Wake by Elizabeth Knox
Reviewed by Nina Allan
14 February 2014
In the opening sequence of Wake, we follow police constable Theresa Grey as she responds to a developing emergency in the small New Zealand coastal settlement of Kahukura. After putting out a distress call, a helicopter has come down close to a local nature reserve. As she enters the town, Theresa soon discovers there is a lot more wrong with the place than a ditched aircraft. People are acting oddly. What is more, they seem entirely unaware of the escalating strangeness going on around them. Theresa's police training has prepared her for hazardous situations, but whatever is going on in this sleepy little spa town seems unlike anything she has had to deal with before.
There was a sharp concussion of an explosion in the fire up the road. Theresa flinched, but the woman didn't react at all. She just stared at Theresa, apparently intent. Only she wasn't meeting Theresa's eyes. Her gaze seemed to focus on the air millimeters from Theresa's skin, as if caught on the tip of each hair—the hair lifting all over Theresa's body.
Theresa became aware then of sounds below the roar of the fire, and the skirling alarms of trapped and wounded cars. Unaccountable, frightening noises were coming from behind her, on both sides of the street. She heard a hissing, as if someone were busy spraying weeds, followed by a deep flutter, like a wind-baffled bonfire. There were thumps, smashes, a squealing noise, and the sound of someone gasping for breath. But there were no screams, no cries for help. (pp. 11-2)
Part One of Wake is a horror tour de force. In writing that is spare, terse, almost clinically descriptive and disconcertingly deadpan, Elizabeth Knox unscrolls a canvas of death and mounting terror and above all of a weirdness that feels all the more frightening for seeming inexplicable in its origins. Theresa starts out by trying to help people, but quickly has to put compassion on hold in order to avoid being killed or injured herself. She meets others along the way: her friend Belle, who works at the nature reserve; William, an American lawyer who has been staying at the resort with clients; teenaged gamer Oscar; a Maori fisherman, Bub; Kate, a resident of the Mary Whitaker rest home; and her daughter Holly, who happens to be in town on a visit. There are fourteen "survivors" in all. It's not long before they are holed up at the Kahukura spa, trying to formulate an escape plan.
This feels like classic zombie apocalypse territory. It is true there are no actual zombies, and whilst the survivors can't leave the town (an invisible barrier they call the "no go" has descended, trapping them where they are and cutting them off from the outside world), after the initial scenes of carnage, they find that all those infected by the madness have conveniently died. The immediate risks of being attacked have receded, there's plenty of food, the electric and toilet facilities still work. There are a lot of dead bodies to dispose of, but actual survival, it seems, has been handed to them on a plate.
My feelings on reading Wake's opening sections were somewhat conflicted. The story is so compelling and so well delivered you can't fail to be gripped by it. Yet I couldn't help but wonder why a writer as subtle and intelligent as Knox would choose to revisit territory already familiar to the point of tedium. In fact the central achievement of this fine novel lies in confounding many of the clichés of generic horror not by subverting them precisely, but by confronting them head on. Hollywood horror usually works by delivering a series of increasingly violent shocks, accompanied by a rapidly increasing body count. In Wake, all the most visceral action occurs in the first thirty pages. After that, things slow down considerably. For more than a third of the novel we follow the fourteen survivors through their daily routines—compiling a record of who has died and then burying their bodies, looking after the endangered kakapo (a species of flightless parrot) on the nature reserve, stockpiling food and medicines. It takes a long time for any overt threat to emerge, and by the time it does we as readers—like the survivors—have become so inured to the aftermath of disaster that it feels almost comfortable.
It is only gradually that cracks begin to appear in the facade. The survivors come to learn they are neither alone nor safe in Kahukura, and as the realization of their true situation hits home, all their assumed securities begin to unravel. Only this is not the dramatic unraveling of Part One. The action we witness as Wake cycles towards its end is almost prosaic by comparison, yet in its insidious inevitability it is twice as devastating. This is not just because we have come to know and understand Knox's characters as individuals—although Knox mostly eschews Stephen King's technique of affecting reader engagement through copious backstory—but because of our gradual recognition of the hopelessness of their situation. Our key witness at this juncture is Sam, a troubled young woman who claims to be two people, and the only one of the survivors who was actually present in Kahukura at the moment the madness struck. In spite of her confusion of mind, she seems to possess a far deeper awareness of what is happening in the town than any of the others, and what might be done about it. Here she sets out to confront the mysterious stranger who has appeared in their midst:
"No one knows that it’s there, perhaps, until their very last moments, when they sense that something is salting them with other people's agonies before eating them whole."
Sam put that aside for now. "Do you feel it?" she said.
"I only know it’s there because I have it quarantined."
"Because that’s what you do." Sam opened her eyes and stared at him, thinking. Then she asked him to please tell her about the monster.
He remained silent. His patience was of a quality Sam hadn't encountered before. She dropped her gaze and began to worry at the cord around her hands.
He said: "If I explain, you’ll be required to give up certain things."
"What do I have to give up?" Sam would offer whatever guarantee he wanted. She was confident that she wouldn’t be held to any promise she made.
But, as it turned out, it was hope she couldn't keep. (pp. 241-2)
Knox's narrative functions not as an axe to the head but as a slowly tightening garrotte. I would hate to spoil any reader's enjoyment by revealing too much about a story that manages to be surprising even when it shouldn't be, except to say that Knox is a writer so cleverly in command of her material that even now that I've read the ending I still have trouble deciding if it’s a happy one or not.
In an entry on her personal blog, Knox reprises journal notes that discuss and describe some of the core inspirations behind Wake.
The new thing is a horror novel based on a story from the game—naturally—a plot I explored twice . . . inspired by a dopey horror movie with Ben Affleck and Peter O'Toole set in a town full of corpses and ghosts beset by an ancient Lovecraft-type monster. We liked the film's set-up, but not its ramped up middle and end.
She inserts a footnote to confirm that the movie in question was the 1998 adaptation of Dean Koontz's novel Phantoms. As that movie opens, Lise (played by Rose McGowan) is shown arriving with her older sister Jennifer (Joanna Going) in the small Colorado town of Snowfield. "Is it always this quiet?" asks Lise, who comes from Los Angeles. "No," says Jennifer, as they drive through streets that seem strangely deserted. "It's not." Of course we know something is wrong—the film's title alone is enough to tell us that. The sisters soon discover the body of Jennifer's housekeeper, dead from what looks like a mysterious disease. They try to call the police but the phones are out. They run to the police station on foot, but—guess what?—the duty officer there is dead too.
There are multiple comparisons to be drawn between Phantoms and Wake. Both employ classic horror scenarios in which characters return to a known place and find it changed, with tension arising as much from the inherent "wrongness" as from the fact that people are dying in horrible ways. Both sets of survivors face an invisible enemy whose identity and motives remain unclear for some time. Both Snowfield and Kahukura are effectively isolated from the outside world, although Koontz chooses to split his theater of action between the band of survivors in the town and a group of "experts" on the outside (including O'Toole as the usual kind of eccentric British professor) who are trying to find a solution to the deadly mystery. This skipping back and forth inevitably leads to a lessening of tension. Knox's decision to keep the action restricted to a small cast of characters within a closed scenario is certainly more challenging for the writer, arguably more intriguing for the reader. The Phantoms crew also make the classic mistake of letting the audience see the monster. Knox keeps hers hidden, its presence made most evident in the actions and reactions of its victims. The most sinister aspect of Knox's monster is its essential unknowability. The "big bad" in Phantoms starts out by taunting its victims directly through a computer monitor and goes on to threaten the destruction of the entire human species. Like so many Hollywood monsters, it has a thorough working knowledge of the Bible, claims to be the devil incarnate, and takes lessons in metamorphosis from the creature in Alien.
In the end, though, as so often, it's all about the writing. Consisting of roughly twenty percent exposition and eighty percent cliché, the script of Phantoms (penned by Koontz himself) is so inept and so hackneyed it makes the film all but unwatchable. Knox's subtlety of approach, her watertight sentences, her innate ability to describe—all these things bring freshness and vitality to a narrative that (as Phantoms itself aptly demonstrates) would run a major risk of falling flat in less capable hands. Knox shows you things in the horror genre that you never knew were there, and I would advise any reader interested in exploring her knowing and sophisticated approach to classic horror to seek out Wake at the earliest opportunity.