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New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC 82/83 OUT NOW

The Late Review: Wake

22nd Feb, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Way back in The Third Alternative #24 I reviewed a novel by New Zealand writer Elizabeth Knox, The Vintner's Luck. The tale of a man's relationship with an angel, it was the sort of story that dovetailed neatly with The Third Alternative's slipstream sensibilities. Knox's 2013 novel Wake (Corsair tpb, 445pp) is unabashedly a work of genre, with themes, tropes, situations that will be familiar to readers of horror and science fiction.

Constable Theresa Grey is sent to investigate reports of a helicopter in trouble in the coastal town of Kahukura, but finds far more than she bargained for. The inhabitants of the town have gone crazy and are slaughtering themselves and each other. Then the town is cut off from the rest of the world by an invisible inertia field. Eventually the bloodshed ends, leaving Theresa and thirteen other survivors, but the entity responsible for the carnage isn't done with them yet, while the presence of a strange man in possession of advanced technology adds yet another twist to the plot. And the key to it all may be care worker Sam, the only one of the survivors who didn't arrive in Kahukura after the killing began.

Small town settings where shit goes down big time are common enough in horror fiction, while the force field brings to mind works like King's The Dome and Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos. Wake also has echoes of Lovecraft's mythos and science fiction's 'we are property' trope, while the survivors' attempts to endure are emblematic of all apocalyptic fiction, albeit in this case a minimalist apocalypse.

So what does Knox bring to the table that makes her work stand out?

Well for starters it's very much a take no prisoners work of horror fiction. There's an unrelenting grimness to it all, so that readers recoil in shock from the initial bloodshed and ordeal of burying the bodies, Knox sparing us nothing in terms of the visceral, from a frying pan filled with nipples to a room full of dead children, all this delineated in a prose style that borders on the poetic. Hand in hand with this are the hard choices that have to be made, and on that score I should probably advise those who get upset at the killing of domestic animals to approach Wake with caution.

The characters are beautifully drawn. Theresa is the one who is plunged into a situation way above her pay grade and forced to take charge, even though it's a cup she wants taken from her, and the one who has to make the hardest choices of all. Lawyer William is her opposite, someone who prides himself on his hardness and yet falls in love with Sam, even though he thinks her mental illness is faked, and who will do anything to save her, even at the cost of the world. And Sam is the most intriguing character, her mental challenges brought to vivid life, shown in every aspect of how she speaks and how she acts, making her the only one William can love even though the emotion comes with an element of cruelty. Her back story is fascinating and sits right at the heart of the book, while the lesser characters - park ranger Belle, fishing boat captain Bub, runner Lily, to name just a few - are equally rounded, people who have an existence beyond the page. Each of them must confront private demons and deal as bet they can with the tensions, both personal and internecine, engendered by their perilous situation.

And then there is the monstrous creation that is the prime mover of this story, an entity in some ways akin to the Great Old Ones in the mythos of HPL, but Knox adds another twist, one that casts her monster in an entirely different light. Ultimately what we have here is the serpent in Eden - Kahukura is an idyllic place, the small town where everyone knows everyone else, set in a hollow of great natural beauty - though what Knox has produced is a lot more entertaining than anything to be found in the Book of Genesis, while equally provocative. I loved it.





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