Elizabeth Knox

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Where Wake Came From


 As a blogger’s introduction to Wake I’ve decided to transcribe what I wrote in my journal some months into my writing the novel. I had returned to it after a break, finally seeing what it was doing and what it might be for.

I have used letters or a long dash to replace some names that naturally appear in full in the journal. I’ve fixed my spelling but have left the language as headlong as it tends to be. ‘Duncan’ is my husband’s brother Duncan Barrowman, who was deliberately hit by a truck in Rarotonga in May 2009 and died some hours later, leaving behind a wife and four children. The man driving the truck was convicted of manslaughter. My mother was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in June 2009. She died in January 2012. There was more in the journal about the biographical ‘madness’ connections, but I left it out because it all needs a fuller context. 




From my journal. 14 September 2009 

I’m writing something new that feels by turns completely unfitted to my talents and like going west in a plane, chasing daylight, when the light stays ahead and the night is a dark river you’re rocking along in. The new thing is a horror novel based on a story from the game – naturally – a plot I explored twice, with M and then later with Sara. M and I did a version years back, the late ’90s, 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. Our version had an insidious monster and a desert town and apparently straight roads that magically doubled back on themselves so that one character, a road-racing cyclist, didn’t have to think about turning at the town’s limit, but could just peddle on in the trance of his obsessive exercise regimen, except when waylaid by the whirlwind dust devil monster. I remember the whirlwind was only a symptom. I don’t remember a whirlwind in the film. I think there was a big black cloud full of lightning which Peter O’Toole shouted at it like King Lear.

In the journal there follows a plot summary with several spoilers for Wake. I left that stuff out. Though, reading it, I was interested to see just how much of my very first version of the story I had used in the novel, especially how the trapping device worked (I had a ‘barrier’ in early versions of Wake, but reverted to the first game’s ‘inertial field’ without remembering that this was what we’d done!)

After the omitted spoilers the journal goes on:

… sometime later – 2000, I think – I floated the basic plot in front of Sara when we were holidaying at Hukawopa on Tata Beach and were trying to come up with a senario. Sara didn’t feel like deserts, so we set our version of the story in a small coastal settlement, somewhere in California. One character was a fisherman, another a police officer, another a mysterious reclusive man in black. Someone else was a crim in the Witness Protection Program, and another person appeared to suffer from Multiple Personality Disorder. The survivors all holed up in the local spa. Anyway, a lot of this is useful to this novel. But the novel’s coastal town is NZ, the fisherman is Maori, the sportsman is a sportswoman, there are no mafiosi, or men that stare at goats. It’s a science fiction story but it starts as horror because I just sat down one afternoon in the chair in the corner of my bedroom and began writing scenes of mayhem because, for a start, I wanted to see if I could scare people. Then I kept on with it despite worrying that it was too genre, and a bad fit for me, because I discovered that writing it was a way to explore the experience of people in a catastrophe and because I feel like I’m in one.  — has been sliding into craziness for years, but suddenly it’s acute and Mum’s desperation about it even more so. Duncan was killed, and now Mum has this horrible disease. I’m not in my Mum journal so I’m not going to go into detail. Which is nuts. Why am I trying to be tidy-minded about my feelings? I’m writing horror because I’m horrified, and blackness is pouring out onto the page – horror and doubt, about how to think, what to do, how to help. Horror and doubt and hopelessness, but not despair. Because life may be a vale of tears and I’m trying to get some of that down, to one side of my own biography, but informed by it. But if life is a vale of tears, people are mostly good at heart (as Anne Frank said). My people in this story have to to try to keep doing their best (as I am and Fergus is.) When Hurricane Katrina happened there were hundreds more folks with boats rescuing people off the roofs of drowned houses than there ever were looters. So this book has a catastrophe, but it’s also about the struggle to stay useful and good, and what’s encouraging in that. And my catastrophe is made up because I don’t like books that get their dignity by being about real, terrible historical events – ‘catastrophe porn’ books about the vast engulfing human-engineered horrors of history – the holocaust, other historical massacres and atrocities (books not written by survivours or their children, people who lived daily with what happened) books that that get taken seriously even when they’re quite glib – the evil humans do discussed with big noises and gestures. I guess maybe I’m more interested in trying to talk about the evil people endure (old age, illness, failure, and casual and scarcely meant violence, like that of the guy who killed Duncan). 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.

The novel is also meant to be a kind of desert island story. Something between Then There Were None and every other desert island story. So, a book about being trapped with mystery and malevolence, and trying to get by, and get on. A story with the pleasure of problem solving, about ingenuity and work, about morale and social cohesion, and about loss and futility. This, from my mum journal: Futility isn’t only our fears about the future, it also makes itself felt retrospectively – it’s seeing how futile our past hopes were.

Why a monster instead of human evil? It’s not exactly the case that I decided not to think about the evil people do. I was thinking about it, but each word separately as well as in concert. The man who killed Duncan did so impulsively, spitefully and, in the end, impersonally. Impersonally because he simply aimed his truck at one person in a group of people after having argued with others in the group. Duncan hadn’t spoken to the man, or even been awake during the argument. So the ‘doing’ part of the evil people do was on my mind – the question of volition, a terrible thing carelessly done, malice directed nowhere special, just somewhere, and the disaster of that. I was thinking about people who make others suffer without having any sense of who it is who suffers – no imagined antagonist against whom they have even a feebly motivated or wrongheaded grievance. The act is empty, but the consequences full.

I was also thinking about the spectacle of madness. About the slide into madness through small distortions in perception, small unconquerable anxieties. A gradual slip into resentful and self-congratulatory isolation. I was thinking about how people lose themselves – that is, they lose themselves in proper relation to others – that kind of madness. Like always hearing slights in others’ addresses to us. Or that stoned sense of losing track of something fundamental, like how many people are in the room with us when the doors are closed and haven’t opened to admit anyone new. That business of setting the table for one person too many (I remember doing that, and feeling sad every time I did after our cousin Steph who lived with us for a year when I was about 14, had gone elsewhere). Remembering someone missing. Conjuring someone who should be there, who might be there, and isn’t (or is, but isn’t recognisable). Or that business of looking into a mirror and suddenly seeing signs of illness, of turning an ear to your own body and hearing some kind of internal cellular conspiracy. The small things that get on top of people and, cumulatively, hammer them into the ground.

* The 1983 novel the 1998 film was based on is Dean Koontz’s Phantoms.  Stephen King has said Phantoms was one inspiration for The Dome. (Another was The Simpsons movie). This is all part of the great cross-pollination of horror. I’m going to write about that in a piece I’m doing for the Book Council of NZ’s magazine, Booknotes, which I’ll post here once it has done its dash in print.




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