SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT
DO NOT READ THIS
until you’ve read Joan Lindsay’s brilliant weird novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock.
The book has been adapted twice: in 1975 Peter Weir directed highly regarded film version, with Rachel Roberts, Helen Morse, and Anne-Louise Lambert. Earlier this year Amazon released a TV series, with Natalie Dormer, Lily Sullivan, and Lola Bessis. DO NOT WATCH THESE UNTIL YOU HAVE READ THE BOOK! If there was ever a book worth reading before you see the movie, this is it. I knew a bit about the story before I read it, and I was sorry for that knowledge because part of this book’s wonder results from how it arrives as though from beyond.
Unless otherwise cited, quotations are from Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock. Penguin, 2017.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is a very weird novel. By “weird,” I mean a genre of sensation. When something feels weird, it may seem odd, unusual, out-of-place, uncanny, eerie, queer, “not quite right.” Weird things are inherently interesting; the sensation hints at something more to come, something that escapes assimilation into what is known. Weird things exceed our capacity to fit them into place. They challenge our sense of the normal; they rend reality. A tear in the cosmos. An impossible object. The “weird sisters” in Macbeth conjure apparitions, one of which conveys a cryptic prognostication: “Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until / Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him” (IV.1). Until the riddle is solved and the prophecy comes true, this utterance remains weird.
As a genre, weird literature comprises all the various stories that present this quality. The most widespread misconception about weird literature is that it should be confined to or essentially described by the pulp stories published by H. P. Lovecraft and his disciples in Weird Tales. The Lovecraft circle is just the tip of weird fiction’s iceberg. Lovecraft’s best stories are important contributions to the genre, but its scope and quality will not best be appreciated when “The Call of Cthulhu” or “The Dunwich Horror” are used as templates.
Leaving aside the immense but mostly bibliographic and autobiographical scholarship offered by S. T. Joshi and other Lovecraftians, few scholars and cultural critics have contributed to our understanding of weird literature. In The Fantastic, Tristan Todorov offers a concise but incomplete structural account. He argues that weird (or “fantastic”) fiction is organized by an essential “hesitation.” A character and / or a narrator encounters a person, event, or place that can’t be reconciled with reality. The story remains weird as long as the question of whether or not the impossible thing exists remains active. Eventually, in most stories, the thing turns into either an “uncanny object” (a delusion, resulting from the character and / or narrator’s psychosis or an illusion, produced by someone’s “sleight of hand” or a previously unknown natural phenomenon) or a “miracle” (an impossibility that must be accepted as part of the world; these are fictional worlds, after all). In The Weird and the Eerie, Mark Fisher argues that weirdness “is that which does not belong” and so opens a portal to “another world.” On this account, weird things are like Freudian symptoms: making no sense in the rational order of cause and event, they are thresholds beckoning the curious toward unutterable scenes. He distinguishes weird aesthetic events from uncanny ones. While the former “brings to the familiar something which ordinarily lies beyond it” (10), the latter “occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing, or there is nothing present where there should be something” (61). The uncanny, which Fisher associates with modernist juxtaposition, is the thing that does not belong among other things. Eeriness, associated with the remains of earlier civilizations and gaps in memory, is the impossible presence or absence of the thing. He devotes a chapter of his essay on the eerie to Picnic at Hanging Rock, emphasizing our sense of the geological formation as a “hole in space.” Fisher’s distinction is easier to sustain in theory than in practice; one can point to weirdness in some texts and point out the eeriness in others, but I have yet to discover a significantly weird text that doesn’t employ both qualities more or less simultaneously. The rock in Lindsay’s novel is both a site of too much absence / presence and a portal onto the unknown. The novel is permeated by this eeriness, but the uncanny is also continually present in a book that juxtaposes three or four narrative styles. In my view, weirdness is the better umbrella term: it can incorporate the uncanny, the marvelous, the perverse, the eerie, and so forth.
In my more expansive view of weird literature, Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of many delightfully weird novels. Far from being confined to twentieth-century pulp stories, weirdness organizes much of the literature in (and in proximity to) the western tradition. Don Quixote, for example, is very weird, so is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland; Or the Transformation is weird, as is Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are also quite weird. Kafka’s The Castle is weird, and so is Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland should be mentioned, as well as Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Amos Tutola wrote several wonderfully weird novels, including the The Palm-Wine Drinkard, and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas is weird, and of course there is much weirdness in magical realism and surrealism. Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day is full of weirdness. Other weird novels by contemporary authors include Mark Danielewski’s The House of Leaves, China Miélville’s The Last Days of New Paris, Paul LaForge’s The Night Ocean, George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo, and Jeff Van der Meer’s Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy.
All mystery novels are variations on the story of a crime and its solution. All weird novels relate the discovery of an impossible object; it may be an apparition, a doppelganger, or an automaton, a haunted house, hotel or city, an enchanted forest, a strangely blighted field, or the sort of monolith discovered at Hanging Rock. There is one exception to this rule: books which are weird as books. Tristram Shandy is fundamental in this respect, and introduces another identifying feature of weird stories: their relative lack of plot. Frequently “nothing happens” in the weird novel because cause and effect are distorted by the impossible thing. Time warps and is magnified. The clocks stop or strike thirteen. In The House on the Borderland the narrator lives for millions of years in a single night. Lincoln at the Bardo takes place in a single night and an eternal afterlife. Many weird novels resemble encyclopedias, without overarching plots at all. When weird novels do present a chronicle of events, as in Don Quixote or The Palm-Wine Drinkard, the emphasis is not on the causal chain between episodes, but on the realism or surrealism of each of them.
Picnic at Hanging Rock present its own particular twist on the weird plot. Within the first quarter of the novel, we learn all that we will of the impossible event; the remaining 150 pages are devoted to an exploration of its aftermath. While on a Saint Valentine’s Day picnic to the titular rock, three pupils (Marion, Miranda, and Irma) and a teacher (Miss McCraw) from Mrs. Appleyard’s College for Young Ladies disappear. Extensive searches are made, but they have vanished without a trace. A fourth girl, Edith, was with the other students when they went missing, but her recollections are fragmented and negligible. Vastly compounding the mystery, approximately a week later, one of the girls–Irma Leopold–is discovered on the rock, barefoot and unconscious, but not dehydrated or suffering from significant bodily harm. Although her shoes are never found, her feet show no evidence of travel across the rough volcanic stone. She has no memory of anything that happened and can shed no light on the mystery, which remains unsolved.
Lindsay’s novel is so weird it blurs the boundary between reality and fiction even before the narrative begins. Like many of the best weird stories, it provides a minimal but highly effective prologue that asks us to question the veracity of the narration. A short paragraph immediately preceding chapter one states: “Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.” The novel was published in 1967 and many of the characters are teenagers in 1900, so “long since” seems unlikely. Concern for the reputations of those portrayed in the novel implies that it is based on real events, but the same sentence tells us that this question doesn’t matter. Todorov’s “hesitation” has already been initiated. It applies to our sense of the work itself: is it literature or a “real life mystery”? Every single sentence in the pages that follow must endure this scrutiny.
Such a framing device is not unique to Lindsay’s book; no genre has made more frequent or better use of narrative frames than the weird. The most famous example is the (fictional) editor’s preface to The Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym, which explains that the story is an incomplete manuscript, “fictionalized” by Poe based upon Pym’s first-hand narration. We learn that although everything we are about to read actually happened, several events were by nature so unusual, improbable, horrific, and bizarre that the authors (Pym and Poe) have presented the story as a fiction in order to make it more palatable to a skeptical public. Poe, of course, authored several hoaxes–alongside Pym were the more believable “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and “The Balloon Hoax,” which when published in the New York Sun caused members of the public to rush to the (real world) site of the (fictitious) balloon landing. Machen’s “The Terror,” a novella serialized in a London newspaper during World War I, and Orson Welles’ dramatization of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds are other notable examples of the kind of weirdness that causes us to question the veracity of the book’s report. In this regard, Picnic at Hanging Rock resembles Nazi Literature in the Americas: the reader continually wonders, did such people, events, documents actually exist?
Lindsay hints at reasons for using this documentary conceit by making the value of appearances a theme of the story. Mrs. Appleyard’s college is an elite finishing school; it’s promise is to improve a girl’s appearance by training her in manners, elocution, and demeanor. Such a school depends upon its reputation; Mrs. Appleyard spends much of the novel struggling to maintain the school’s marketability in the wake of the scandal. When we are first introduced to the Headmistress we are told “looking the part is well known to be more than half the battle in any form of business enterprise from Punch and Judy to floating a loan on the Stock Exchange” (3). Irma, the “little heiress” who reappears on the rock understands this law of the social universe. “Radiantly lovely” herself, she “loved people and things to be beautiful” (4). Mr Hussey, the coachman who conveys the girls to the rock and provides the first witness account of what transpired there, also understands. We meet him calling to his horses: “ ‘Steady there Sailor . . . Woa Duchess . . .” and then learn that “the five well-trained horses were actually standing like statues, but it was all part of the fun; Mr Hussey like all good coachmen having a nice sense of style and timing” (8). Appearances (and disappearances) may be deceiving, but they are a source of tremendous value.
The Weird Narrative
What they lack in plot, weird stories make up for in narrative voice and atmosphere. On the one side we have the narrator’s relation to the impossible thing. On the other side, we have the thing’s warping of reality. There is an almost endless variety of combinations between narration and the thing narrated. If the hoax, which presents a “true” account of (fictitious) events stands at one pole, the unreliable narrator stands at the other–Poe’s “William Wilson” and the narrator of Algernon Blackwood’s “The Listener” are superb examples. (It is difficult to maintain the unreliable narrative for many pages, so this relation is mostly found in short stories. Dostoevsky’s The Double is perhaps the most sustained version of this device.) At the center of this dynamic, we find Lovecraft’s approach: the narrator begins as a rational, even uninterested witness of minor weird phenomena; he makes the mistake of becoming fascinated and looks further into it. Contact with the impossible thing causes him to question and even lose grip on reality; he ends up a lunatic or suicide. The thing is necessarily unspeakable and therefore must at some level escape the narrative itself. As Lindsay’s unnamed narrator puts it, “There was so much to be said, so little that ever could or would be said. . . The thing was beyond words; almost beyond emotion” (115).
Lindsay’s narrative deploys a particularly effective conceit which was also used to great success by Machen and Lovecraft: the perspective of the compiler. By “compiler” I mean a perspective similar to that of the historian, the curator, or the reviewer. According to this conceit, the impossible thing manifested in the world; some people encountered it directly. It’s influence upon them caused a second set of people to investigate the case, gathering witness accounts. The compiler, having read these accounts, presents us with a grand retrospective view–the final say on the matter, as it were. Lindsay’s use of this conceit is brilliant because it is continually implied but never stated. Picnic at Hanging Rock is narrated as though from the position a journalist writing an overview of an actual event that, however miraculous, has been mostly forgotten. The novel ends with a closing frame as effective as its opening one: an “extract from a Melbourne newspaper, dated February 14th, 1913” (203). Appearing in the paper ”exactly thirteen years since the fatal Saturday,” it offers a “human interest” follow-up to the original reporting, as though someone were drawing upon the newspaper’s archive of original coverage of the event. It is as though the book’s narrator has done likewise, but with more in-depth research and a greater willingness to “fill in” the sensations and reasons that could be presumed, based on the available evidence, to have motivated those involved. Picnic at Hanging Rock was published one year after Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and its detailed speculative improvisations, loosely based upon an enormous number of documents, provide a similar experience.
Like In Cold Blood (and subsequently many less interesting “true crime” novels), it is organized as a chronology of incidents leading up to and resulting from the horrible event. It weaves together numerous timelines, tracking the movements of major players with the benefit of hindsight. Lindsay’s narrator explains that the goal is to trace the pattern created by the impossible event. The pattern slightly precedes the event: on Saint Valentine’s Day, as the girls “had begun the innocent interchange of cards and favors, the pattern had begun to form” (113). A week later, the girls and teacher still missing, “it was still spreading; still fanning out in depth and intensity, still incomplete” (113). As it spreads outward from the event, the pattern draws more people into it, “weaving and interweaving the individual threads of their private lives into the complex tapestry of the whole” (113). Every coincidence is grasped as a possible, partial explanation of the girl’s disappearance. The most obvious theme is developed around the first coincidence: the fact that the picnic occurred in the late afternoon of Valentine’s Day, which is taken very seriously by the teenage girls. Falling in the middle of the Australian summer and a few weeks before Easter break, it is the obvious day to schedule one of the school’s rare outings. The novel opens with the exchange of Valentine’s Day cards, all of which are sent anonymously; it is a ritualistic exercise of the imagination and a barely sanctioned admission of Eros–a moment when the circulation of desire is partially acknowledged. Nonetheless, it is only a coincidence. Lindsay’s narrator treats it accordingly. A less imaginative novel–one written without the conceit of journalist integrity–would collapse the day and the disappearance, thus reassuring readers that they are immersed in a fictional world, where everything makes sense, rather than a bewildering reality recreated from evidence. The novel maintains its primary “hesitation” by refusing to offer any satisfactory conclusions regarding the relations between theme and incident.
Numerous journalistic practices anchor this realism. We are regularly presented with documentation: transcripts from police interviews, summaries of medical opinions, and excerpts from important letters exchanged by central figures in the case. We are also told about letters that are delayed or do not arrive–facts that can only be determined retrospectively. The narrator constantly calls attention to what may and may not be inferred based upon the evidence. For example, “Whether the events just related were eventually made known to Mrs. Appleyard can only be surmised. It is unlikely under the circumstances that Dora Lumley broke her promise of silence to Mademoiselle” (149). With the advantage of hindsight, the narrator-as-compiler frequently jumps forward in time in order to clarify the partial and conflicting accounts of what happened. During a description of the first interview of Michael by the police we are told that “Many days later, when [Constable] Bumpher was firing questions at him all over again, he realized that he had no definite plan of action when he had crossed the creak…” (80). Care is given to debunk the various rumors that circulate: “Everyone on the Mount knew that Mrs Cutler was caring for the heroine of the College Mystery . . . It was rumored that the nephew had broken all his front teeth scaling a sixty-foot precipice. That he was madly in love with the girl. That the lovely little heiress had sent to Melbourne for two dozen chiffon nightdresses and wore three strings of pearls in bed at the lodge” (114-5). None of this is true, as revealed by our own, more accurate report. Accounts of other incidents are corroborated. Edith is the only one of the four girls who go up to rock to come back on the afternoon of the picnic. Relating her experience, the narrator informs us: “Edith began, quite loudly now, to scream. If her terrified cries had been heard by anyone but a wallaby . . . the picnic at Hanging Rock might yet have been just another picnic on a summer’s day. Nobody did hear them (32, italics in original). The narrator who emphasizes every available certainty, no matter how inconsequential, appears to be operating with facts. Perhaps the greatest source of realism is generated by descriptions of the press coverage of the event. Chapter nine begins “GIRL’S BODY FOUND ON ROCK – MISSING HEIRESS FOUND. Once again the College Mystery was front page news, embellished with the wildest flights of imagination, public and private” (101).
All of this inclines us toward a perception of the event as having actually occurred. But an equal number of passages tug in the opposite direction. The documentary conceit is challenged at every moment by the inclusion of details that strain the possibility of knowing them. If the reporter’s theme is Saint Valentine’s Day, the novelist’s theme is the havoc played upon a world of appearances by what Lindsay calls “Situations.” At the very center of the novel’s labyrinth (page 102 of the Penguin edition, which is exactly 204 pages), we find this passage:
Strong-minded persons in authority can ordinarily grapple with practical problems of facts. Facts, no matter how outrageous, can be dealt with by other facts. The problems of mood and atmosphere known to the Press as ‘Situations’ are infinitely more sinister. A ‘situation’ cannot be pigeonholed for reference and the appropriate answer pulled out of a filing cabinet. An atmosphere can be generated overnight out of nothing or everything, anywhere the human beings are congregated in unnatural conditions. At the Court of Versailles, at Pentridge Gaol, at a select College for Young Ladies where the miasma of hidden fears deepened and darkened with every hour.
This passage marks the threshold between competing modes of fictional realism. The first is that of “the Press,” the second is that of literature, particularly the Novel of Manners, which from Frances Burney’s Evelina to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, creates a social world with more intimacy than official documents will ever reveal. Picnic at Hanging Rock is an intimate history of a public sensation. In this context, the impossible thing is the “miasma” of sentiment, slowly building to hysteria, the emerges to disrupt the “unnatural” repression of libido. There are many weird precedents for this story, from Gothic Romances to The Turn of the Screw, but none treat the theme with Lindsay’s scale and precision. The intimate histories of numerous school girls, teachers, servants, and neighbors are tracked with minute attention to the telling detail, subtle gesture, and suggestive phrase. If references to press accounts anchor the documentary realism, the numerous, minute descriptions of dreams anchors the intimate history. It strains credulity to imagine that any witness supplies the details of Mrs Appleyard’s or Albert’s dreams. The former could have kept a diary, but it is never mentioned. The later, barely literate, does not keep a diary. Perhaps his dream, recounted to Michael, was subsequently related to a reporter? An impossible speculation, because the dream’s source doesn’t exist in that world, but only in the world of the novel of manners. As much of the novel takes place in this reality as it does in the other. We continually pass through the looking-glass that separates sensation from sentiment.
What I am calling the “novel of manners” aspect of Picnic at Hanging Rock is itself composed of interwoven patterns. It weaves together three sentimental genres. It’s weird version of the sentimental novel, tinged with Gothic undertones, is the most prominent, but there are two others, both versions of “male romance”: the adventure story and the policier. Generic hybridity is an important hallmark of weird literature. A story’s indeterminate or unsettled relation to generic tropes often generates considerable weirdness. Todorov hints at this quality when he argues that fantastic literature is not a genre in its own right, but a relation between the genre of realism and the genre of fantasy. Like most of Todorov’s theorizing on this subject, the concept is suggestive but to narrow in scope. Weird novels are not only situated on the borderland between literature and mass-produced romance (such as “true crime”), they can also be amalgamations of multiple genres. (Here the most obvious example is Lovecraft’s hybridization of ghost stories, adventure stories, and science fiction stories.)
The story of the police investigation, closely related to the journalistic conceit, is carefully crafted. In the first half, we get the exhaustive, futile search for the missing persons, the interviews of witnesses, and the return to the “scene of the crime.” In the second half, as the pattern continues to unfold, we get page-turning suspense as the first definite crime is uncovered, and a “race against the clock” in pursuit of the murderer. One of the most intense scenes of investigation occurs when Constable Bumpher (central figure in the policier) and Mademoiselle Poitiers (central figure in the novel of manners) bring Edith to the site of the girl’s disappearance. In keeping with the detective story, this triggers a repressed memory that provides a clue; in keeping with the sentimental novel, the clue is an intimate detail that must be conveyed to the officer indirectly. The child has seen Miss McCraw, the mathematics teacher who has also gone missing, no one knows exactly when or how. When Edith tries to picture the scene she begins to giggle and explains that what she saw is “too rude to say out loud in mixed company” (55). She whispers her secret to Madmoiselle, who conveys the shocking observation: “Miss McCraw was not wearing a skirt–only les pantalons” (56). In keeping with the novel’s weirdness, we never learn the veracity or significance of this memory.
Another significant intersection between the detective story and other genres occurs when Michael (lead character of the adventure story and starring man in the sentimental romance) decides to investigate the rock. Here the novel borrows from numerous works of detective fiction, most notably Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.” In that story, Dupin discovers, hiding in plain sight, the missing letter that the Prefect of the Parisian police could not detect with his army of searchers. Similarly, although for different reasons, Michael discovers Irma on the rock, which has been thoroughly inspected.
The story of this discovery is related as an episode of wilderness adventure undertaken by two young men on horseback; for roughly fifty pages we are immersed in this variant of the cowboy romance. All the requisite elements are there: the boys sneak out at daybreak, take a risky shortcut through the woods, and make camp at the base of the rocks. Later there will be a cryptic message in a diary and a race to find help for a wounded comrade. The genre’s undercurrent of queer desire ripples through these passages, which detail the growing friendship between Michael, a member of the British gentry who has just arrived in Australia and Albert, his uncle’s coachman. From the beginning, our view of Albert is textured with the pleasure Michael takes from his company: “Albert’s worldly wisdom was unending. Michael was filled with admiration” (22). The pairing of Michael, son of one of England’s most respected families, and Albert, an orphan from the colonies, is the occasion for an ongoing investigation of the mores of their cross-class allegiance. As they head out on their adventure, competing tastes and values are brought to the fore: “The two young men on horseback passed a groom sluicing himself at a pump before an ornate wooden stable, admired by Michael as ‘artistic’, dismissed by Albert as ‘fancy crap’” (72). As the pattern unfolds, Michael gives Albert credit for saving Irma, which results in Irma’s father sending Albert a check that allows him to quit his job and go adventuring with Mike.
Ultimately, the homoerotic desire unearthed in the adventure story proves more rewarding than the love plot that develops between Michael and Irma, but the story of their courtship also occupies a prominent place in the narrative, returning us to the novel of manners. There is a touching scene of blushing awkwardness when Michael visits Irma at her bedside, and a scene that blends humor and anxiety when Michael fails to show up at a luncheon meant to consecrate the budding romance between these two “well-matched” youths. Their romance is tender. With “the Hanging Rock in its dark glittering beauty” rising “between them,” they are children again, sticking close to home: “Together, Michael and Irma had explored every inch of the Colonel’s rose garden, the vegetable garden, the sunken croquet lawn, the shrubberies whose winding walks ending in delicious little arbours, ideal for the playing of childish games . . .” (119, 123). But the rock also drives them apart, for Michael continually catches glimpses of Miranda, the girl who he went back to the rock to find–his secret valentine. Eventually, in keeping with the conventions of sentimental novels, he writes a discreet letter that, in the most gentlemanly way possible, ends their relationship. After excerpting its most significant passage the narrator comments ruefully: “For a person who found difficulty in expressing himself on paper, the writer had convey his meaning remarkably well” (132). He has, in other words, managed to convey his rejection through hints and suggestions, never stating it openly. He has maintained appearances.
In like manner, Lindsay laces the narrative with repressed libido. One of Lovecraft’s favorite words is “hint,” but in his weird tales almost nothing exists as an actual subtext. We are frequently told of “abominable rites” that “the author of the foul Necronomicon” “hints at obscenely,” but rarely is such information actually conveyed through implication. No so in Picnic at Hanging Rock. Sexuality between the girls and between them and their tutors is continually glimpsed or suggested, but never addressed directly. Lindsay deploys a version of free indirect discourse worthy of Jane Austen (were the latter slightly obscene): “‘Tais-toi, Irma,’ chirped the light canary voice of Mademoiselle, for whom la petite Irma could do no wrong. The girl’s voluptuous little breasts, her dimples, full red lips, naughty black eyes and glossy ringlets, were a continual source of aesthetic pleasure” (5). Or again, while on their way to the rock: “The three senior girls, Miranda, Irma, and Marion Quade, inseparable companions, were allotted the covered box seat in front beside the driver, an arrangement with which Mr Hussey was well pleased. Nice high-spirited girls, all three of ‘em . . .” (8 ). In both cases, through free indirect discourse, we glimpse a character’s glimpse of unutterable desire. Within the story of detection we are told, drily, by the doctor, that neither of the girls who come back from the rock have been sexually assaulted. Only once is the undercurrent of sexual violence allowed to surface. It emerges in a conversation between Constable Bumpher and Mrs. Appleyard. With a complexity of inflection typical of the novel, Bumpher tries to put his fantasy of sexual violence into Mrs. Appleyard’s mouth in order to punish her for her elitism:
Yes, it was possible, but highly unlikely, said the Senior Detective . . . that the girls had been abducted, lured away, robbed–or worse. ‘And what,’ asked the Headmistress, tightlipped and clammy with fear and the insufferable heat of the room, ‘could be worse, may I ask, than that?’ It appeared that they might yet be found in a Sydney brothel: such things happened now and then. . . Mrs. Appleyard could only shudder. ‘They were exceptionally intelligent and well-behaved girls who would never have allowed and familiarity with strangers.’
‘As far as that goes,’ said the detective blandly, ‘most young girls would object to being raped by a drunken seaman, if that’s what you had in mind.”
‘I did not have it in mind. My knowledge of such things is necessarily limited.’ (104)
It’s easy to sympathize with Bumpher’s crudity–he is disgusted by the Headmistress’s sense that good breeding and manners will prevent the girls from being subjected to such brutality. The reader may recall what we know of Albert’s sister, taken from the orphanage by an older man. But Mrs Appleyard also states the truth; her perspective is necessarily limited; her source of income is the College, which depends upon the value placed upon the appearance of virginal innocence by Australia’s elite families. She can’t afford to appear to know what he means.
Picnic at Hanging Rock’s novel of manners warps grotesquely as desire masked by propriety and creativity denied by traditional educational policies return as hysterical violence. In an important early scene, well positioned in the interstices of the public catastrophe, Mrs Appleyard disciplines the youngest pupil, Sara, for failing to recite Felicia Hemans’ “Casabianca” (“The boy stood on the burning deck…), used as a recitation exercise for several generations of schoolchildren. Sara wants to do well, but she can’t learn the poem: “it’s so silly. I mean if there was any sense in it I could learn it ever so much better.” Mrs Appleyard scolds her viciously and foolishly: “‘Sense? You little ignoramus! Evidently you don’t know that Mrs Felicia Hemans is considered one of the finest of our English poets!” (34). Sara offers to recite another poem by heart– “An Ode to Saint Valentine.” “‘I am not acquainted with it,’ said the Headmistress, with due caution” (34). When it turns out that Sara has written it, the Headmistress punishes her further.
Sara figures numerous threads in the pattern. Because of her refusal to learn the poem, she is not allowed to attend the picnic. Yet her fate depends upon what happens at the rock. Her Valentine ode is secretly written to her senior roommate Miranda; her same-sex affections mirror those of Michael for Albert. Like Albert and his sister, she is an orphan and poorer than the other girls at the school. She is also one of the most creative–she writes her own poems and her paintings show promise. And she will eventually go missing.
As the novel of manners shifts from the story of “outward” violence to the story of “in-house” violence, it tilts into a Gothic novel. The social environment is supplemented by a spooky atmosphere. It begins to emerge as Sara sits awake in her room, yearning for Miranda’s return: “Presently the possums came prancing out on to the dim moonlit slates of the roof. With squeals and grunts they wove obscenely about the squat base of the tower, dark against the paling sky” (112). Before long, we will read of women hiding in cupboards and Mrs Appleyard will stalk the empty hallways at night. The cataclysmic scene of derangement occurs in the exercise room, described by the girls as “the Chamber of Horrors.” Irma, recovered from her escapade on the rock, humbled by Michael’s rejection of her, briefly visits the college wearing a red cloak out of a fairy tale. The girls cluster about wildly:
Irma, limp and utterly bewildered, was near suffocation. . . Fanny’s little snub nose hugely out of focus and sniffing like a terrier with an exposure of bristling hairs. A cavernous mouth agape on a gold-stopped tooth – that must be Juliana – the moist tip of a drooling tongue. Their warm sour breath came and went on her cheeks. Heated bodies pressed on her sensitive breasts. She cried out in fear and tried in vain to push them away. A disembodied moonface rose up somewhere in the background. (143)
The scene brings the public and private horrors together. Irma’s appearance magnetizes their fear of the rock, their need to know what happened there, its mystery and wildness. This merges with the eroticism of proximity as their bodies press against Irma’s and they shove their mouths near hers. Although Irma emerges mostly unscathed, the eruption of animal desire transfers the rock’s violence to Sara. She has been strapped to a board as punishment for slouching. When the girls are sent away, she is forgotten. As a result, she witnesses a scene between two of the teachers that most likely results in her murder.
Above and beyond it all is the Hanging Rock. Lindsay creates one of the most potent weird environments in literature. From haunted castles and fantastic cities to fairy forests and blighted fields, weird writers frequently imagine uncanny and eerie environments. For example, the best contemporary weird novels–Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X–is a complex expansion upon Lovecraft’s celebrated “The Color Out of Space.” In both cases the impossible thing is an environment that seems to come alive, an ecosystem with a will of its own. Arguably the hybridization of place and entity, the vegetable and animal, is as important to the genre as apparitions, doppelgangers, and the “Outer gods.”
Hanging Rock may or may not be such an entity. It is an uncertain place, an environment that is never clearly described. A thing of “intricate construction,” its “long vertical slabs” are “smooth as giant tombstones” or “grooved and fluted by prehistoric architecture of wind and water, ice and fire.” The “boiling bowels” of the earth have erupted into a “monumental configuration of nature” that makes “the human eye . . . woefully inadequate” (25). In its proximity, clocks stop and characters constantly lose sight of each other. It bewilders eerily. As they set out on their picnic, Mrs Appleyard reminds the girls “that the Rock itself is extremely dangerous and you are therefore forbidden to engage in any tomboy foolishness in the matter of exploration, even on the lowest slopes” (7). But Hanging Rock’s sublimity overpowers her command. When the senior girls ask to explore just a little bit, Mademoiselle gives permission without a thought.
“The thing I should like to see are those queer balancing boulders,” says one of the young explorers (28). The rock’s tantalizing queerness draws them upward and outward, away from the picnic, away from the world. It flashes erotic obscenities: “now a dark slit between two rocks where maidenhair fern trembled” (28). Eventually they come upon a singular monolith–ever the portal to elsewhere in weird fiction. At its base, “an overpowering lassitude” overtakes them (31). When, a week later, Michael returns to the mountain, “the monolith, black against the sun,” plunges him into an ancestral memory. The spirit of “A Fitzhubert ancestor hacking his way through bloody barricades at Agincourt” inhabits him and he remembers words “in the family crest: Go on” (82). This weird trope (frequently deployed by Blackwood, Machen, Lovecraft, and Robert E. Howard), aligns the rock with a savage sensuality imagined to exist in less civilized times. But the novel never situates the rock in the history of Australian colonialism or associates it with Aboriginal culture. Instead, the rock presents us with an erotics of the natural environment.
Most importantly, it magnifies its surroundings. Finding themselves on “an almost circular platform” among the boulders, Irma discovers “a sort of porthole in one of the rocks” that offers a view of the picnic grounds. “As if magnified by a powerful telescope, the little bustling scene stood out with stereoscopic clarity” (28). The rock’s influence is powerfully felt when it interrupts the journalistic narrative by magnifying insect life. At the picnic “the diligent ants were crossing miniature Saharas of dry sand, jungles of seedling grass . . . scattered about amongst the monstrous human shapes were Heaven-sent crumbs, caraway seeds, a shred of crystallized ginger–strange, exotic but recognizably edible loot” (16). Later we glimpse “layers of rotting vegetation and animal decay: bones, feathers, birdlime, the sloughed skins of snakes; some with jagged horns and jutting spikes, obscene knobs and scabby carbuncles; others smoothly humped and rounded by the passing of a million years” (77).
Ultimately, its a dreamy place. The dreaminess changes the world and warps the narrative. It lulls all sensitive souls to sleep and initiates the dreams, described with exquisite surrealism, that can’t be reconciled with the documentary conceit. Mrs Appleyard dreams that she and her late husband are in “a fourposter bed . . . bobbing about on the waves” (33). Spending the night at the rock’s base, Michael “dropped off into a wakeful dream in which the ring of the Arab’s hooves on a loose stone was the housemaid throwing back the shutters of his room at Haddingham Hall” (79). While convalescing, Michael dreams of “a white swan sitting on the brass rail at the end of the bed” (97). When Michael proposes that he and Albert make a life together, Albert tells of a “bobbydazzler” of a dream in which his sister–another kind of “missing” girl–visits him. It initiates in Michael “a jumble of imagery impossible to digest”: the unutterable thing (166).
Adapting Weird Literature
Weird literature is not easily adapted. Weirdness in particular brings out those part of fiction that will never be captured by any camera. One can of course make weird films. Obvious examples include many of Luis Buñuel’s films, Pasolini’s The Hawks and the Sparrows, Brian De Palma’s Body Double and Sisters, Dario Argento’s Deep Red and Suspiria, The Blair Witch Project, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Holy Motors. But aside from The Birds and The Shining, few weird novels have been successfully adapted to visual media. The recent adaptation of VanderMeer’s Annihilation, for example, captures about 5% of the thrilling weirdness found in the novel.
The best film versions of weird books work by radically re-imagining normative procedures for adaptation. Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy and The Trip, both based on Laurence Sterne’s weird novels and starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydan, are exemplary. The first allows the novel’s weirdness to restructure the film’s narrative, which continually cuts between the period drama and the drama of its filming “in real life.” The Trip, I would argue, makes a “faithful” adaptation by departing almost entirely from A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, transforming it into a contemporary tour of restaurants and historic sites. Updating the plot, setting, and characters, it preserves the meandering exploration of male sentimentality that makes the original story quite weird.
Neither of the adaptations of Picnic at Hanging Rock capture the novel’s retrospective view or its weaving together of generic textures. Weir’s straightforward, realist film is an efficient adaptation, and probably as good a version as could be made without recourse to “found footage” or other documentary techniques. I watched the first several episodes of Amazon’s adaptation before turning it off. Like Mrs Appleyard (its central focus) it makes a “tactical blunder” (103). It invests the girl’s school with an atmosphere of “chic bizarre,” asking us to take pleasure in Appleyard’s peculiar tastes. In so doing, it seeks to immerse us fully in the historical past. But the novel’s weird intensity is actually generated by its retrospective view. The novel embeds the impossible event in a past that is slipping away, whereas the TV show situates us emphatically in the present tense.
A better, although obviously indirect “adaptation” may be discerned in the original episodes of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Despite all the obvious differences, the police investigation crossed with an examination of confined sentiment (repressed by propriety and compressed by a place where everyone knows everyone else) and the dreamy fluctuations of time and space suggest important affinities.