Morrieson, Ronald Hugh

Morrieson, Ronald Hugh

In Brief

Ronald Hugh Morrieson, novelist and short story writer, was born, lived, wrote and died in South Taranaki. Four feature films based on his work have been released, yet conservative critics had difficulty with the violence and sexuality of his writing and its failure to conform to the literary values of the period. Morrieson’s fear that he might be ‘another of those poor buggers who gets discovered when they’re dead’, was cruelly prophetic, and the majority of his writing was published posthumously. Today, his reputation stands high.

FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE

Morrieson, Ronald Hugh (1922–72), novelist and short story writer, was born, lived, wrote and died in Hawera, South Taranaki. He was domiciled entirely in the home of his mother, with very occasional breaks of a few days in Auckland in his early twenties and later in New Plymouth and, towards the end of his life, at a writer’s conference in Palmerston North. Until the age of 37 he worked as a casual dance-band player in the Hawera area, but then became a private music-teacher in order to free his evenings for the career in writing which he had always intended.

His first novel The Scarecrow, a tragicomic story of a sex killer in a small town not unlike Morrieson’s own, was published in Sydney by Angus & Robertson in 1963. It was well received by reviewers as a Gothic melodrama with a strong popular-culture component. His second, Came a Hot Friday (1964), is a tragicomic morality tale about gambling in and about another small Taranaki town. The less favourable reviews began a decline in critical reception which, together with his continuing alcoholism and the death of his mother in 1968, was to darken his last decade. Conservative critics had difficulty with the violence and sexuality of his writing and its failure to conform to the high culture models that dominated the literary values of the period, an attitude summed up in one protestation that the New Zealand in Came a Hot Friday was ‘certainly not the New Zealand that I know’.

Morrieson’s fear, expressed to Maurice Shadbolt, that he might be ‘another of those poor buggers who gets discovered when they’re dead’, was to be cruelly prophetic. Despite support after 1965 from Shadbolt, Frank Sargeson and the historian Dick Scott, all his subsequent writing was to be published posthumously. In 1974 Landfall published two short stories, in March ‘Cross My Heart and Cut My Throat’ and in December ‘The Chimney’. The first is a comic account of a crapulous male guitar-teacher’s attraction to a 13-year-old female pupil. This leads to the loss of his girlfriend but concludes comically, with his mother’s naive assurance that he has ‘had [his] first little pupil today’ and with the appearance of the pupil’s father, who seems bent on vengeance but in fact has merely turned up to retrieve his daughter’s guitar. ‘The Chimney’ is far more sober and one of Morrieson’s subtler achievements as a work of art, a sensitive evocation of a boy’s first apprehension of mortality and sexual desire that stands as one of the finest of the tradition’s many accounts of the onset of adolescence. Both stories indicate something of the writer’s excessive intimacy with his mother.

His third novel, Predicament (1975), a powerful and disturbing account of the psychological fantasy world of adolescence with the familiar small-town setting, was declined by Angus & Robertson and went through numerous drafts, many abandoned, before being published by John Dunmore’s Dunmore Press in Palmerston North in 1975. Pallet on the Floor (1976), a brief and black story, is set in the shadow of a freezing works and features rape, murder and suicide. Again published by Dunmore, it reads more perfunctorily than the earlier works, as if in draft form. A New Zealand edition of The Scarecrow (Heinemann) appeared in 1976, and of Came a Hot Friday (Penguin) in 1981, and both novels were made into feature films.

Apart from reviews of the first two novels and the odd negative observation, critical commentary on Morrieson was largely posthumous, as indicated in the bibliography to the standard critical work, Peter Simpson’s Ronald Hugh Morrieson (1982). Julia Millen’s Ronald Hugh Morrieson: A Biography (1996) emphasises the strange creativity that arose from the contradictions between his matriarchal home life and his rebelliously dissolute night-time activities. His reputation now stands high, as in Lawrence Jones’s comment that ‘it is doubtful whether the anti-puritan underside of New Zealand small-town life has ever been so vigorously caught’.

PE

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Morrieson's novella 'Pallet on the Floor' appears in Nine New Zealand Novellas (Reed, 2005). This is a companion volume to the best-selling Seven New Zealand Novellas.

Two additional feature films based on Morrieson's work have been made since The Scarecrow (1982) and Came a Hot Friday (1985) were released. The films are Pallet on the Floor (1986), and Predicament (2010). Predicament was directed by Jason Stutter and is a prohibition-era tale of blackmail, anxiety and criminal partnerships.

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Updated January 2017.