Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 11, 2020

A Haunted Land, by Randolph Stow

Scanned from the back cover of the First Edition, photographer unknown.

Randolph Stow wrote this astonishing first novel as an undergraduate at UWA, the University of Western Australia.  Published in England in 1956 when he was just twenty-one, The Haunted Land is gothic in its plot and intensity.  Without the benefit of Suzanne Falkiner’s 2016 biography to enlighten me, it makes me wonder about what kind of youthful experiences Stow had had, about the books he had read, and about the people in his life.  Despite its flaws, I’ve included the photo scanned from the back cover of my 1956 Macdonald first edition because it emphasises how young he was, and it’s a photo I haven’t seen elsewhere on the internet, perhaps because this edition is now very rare indeed.

A Haunted Land tells the story of the Maguire family in one fateful year.  Set in 1902 in isolated squatter country in the mid-west of Western Australia, it begins with an echo of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.  Jessie returns as an old, old woman in a prologue revealing the desolation and decay of ‘Malin’, the once impressive homestead where the main action of the story takes place decades ago.

At the end of the avenue was the house, hidden, until they were inside, by the thick trees and shrubs that grew around the fence.  Gums, olives and oleanders made a dark-leaved screen.  The man got out to open the hanging gate that scraped along the ground, and the smell of the vivid oleander flowers in the heat came to him like a blow.  And the car drove in to the wide stretches of what was once a lawn, and at the end of the lawn was Malin.

It had been a white house, but in its decay had become shabby.  The grey shingles had been beaten out of place by many rains, and the woodwork, once green, was now faded and cracked.  At each corner of the front were bay windows and in the middle the front door with its dark-green paint and wolfs-head knocker intact.  Three stone steps led up to the verandah.

One of the verandah posts was broken, and the upper balcony sagged dangerously, but seemed supported by the great climbing rose which had taken possession of a whole side of the house and reached even to the base of one of the white chimneys.  At the front it had followed along the railing of the lower verandah and covered the stone steps.  The paths and the lawns were covered with dead weeds, which in a more fertile season had been white daisies and cosmos with flowers fragile and delicate as ash.

‘Early Convict Style,’ the girl murmured.  ‘The classical architecture of our district.’  (p.10-11)

What follows traces the disintegration of the Maguire family under the tyrannical rule of the patriarch Andrew.  In the wake of the death of his delicate wife Beth, Andrew keeps his older boys Martin and Nick to farm alongside him and the three Aboriginal labourers who play an important part in the story.  He sends Adelaide aged nine, and eight-year-old twins Anne and Patrick, not to Perth, but to Melbourne, on the other side of the continent.  This was a significant journey back then: it was to be many years before the Trans-Australian Railway was completed in 1917; what is now the 1660-km Eyre Highway linking Western and South Australia was a rough track until the war in the Pacific, and it remained unsealed until 1976.  In the late 19th century it was not conceivable to send young children across this route in a horse-and-buggy; they went by ship.  Andrew could hardly have sent his children further away.

When they return ten years later, their presence upsets the balance of Andrew’s strong personality and the meek acquiescence of the older boys.  Martin longs for recognition as a man, while Nick yearns to be a musician or an artist, but Andrew demands total submission to his will and considers it his responsibility to bully his sons out of any flaws that he thinks they have.  These young men have a love-hate relationship with their domineering father, avoiding confrontation, seeking his approval, and acquiescing to his primary strategy for making men of them: in his study after dinner, he gets them drunk.

Adelaide is the peace-maker and the worrier, and she wants to take on what would have been her mother’s domestic role, but Andrew is determined that any assistance given to the housekeeper Mrs Cross is limited.  Adelaide is expected to know her elevated place in this rural society, and to reinforce the lower status of others.  Anne, on the other hand, is self-absorbed and flighty, and when her growing awareness of her own sexuality crosses a racial and social boundary, there are tragic consequences.  Like everyone else in the family she is incapable of expressing her feelings.  Adelaide knows something is wrong, but Anne’s guilt drives a wedge between them.  It is to her twin Patrick that she finally confesses, and then Andrew’s cruelty surfaces in Patrick in the most shocking of ways.  It is not the only act of appalling violence in the novel.

The family is not entirely isolated: Aunt Edith lives within visiting distance but they are estranged.  When an opportunity for potential reconciliation occurs— in the form of a welcome home party for a veteran of the Boer War—Andrew’s malice and rudeness sabotages any chance of it.  He wants his children all for himself.  His malignant response to Patrick’s love for the recently widowed young Jane is even more brutal because it’s masked by the way he conceals it.  He also manages to damage Martin’s love for Jessie beyond repair.  Only Nick, who gets away to Perth, with vague plans to go even further afield, seems to have any hope at all, but his letters to Adelaide suggest that it was a forlorn dream.

Even in this youthful novel where it is tempting to interpret the characterisation of Andrew Maguire as settling adolescent scores, Stow achieves a kind of psychological truth about this malevolent father-figure.  (Stow dedicates the book, BTW, to his father and mother.)  With third-person omniscient narration, the reader sees Andrew’s obsession that each of his children in their different ways exist to mirror his memory of his dead wife.

Maguire came into the stable and eyes fell on his wife’s saddle tilted sideways on the rack.  He reached up and straightened it, noticing the tooling as he did so.  Two daisies, E.A.M.—Elizabeth Ann Maguire.  She’d always left it like that, untidily, just as Anne had done.  She had been forever leaving things lying about. Things like music, things like clothes.  Things like memories.

Strange, how much she was present after so long; after ten years and four months she ought to have retired a little from the scene.  But she kept coming back, as soon as he was alone she was there with him.  At first he’d been glad, treasuring the memory…I’ll never forget you till I die, that sort of thing.  He hadn’t known then what a torment she meant for him.

But he should have known, he knew Beth.  He should have expected this tearing longing, this unkillable lust for what no longer existed outside the mind.  He should have been prepared for it, the inevitable racking torture of straining to see still, to touch, taste, hear and smell what had gone beyond the senses to have a new mocking life in his memory.  Oh, Elizabeth Maguire, you are immortal and irreplaceable.

‘Oh, Elizabeth Maguire, he said aloud, you are a toothache in the soul.’

Even more torturing to see her for a moment physically present, speaking, thinking, through the bodies of her children.  Just for a second to find her, in Martin’s earnestness, in Nick’s dreaminess, in Patrick’s impetuosity, Anne’s irreverence, Adelaide’s quiet sympathy.  Just for a second to grasp her, and then to see her disappear into somebody else’s mind.

Never to have her whole, never to have her real.

He’d tried, tried with them all to turn them into Beth, and it was no use.  (p.93-4)

Although this is a mature novel for an author so young, there are aspects of the novel that betray Stow’s inexperience.  Anne’s behaviour is overwrought, even for a gothic novel; and while the characterisation of the developmentally delayed Tommy Cross as a latter-day Caliban links the novel to Shakespeare’s The Tempest (an epigraph from which is at the beginning of the book), it reads uneasily today.  Likewise—ironically, because Stow went on to write with great sensitivity about racial differences in To The Islands which won the Miles Franklin Award and the ALS Gold Medal in 1958—the words that Stow uses in dialogue about the Aborigines are offensive in our day and age, and are, I suspect, the reason why this novel has not been reissued as his other novels have been.

The Geraldton Regional library is proud to hold a collection by and about Randolph Stow where you can see multiple covers of different editions, and also his Olympia typewriter, letters, a travel trunk and artifacts gathered during his travels.  It sounds like just the place for a literary pilgrimage.

I read this book from my collection for Simon and Kaggsy’s 1956 Club.  It’s unique—not just because it’s Australian— among the books other readers have been reviewing!

Author: Randolph Stow
Title: A Haunted Land
Publisher: Macdonald, London, 1956, first edition hardback
ISBN: none.
Source: Diversity Books (I think), $145.00.  (It’s very rare).


Responses

  1. I’ve heard of this but have never seen an actual copy of it. I’ve read To the Islands and The Girl Green as Elderflower. I don’t know much about Stow’s life, I must admit to ignorance there. Thanks Lisa another interesting post!

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    • Hi Sue, if you follow that link to the launch of Suzanne Falkiner’s bio, you can see that there’s much more to him that the reclusive exile that he may have seemed to be. I’ve ordered the bio, but it’s 800+ pages, so it’s going to be a while before I tackle it.
      I have promised myself to read David Marr’s bio of Patrick White this year, and I’ve started it, but I haven’t been reading it steadily because it’s too big. It just stays on the coffee table in the sitting room!

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      • David Marr’s biography of White is a very interesting read Lisa, I think you will thoroughly enjoy it once you get started!

        Big books can be a real turn-off – there’s been an interesting discussion on an overseas reading blog I follow about why people purchased the latest Mantel book when it first came out and still haven’t read it – size and weight and feeling daunted by how thick the book is are high among the reasons, apart from distraction during C19. I felt relieved I wasn’t alone, it’s still sitting on my bookshelf too!

        At least with the Marr bio you can dip in and out without losing track of the story!

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        • I know, I know, I will probably end up with a marathon spurt at the end of the year so that I can keep my resolution!
          But I have to say, I haven’t found that the pandemic has affected my reading. I’m reading just as much as always, and mostly the same kind of things, because it takes me into a different world and I forget what’s going on in the real one. (The only thing I’m *not* reading is ‘Plague Lit’, and no whiny memoirs either, there’s enough moaning and complaining in the media without reading more of it at home.)
          The only thing that’s messed me around is that for a while (some) Australian publishers halted proceedings or rescheduled them or would only provide eBooks which I won’t read, and so books did not arrive for review when I expected them to, and I received a whole lot of other books instead, mainly NF, which I suppose doesn’t rely so much on hype and launches that were all cancelled due to lockdown. And that has put my schedule right out since I am much slower to read NF because I usually only read a chapter a day over breakfast, whereas I might read 100+ pages of a novel or more. I know I’m in trouble with the backlog when I can’t fit any more of the books for review in their drawer, and we are getting close to that now…

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          • That gave me a chuckle at the end Lisa – books that don’t fit in the drawer… I have a teetering pile of them beside the bed and on the living room floor beside the bookshelf – & I hate piles of books!

            I didn’t know that about the publishers, that probably explains why the library here has had so few new books available this year!

            I am guilty as charged with The Mirror and The Light – purchased as soon as it was in the book store, it’s still sitting waiting for me – it’s the thought of how long I’ll be stuck reading it before I can move on to anything else… and all that concentration…

            I have Merry Go Round by the Sea on the bookshelf, found it at the second hand bookstore, so looks like I’m going to read more Stow next!

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            • Oh yes, I have those too, and I have the luxury of a whole home library and still it’s overflowing. The drawer, you see, is just for the books from publishers, that I’ve committed to review.
              I’m thinking that if the pandemic keeps up, we won’t need the sitting room for entertaining and we can turn it into a branch library…

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  2. Randolph Stow absolutely prohibited the reissue of this and his second novel. He was adamant. Of course, as he’s been gone ten years, they may soon reappear and I’m torn, because I would like to read this, but I do understand why he might want them suppressed. Text has reissued all but the first two novels as classics and they are all magical. Especially The Merry-Go-Round I the Sea. We are so lucky to have him. He really wrote WA into the national imagination.

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    • Hello Lizzie, thanks for this… I can see why he might not have wanted to see this one reissued… a bit like Patrick White not wanting his early efforts reproduced. I have the Text Classics editions, including Tourmaline, which I found difficult because of the religious elements which I just didn’t understand. I know I made it harder for myself by ‘reading’ it as an audio book too.
      Merry-Go-Round in The Sea is an outstanding novel, I think.

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  3. Really interesting, thank you! I will have to look for it. Tony Kevin.

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    • Hi Tony:) Try Abe Books, they had some copies when I looked.

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  4. What a fascinating book and an author I’ve not heard of. Sounds like a powerful work indeed and that quote about the dead wife living on through her children and tormenting the husband – brrrrrr!

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    • Yes, it’s creepy… as Sharon says in the comment above, there are elements that are reminiscent of Heathcliff, and I read somewhere (where, I can’t remember) that it has been compared to Wuthering Heights.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Only you could find something so out of the beaten path for #club1956.
    It sounds like a great achievement for such a young writer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, you know I was going to read Camus’ The Fall… only I read somewhere that it was his most difficult book, and what with one thing and another, I just didn’t feel like reading something difficult, so I chose this one instead.

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      • I had planned to read The Fall but started it and then found I just wasn’t in the mood.

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        • Yes, I know exactly what you mean. Fortunately, some other club members were made of sterner stuff, eh?

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          • I read The fall (La chute?) at university, and I remember it was a bit of a challenge, but I love Camus, and would love to reread his oeuvre as I think I’d get more out these books now than I did in my early 20s.

            Thanks for your review of this. I’ve read only a little Stow, and would love to read more.

            I like your drawer. I have a special shelf for my review copies.

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  6. Just a thought which struck me suddenly – the passage you’ve quoted about the way the patriarch is still haunted by his dead wife is very much reminiscent of Heathcliff . . . Maybe this is the kind of father he would have been had he fathered children with Catherine Earnshaw . . . Anyway great review as usual
    I might check out this one as your review has piqued my interest . . .

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    • This is why it would be so good to have a bio of him, one which traces his influences. I’ve ordered the recent one by Suzanne Falkiner, but it’s not in stock at Readings so I’ll have to wait a bit, and even then, it’s 800+ pages so it will take me a while to fossick around in it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes – checking out a bio would be great . . . But 800 + pages does not sound very inviting atleast for me . I will first try to get my hands on this one .

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        • Well the good thing is that it’s not expensive, it’s about what you’d pay for a novel. I did think I’d just borrow it from the library, but then I’d be under pressure to read it within a set time frame rather than be able to take my time with it if I have my own copy.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. This does sound very powerful though flawed. It’s interesting that the author was so vehemently against its reissue.

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    • I’m sure it was the racial elements that embarrassed him… I felt embarrassed reading them even though they are probably authentic portrayals of the way people behaved towards Indigenous people.
      It’s a tricky issue as the world moves on and the ways we think and talk about difference changes.
      I remember reading Thomas Mann’s pre-WW2 Buddenbrooks and being disconcerted by some of the anti-Semitic content, and I commented in my review that perhaps Mann (who died only in the 1950s) might have considered revising it. Casual anti-Semitism is not uncommon in many C19th novels, but it’s especially repugnant in German ones because of the Holocaust, and Mann IMO had a special responsibility because his work was so well known because of the Nobel Prize.

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  8. My first thoughts were why haven’t I heard of this and why hasn’t it been reissued but you’ve explained that in your review. Some of the language around Aboriginal Australians is a bit iffy in The Merry Go Round in the Sea, if I remember correctly but that’s where a good introductory essay can help by putting things into context etc. He was an extraordinary writer for one so young but sadly I think his flame burned out relatively quickly and then he emigrated to England to live his life in relative obscurity. I might have to hunt this one out as I’ve read several of his others having bought the Randolph Stow set reissued by Text Classics a few years back…

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    • If you can’t find a copy to buy, you could get it on inter-library loan from the Geraldton library!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I love your photo of the young Stow. I haven’t seen that one either. My knowledge of Stow is slight, but I had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon listening to a talk about him with four people who did know a lot more about him.
    I’ve been meaning to read Falkiner’s bio ever since. This is what I wrote at the time – http://bronasbooks.blogspot.com/2015/08/moving-among-strangers-by-gabrielle.html#comment-form

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    • Hey Brona, do you know about the launch for Gabrielle Carey’s book about Elizabeth Von Arnim? I’ve registered for it
      https://www.uqp.com.au/events/zoom-book-launch-only-happiness-here
      It would be nice to see you there:)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Done! Just registered for it. Thanks Lisa.

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        • Let’s hope they don’t do what happened at another Zoom event last week. The moderator turned off all our videos. It’s standard practice to mute participants’ sound, and rightly so because everyone is there to hear the speaker not the dog, the whining child, the doorbell, etc. But one of the small pleasures of Zoom is that you can see who else is there, and how lovely it is to see a friend that you haven’t seen for months, looking well and healthy. Turning it off is unnecessarily mean IMO because anyone who doesn’t want to be seen for privacy reasons can turn it off themselves.
          Anyway, hoping all will be well, I look forward to seeing you there!

          Liked by 1 person

  10. […] ANZ Lit Lovers […]

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  11. Even with the flaws this sounds an extraordinary achievement for such a young writer. I’ve not hear of him but I gather from the other comments that he went on to great acclaim as an author?

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  12. This sounds wonderful, and such an achievement for someone who was basically still a child! Thanks for adding it to the club.

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    • Well… these days we think of 21-year-olds as very young, but back in 1956, not long after a war in which people that age and younger fought and died in the war against fascism, people of twenty-one were definitely adults. But whether the world thought they were adults or not, what is amazing is his grasp of human nature at that age. He had a wisdom I’m still waiting to descend upon me!

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  13. What a great choice. These events do encourage some digging off the shelves, don’t they. I’ve only read one of Stow’s novels (something about Islands, I believe) and I was struck by how lyrical the prose was and how emotive the story was (but have lost all the details since, as it’s been more than twenty years and a few thousand books away).

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  14. BTW I keep planning to do this challenge (or whatever it’s called), and sometimes even choose a book from the TBR, but somehow never manage it when the time comes.

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  15. It’s nice because by reading all the reviews that come in, you get a sense of the era and the kinds of preoccupations authors had at the time.

    Like


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