It’s the most distinctive cover of the year – a novel wrapped in screaming, electric green. Alexander Stronach finds the ghost story inside is just as intense.
While I was reading Butcherbird, an old friend back in Malaysia found out about the Bain case. Apparently the true crime channels all caught onto it at the same time, and there’s one detail that makes every single 20/20 hindsight casebreaking yank podcast sherlock lose their minds: the cops burned the house down. Procedurally a nightmare, but it sort of makes sense; the house felt evil somehow, profane, an awful rotten tooth. Some things need to burn, to be utterly destroyed so the healing can begin.
So, Butcherbird. Twenty years ago, when she was 10, Jena’s parents and siblings died in a fire – the barn burned, but did not burn down. Now she’s returned to Taranaki, where the barn stands dark and crooked, full of poisonous secrets. Of course, things were rotten in the house long before the fire, and they’ve continued to fester in the dark over the decades. Jena, her dipshit boyfriend Cade, her elderly grandmother Rose and Rose’s carer Will are trapped together in a house that hums like an exposed nerve.
It’s hard to say whether Butcherbird is horror or not – it’s certainly gothic, set in a shadowy country house lousy with whispers, secrets, and ghosts – but it doesn’t feel like it set out to shock or terrify. It’s slower than that, more thoughtful, a sort of unravelling. For most of its run it’s less horror and more slow-burn psychological thriller with a ghost in it. Though it all leads to an explosive, shocking pageant of violence; it’s a book of quiet conversations where the things that matter go unsaid, tension unrelieved and tension unrelieved and tension tension tension unrelieved until it boils over into catastrophe, and at any step Jena and Rose could just talk to each other but they don’t because the same pain destroying them has wired their jaws shut.
When she said nothing more, [Will] set his own meal on the night stand and stood, pacing away from her and then back. “Oh? That’s all you had to say? Your granddaughter dug up the skull of your husband, who supposedly walked out on you and your children, and it has a bullet hole right here.” Will stabbed himself in the forehead. “Kind of like he was running towards someone with a gun, not away from anything, right?”
Rose leaned back against the pillows and crossed her hands over her stomach. “And what of it?”
“Did you kill him? She wanted me to ask you.”
He let out a sigh, shaking his head. How did he end up in this position?
“Why didn’t she just ask me herself?” Rose huffed and raised an eyebrow.
There’s a lot of bad media criticism out there that expects characters to run on pure mathematical logic, and another strain that wants characters to only ever experience positive emotions, and both are going to find Butcherbird deeply frustrating. Jena’s a mess, Rose is a bitch, Cade’s a loser and Will is uh … poor, sweet Will, he’s tall and he doesn’t believe in ghosts, it’s like Shane from Buzzfeed Unsolved stepped through a portal and into a book. (Will, my dude, this is technically a workplace, you owe these people nothing, you shoulda been on the phone to the union the instant you saw the client’s undisclosed ghost birds. The client’s dark past may be manifesting as a living darkness come to consume them, the jaws of an awful trap snapping shut, but you don’t need to get caught in it: call your union today.)
Jena has her reasons to be a mess, to be fair. She’s been through a lot and she goes through worse. She doesn’t always make smart choices but you can hardly call her passive. She thinks Rose hates her and she thinks Cade loves her. Jena is our primary window into the world and she’s a solid guide, sometimes frustrating but never boring. Whenever it feels like the book might be grinding to a halt, Jena twists like an eel. Her grit and canniness carry a lot of the story, even when she’s not taking charge she’s got a steely resolve that’s satisfying to read. After saying it doesn’t often feel like horror, I gotta say, Jenna is an excellent final girl. It’s that doggedness and ingenuity that’s the book’s real engine. Will gets a lot of PoV chapters but you don’t cheer for him like Jena, he’s just kinda there.
Rose is the beating heart of this novel, the secret-keeper who could end it all. She’s this steely thing, the one who chose to stay in a house of horrors for two decades – I wish she’d been more present. At least one of her secrets feels like it comes out of nowhere at the 11th hour and I skimmed back to make sure I hadn’t missed any clues. Rose feels like the book’s only real dropped ball. I worry I’m just not familiar enough with certain religious traditions to catch the hints about her, but I don’t think I’m going to be alone there.
Butcherbird feels very true to life of a certain sort of small-town New Zealand existence. Cade in particular – speaking as a reader who grew up in a succession of small towns in the top of the south – embodies a very specific sort of Kiwi dude who is pushing 30 but thinks his busking is gonna pay the bills any day now, gets all his politics from Joe Rogan and probably has terrible opinions about vaccines. Only the first one of those things is explicitly in the text but in my soul I know the other two are true. (He’s not described as wearing the world’s worst-smelling poncho either but if you’ve spent any time in small towns that hippies retired to in the 90s, you’ll smell the poncho too.) Cade feels utterly superfluous to the story until you realise it’s actually about him, that the grimy surface toxicity hides something genuinely dark and frightening. This is not a man who has ever really been tested by darkness – it is not a matter of whether he’ll fail, it is simply a matter of how and when.
New Zealand horror has often been defined by film, and in film it has a strong gonzo streak: there’s a continuity from Braindead to Black Sheep to Killer Sofa and Deathgasm, it’s often irreverent and ultra-violent. But our prose horror seems to live much more in the realm of ghost stories. Ghost stories are as much about ancestry and history as they are about ghosts; we are all haunted by the past. Perhaps “haunted” is the wrong term – author Cassie Hart is Māori (and published under flagship Māori press Huia) and not all Jena’s ghosts are malicious. Her past contains violence, but tremendous love and family too, and it’s that same family that she seeks to rebuild. Her ancestors walk with her, and over the course of the book she gradually comes to understand their guidance. The real danger in Butcherbird comes not from the past but from hiding it away, burying things too difficult to confront, shouldering the violence until its weight becomes too much to ignore. Jena’s old house is powerfully tapu, polluted by a death that was never properly handled because that would mean staring down what happened there. It shattered her family, and only by rebuilding those broken bonds can any of them hope to move forward.
Both NZ horror and gothic horror more generally thrive on isolation, and it’s not strange that New Zealand gothic (and if Butcherbird is anything, it’s New Zealand gothic, Southernmost gothic) doubles down on this; it’s a fiction of crushing silence, bodies in the bog, secrets that thrive in darkness. We don’t have the castles of Europe or the gilded mansions of the Reconstruction South for our ghosts to haunt; we have farmhouses, rotting barns, and endless, endless country. We have a history marred by colonial violence, by silence and repression and guilt. The enemies aren’t the ghosts of specific dead, but our own loneliness and our refusal to confront the past. Aotearoa is so beautiful and so empty, it gives us nothing to do but turn inwards, and some of us will not like what they find.