Close to home: Elizabeth Knox's Wake

Elizabeth Knox’s Wake is possibly the first of its kind – a supernatural horror story set in Tasman Bay.

Made famous by her 1998 novel The Vintner’s Luck, Knox has been steadily creating innovative and immersive novels infused with magical realism for more than 25 years. I found her after picking up 2003’s Daylight in the midst of a pre-Twilight teenage fascination with vampires, and then moved on to her excellent Dreamhunter and Dreamquake duo.

One of the most attractive aspects of Knox’s work, to me, is the way she manages to balance recognisably New Zealand settings and sensibilities with potent fantasy.

I’ve felt for a long time that one of the primary issues with the fantasy genre is that many popular writers seem to set their stories “everywhere and nowhere”. Authors like Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch and Tim Powers appear to downplay the need for an authentic sense of place in the alternative worlds they build, exchanging recognisable settings for what must feel like more freedom to run wild with supernatural or magical themes.

It’s easy to sympathise with the wish to set up an exciting story in a new world with no rules, especially when you’re living in sunny Nelson. In the lazy routine of the everyday, it’s easy to roll out of bed, brush your teeth, pat the cat and start the morning commute thinking that nothing too outrageous could be possible in this country.

Retaining its sense of comfortable New Zealand identity is exactly what makes Wake work so well as a horror novel. It’s set in a sleepy village called Kahukura, which is in Tasman Bay near Mapua.

One fine day, a sinister force cuts off Kahukura and turns every resident into a murderous psychopath. Knox’s clear, matter-of-fact, resolutely Kiwi voice calmly describes the bloodbath that breaks out amongst the weatherboard baches, rural dairies, dusty antique stores and wharfside cafes.

It’s jarring, and extremely powerful – the scenes reminded me of everything I had ever read in the news about genocide, but perhaps the strongest association was Robert Sarkies’ 2006 film about the Aramoana massacre, “Out of the Blue”.

Luckily, the real horror was over within 70 pages. As Knox said on her blog, the bulk of the book is more about the 14 people who survived the massacre than the atrocity itself:

“I want to write about the narrow vale where you have to take your turn among others crying and trying not to cry while the valley fills with tears and won’t drain till we’ve all drowned and the great logjam of our bodies has dissolved and gone.”

Wake is not easy going, but it’s fascinating and authentic.