South Africa is haunted by ghosts: Ghosts of the million who died during the mfecane (The Crushing) when the rise of the Zulu Empire touched off a shockwave of indigenous warfare and migration from 1815 to 1840; ghosts of massacred Trekboers; ghosts of women and children who wasted away in British concentration camps during the Anglo Boer War of 1899-1902; ghosts of the victims of the apartheid terror state….
Blood curses cloud its rugged, beautiful landscape.
Bertram Mitford’s 1891 novel The Weird Of Deadly Hollow recounts a legend of one such blood curse. Mitford was a contemporary of H. Rider Haggard and worked a similar vein with adventure thrillers set in the frontier lands of southern Africa. The prolific author has lately been elevated from total obscurity to a level of mere relative obscurity, largely thanks to the critical works of Professor Gerald Monsman, who has written introductions for releases of Mitford’s stories and incorporated him into context in his book H. Rider Haggard on the Imperial Frontier: The Political and Literary Contexts of His African Romances.
The Deadly Hollow of the book’s title is a dark, secluded vale in the Rooi Ruggens Bergen mountains of the Eastern Cape Colony, country that was battled over in a decades-long series of frontier wars between Dutch-descended Boer settlers, British colonial forces and the Xhosa people. Mooredenaars Hoek (“Murderer’s Hollow” or “Deadly Hollow”) is fixed in a landscape of sheer peaks and deep defiles, riddled with caves, a landscape of isolation and menace.
The hollow is believed to lie in the shadow of a blood curse. Two brothers, Boer farmers settled the place in the 1830s. When one sibling decided to marry, his brother Gert Van Niekerk, fearing the division of the farm, inveigled a Hottentot servant to murder the first Van Niekerk brother with an ax in the midst of a terrible storm. Gert Van Niekerk then stabbed the Hottentot to death, leaving both bodies at the bottom of a deep defile. Then he murdered the Hottentot’s family and burned their kraal.
Van Niekerk did not enjoy his ill-gotten dominion over the vale. He was haunted by the spectres of his victims, driven mad with fear, guilt and drink. His murders were found out and he went to the gallows.
Ever after, those who have tried to revive the farm at Mooredenaars Hoek have fled it environs, convinced that it is haunted. Until the mysterious Herbert Custance arrives in the late 1870s. Custance, a man with a mysterious past, is content to isolate himself on the farm and seems untroubled by its ghosts. But he is drawn out of his splendid isolation when he rescues his neighbor’s daughter, the lovely Ida Rendelsham, from wild dogs that accost her as she is out riding in the mountains.
Custance, whose bitterness toward humanity — and toward womankind in particular — has burned out most human feeling, is brought back to life and a moment of joy. But joy cannot thrive in Mooredenaars Hoek…
Mitford’s protagonist is a dark figure. His journey begins with a terrible deed and climaxes with another (no matter how justified). Custance is sardonic and difficult for most to be around. Yet he is also respected, because he exhibits the tactical virtues of strength, courage, competence and honor so prized in any raw frontier culture. He is a crack shot, an expert rider and a competent farmer and herdsman.
Ida sees some spark in him, certainly.
As for Ida, she is beautiful (with a “Junoesque figure”), warm and bright — the only female in the tale that is not a shrill, nasty, horrid creature. Custance explicitly calls out her exceptional nature in comparison with the rest of her “hateful sex.”
Anyone looking for evidence that Victorian era adventure fiction was loaded with rank misogyny need look no further than Mitford. His portrayal of women is harsh enough to peel the finish off a gunstock. It’s not merely a device for this particular story, either. Both “Weird” and “Sign of the Spider” start with men fleeing the horrors of a savage domestic battle.
Not that women are particularly singled out for opprobrium. The burghers of the town of Barbastadt are puffed up and pretentious provincials. Ida’s father is portrayed as a rather sweet old fellow, but utterly pussy-whipped by his harridan of a second wife and her daughters — to the grossly unfair detriment of the worthy Ida. His farm manager Baird is jealous and petty, resentful of the competence and insouciance of Custance who has appeared to effortlessly horn in on his path into Ida’s petticoats.
The only character besides Custance and Ida who is shown as worthy of respect is Njalwane, Custance’s Xhosa foreman. Custance knows Njalwane is an outlaw and meets him as a respected warrior and kindred spirit. The Hottentots in the story are treated paternalistically and the Bushmen — one in particular — are regarded as degraded near-beasts.
All of that sounds like it makes for an unpleasant read — and those who insist on “likability” in the characters with whom they spend a couple hours of reading time will find it so. For the rest of us, The Weird of Deadly Hollow is worthy. It is worth reading as an artifact of its time and place, but there are greater rewards than mere academic interest.
Mitford lived for many years on the southern African frontier, and his depiction of the lifeway of the settlers is authentic. One might wish for more of it. The set-piece springbok hunt is, for those of us fascinated with frontier life, quite satisfying.
The author also pulls off a neat trick: he both debunks and reinforces the supernatural “explanation” for events at Mooredenaars Hoek. Is the haunting of Mooredenaars Hoek “real” or a psychological phenomenon of isolation and a memory of terrible events? Does the distinction matter? And if terrible things continue to occur in a place even without supernatural agency, does that render the blood curse (itself a supernatural concept) real?
And then there’s that spectral leopard…