King Bait by Keri Hulme Short Story Study

“King Bait” is a short story by Keri Hulme, author of The Bone People, which won the Booker Prize. The setting is a magical realist New Zealand. “King Bait” is a good mentor text:

  • If writing in the oral tradition, inspired by the tall tale
  • If writing a story with supernatural elements in which the characters never understand the whys and wherefores of the phenomenon. (There’s an unwritten rule about telling such stories — read on for more.)
  • A good example of a short story which links opening sentence to final sentence, creating circularity and a sense of a conclusion.

STORYWORLD OF “KING BAIT”

WHITEBAITING IN NEW ZEALAND

Every country has its weird delicacy. For this white girl, who grew up in the South Island of New Zealand, that weird delicacy was whitebait. Ask me to describe them? They taste of squish and air. It’s not about the flavour, you see. They look like strips of grated potato, which is what our mother used to bulk out the patties when there wasn’t enough whitebait to go around — which there never was — because you rarely catch a family sized amount. If you want to buy whitebait from the fish shop, it costs a fortune. There’s one difference though, between grated spud patties and proper whitebait patties: the crunch. As kids we were glad not to have to endure those eyes, which crack between your teeth. We preferred the hash brown version. Whitebait enthusiasts LIKE the eyes. Indeed, that’s the entire reason for eating them. When creating the cheapo version, some people have been known to sprinkle poppy seeds into their grated potato just to recreate the sensation of crunchy little black eyes. In the West, we rarely consume animals in their entirety. Not in modern life. But certain water creatures are one exception. (Mussels are another, but let’s not get into those.)

This eye-eating culinary fetish is creepy, and Keri Hulme must have thought so too, because in 1984 she published a story about white bait, with focus on the eyes. “King Bait” is published in her first short story collection, Te Kaihau (The Windeater). This was one of our high school set texts. Our English teacher introduced us to the concept of magical realism with this particular story. (The following year he introduced us to The Bone People, Keri Hulme’s masterwork, which I had to read again in English 101 at university, which is when I read it properly, and even looked up the meaning of ‘pederast’.)

Our retired neighbours took me whitebaiting once. I was six. By coincidence, Te Kaihau (and this story) was published that same year. Our neighbour Don wore very long white gumboots which came up to his thigh. He could wade far enough into the river to set nets without getting his feet wet. Meanwhile, Noelene and I set about making a cup of tea. We caught one whitebait, singular. It contained less meat than your average garden worm. I don’t remember making it into a patty. We probably threw it back.

THE WEST COAST

In New Zealand, the West Coast is a place where rain is measured in metres. The West Coast catches most of the torrential downpours coming off the ocean — across the island, the main city of Christchurch is dry by comparison. I grew up in Christchurch. I had an uncle from the West Coast — he was drawn back there at every opportunity, to reflect quietly, to fish, to drink. Once a West Coaster, always a West Coaster. There’s a separate West Coast wave which only Coasters use. They’re seen as different and feel that they’re different. It’s a good place to start a cult.

A small town on the West Coast is a good retreat if you are — as Keri Hulme describes herself and her community — “intellectually-different”.

Of anywhere in New Zealand, you can almost believe magical things do happen over that side, over the mountain, exposed to the Tasman Sea.

The story is set in a specific, real place — under The Cobden Bridge. To be honest, I get a bit homesick just looking at the streetview. It’s such an archetypically New Zealand scene.

The river is an important geological feature of Greymouth. Rivers in storytelling can symbolise many things, and here the river symbolises plenitude. It also symbolises the Power of Nature.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “KING BAIT”

NARRATION

“King Bait” is written in the tradition of a tall story — heavily associated with hunting, fishing and camping. The tone is conversational, opening with:

I think this season’ll be the last, you know.

The rest of the story explains why the narrator thinks that. The oral feel is achieved with questions, as if there’s a narratee present in the room:

How did your mother cook them when she got them from the shop?

The modern legend “King Bait” is told via a first person narrator but this is a story of a town event, and a story about human nature. The viewpoint character has the character arc — a new belief that the world wasn’t quite as she saw it before.

WEAKNESS/NEED

We are told in the opening paragraph that the storyteller doesn’t know what to make of the tale she’s about to tell:

Here I am, wound round in a welt of words, with a mystery on my hands, and very uncertain what to say about it. But this is the core of the matter, the heart of the nut: King Bait.

This is a clear connection to the Self-revelation part of the story. (The psychological weakness always is.)

DESIRE

Surface desire: A successful fishing trip with a feed worth of whitebait, like everyone else in the town.

This year I’m all enthusiasm. Buy myself the regulation round Grey net, and a bloody great pole to go with it. Equip myself with gumboots, get out old fishing clothes, and head down to the river at odd hours, waiting on changing tides. […] hopeful of a nice little pudding at the bottom of the nylon bag. Or a very large one, for the season’s started out a boomer. Tons of bait about. Happy faces all around, reflecting my smug grin. Full stomachs abounding, appetite satisfied, bankbook replete, and yet expecting much, much more.

This hooks into a main idea of the story: Greed. The narrator started off with low expectations of a good feed, but when she saw it was a good season, her expectations rose accordingly. Even on the night before, the narrator has been enjoying herself at the pub, and has a belly full of whitebait. She doesn’t want for anything more at that point.

Deep desire: To believe in something bigger than human life itself. I believe the narrator is hoping for some external force to put a lid on her untamed desires, which get bigger and bigger according to circumstance.

OPPONENT

This is a tough one. The massive whitebait (named “King Bait”) that comes down the river doesn’t pose any overt threat to the whitebaiting community. But Keri Hulme injects much needed opposition with the character of the ‘thigh-booted, dungareed individual, made distant and inhuman by his action. For he is swinging his net like an automaton, scooping the bait, flinging it silver and anywhere onto the shore. There is saliva hanging in a shining string from the corner of his mouth, and I am not so far away that I can’t see the money-glaze on his eyes.’

By the way, the description of this man accords with descriptions of whitebait in a close up shot — the ‘shining string’ of saliva most of all. The technique of linking humans to animals is something I notice especially often in short stories compared to in longer works. Alice Munro does it in “Runaway“, linking a human character to a goat. In modern illustrations of The Pied Piper, the piper is often depicted as ratlike. Caleb by Gary Crew is another illustrated short story example, this time comparing a person to an insect. Angela Carter uses the technique in “Lizzie’s Tiger”, comparing Lizzie Borden to a circus tiger.

PLAN

Everyone catches the fish and cooks them up and eats them. This is conveyed succinctly, and also creepily:

All over the Coast the hiss of hot fat and the crunching of little eyes…

BATTLE

The Battle scene is better described as a Climax in this particular story. On the other hand, there is a battle, but not between fish and people — the fish themselves are unlike normal whitebait — once caught they just lie there, as sacrifice.

The story next zooms in on the man who is possessed with greed. The narrator herself is knowingly possessed, pushing her way through ‘small fry and lame old ladies’. This is a battle between people with themselves and their own need for more and more and more. This was a recurring theme in work throughout the 1980s, and probably since the Mad Men era actually. Until the business of advertising kicked off, people could live in relative peace without constantly being told they needed the next latest thing. A picture book example with the same message is More and Better by Margaret Neve, published in 1980.

SELF-REVELATION

The narrator describes herself in a knowing way. She knows full well that on the night of King Bait, she was as crazed with greed as anyone else. She has not gone easy on herself, admitting to her audience how she pushed through weaker characters to get to the great feed. The self-revelation concerns her own psychology.

As for where the river of bait came from and where they’re going, the narrator remains perplexed. In this regard, “King Bait” by Keri Hulme is the inverse of “In The Pit” by Annie Proulx.

“King Bait”: psychological revelation without our character understanding aspects of the plot.

“In The Pit”: our character comes to understand what happens regarding the plot, but there’s no self-revelation regarding his own psychology, weakness and need.

And that’s the key to writing a supernatural story in which the supernatural phenomenon is never explained. Readers will accept supernatural stories with no storyworld explanation, but the writer is absolutely obliged to include another kind of personal self-revelation, emphasis on SELF. Otherwise the story will feel pointless and you’ll get complaints that it’s unbelievable.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The final snippets of dialogue “I hope they get there” and “God love us all, but are they ever coming back?” stuck in my mind, even though I read this story years ago.

For story crafting purposes it doesn’t matter that these questions remain unanswered, because the Self-revelation was so robust: People are greedy and in times of plenty keep wanting more. We all have that tendency within is, and we must fight it at all costs.

We’ve had enough to expect this event will never happen again, signalled in the opening sentence. The final sentence therefore answers the question posed in the first, creating a circular ending.

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