Hawai’i, History, & the Unexpected Gothic: ‘The Hala Tree Walks in Darkness’

As if by magic it is barely June any longer, but one witch flies, still, through the sky. The month may have turned long ago – whilst I was soaring through the night myself, as it happens – but I have one last tale to discuss before May’s Season of the Witch fades completely. Today’s blog post is a continuation of my recently published interview with Ian McMahon, managing editor and co-founder of New Gothic Review magazine.

Beginning in Britain and set in Europe, the Gothic genre emerged with a strong sense of place and other – readers read unfamiliar settings and were unsettled, they knew that foreign characters were to be feared.

As the Gothic has evolved since the 1700s, its setting and subjects have continued to expand. In the 21st century, however, there is a risk that the once-pioneering Gothic mode has become paralysed by the very linguistic structures and literary models that formerly empowered it to break social and political barriers. There is a problematic tendency for contemporary Gothic narratives – particularly those in historical settings – to rely upon tired tropes, perhaps in a misguided attempt to maintain classification as ‘Gothic’.

Enter New Gothic Review magazine, which is dedicated to showcasing the universality of the contemporary Gothic. Their first volume comprises six short stories with a diverse range of voices, characters, settings and, most interestingly, expressions of the Gothic.

Scroll through the gallery below to find a teaser for five of the six short stories (text taken from New Gothic Review’s Instagram), with accompanying original illustrations (credited at the end). The cast includes classic Gothic characters: witches, vampires, and shapeshifters; but each contributes to something refreshingly unfamiliar…

As promised in New Gothic Voices, the sixth story will be the subject of this post, which will begin below in the most unlikely of places.

• Terror of the uncanny
• Genderqueer identity crisis
• Harrowing transformation
• Drag queen horror
Finding your true self
Your true self finding you…

• Loneliness & isolation of motherhood
• Echoes of The Yellow Wallpaper
• Postpartum anxiety
• The comforts & horrors of domesticity
• Mysterious, untrustworthy neighbours

• Authentic child narrator
• A separated family, a “new” dad, an old house (© 1984)
• A distant act of horror, painted over in yellow…
• El padre en las paredes
• In the vein of Gabriel García Márquez

• The horrors of late-stage capitalism
• Post-Brexit
• Reclusive billionaire in looming Scottish castle
• Vampires
• In the vein of Black Mirror

• A perfectly normal suburban marriage with no problems…
• Haunted McMansion
• A mould problem the gets in deep
• Central Florida swamp
• Macabre tales for the nouveau riche

‘𝕿𝖍𝖊 𝕳𝖆𝖑𝖆 𝕿𝖗𝖊𝖊 𝖂𝖆𝖑𝖐𝖘 𝖎𝖓 𝕯𝖆𝖗𝖐𝖓𝖊𝖘𝖘’, 𝖇𝖞 𝕵𝖔𝖘𝖊𝖕𝖍 𝕯𝖊𝕸𝖆𝖗𝖈𝖔

I won’t say that ‘The Hala Tree Walks in Darkness’ was my favourite in the New Gothic Review collection, because each story was enthralling and unfamiliar in its own exciting way. In fact, ‘The Hala Tree…’ started out as the one that I skipped over as I flipped back and forth through the magazine, reading the short stories ‘out of order’. If you’ve read my reviews before, you’ll know that I tend to stay away from ratings in favour of discussion, so don’t be mislead into thinking this means I didn’t like it, because truly I did!

Set on the island of Hawai’i, ‘The Hala Tree…’ follows a male protagonist named Naku. In the short narrative, author Joseph DeMarco paints a complex and incredibly human portrait of the young native islander. He works hard, but he disrespects his gods. He honours local lore and tradition, is superstitious, and fears the foreigner from the island of Moloka’i.

Interestingly, DeMarco’s is historical fiction. It’s set in the exact era that the Gothic was born, just 15 years after the publication of Walpole’s foundational The Castle of Otranto. In January 1779 under the bright Hawai’ian sun, all the classical markers of the Gothic mode are there. Long ago time, faraway place, the “other”. And yet, these familiar markers feel fresh and new.

© Liza Adamandidou B. | New Gothic Review

I spoke with Liza Adamandidou B. whose illustration accompanies DeMarco’s piece in New Gothic Review. She similarly found appeal in the unfamiliar historical perspective of ‘The Hala Tree…’.

Liza explains:
“[I]t was a refreshing experience as it allowed me to gain a different perspective on my understanding of Gothic literature by unfolding the definition of Gothic through an indigenous story telling. Beyond its unique narrative, first of all this story revealed how our perception of Gothic has been limited, as it has been mostly defined with a Western point of view throughout history. As I was unfolding the story more and more, I began to realise how our ways of reading and seeing history is so narrow.”

Liza is a Greek-Armenian illustrator who, living on the Prince Islands of Istanbul (- the city in which she was born), identifies as an islander.

She continues:
“[I]t was almost like an awakening for me, as through this story, I began to discover many Gothic narratives within my own cultural context as well. I think this was the exact point that connected me with the story, where I found many reflections from my own life, cultural history and land politics within my own geography. Being not so familiar with Hawaiian culture and social history, I began to look at visual and written sources on the indigenous narratives [and] ethnographical motifs, as well as the topographical and natural landscape of Hawaii throughout my research.”

It strikes me how similar our interactions with the narrative were, despite the different cultural backgrounds from which we approached it. Both Liza and I were inspired – by the interwoven fiction and reality, or Gothic and history – to educate ourselves.

As is my habit in discussing the Gothic with others, I asked Liza for her own understanding of the word. “Gothic is something,” she offers, “that is unexpected.”

It is precisely this – that the unexpected exists in a narrative firmly anchored in historical reality – that makes ‘The Hala Tree Walks in Darkness’ a successful piece of new Gothic fiction.

From the sunshine setting, through the red-eyed witch, to the titular tree, DeMarco’s narrative is fuelled by folk lore, with nature that is unfamiliar and certainly uncanny. The initially perplexing diary-like structure brings everything together in a way that is ultimately far more frightening, enlightening, and truly Gothic than anticipated.

Reading under the confident Californian sun with the Caribbean Gothic of Wide Sargasso Sea still in mind, I was captivated by this summery incarnation – how the Gothic manifests in the warmth, and most disturbingly, the monsters that remain when the light is turned on.


Illustration credits:
1. Olivia Tinnin
2. Heather Parr
3. Heather Parr
4. Kaylan Stedman
5. Katiana Robles

‘The Hala Tree Walks in Darkness’ here, and share your thoughts!
New Gothic Voices to learn more about New Gothic Review and its inclusive mission.

If you have enjoyed this article, please consider contributing a little to fill the hours I put into Generally Gothic with a bottomless pot of tea.

And, if you are intrigued by the role of sunshine in the classically dark and gloomy Gothic, stay tuned as we step into the full sweltering swing of July (even if I write this from the woollen folds of cloudy England in 16°C/60°F summer “heat”!)

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