the hermit living with his goats and the blind Aboriginal woman who Heriot curses then feeds from his hand—but they also provide insight into the contradictions of Heriot’s own character. All of this gives rise to the ongoing search for Heriot’s soul, taking us eventually to the sea, ‘endlessly rearing, smashed into white at the foot of the rock’ (223).
It is, strangely, an echo of the final scene of Frankenstein, where the eloquent creature longs for death to put an end to his remorse and guilt, looking out at the sea. ‘My ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace,’ he says, and is soon on an ice-raft in the Arctic being ‘borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance’ (242). At the brink of death, Heriot’s suffering is strangely similar, with his romanticised ideas of his own demise. We leave him at the edge of the cliff, seeking the islands of death and lamenting his soul:
There was a break in the cliffs, and he climbed unsteadily down a few yards to a red ledge with a shallow cave behind it. The skulls were there again, and the eyes of the mouthless god, turned forever towards the islands. But the islands—the islands. He stared out to sea and saw nothing but the sun on the water; his dreams and his fears all true, and there were no islands. (223)
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. London: Marshall Cavendish Ltd, 1987.
Stow, Randolph. To the Islands. Melbourne, Vic: The Text Publishing House, 1981.
All photos copyright Donna Mazza, 2018. Published with permission.