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The human element

Wake by Elizabeth Knox (Victoria University Press, $35)
Reviewed by Patrick Kenzie

WAKE_F__21284.1376861569.220.220Wake will change the way you look at small towns forever.

Elizabeth Knox’s horror story weaves several approaches to the genre into its narrative, all set in and around the fictional town of Kahukura. In the course of one bloody afternoon, normality disappears in a wave of madness and death. In the middle of it all are a small-town cop and 13 other survivors who, for one reason or another, are immune from whatever is causing the insanity around them.

The first 70 pages describe some of the most shocking scenes I’ve read in any novel, and one sequence in particular stands out as particularly brutal. While the initial carnage is astonishing in its harshness, the rest of the book evolves into a very different kind of horror story. The survivors have to learn to live with each other and try to hold out hope for the future despite being hopelessly alone, locked in with a madness monster that would give H.P Lovecraft nightmares. As the back cover of Wake says: “With an invisible monster you never know when you’re in danger and when you’re safe – if you retreat to your fortress you can’t be sure you haven’t locked it in with you”.

There’s far more going in Wake than a simple monster tale, though, and the way Knox manages to weave the human element into her story is nothing short of remarkable. It’s not always an easy story to read, even after the hordes of the mad are gone. A palpable feel of dread infuses every scene, especially since it becomes very clear that no character is safe.

It’s this more human story that elevates Wake and takes it to places that don’t crop up in most horror tales. The quieter moments are just as interesting as the frenetic violence at the start, and it builds to a conclusion that is far from obvious, but seems inevitable once all the pieces fit together. The characters are all believable as real people, and it feels like they have real lives to get back to if they make it through the destruction of Kahukura. This means that every death has a real impact on the reader, even early on in the book, as almost everyone who dies is someone you might meet on a road trip through the South Island.

Wake is beautifully written, and Knox’s prose makes it easy reading even when the violence is hard to stomach. It’s a smart, insightful horror novel that stays true to itself from the first page to the satisfying ending. While it can be brutal, there is never violence just for the sake of violence. If you’re in the mood for a smart and sometimes introspective horror novel then I can’t recommend this book enough.