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date: 24 May 2017

Colonial Australian Gothic Literature

Summary and Keywords

Frontier colonial Gothic literature in Australia gives expression to the experience and aftermath of violent encounters between settlers and Indigenous people on the frontier. This includes “hut literature” about shepherds in remote locations and the way in which these stories worked toward the establishment of colonial settlement and authority. Colonial development distances the Gothic from the frontier, to which it returns in belated and spectral ways. The post-frontier colonial Gothic can be considered in these terms, in stories by Francis Adams, Hume Nisbet, and Marcus Clarke. Clarke also provides examples of convict Gothic literature in colonial Australia, in particular with the serialization of His Natural Life (1870–1872). In Gothic bushranger narratives and some colonial Gothic poetry, the symbolic distance from the frontier brings with it an increased “occultization” of the bush. Marcus Clarke’s famous account of “weird melancholy” evokes spectral Aboriginal presences linked to the Lemurian novel in Australia, a popular version of the post-frontier Gothic. Some narratives by Rosa Praed, including the novel Outlaw and Lawmaker (1893) and “The Bunyip” (1891), offer images of frontier violence that produce a range of effects among settlers, from excitement to disorientation. “The Bunyip” in particular throws a shadow over the prospect of a settler colonial future; this is typical of the kind of melancholy project represented in later examples of the colonial Australian Gothic.

Keywords: colonial Gothic, frontier, violence, Aboriginal people, convicts, melancholy, settlers

Writers who have never actually been to Australia have sometimes imaginatively restaged its European “discovery” in Gothic ways. Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), for example, was published fifty years after the establishment of a British colony at Port Jackson in New South Wales; even so, it chronicles a journey to the southern extremities of the inhabited world by some American whalers and explorers who are cast as if they are the first to arrive at an island named Tsalal, “a country differing essentially from any hitherto visited by civilised man.”1 It is often noted that Poe drew on “widely circulated travel narratives” that emphasized the “backwardness of ‘barbarous’ non-Western peoples, including the dark-skinned aborigines of Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania.”2 In Poe’s novel, the encounter between Indigenous people and the explorers who arrive on their shores is presented in stark, Manichaean terms, a point the editorial note at the end of the novel underscores when it tells us, “Nothing white was to be found at Tsalal” (201). The sheer blackness of the islanders (their skin and clothes, even their teeth) unsettles the new arrivals. Nevertheless, they soon establish a trade agreement with local Indigenous leaders, recognizing that the colonial project is always first and foremost a matter of commercial development. It isn’t long, however, before the explorers find themselves under attack, with many of the ship’s crew killed by natives who see no value in the terms of trade; this is how the novel reinforces its sense of the “backwardness” of Indigenous people. A few years before the publication of Poe’s novel, colonial authorities in Van Diemen’s Land (now called Tasmania) had in fact waged a large-scale military campaign against local Aboriginal people, either killing them en masse during what was known as the Black War or placing them in captivity and exiling them from the island. Groups of Aboriginal people had been raiding settler properties during the 1820s, but settler and military reprisals were so great that by the early 1830s the “decline in the island’s original population was precipitous,” with very few Indigenous survivors remaining.3 The Gothic effect of Poe’s novel relies on both the repression and inversion of this recent history. Far from being diminished in population, it appears as if the Indigenous people in Tsalal are everywhere: “The whole country around us seemed to be swarming with savages.”4 Indigeneity in this novel is in excess rather than in decline; this is one reason why it is so casually demonized. The Gothic horror of Poe’s novel has to do with the “treacherous” massacre and expulsion of trader-settlers (the ship’s crew begin to build houses on the island) by overwhelming Indigenous numbers. This was, of course, nothing more than a fantasy in the case of Van Diemen’s Land, although it may have resonated with settlers in New Zealand, where conflicts with Maori populations escalated during the 1840s and continued into the early 1870s as settlers there confiscated more and more land for commercial use.

The Frontier Colonial Gothic

The colonial Australian Gothic in its early stages can be best understood in this context, as a way of giving expression (however fantastic) to the experience—and aftermath—of violent encounters between settlers and Indigenous people on the frontier. The frontier is a region, a place or zone. If we think about it in colonial terms, it is usually understood as remote, as far away from the metropolitan centers as one could imagine: located at the very edge of “civilization.” On the other hand, it can also be surprisingly close to what settlers might already think of as home. It is a site of encounter, of contact: a disorienting but sometimes exhilarating place “where identities can lose their certainty and be reassembled.”5 But the frontier is also a moment in time, and the traumatic effects of the sheer intensity of that moment can resonate for a long time afterward. In Out of the Silence: The History and Memory of South Australia’s Frontier Wars (2012), Robert Foster and Amanda Nettlebeck suggest that the term “frontier” refers to “that phase of European settlement from the time when settlers first intruded into Aboriginal country to the point when colonial authority over Aboriginal people was effectively established.”6 A great deal of colonial Australian literature has to do precisely with when and by what means colonial authority over Aboriginal people was indeed established. This is where we also find the Gothic, and it is where the Gothic, perhaps paradoxically, is at its most real.

What kinds of Gothic stories were produced about frontier settler encounters with Indigenous people? It may be useful to begin this discussion by turning to a colonial character type who was routinely placed at the extremities of settlement during the frontier phase, the hut shepherd. Foster and Nettlebeck chart the murders of a number of South Australian shepherds by Aboriginal people in the 1840s and 1850s. “In June 1848,” they write, “shepherd John Hamp, who worked on William Pinkerton’s Stoney Point Station on the western extreme of this new frontier, was waddied to death. In the following month on the same station, shepherd Charles Goldsmith was attacked as he tried to defend his sheep.”7 Such attacks could bring the imposition of colonial law down upon Aboriginal people (trial, imprisonment, execution). But they also led settlers to gather together to enact reprisals on their own terms. “Wherever Aboriginal attacks occurred,” Foster and Nettlebeck remark, “settlers or their shepherds would be sure to retaliate.”8 They discuss an exaggerated account of the 1849 murder by Aboriginal people of a shepherd’s “young and pretty wife” in the Port Lincoln district in the southeast corner of South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula: “Stories of reprisals for Annie Easton’s death,” they write, “have circulated ever since and remain strong in local social memory to the present day.”9 Ellen Liston had arrived in South Australia just a year after this murder; in the late 1860s, she went to work as a governess at Nilkerloo Station on Eyre Peninsula’s west coast, “one of the remotest edges of Britain’s empire.”10 Liston subsequently published a number of stories about events in the region, one of which reimagines Annie Easton’s frontier encounter as a Gothic event. “Doctor” (1882) is a story of the early days of settlement, narrated by a young shepherd’s wife, Kit, who is pregnant with her second child. The emphasis here is on the remoteness of the frontier in both geographical and temporal terms: “You colonists of to-day,” Kit tells us, “have very little idea, if any, of what our life as pioneers in the far bush was in those days. We were one hundred and forty miles from the most embryo township. … Our hut was quite alone, the Three Peaks were fifteen miles away; ten miles in one direction was a shepherd’s hut, and five miles the opposite way was another.”11 When her husband is away with the flock, Kit senses an “uncomfortable presence” in the hut and is suddenly confronted by a naked “powerful blackfellow.” “I knew him,” she writes; “Coomultie by name, and by report one of the worst and most brutal of his tribe.”12 Coomultie kills her sheep dog and is about to attack the shepherd’s wife and her child when Doctor—a mysterious but loyal stray dog that has been hanging around outside—suddenly rushes in and mauls him to death.

This is a story that sees a Gothic-inflected Aboriginal threat to a shepherd’s wife defeated by the haphazard processes of settler domestication (as one loyal dog is replaced by another). It returns to the frontier, but is written in its aftermath, secure in the knowledge that colonial authority, as Foster and Nettlebeck note, has indeed been “effectively established.” It is worth briefly contrasting the shepherd’s wife’s experience here with two later and much better known colonial Australian Gothic stories. The first is Henry Lawson’s iconic sketch about a related character type, “The Drover’s Wife,” published in the Bulletin in 1892. Like Kit, the drover’s wife is left at home with her children while her husband is away with his sheep. Their hut is isolated (surrounded by bush), but it is not on the frontier. Even so, the story gives us an exact replication of Kit’s encounter in Liston’s “Doctor.” The difference here is that the threatening intruder in the hut is now not a “brutal” Aboriginal man but a large black snake, “a black brute, five feet long,”13 and it is the family dog—rather than a local stray—that rushes in to maul it to death. So this is a post-frontier colonial Gothic story, one that seems to draw explicit attention to its residual position in the aftermath of violent encounters with Aboriginal people, when the frontier “phase” is over and domestic settler life now has other things to worry about. “The Drover’s Wife” replicates (almost to the letter) the nature of Liston’s frontier encounter, but is now able to keep it at a safe, symbolic-historical distance. Another Gothic story is Barbara Baynton’s “The Tranp,” first published in the Bulletin in 1896 and then reprinted in revised form as “The Chosen Vessel” in Bush Studies (1902). Once again, a woman and her child are left alone in a remote hut while the husband—a shearer now—is away. A swagman arrives at the hut and asks for money. Later that evening, he lurks outside with “cruel eyes, lascivious mouth, and gleaming knife.”14 The wife tries to fortify the hut from the inside, to prevent him from entering; she thus replicates Kit’s predicament in Ellen Liston’s earlier story, but once again keeps that predicament at a symbolic distance. The threat of rape and murder in “The Chosen Vessel” comes not from an Aboriginal man but from a swagman, shifting the focus away from frontier violence. The swagman was already routinely demonized as a sexual threat in popular commentary; this character type, however, inhabits a post-frontier space, not a frontier space.

Some earlier stories about shepherds defending the frontier more clearly identify the frontier colonial Gothic in Australia. Horace Earle came to Australia from England in the 1850s to work on the Victorian goldfields; later, he settled in Brisbane and immersed himself in Queensland’s commercial development. His collection of stories, Ups and Downs; or, Incidents of Australian Life, was published in London in 1861. In one of these stories, “Ned White; or, The Shepherd’s Hut,” a loyal shepherd helps a squatter develop and expand his property at a time when Aboriginal people were “as thick as bees”—that is, in the early days of the frontier when (as in Poe’s novel) Indigeneity could be imagined in a paranoid way as everywhere.15 Working in a “log hut” at the far edge of the station, Ned and his wife, the squatter, and some other employees soon find themselves under attack by armed Aboriginal men. A pitched battle ensues; doors are broken down, Ned’s wife is speared, and the shepherd, the squatter, and the others retaliate in a frenzy of violence, killing everyone around them. “The governor,” Ned relates, “was soon almost up to his middle in black fellows,” and “the ground all round our hut was covered with blood.”16 This is the frontier colonial Gothic at its most literal: nothing is symbolically displaced here. The story relishes its extreme moment of carnage on the frontier because it knows that colonial settlement will succeed, no matter what. And it defines the shepherd entirely through his active participation in this narrative of the violent imposition of settler domination: “There,” Ned says at the conclusion, “that’s the beginnin’, middle, and end of the old shepherd’s story.”17

Like Earle, N. Walter Swan came to Victoria in the 1850s to work on the goldfields; later on, he settled in Ararat, worked as a journalist, and then moved to Stawell in western Victoria, investing in local industry and taking over the editorship of the very un-Gothically titled local paper, the Pleasant Creek News. Swan’s first collection of stories, Tales of Australian Life (1875), includes “Two Days at Michaelmas,” first published in the Australasian on August 2, 1873. This story again takes readers back to the early days of colonial settlement, this time in Queensland and probably at some point in the 1840s. Hugh Hardy, the narrator, is a newly appointed hut keeper at Michaelmas Hut. In the title of Horace Earle’s “Ned White; or, The Shepherd’s Hut,” the man and his occupation are intrinsically tied to his place of habitation. In Swan’s story, the hut itself becomes a powerful symbol of the process of settlement in this early frontier “phase,” presented here as an almost animated Gothic thing that defiantly stakes its claim on the land:

I always used to think the cedar logs of Michaelmas Hut put on a bold, devil-may-care look from breakfast time till the supper hour. They appeared to gather a stimulant from the sun, and to gain courage with the warmth. At noon the house was red and confident; towards evening it glowered furiously from under the leaves of the bunya-bunya like a bloodshot eye.18

Hardy soon becomes deeply affected by the hut’s brooding but “singularly handsome” shepherd, who comes to inhabit his nocturnal thoughts: “He lived in my light sleep and among my uneasy dream through the long slow hours till the pale light that tided up against the stars.”19 The hut is effectively a small fort on the frontier, armed and defended, and the shepherd grimly implies that his task is to kill Aboriginal people without hesitation: “I, the shepherd,” he informs Hardy, “approve of the arrangement, knowing it to be the best.”20 In contrast to Earle’s story, where shepherd and squatter work side by side, the squatter is now absent, and it is the shepherd who takes charge, using his own judgement to determine how much violence he dispenses. When he returns one evening, the shepherd complains to Hardy and some fencers about “Doctor Bird,” the writer, as he explains, “of Nick of the Woods.” Robert Montgomery Bird was an American author and playwright who trained as a physician in the early 1840s. His bestselling novel Nick of the Woods; or, The Jibbenainosay: A Tale of Kentucky (1837) tells of a Quaker in the 1780s who, when his wife and children are killed by Native Americans, takes systematic, murderous revenge and is never held legally accountable. In Swan’s story this novel prompts a discussion about the ethics of violence on the colonial frontier. “It’s an absurd tale,” the shepherd tells the hut keeper: “People don’t meet with the escapes of the Quaker. It’s one of our cheap romances, you know, and cheapness and sensationalism go together. It’s only hut literature. … Is there any excuse for taking away life?” In this exchange, the shepherd names the genre that he inhabits: hut literature. But he also criticizes the genre for its “cheapness and sensationalism.” The next morning, Hardy sees shapes moving outside, reflected in his shaving mirror. The shepherd returns, takes a rifle and an old pistol, and begins to shoot Aboriginal men who are gathering around the hut. Soon afterward, the shepherd goes in search of more Aboriginal men to kill, leaving the hut keeper on his own. This is where the story (in contrast to Earle’s “Ned White”) offers some moral reflection on the “sensationalism” of “hut literature” and its unleashed and unaccountable levels of settler violence. Hardy goes outside and finds one of the shepherd’s victims, paralyzed by a bullet in the spine: “The wild clouded eyes came up and rested on my face … as he held one open hand above his head and then the other to show me he was unarmed.”21

This poignant, momentary encounter brings the hut keeper into a kind of intimate proximity with the human cost of frontier warfare, but he is unable either to help the wounded Aboriginal man or to see the logic of settler violence through to its end point by killing him. The shepherd is also hurt in the skirmish, but he gets the chance to recover and live. It turns out that the shepherd’s fiancée had been killed by Aboriginal people some time before, structurally connecting this character to Bird’s spectral protagonist in Nick of the Woods as a vigilante figure driven by personal revenge. The story ends five years later in the squatter’s lavish homestead, Peckham House, a place that signifies the triumph of settlement, although it is also defined by the “far-off sounds of closing doors, the drawing-room under repressed light, the carpet under repressed footsteps.”22 This passage conveys both the consolidation of colonial authority and the way it relies on the concealment of those violent events and processes that made that consolidation possible. Hardy is there, his name now changed, and the shepherd is now a “gentleman” who renounces his earlier vigilantism and distances himself once and for all from Bird’s vicious protagonist: “No blighted hope,” he says, “though it ruins a life, excuses murder.”23 Even so, the story’s chronicle of frontier settler violence rejects the idea that the squatter’s homestead could successfully “repress” the bloodshed it was founded upon. “Read the phases of colonial life,” Hardy insists, as if the frontier colonial Gothic lays everything bare (if only readers would look at it, or listen): “The page is open.”

The Post-Frontier Colonial Gothic

The early colonial history of Australia is defined by the rapid development and expansion of colonial settlement, and the rapid establishment of settler authority over Aboriginal people. The first poem published in Victoria was a tribute to its embryonic city, titled “Melbourne.” It appeared in the Port Philip Gazette in January 1839 and was probably written by this newspaper’s editor and cofounder, George Arden. The frontier is already proclaimed to be a “phase” that has now passed (here, at least), with the city literally pushing Aboriginal people out of its precincts:

  • The swarthy
  • Tribe appeas’d, remov’d; or with force of arms
  • Into the Interior driven back;
  • (For power, the law of right, too oft o’ercomes)
  • A savage, to a civil race gives way.24

Only a few years after its establishment, Melbourne’s growth is assured: colonial development is simply unable to stop. The “lonely hut,” the poem tells us, finds itself alongside others; “So / Hut unites to hut, to acre, acre: / A site thus fix’d, a Town is planned.” Commerce and development go hand in hand as the huts are demolished and grander, more solid buildings take their place:

  • Lot after lot
  • Is sold. The lonely weather-boarded hut
  • Is lost. The turf built house is taken down.
  • Now brick to turf succeeds, and stone to wood.
  • Now spacious stones, and dwellings palace-like
  • On every hand are seen. … Tis thus men form the
  • Future Empire; the central City build.25

The “lonely hut” soon comes to symbolize everything that colonial development had left behind. But it also functions as a kind of residual reminder of what nation building has now literally erased: it allows the “future empire” to remember what it once used to be. It therefore becomes an important site for the colonial Australian Gothic. The opening poem in Henry Kendall’s Leaves from Australian Forests (1869), “The Hut by the Black Swamp,” is a Gothic eulogy to an abandoned homestead that turns the triumph of settlement and nation building into its dark opposite:

  • Across this Hut the nettle runs;
  • And livid adders make their lair
  • In corners dank from lack of suns;
  • And out of fetid furrows stare
  • The growths that scare. …
  • For on this Hut hath Murder writ
  • With bloody fingers hellish things;
  • And God will never visit it
  • With flower or leaf of sweet-faced Springs,
  • Or gentle wings.26

Colonial Australian Gothic literature continually returns to the abandoned hut or homestead as a place that does not conform to the settler imperative to develop the land and populate the colonies—a place that offers, instead, a glimpse into a more forsaken kind of colonial economy. “The Desolate Homestead” (1866), by “Hal”—published in the Australian Journal—begins by inspecting an abandoned dwelling and discovers “a lonely grave” at “the furthest extremity of what once had been the garden.”27 Francis Adams’s “The Hut by the Tanks” (1892) presents a boundary rider’s tale of his strange experience in another deserted hut and adds some observations about acquaintances that claim to have seen a “bush ghost” or “bunyip” in the area:

They all said it was black, and like a ball, and that it rolled along in front to the left of them, and all the while you saw it you kept running cold shivers from behind your ears down your backbone. One of ’um—that was Ned Lane (he died of the fever in Brisbane four years ago)—said he thought it might be the ghost of an animal, and he was pretty sure it had eyes and feet and a tail. …The others thought it was more like a glass globe half full of black liquor that kept whirling about and seemed to be flying round the outside of the globe somehow.28

This story mobilizes its ghost as a kind of symbolically displaced image of settler guilt, its blackness suggesting something that is not quite there anymore but which lingers on as a kind of unwanted companion. Settlers who see it die soon afterward. At this post-frontier moment, the killing and dispossession of Aboriginal people are distanced from settler memory; the Gothic, however, breaches that distance by turning frontier encounters into a kind of special effect that reaches into a settler future (the “future empire”) and negates it.

What we might call the post-frontier colonial Gothic gains its momentum precisely by returning to the frontier as a spectralized place. Hume Nisbet was a Scottish writer and illustrator who traveled extensively across Australia in the mid-1860s and again during the 1880s and 1890s. The title story of his remarkable Gothic collection, The Haunted Station and Other Stories (1893), is narrated by an English doctor who is transported to Western Australia after being found guilty of murdering his wife. Assigned to work as a convict, he is involved in “road-making”: literally helping to expand the reach of empire, to build and connect the (forthcoming) nation. But one day he escapes and, pursued by troopers and Aboriginal trackers, flees deep into the interior. Wounded and delirious, the doctor finds himself at last in a “far-off and as yet unnamed portion of Western Australia” and imagines (rather like Poe’s whalers and explorers) that he is seeing what no settlers have ever seen before: “It seemed impossible to believe that I was not the first white man who had penetrated so far.”29 There are, however, two reasons why this remote place is not the frontier. First (in contrast to Poe and to Earle, etc.), there are no Aboriginal people, “not even a single tribe of wandering blacks.”30 Second, there is a homestead, a building “picturesque” enough to suggest “the abode of an imaginative poet rather than the station of a practical, money-grubbing squatter.” It would seem, in other words, to be free of a history of colonial violence (and commerce or trade).31 The homestead is described in great detail, as a “substantial-looking” building with “painted weather-boards, shingles, iron-sheeting, carved posts and trellis-work”: solid enough to suggest the successful establishment of colonial authority, except for the fact that it is deserted. The doctor explores the building and is horrified to discover two skeletons in one of the beds and shattered skulls in the kitchen. His delirium overtakes him and he cannot leave: “The house,” he exclaims, “had taken possession of me.”32 A series of visions follows, and a “pallid-faced” man appears, soaking wet and glowing “as if with the glitter of a fever.” He tells the narrator he was once married, with a daughter, but a jealous friend had murdered him, telling his wife he “had been killed by natives.”33 This is the closest the story gets to the experience of frontier violence. The murdered man then appears to threaten the doctor; suddenly, they hear the voices of the wife and child in another room, and as the doctor rushes outside, the homestead bursts into flame and sinks into the ground, taking with it the “scarlet ghosts of the demon and his victim.”34

Nisbet’s “The Haunted Station” obviously owes a great deal to Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), and would seem to have taken its title from a poem Poe’s narrator reproduces in this story called “The Haunted Palace.” Interestingly, both Poe and Nisbet obscure, rather than make explicit, the reasons for the destruction of their buildings and the killing of the inhabitants; in Nisbet’s case, this conveys the effect of being close to the frontier and remote from it at the same time. An earlier colonial Australian Gothic story works in a similar way. Marcus Clarke’s novella The Mystery of Major Molineux (1881) was published posthumously not long after Clarke’s death.35 Its narrator, Julius Fayre, has recently arrived in Hobart Town from Calcutta; the events of the story unfold on Van Diemen’s Land in 1839, the same year as Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and just a few years after the island’s genocidal Black War. Fayre soon gets to know Major Molineux, who had also served in India and who now lives alone in a “huge, colonial built, red brick house” known as Castle Stuart.36 Molineux’s young niece Agnes—“a girl of rare promise”—had died in Castle Stuart not long ago; immediately afterward, Molineux remains inexplicably confined to the house on the same day each week, as if he is held in some kind of prison. Beatrice Rochford, a close friend of Agnes, finds Molineux “sometimes repulsive” and wonders “what dreadful penance he is inflicting on himself for some past crime.”37 Later on, she is injured in a horse-riding accident and is taken to Molineux’s “mysterious and ill-omened house” as the closest place of residence.38 Castle Stuart seems like a solid, even triumphant, expression of colonial authority, but to Fayre, as he accompanies Beatrice, it is a “desolate and death-haunted ruin.”39 Beatrice begins to have ghostly visions—seeing a “white face at the window”—and soon her health deteriorates. She dies, but not before Molineux commits suicide, bequeathing Castle Stuart to her. In the event, the house and property—with Molineux’s “immense fortune”—are “forfeited to the crown.”40

Clarke’s story refuses to reveal what is wrong with Molineux; it turns his malady into an individualized, exceptional kind of pathology that Fayre, the only character who has some insight into it, then displaces into a conventionally hysterical expression of Gothic horror: “It eluded my mental grasp as a jelly-fish slips through the fingers. Formless and void, it yet was there—a foul and filthy thought, profaning the shrine of sense.”41 For Andrew McCann in Marcus Clarke’s Bohemia (2004), this displacement is itself revealing: “The unspeakable secret of Castle Stuart,” he writes, “is readable as the repressed underside of the well-ordered society, the colonial idyll, that has erased all trace and memory of colonial violence in Tasmania.”42 McCann sees Clarke’s novella as indeed an example of the post-frontier colonial Gothic. That is, it distances itself from the frontier experience even as it makes itself historically proximate to it—setting its events in 1839. It represses the past that it returns to while pathologizing the aftermath through a narrative that (as it kills off the young women in the colony and shuts down any possibility of property inheritance to local families) lends no affirmation to a settler colonial future. McCann gives a slightly different account of these points when he draws the following conclusion about Clarke’s novella: “If the colonial Gothic seeks to normalise the space of settlement by juxtaposing it to the pathologies located beyond its limits, it is also haunted by the suspicion that pathology is in fact much closer to home than we might want to imagine.”43

Convict Gothic and Bare Life

The Mystery of Major Molineux is haunted by another kind of colonial “pathology,” the transportation and incarceration of convicts. The colonial history of convictism was particularly grim in Tasmania. Port Arthur was established as a model prison in the early 1830s on the far southeast corner of the island, what John Frow calls “one of the most isolated places on earth.”44 It began as a timber structure; but the late 1840s saw the prison rebuilt and extended in stone, literally solidifying its authority over those who were held inside its walls. By 1846, the prison’s population had reached 1,200.45 Port Arthur emphasized solitary confinement; it was an example of the so-called “separate system” where prisoners were isolated from one another in single cells, often for extensive periods of time or at regular intervals. It is not difficult to see Molineux’s Castle Stuart as a kind of displaced symbol of Port Arthur, with its solitary incarcerated (and deranged) inhabitant. Clarke’s story was published just a few years after Port Arthur was officially closed in 1877; by the mid-1870s, Edwin Barnard writes, convict transportation to Tasmania was already “a fast-fading memory for the generation just reaching adulthood. By April 1874, a mere 311 men—156 prisoners, 88 lunatics and 67 paupers—were to be found shuffling along the echoing corridors of buildings at Port Arthur that had once housed 2000 or more.”46 But Clarke’s story is set in 1839; it returns to Port Arthur’s early history even as it remains remote from it. Molineux has an old convict servant who at one point shows Fayre a grave on the property.

“It was here he did it,” the servant tells him.

“Did what?” I asked.

“Cut his throat,” said the old man, “and they buried him there, with a stake through his heart. But that can’t hold him.”

“What do you mean, man?” I asked, experiencing a fresh access of horror at this hideous and unexpected story. “Who is buried here?”

“Savery, the forger; him as found his wife gone as well as his liberty. This was where he saw them walking. The Captain was a handsome man, and Mrs. Savery had been a beauty, they say. She died mad for all that,” and he laughed the discordant laugh of one whose experience of life has been of the sort to make him rejoice in others’ woe.47

This peculiar passage gives us a convict suicide who is also a vampire and who rises from the grave, just like Beatrice, the old servant has seen “some awful thing with a white face” at the window of Castle Stuart.48 The passage also names the convict suicide as “Savery, the forger.” This is no doubt Henry Savery, well known as the author of Quintus Servinton (1831–1832), Australia’s first locally published novel and a thinly disguised account of Savery’s own experiences. Convicted as a forger, Savery was transported to Van Diemen’s Land in 1825; his wife, Eliza, sailed out from England to join him and may have become romantically involved with the island’s newly arrived attorney general, Algernon Montagu. Savery had indeed tried to commit suicide by cutting his throat. He survived, only to be convicted of forgery once more (with Montagu as the presiding judge) and sent to Port Arthur, where he died in 1842, a few years after the setting of Clarke’s novella. In Savery’s Quintus Servinton, the protagonist works his way through his transportation and jail sentence, finally returning to England with his beloved and faithful wife. But The Mystery of Major Molineux gives us the complete opposite of this redemptive fantasy. Here, Savery’s suicide attempt succeeds, and his convict grave is given a Gothic afterlife that condemns this figure to haunt the grounds of Castle Stuart, turning him into a metonymy of the abandoned, incarcerated, and equally suicidal Molineux.

Clarke’s great work of Gothic convictism, His Natural Life, was first serialized in the Australian Journal from 1870 to 1872 and published in revised form as a novel in Melbourne by George Robertson in 1874, during the declining years of Port Arthur. Clarke had visited Tasmania in January 1870 and was greatly affected by what he saw of the penal settlement: “There seemed to me to hang over the whole place a sort of horrible gloom,” he wrote, “as though sunlight had been withdrawn from it.”49 The novel begins much earlier on, however, in 1827, when a young Englishman, Richard Devine, is wrongly accused of murdering his father, Viscount Bellasis, and transported to Van Diemen’s Land. Taking the name Rufus Dawes, he is incarcerated at the Macquarie Harbour penal settlement on Sarah Island, and is then moved to Port Arthur and, later, to Norfolk Island; events unfold here mostly through the early 1830s. The novel presents the systematic brutalization of Dawes in a penal system that is, we might say, a colonial rendering of the philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s “state of exception,” taking this character to a place that presents (as Agamben puts it) the “force of law” in a “space devoid of law.”50 Agamben has been interested in modern forms of incarceration—World War II German extermination camps, Guantanamo Bay, etc.—and in what he has called “bare life,” that is, a life that one might find in such camps, excluded from the polis or state even while it is violently subjected to the force of its power.51 Dawes is himself illegitimate and disowned by his family. His transportation to the colonial penal settlements where he lives out his “natural life” simply confirms what is already a radical separation from what Agamben calls, by contrast, “good life.” Suicide is always a possibility in this novel, as if the distinction between death and an incarcerated bare or natural life is impossible to determine. Escape is another possibility, but this only heightens the Gothic effects in the novel, bringing more despair and death. Another convict, John Rex—the actual murderer of Dawes’s father—tries to comfort himself with thoughts of returning to England as a “long-lost heir” while he hides from his pursuers in a dark cavern by the ocean. But his Savery-like redemptive fantasy of “good life” is overwhelmed by Gothic hallucinations:

He heaped fresh wood upon his fire, that the bright light might drive out the gruesome things that lurked above, below, and around him. He became afraid to look behind him, lest some shapeless mass of mid-sea birth—some voracious polyp, with far-reaching arms and jellied mouth ever open to devour—might slide up over the edge of the dripping caves below and fasten upon him in the darkness. His imagination … painted each patch of shadow, clinging bat-like to the humid wall, as some globular sea-spider ready to drop upon him with its viscid and clay-cold body, and drain out his chilled blood, enfolding him in rough and hairy arms.52

Another escaped convict is Gabbett, an “insatiable giant” who slaughters his companions and devours them; discovered soon afterward, he offers the contents of his swag to his captors, who are “filled with horror at what the maniac displayed.”53 Gabbett was modeled on the actual convict Alexander Pearce, who was supposed to be rather short in stature but who did indeed cannibalize his companions during two escapes from Sarah Island. Pearce was hanged in Hobart Town in 1824. For Andrew McCann, Gabbett “is an abject embodiment of a kind of wildness that … seems to stand outside of the social bond.”54 McCann has also drawn on Agamben’s notion of bare life and “sovereignty”—the governing power of the polis or state—to read His Natural Life. But he argues that Clarke’s novel puts the qualities of “pity and sympathy” to work as a way of bringing redemption back to characters who seem to inhabit a world that exists beyond the “limits” of sovereign power. This is a different kind of remoteness from the edge of the frontier, however. McCann notes that the serialization of the novel in the Australian Journal included a chapter on “Hobart Town in 1830,” which describes the use of convict labor to advance the “progress” of the colony. “Only two years before,” Clarke writes,

the great attack upon the blacks—known as the Black War—had taken place, but by 1830, the once dreaded natives, reduced to 600 souls, were objects of pity, rather than terror, and the expedition against them was remembered almost as a matter of history, so rapidly had the colony progressed in civilisation and importance.55

For McCann, this passage underlines the novel’s sense of distance from the frontier—and frontier violence—even as it returns to that historical moment for its convict narrative. Clarke’s description is in fact a bit like Barnard’s account of the few remaining convicts and paupers in Port Arthur in 1874. Aboriginal people are now “objects of pity” in this colonial discourse, a mere footnote to the history of colonial settlement. Moreover, the “terror” that violent Aboriginal resistance to settler development may have once inspired is now dispensed by the administrators of a brutalized system of incarceration, and by convicts like Gabbett. Indeed, for McCann this monstrous convict precisely “stands in” for a terrorizing or “savage” form of Indigenous violence56—the kind Poe had manufactured in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, for example.

This is one very useful way of thinking about the colonial Australian Gothic as it returns to the violent experiences of the frontier only to displace them in symbolic and affective ways. Something similar happens in some early bushranger novels, too, such as Charles Rowcroft’s The Bushranger of Van Diemen’s Land, first serialized in the London-based Hood’s Magazine and Comic Miscellany in 1845–1846 (Rowcroft was its editor at the time) and published in England in 1846 by Smith, Elder & Co. Rowcroft had lived in Van Diemen’s Land in the early 1820s, returning to England around the beginning of what James Boyce calls the “bushranger emergency years of 1825–26.”57 The introduction to The Bushranger of Van Diemen’s Land makes the ironic observation that transportation to the colonies turns out for some to be more about reward than punishment, not least “for the sake of licentious liberty of action which the wild wilderness holds forth the promise of, and which, to restless minds, presents so fascinating an attraction.”58 This is the exact opposite of the colonial convict novel: it emphasizes freedom of movement, not incarceration. But it is equally interested in the colonies as a place that is shaped by sovereignty and yet simultaneously somehow beyond it. The novel introduces Mark Brandon, a bushranger who, like the escaped convicts in Clarke’s novel and also in Nisbet’s “The Haunted Station,” flees into the bush (the “wild wilderness”) to evade his captors. Shot at by police and attacked by Aboriginal people, he becomes an increasingly deranged, hallucinatory figure, eating the raw flesh of native animals. Brandon decides to recount his story: using a fresh eagle feather as a quill, he “takes grim pleasure in writing with his own blood.”59 A “passing cloud” suddenly appears above him, casting a shadow over his journal. It turns out to be “one of the largest of the great eagles of Australia” descending upon him;60 when Brandon is finally discovered, he is already dead, with the eagle devouring his corpse.

Brandon is loosely based on the actual bushranger Michael Howe, the subject of what James Boyce calls “the first book of general literature published in Australia,” Thomas Wells’s Michael Howe: The Last and Worst of the Bushrangers of Van Diemen’s Land, “printed in Hobart Town in 1818.”61 Wells’s account of Howe similarly presents the bushranger fleeing into the remote forests to become a wild man immersed in the natural world, wearing “a dress made of kangaroo skins,” keeping a “sort of journal of dreams” written in “kangaroo blood,” and presenting “altogether a terrific appearance.”62 Howe is rather like the convict Gabbett here, a kind of Homo ferus, a hybrid species identified by Carl Linnaeus at the end of the eighteenth century that seemed to blur the conventional distinctions between human and animal. Later on, Howe was a key figure in James Bonwick’s The Bushrangers, Illustrating the Early Days of Van Diemen’s Land (1856), who begins his description of the bushranger’s last days in the forests with an allusion to the wild man in a popular fifteenth-century French romance, Valentine and Orson:

Clad in raw kangaroo skins, and with a long, shaggy, black beard, he had a very Orson-like aspect. Badgered on all sides, he chose a retreat among the mountain fastness of the Upper Shannon, a dreary solitude of cloud-land, the rocky home of hermit eagles. On this elevated plateau,—contiguous to the almost bottomless lakes, from whose crater-formed recesses in ancient days torrents of liquid fire poured forth upon the plains of Tasmania, or rose uplifted in balsatic masses like frowning Wellington;—within sight of lofty hills of snow, having the Peak of Teneriffe to the south, Frenchman’s Cap and Byron to the west, Miller’s Bluff to the east, and the serrated crest of the Western Tier to the north; entrenched in dense woods, with surrounding forests of dead poles, through whose leafless passages the wind harshly whistled in a storm;—thus situated amidst some of the sublimest scenes of nature, away from suffering and degraded humanity, the lonely Bushranger was confronted with his God and his own conscience.63

In this passage, the bushranger is “elevated” in an expansive, Gothic-Romantic landscape, described with geographical—and geological—precision. But this is also a landscape defined by the absence of Aboriginal people, as if by the 1850s the frontier in Tasmania has been fully overtaken and replaced by “wilderness.” These are the last days of this particular bushranger, but he is allowed to survey the landscape before he dies and sees no trace or sign of indigeneity or colonial violence at all.

Colonial Melancholy and Spectral Afterlives

Frontier colonial Gothic literature ventures into the Australian “wilderness” and presents it as a place that is both inhabited and occulted, as in for example Charles Harpur’s famous poem “The Creek of the Four Graves” (1845), which—even though it is temporally closer to the frontier than some of the fiction discussed at above—still wants to establish some kind of symbolic distance from it:

  • I verse a Settler’s Tale of olden times,—
  • One told me by our sage friend, Egremont,
  • Who then went forth, meetly equipt, with four
  • Of his most trusty and adventurous men
  • Into the wilderness,—went forth to seek
  • New streams and wider pastures for his fast
  • Augmenting flocks and herds.64

This seems to be an expression of precisely that moment when—as Foster and Nettlebeck put it—“colonial authority over Aboriginal people” is about to be “effectively established.” The settler here is a squatter-explorer who wants to turn “wilderness” into cultivated land for commercial use; the imperative to expand settlement is moving so quickly here (“fast augmenting”) that it seems unstoppable. But this is also a colonial Gothic poem, and as night falls and the settlers camp out in the bush, a group of Aboriginal men suddenly attack:

  • Oh Heaven! have hell’s worst fiends burst howling up
  • Into the death-doom’d world? Or whence, if not
  • From diabolic rage, could surge a yell
  • So horrible as that which now affrights
  • The shuddering dark? Ah, Beings as fell are near!
  • Yea, Beings, in their dread inherited hate
  • And deadly enmity, as vengeful, come
  • In vengeance!—For, behold, from the long grass
  • And nearer brakes, a semi-belt of stript
  • And painted Savages divulge at once
  • Their bounding forms!65

This exclamatory, overwrought passage owes something to Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym; Egremont himself might also recall Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, a despondent figure who survives an ordeal to tell the tale of (in this case) “the wild old times.” The scene of frontier violence here is occulted, turning Aboriginal violence against settlers into a spectralized event. The subsequent chasing of the witness Egremont through the forest is a much darker, extended version of the witches’ chase at the end of Robert Burns’s famous poem “Tam O’Shanter” (1791). These settlers are literally out of place in this poem’s Gothic version of the frontier; even so, the poem ends with a melancholy claim on the landscape in the name of colonization, their burial in “four long grassy mounds” memorializing the business of settlement-to-come.

In White Aborigines (1998), Ian McLean briefly discusses the colonial Gothic poetry of Harpur and Henry Kendall in relation to some colonial landscape painting. “A melancholy landscape,” he writes, “is an historical landscape, haunted with memories.”66 Melancholy turns out to be an important affective condition in colonial Gothic literature, invoked even in a settler’s first glimpse of Australia—as if one can be “haunted with memories” at the very moment of arrival. This is the emigrant Jim Burton’s experience in Henry Kingsley’s The Hillyars and the Burtons (1865), for example: “We are sailing slowly along under high-piled forest capes, more strange, more majestic, and more infinitely melancholy than anything we have seen in our strangest dreams. What is this awful, dim, mysterious land, so solemn and do desolate? This is Australia.”67 A decade later, Marcus Clarke turned “weird melancholy” into a definitive colonial condition in a preface he wrote to a posthumously published collection of poems by Adam Lindsay Gordon, Sea Spray and Smoke Drift (1876). Gordon had arrived in South Australia in 1853, taking up various jobs there as a drover, a horse breaker, a politician, and a sheep farmer. An excellent horseman and steeplechaser, he also began to publish volumes of poetry, to critical acclaim. But a riding accident, the death of his daughter, increasing debts, and the loss of an inheritance all took their toll. “Unhappily,” Clarke writes, “the melancholy which Gordon’s friends had with pain observed increased daily, and in the full flood of his success, with congratulations pouring upon him from every side, he was found dead in the heather near his home with a bullet from his own rifle in his brain.”68 Gordon seems representative enough to have established “a national school of Australian poetry,” and Clarke pays tribute to his positive settler qualities, his “keen sense for natural beauty and a manly admiration for healthy living.”69 But like Clarke’s Major Molineux, Gordon is also a suicide, and the registering of this example of failed colonial promise somehow provokes Clarke to write what has become colonial Australia’s most famous and eloquent expression of a local Gothic state of mind. In order to do this, Clarke turns away from Gordon and—interestingly enough in terms of literary influence at this heightened moment—toward Poe:

What is the dominant note of Australian scenery? That which is the dominant note of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry—Weird Melancholy. … The Australian mountain forests are funereal, secret, stern. Their solitude is desolation. They seem to stifle in their black gorges a story of sullen despair. No tender sentiment is nourished in their shade. In other lands the dying year is mourned, the falling leaves drop lightly on his bier. In the Australian forests no leaves fall. The savage winds shout among the rock clefts. From the melancholy gums strips of white bark hang and rustle. The very animal life of these frowning hills is either grotesque or ghostly. Great gray kangaroos hop noiselessly over the coarse grass. Flights of white cockatoos stream out shrieking like evil souls. The sun suddenly sinks, and the mopokes burst into horrible peals of semi-human laughter. The natives aver that when night comes, from out the bottomless depth of some lagoon the Bunyip rises, and in form like monstrous sea-calf drags his loathsome length from out the ooze. From a corner of the silent forest rises a dismal chant, and around a fire, dances natives painted like skeletons. All is fear inspiring and gloomy.70

This strange, lurid passage is triggered by the suicide of a promising colonial poet: this is what produces Clarke’s Gothic occulting of the Australian mountain forests under the signifier of “weird melancholy.” His description resonates with Sigmund Freud’s essay on the subject, “Mourning and Melancholy” (1917), which draws an important distinction between these two conditions by suggesting that melancholy (in contrast to mourning) is the result of one’s refusal to properly acknowledge or confront the loss of the thing one had once loved or valued. Mourning is able finally to set itself apart from the lost object and move on. But for melancholics, Freud writes, it is as if “the shadow of the [lost] object fell upon the ego,” continuing to shape the way they view the world.71 Clarke makes exactly this distinction in this passage. In other lands, he says, “the dying year is mourned,” but not in Australia, where melancholy seems like a permanent condition, definitive enough to be imprinted onto the landscape (the “wilderness”). This is a particular kind of colonial melancholy. It plays itself out under the “shadow” of the suicide of a “manly” settler-poet and gives us the complete opposite of what might otherwise have been an optimistic account of a “healthy” colonial future. Instead, the passage calls up atavistic images from some primal, precolonial Australian imaginary and—like the “shadow” that falls on the ego—infuses settler colonialism with their spectral afterlife.

The colonial Australian Gothic is full of atavistic narratives that tie the landscape to a spectral Aboriginal presence that could only be imagined during and after the actual dispossession of Aboriginal people from frontier locations. The “Lemurian” novel was a popular late colonial form, a version of the post-frontier Gothic where, in novels like Ernest Favenc’s The Secret of the Australian Desert (1896) or George Firth Scott’s The Last Lemurian: A Westralian Romance (1898), settlers or explorers discover ancient, pre-Aboriginal tribes still living in hidden-away parts of the interior. In Writing the Colonial Adventure (1995), Robert Dixon notes the influence of H. Rider Haggard’s popular African-located “lost world” or “vanished race” novels, King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and She (1887), on Australian Lemurian fiction—making these discovered tribal worlds erotically alluring at one moment and utterly grotesque at another.72 Lemurian narratives from around this period offer what Andrew McCann has called “a fantastic history of Australia” that imagines vibrant worlds-within-worlds.73 But they are at the same time built around colonial notions of the inevitable “extinction” of Indigenous people and the plundering of the resources they had once protected. Even so, their spectral afterlives can be called up to work as a kind of morally prohibitive influence on settler expansion and wealth accumulation. W. Sylvester Walker’s “The Evil of Yelcomorn Creek” was published in the Centennial Magazine in March 1890. An old man—rather like Egremont in Harpur’s poem—tells a story about his younger days, when he went searching for opals in Queensland’s interior, helped by Bobbie, an Aboriginal tracker. They discover a lost valley that seems like “the Garden of Eden”—and come across a tunnel “made by blackfellows,” although “no blackfellows had used it for a century or more.”74 Camping there at night, the narrator hears an unearthly cry that conveys “a sort of quivering despair.” Not far away he finds a series of Aboriginal graves and bloodstains, suggesting a closer proximity to the colonial frontier than he had first imagined. When he returns to the campsite, Bobbie has been killed, “his limbs … drawn up as if he had died in frightful agony.”75 Phantom Aboriginal warriors appear and seem to honor Bobbie’s passing; the narrator faints away, and when he awakens he leaves the valley and seals the entrance. So this is another post-frontier colonial Gothic story, which returns to the site of a frontier massacre of Aboriginal people in order to reanimate it spectrally and to honor it. There is even something post-colonial about this ghost story: it tells curious settlers to go away from Aboriginal land and not trespass.

Marcus Clarke’s image of “natives painted like skeletons” dancing around a fire suggests an Aboriginal corroboree or ritual performance, an event that was relatively visible in settler colonial Australia. Penelope Edmonds notes that recent arrivals in Melbourne in the 1840s “often walked down to the Native camp to watch a corroboree”; they were, she writes, “thrilling performances for newcomers who were expecting to see savagery on display.”76 The corroboree might also be co-opted by colonial authorities: this is Amanda Nettlebeck’s point in her account of the March 1835 “peace corroboree” in Perth, Western Australia, where an Aboriginal ceremonial performance was used as a way of announcing the end of frontier killings and the “prospect of the Murray Nyungar people’s acquiescence” to settler colonial law.77 These two commentaries give us a useful framework for understanding spectral representations of the corroboree in colonial Australian Gothic fiction. In Rosa Praed’s lively bushranger novel Outlaw and Lawmaker (1893), a group of settlers—including the bushranger himself in his public persona as Morris Blake, and a young woman, Elsie, and her squatter fiancé—go into the bush to watch a corroboree, having been warned that “the dance might offend the squeamish.”78 Clarke’s earlier account is then reproduced and extended, to heighten the “savage” effect of the performance:

From the blackness of the scrub a cohort of grotesque forms came stealing. Suddenly the huge bonfire, which had been made of quickly inflammable material, blazed forth, and the circle of the corroboree was a glow of red light. … Then dancing began. Troop after troop of demoniac beings pressed from the scrub and ranged themselves round the centre idol. They were naked save for a belt about the loins. All were painted in white and red and yellow; some to represent skeletons, others had crawling snakes meandering upon their limbs, others fishes, others in a nightmare pattern, meaning nothing.79

That final erasure of meaning might suggest that this corroboree has been entirely co-opted by the Gothic, as if it has nothing to signify outside this genre. The most obvious difference between this passage and Clarke’s, however, is that this corroboree unfolds under the colonial gaze: settlers are actually watching. Indeed, they are literally affected by what they see. Elsie sits beside Blake, “conscious almost of something electrical, highly charged in him—a suppressed agitation. … Was it a dream—the hellish merriment, the savage gestures, the fiendish shouts and yells, in which there seemed a note of such unutterable melancholy?”80 The corroboree arouses sexual desire amongst these settlers. But the novel constantly frustrates that desire: love itself is the lost object here, underscored by Blake’s suicide at the end and the placement of the novel’s events in the colony’s distant past, as a “strange tragic episode.”81 This is therefore another post-frontier colonial Gothic novel that returns to the frontier only to symbolically and affectively displace it. The corroboree is the closest the novel gets to the possibility of colonial violence, with Aboriginal warriors clutching their spears and nullas. But the corroboree is also now primarily a matter of colonial entertainment, its heightened “savagery” deployed not to inspire terror amongst the settlers anymore but to trigger their romantic desires.

The “unutterable melancholy” of the corroboree does, at least, cast a certain Freudian “shadow” over settler sensibilities, and perhaps the “strange tragic episode” the novel distances itself from at the end might even be a submerged synecdoche for Aboriginal dispossession across the frontier. Rosa Praed had grown up on a remote station in central Queensland called Naraigin, on land traditionally owned by the Yiman people. In October 1857, when she was just six years old, eight members of the Frazer family at Hornet Bank station some miles away (along with a live-in tutor and two shepherds) were killed in an Aboriginal raid. Praed’s father then joined a large settler vigilante group, which was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Yiman people, securing their dispossession from country. The massacre and its aftermath made an indelible impression on Praed and she wrote about it at length in a memoir much later on, My Australian Girlhood (1904)—which opens with Praed thinking about “the little war of my childhood, after the Frazer murder, between the squatters and the Blacks” and goes on to chart her sense of being “an outside spectator of the sweeping away of the old race from the land.”82 Not long before the attack on Hornet Bank, she is taken to watch a corroboree where Aboriginal men are “painted to represent skeletons, others in spiral stripes as though huge snakes were coiled around their bodies.” This is something different from the idea of the corroboree as mere entertainment or as a conciliatory gesture toward the ongoing establishment of colonial authority. “I have often thought,” Praed writes, “that had I described … the ghastly performance I had witnessed, the Hornet Bank tragedy might have been averted.”83 The corroboree in Outlaw and Lawmaker, of course, reproduces the descriptions in this scene almost to the letter, which makes that novel’s attempt to erase the meaning of the event (“a nightmare pattern, meaning nothing”) particularly resonant, and also gives extra significance to the cries of “unutterable melancholy” during the performance. By restaging the Hornet Bank corroboree in her novel much later on, Praed certainly displaces the event—using it primarily to incite sexual excitement among the settlers. But it retains enough of a link to the traumas of the colonial frontier to turn it at the same time into a melancholic sign of Aboriginal dispossession and settler loss.

The colonial Australian Gothic rejects the idea of an expansive settler future that can forget about its violent frontier origins and proceed unencumbered. Rosa Praed gives us an almost literal example of this rejection through her deep structural relationship to the Hornet Bank attack: as Andrew McCann notes, “The massacre and its aftermath linger through her writing, and are incessantly replayed, reconstructed and fictionalised.”84 The colonial Australian Gothic knows very well that colonial authority has been, or will eventually be, “effectively established.” But at the same time, it gives us narratives that show that settlement itself is always troubled; settlement, in this expression of the Gothic, is never properly allowed to settle. This is what we find in Praed’s remarkable story “The Bunyip,” published in 1891 in a collection titled Coo-ee: Tales of Australian Life by Australian Ladies. In Praed’s story, the bunyip is taken as an Indigenous spirit of some kind, one that prohibits Aboriginal people from frequenting the places—waterholes in particular—that it inhabits. Settlers, on the other hand, have never seen it. The story then turns to the business of colonial land acquisition and occupation, as two brothers travel up-country to meet a dray “loaded with the stores and furniture for the new home to which [they] were bound.”85 These are settlers who are almost, but not quite, at the point of settling. The group (including a hut keeper, various bullock drovers, and so on) decides to make a camp beside a “dark swamp,” and soon “the talk got to eerie things … and as we talked a sort of chill seemed to creep over us.”86 They hear a strange cry, like that of “a child in pain or terror,” and the group goes into the swamp to search for the source of the noise. But soon these settlers-to-be are disoriented: “Though we tried to move in the direction of the voice, it was impossible to determine whence it came, so misleading and fitful and will-o’-the-wisp was the sound.”87 At last they make their way out of the swamp and, under bright moonlight, discover “a white prostrate form” and “a snake, brown and shiny and scaly and horrible, which uncoiled itself, and with a swift, wavy motion disappeared into the depths of the scrub.”88 The settlers identify the body as Nancy’s, a child from a station some miles away called Coffin Lid, but they realize that Nancy has been dead for some time. “They couldn’t believe it was that snake which had bitten her,” the story concludes, “and they declared that the cry we heard must have been the Bunyip, or little Nancy’s ghost.”89

This brief but evocative example of the post-frontier colonial Gothic gives us no examples of frontier violence; and there are no encounters with Aboriginal people, and no corroborees. But there is nevertheless an attempt to evoke a kind of spirit of Indigeneity—through the unseen (but heard) figure of the Bunyip—that hovers over the settlers and confuses them. The dead child from a squatter’s station that already seems like a grave (“Coffin Lid”) once again gives us just a trace of the aftermath of the Hornet Bank massacre; on the other hand, Nancy may simply belong to the more sentimentalized colonial Gothic subgenre of “the lost child in the bush.”90 Either way, this story takes up the promise of settler occupation of land and property and destabilizes it, casting its own shadow over a colonial future that, in a certain sense, has already passed these settlers by. The colonial Australian Gothic, we might say, turns the settler occupation of land into a matter of pre-occupation: clouding the thoughts of its settlers as they make their way through the frontier “phase” and out the other side.

Further Reading

Dixon, Robert. Writing the Colonial Adventure: Race, Gender and Nation in Anglo-Australian Popular Fiction, 1875–1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Gelder, Ken. “Postcolonial Gothic.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Modern Gothic. Edited by Jerrold E. Hogle. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Gelder, Ken, and Rachael Weaver, eds. The Anthology of Colonial Australian Gothic Fiction. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

McCann, Andrew. Marcus Clarke’s Bohemia: Literature and Modernity in Colonial Melbourne. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Trigg, Stephanie, ed. Medievalism and the Gothic in Australian Culture. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Turcotte, Gerry. Peripheral Fear: Transformations of the Gothic in Canadian and Australian Fiction. Brussels: Peter Lang, 2009.Find this resource:


(1.) Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1838), 154.

(2.) Terence Whalen, “Average Racism: Poe, Slavery, and the Wages of Literary Nationalism,” in Romancing the Shadow: Poe and Race, eds. J. Gerard Kennedy and Liliane Weissberg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 29.

(3.) Tom Lawson, The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania (London: I. B. Tauris, 2014), 7.

(4.) Poe, Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, 173.

(5.) Richard Davis, “Introduction: Transforming the Frontier in Contemporary Australia,” in Dislocating the Frontier: Essaying the Mystique of the Outback, eds. Deborah Bird Rose and Rickard Davis (Canberra: ANU E Press, 2005), 7.

(6.) Robert Foster and Amanda Nettlebeck, Out of the Silence: The History and Memory of South Australia’s Frontier Wars (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2012), 6.

(7.) Foster and Nettlebeck, Out of the Silence, 84.

(8.) Foster and Nettlebeck, Out of the Silence, 84.

(9.) Foster and Nettlebeck, Out of the Silence, 137.

(10.) Rick Hosking, “Ellen Liston’s ‘Doctor’ and the Elliston Incident,” in Southwords: Essays on South Australian Writing, ed. Philip Butterss (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 1995), 62.

(11.) “Ellie L...” [Ellen Liston], “Doctor,” Adelaide Observer, June 17, 1882, 44.

(12.) Liston, “Doctor,” 44.

(13.) Henry Lawson, “The Drover’s Wife,” While the Billy Boils: The Original Newspaper Versions, ed. Paul Eggert (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2013), 70.

(14.) Barbara Baynton, “The Chosen Vessel,” in Bush Studies, ed. Barbara Baynton (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1989), 136.

(15.) Horace Earle, Ups and Downs; or, Incidents of Australian Life (London: Houlston & Wright, 1861), 219.

(16.) Earle, Ups and Downs, 226.

(17.) Earle, Ups and Downs, 229.

(18.) N. Walter Swan, “Two Days at Michaelmas,” Australasian, August 2, 1873, 5.

(19.) Swan, “Two Days at Michaelmas,” 5.

(20.) Swan, “Two Days at Michaelmas,” 5.

(21.) Swan, “Two Days at Michaelmas,” 5.

(22.) Swan, “Two Days at Michaelmas,” 5.

(23.) Swan, “Two Days at Michaelmas,” 5.

(24.) “Coloniensis,” “Melbourne,” Port Philip Gazette, January 26, 1839, 4.

(25.) “Melbourne,” 4. James Boyce notes that the founding of Melbourne brought “colonial ambition, regulation and law … finally into alignment,” to the extent that it was “Melbourne’s birth”—rather than Sydney’s settlement—that “signaled the emergence of European control over Australia”; see James Boyce, 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2013), i–ii.

(26.) Henry Kendall, “The Hut by the Black Swamp,” Leaves from Australian Forests (Melbourne: George Robertson, 1869), 5–6.

(27.) “Hal,” “The Desolate Homestead,” Australian Journal, September 1866, 21.

(28.) Francis Adams, “The Hut by the Tanks,” Australian Life (London: Chapman & Hall, 1892), 179–180.

(29.) Hume Nisbet, “The Haunted Station,” in The Haunted Station, and Other Stories, ed. Hume Nisbet (London: F. V. White, 1893), 14.

(30.) Nisbet, “Haunted Station,” 14.

(31.) Nisbet, “Haunted Station,” 3.

(32.) Nisbet, “Haunted Station,” 23.

(33.) Nisbet, “Haunted Station,” 29.

(34.) Nisbet, “Haunted Station,” 32.

(35.) Clarke’s story may have taken its title from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s macabre tale “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” (1831), but, in contrast to Nisbet and Poe, the stories by Clarke and Hawthorne have little in common.

(36.) Marcus Clarke, The Mystery of Major Molineux (Melbourne: Cameron, Laing, 1881), 8.

(37.) Clarke, Mystery of Major Molineux, 16.

(38.) Clarke, Mystery of Major Molineux, 25.

(39.) Clarke, Mystery of Major Molineux, 27.

(40.) Clarke, Mystery of Major Molineux, 63.

(41.) Clarke, Mystery of Major Molineux, 46.

(42.) Andrew McCann, Marcus Clarke’s Bohemia: Literature and Modernity in Colonial Melbourne (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2004), 212.

(43.) McCann, Marcus Clarke’s Bohemia, 216.

(44.) John Frow, “In the Penal Colony,” Australian Humanities Review, April 1999.

(45.) James Boyce, Van Diemen’s Land: A History (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2008), 217.

(46.) Edwin Barnard, Exiled: The Port Arthur Convict Photographs (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2010), 11.

(47.) Clarke, Mystery of Major Molineux, 35.

(48.) Clarke, Mystery of Major Molineux, 36.

(49.) Quoted in Marcus Clarke, His Natural Life, ed. Lurline Stuart (St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 2001), xxviii.

(50.) Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 51.

(51.) See Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998).

(52.) Marcus Clarke, His Natural Life, vol. 3 (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1875), 74.

(53.) Clarke, His Natural Life, 3:95.

(54.) Clarke, Marcus Clarke’s Bohemia, 192.

(55.) Marcus Clarke, “His Natural Life,” Australian Journal, July 1870, 619.

(56.) Clarke, Marcus Clarke’s Bohemia, 198.

(57.) Boyce, Van Diemen’s Land, 147.

(58.) Charles Rowcroft, The Bushranger of Van Diemen’s Land, vol. 1 (London: Smith, Elder, 1846), 1.

(59.) Rowcroft, The Bushranger of Van Diemen’s Land, 3:215.

(60.) Rowcroft, The Bushranger of Van Diemen’s Land, 3:215

(61.) Boyce, Van Diemen’s Land, 79.

(62.) Thomas Wells, Michael Howe: The Last and Worst of the Bushrangers of Van Diemen’s Land (Hobart, Australia: Andrew Bent, 1818), 33.

(63.) James Bonwick, The Bushrangers; Illustrating the Early Days of Van Diemen’s Land (Melbourne: George Robertson, 1856), 53.

(64.) Charles Harpur, “The Creek of the Four Graves,” in The Poetical Works of Charles Harpur, ed. Elizabeth Perkins (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1984), 161. This much-revised poem was first serialized in The Weekly Register of Politics, Facts and General Literature in August 1845 and included in Harpur’s The Bushrangers: A Play in Five Acts, and Other Poems (1853).

(65.) Harpur, “Creek of the Four Graves,” 166–167.

(66.) Ian McLean, White Aborigines: Identity Politics in Australian Art (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 50.

(67.) Henry Kingsley, The Hillyars and the Burtons: A Story of Two Families (Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1865), 240.

(68.) Marcus Clarke, preface to Adam Lindsay Gordon, Sea Spray and Smoke Drift (Melbourne: Clarson, Massina, 1920), iv.

(69.) Clarke, preface, iv.

(70.) Clarke, preface, v.

(71.) Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” in The Penguin Freud Library, vol. 2, On Metapsychology, trans. James Strachey (London: Penguin, 1991), 258.

(72.) Robert Dixon, Writing the Colonial Adventure: Race, Gender and Nation in Anglo-Australian Popular Fiction, 1875–1914 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press), 68–76.

(73.) Andrew McCann, Popular Literature, Authorship and the Occult in Late Victorian Britain (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 131. Sumathi Ramaswamy calls Lemuria “a fabulous place-world” that is at the same time built around a sense of the “lost object”: see Sumathi Ramaswamy, The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 14.

(74.) W. Sylvester Walker, “The Mystery of Yelcomorn Creek,” Centennial Magazine, March 8, 1890, 630.

(75.) Walker, “Mystery of Yelcomorn Creek,” 631.

(76.) Penelope Edmonds, Urbanizing Frontiers: Indigenous Peoples and Settlers in 19th-Century Pacific Rim Cities (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010), 114.

(77.) Amanda Nettlebeck, “‘We Should Take Each Other by the Hand’: Conciliation and Diplomacy in Colonial Australia and North West Canada,” in Conciliation on Colonial Frontiers: Conflict, Performance and Commemoration in Australia and the Pacific Rim, eds. Kate Darian-Smith and Penelope Edmonds (New York: Routledge, 2015), 48.

(78.) Rosa Praed, Outlaw and Lawmaker, vol. 3 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1893), 54.

(79.) Praed, Outlaw and Lawmaker, 3:59, 60–61.

(80.) Praed, Outlaw and Lawmaker, 3:61–62.

(81.) Praed, Outlaw and Lawmaker, 3:303.

(82.) Rosa Praed, My Australian Girlhood: Sketches and Impressions of Bush Life (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1904), 4.

(83.) Praed, My Australian Girlhood, 91.

(84.) McCann, Popular Literature, Authorship and the Occult, 129.

(85.) Rosa Praed, “The Bunyip,” in Coo-ee: Tales of Australian Life by Australian Ladies, ed. Mrs Patchett Martin (London: Richard Edwin King, 1891), 277.

(86.) Praed, “Bunyip,” 280.

(87.) Praed, “Bunyip,” 283.

(88.) Praed, “Bunyip,” 285.

(89.) Praed, “Bunyip,” 286.

(90.) See, for example, Elspeth Tilley, White Vanishing: Rethinking Australia’s Lost-in-the-Bush Myth (Amsterdam: Rodophi, 2012). An earlier example of this subgenre is Marcus Clarke’s “Pretty Dick” (1869), about the young son of a shepherd who gets lost in the bush and dies alone.