Monday, August 19, 2019

Craig Harrison (1): Broken October (1976)

Craig Harrison: Broken October (1976)

From the places with their docile English names, Huntly, Hamilton, Cambridge, he drove on, to Tirau, Putaruru, up into the central hills, the remoteness, where there were few names or places, and thought of a story he had once read called The Heart of Darkness: about how in some central African jungle the Europeans had come to exploit and destroy and had been in their turn destroyed. He still did not really believe in any abstract forces which lay in all this, waiting like that; but the land did have some power to make human beings seem futile, he saw this in the way the road was just a small mark on the face of the hills and the thick forest, a futile and weak gesture, and in a sense it was almost amusing to think of the precariousness of human control over everything: civilisation just a gesture on the edge: and in the center, still, the same heart of darkness.
- Craig Harrison: Broken October: 135.

When I first went to university, in 1980, I was intending to study history.

None of the papers available in first year really enthused me, though, so instead I drew up an eclectic assortment of courses designed to cover as many other options as possible. You were supposed to do 8 papers in your first year, and 7 in each of the successive years.

So far as I can recall, my 8 included two papers in Ancient History (Roman and Egyptian), two papers in Italian (an introduction to the language and the culture), two papers in English (Chaucer & Shakespeare and Twentieth Century Literature), a paper in Latin, and another paper in Anthropology.

English was not at the top of my list, but - somehow - it was what I ended up specialising in (my other majoring subject was Italian). Part of that was due to the fact that I really enjoyed the lectures and tutorials on modern literature.

I was a ridiculous little know-it-all, who'd already read most of the authors prescribed for us (Ulysses rather than Dubliners, all of Hardy's novels rather than just a few selections from his poetry, etc. etc.) I therefore expected my views to prevail in argument. They did not. Again and again I was forced to admit that even though I had wolfed down so many books, my interpretative skills were lamentably undeveloped.

Mervyn Thompson: All My Lives (1975)

The lectures that stick in my mind most of all were a couple of guest appearances by Mervyn Thompson, who talked to us about Craig Harrison's then-recent play Tomorrow Will Be a Lovely Day (1975). I had no idea who Mervyn was, and had the snobbish disdain for New Zealand writers common to those who'd spent too much time trying vainly to keep up with what was 'in' in Europe and America.

The theme of Mervyn's first lecture was the necessity for New Zealand writers to express their own realities, by using local themes and details of local life - and to stop relying on views from elsewhere. I found this an interesting view, but felt compelled to approach him afterwards to acquaint him with the somewhat contrasting attitudes of Jorge Luis Borges in his classic essay 'The Argentine Writer and Tradition' (1951).

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1984)

Borges advises his countrymen to eschew any self-conscious use of 'local colour'. Instead, he pontificates:
We should feel that our patrimony is the universe; we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine; for either being Argentine is an inescapable act of fate — and in that case we shall be so in all events — or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask.
My efforts to explain all this to Mervyn were not very successful, partially because another enthusiast from the audience also wanted to discuss the lecture with him at the same time. I suppose what remains with me from this rather farcical scene is the courtesy and kindness he showed in trying to speak to each of us without privileging one over the other.

The other exciting aspect of his lecture - there was a follow-up one the next week - was the inside information he included in his discussion of the play. 'In our production we did so-and-so,' he would say. 'Philip Sherry played the news reader at this point in the play ...'

This was heady stuff! The thought of actually meeting and hobnobbing with writers, being involved with them in their artistic endeavours was something quite alien to someone who'd grown up on books of anecdotes about Eliot, Joyce, Pound, Woolf and all the other modernist giants.

Mervyn Thompson: Coaltown Blues (1984)

Mervyn had his own strange destiny to work out still at that point. In 1984, the year of Coaltown Blues, he was abducted, stripped and tied to a tree with a 'Rapist' sign hung round his neck by a group of feminist protestors who were taking revenge for a student he had allegedly abused. Mervyn admitted the relationship, but claimed it had been concensual.

The bizarre details of his public shaming were borrowed from his friend Renee's play Setting the Table (1982), which he had originally assisted in workshopping. Talk about life imitating art! This was life doing so in the most deliberate fashion possible.

Some people would have submitted to the pressure to stay silent at this point. He was, after all, a lecturer at Auckland University, no friend as an institution - then or now - to loud controversies. Mervyn, however, chose to speak out, writing a long article about the event in the Listener.

What shocked me most about it, though, at the time - how naive of me! - was the fact that the Maidment Theatre almost immediately closed down his play. What happened to innocent until proven guilty, I wondered? No, the moment the flag went up, he became a non-person straight away.

Craig Harrison: Tomorrow Will Be a Lovely Day (1975)

But I've strayed a long way from Craig Harrison and his play. Harrison was then an English lecturer at Massey University, and was rising rapidly in the New Zealand literary scene. I met him years later, in 1991, when I was employed as a tutor down in Palmerston North.

I'd heard he was a bit stand-offish from some of the other teachers around the Department. I'd noticed myself that he never attended Departmental meetings - though given that most of these ended with strident confrontations between the touchier members of the staff, who seemed to make a point of running out of the room in extreme high dudgeon, a different candidate each week - I could see his point about that.

The bold approach usually works best on these occasions, I find. I came up to him in the staffroom while he was making a cup of tea, and said that I'd just finished reading his book Grievous Bodily, and how much I'd enjoyed it.

What was it Mark Twain said? The best way to an author's heart is to tell them you've just read their book. If you really want to seal the deal, tell them you've (bought and) read all of them!

We had a great old natter after that: about Grievous Bodily (almost cripplingly funny, I found it at the time), The Quiet Earth, and various other matters. He told me that he was determined never to publish another novel.

"Whyever not?" I asked.

"Because of the editors. I spent so much time arguing with them over this book that it took all the enjoyment out of it. They insisted I write the word 'biro pen' with a capital letter because it was originally named after its creator, László Bíró. I told them that everyone writes it with a small letter now. They wouldn't give in ..."

And, you know, it's true. He didn't put out another novel after that for another 25 years, not until that amusing YA romp The Dumpster Saga in 2007.

Craig Harrison: The Dumpster Saga (2007)

Robert Zemeckis, dir.: Back to the Future (1985)

Back to the Future. That's one way of putting it. Another phrase, devised by Frederick Pohl as the title of his autobiography, is - The Way The Future Was:

Frederick Pohl: The Way the Future Was (1978)

One of the problems with dystopian visions set in the near future is that they date so quickly. Harrison's play Tomorrow Will Be a Lovely Day was staged for the first time in 1975. It was quickly followed by his 'novelisation' of the script, Broken October, in 1976. That is, if that was the order they were written in - maybe the novel actually preceded the play?

The rapid decay from a smug, paternalist democracy to a police state rather akin to General Pinochet's Chile takes place - in Harrison's grim vision - over a few months of fictional time in the - then distant - year of 1985.

Anthony Burgess: 1985 (1978)

Not that there's anything neutral in that choice of dates. Just like Anthony Burgess a couple of years later, Harrison meant to link his bow-by-blow account of what just might happen in Aotearoa New Zealand if we allowed our already lamentable racial abuse and human rights record to decay any further to George Orwell's already classic masterpiece 1984:

George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

Nineteen Eighty-Four may, then and now, be considered a classic - but is it really particularly prescient? is that the true source of its appeal?

Clearly, when we finally reached that canonical year (some 35 years ago now), things were not precisely as described in Orwell's novel - though his Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania giant states did bear a strong resemblance to the triple power blocks of the USA, Russia, and emergent China.

Burgess's update is shabbier, more satirical, less starkly totalitarian. To be honest, it's a bit difficult to read now - time has not been kind to most of his late novels, only A Clockwork Orange and (perhaps) The Doctor is Sick retaining a bit of their counter-culture punch.

How, then, are we to read Harrison's own localised vision of the year after 1984? Most of what he foresaw didn't happen, of course. The election of a Labour Government in 1984 meant the end of ANZUS as a result of our new nuclear-free policy. The brutal economic warfare of the late 1980s chose a more bureaucratic and less direct way of grinding the people's face in the dust.

If one were to see it as one of (at least) three 1970s fictional visions of New Zealand in the near future: Broken October alongside C. K. Stead's Smith's Dream (1971) and M. K. Joseph's The Time of Achamoth (1976), it's definitely the gloomiest of the three.

Roger Donaldson, dir.: Sleeping Dogs (1977)

Smith's Dream, compellingly filmed as Sleeping Dogs (1977), has at least the advantage of an initial pastoral vision to put alongside the brutal repression of the new regime. There's a certain artistic advantage in having a single protagonist, too.

M. K. Joseph's innate conservatism made it hard for him to hit out unequivocally at the forces of 'order' in his own complex blended vision of a past constantly interfusing into (and interfering with) the present.

Alongside these two others, Harrison's novel reads rather like a work of popular history: What went wrong with the revolution? Come to think of it, it does have certain analogies with more recent events such as the Arab Spring. His two contrasting Maōri protagonists, Rangi Tamatea and Rewi Waitoa, never really come to life, any more than their respective pakeha girlfriends Helen the nurse and Anne the rich party girl.

His play, Tomorrow Will Be a Lovely Day, has, on the other hand, the advantage of conciseness - as well as a clever use of music and lighting to shift from place to place in the dreamtime of his imagination.

Scott Hamilton: Reading the Maps (August 2004- )

Scott Hamilton, in a 2007 blogpiece on the differences between the Stead's and Harrison's novels, characterises them as follows:
Smith's Dream is bleak, as dystopias tend to be, but it is also abstract, ahistorical, and somewhat mysterious - more like Kafka's The Castle than Nineteen Eighty-Four. The dictator’s politics are hardly fleshed out; nor are those of the resistance that Stead's anti-hero unhappily joins. Stead is interested in telling a parable about the imperfection of humanity and the near-inevitability of the abuse of political power, not in comprehending the specifics of Kiwi society.

Broken October, on the other hand, comes with an extended pre-history and a densely sociological present; it is a biggish novel stuffed with faux-newspaper reports and sardonic analyses of the policies of a US-backed military dictator and his trade unionist and Maori nationalist opponents. Stead's book could have been set anywhere, and written anytime in the twentieth century; Harrison's book could only have been written in New Zealand in the 1970s, a time when a strike wave, paranoia about communism, rising racial tension, and a nosediving economy were playing havoc with cosy myths about 'God's own country'.
Back to the future - again. I guess the reason that Stead's novel impacted so much more on popular consciousness is mainly because of those scenes in the film where faceless cops with batons beat the shit out of unarmed demonstrators. "When the Red Squad charged the anti-tour protestors in 1981, people said: 'It's just like Sleeping Dogs,'" said Sam Neill in his account of the film in his 1995 documentary Cinema of Unease.

Scott certainly has a point is in stressing Harrison's prescience in linking this political turmoil directly with race:
Warren Montag has argued that, in treating Heart of Darkness as an allegory for the human condition - that is, an abstract, ahistorical novel - literary canon-builders effectively diverted attention from Conrad’s expose of the horrors of colonialism in nineteenth century Africa. I think that some of the same tendency is at work when literary critics and historians choose Smith’s Dream over Broken October. Harrison is asking us to examine truths about Kiwi society which are concrete and uncomfortable. Stead lets us cop out by sermonising about a universal will to dictatorship. ('Nothing to do with the Maoris, mate, see.')
'No politics in sport,' said the establishment spokespeople all through the closest thing New Zealand came to a civil war in 50 years - since the 1951 watersiders strike, in fact - the Springbok tour protests of 1981.

But, once again, it was all about race. Harrison, an outsider to the country, saw that obvious point at once, and has used it as the central vehicle for virtually all of his writing from this distant frontier. Stead's novel is, finally, a far more human piece of work than Harrison's, but its attempts to assert an apolitical common ground between the warring parties - seen most clearly, perhaps, in the famous closing vignette of the sunbathing girl - soon ceased to satisfy even himself. He rewrote that ending for the second edition, and it was rewritten again for Roger Donaldson's film.

Books that lose all interest once their topicality is past can never have been particularly good books in the first place. In fact, it's one of the few criteria we can apply to that perennial question: What actually makes a book good? What makes it worth reading?

Smith's Dream and Broken October are both still worth reading, imho. The first may be a better novel in terms of construction and plot, but the second certainly offers a richer and more nuanced vision of what was then the future - now, I suppose, an alternate timeline. Both, I think it's fair to say, played some small share in preventing the futures they foresaw from happening quite as described.

As I watch the land protests at Ihumātao, so reminiscent of Bastion Point in 1977 - the year after Harrison's novel appeared - the kind of dispute we were told need never happen again in the era of the Waitangi Tribunal, set up specifically to prevent such abuses from remaining unaddressed, I find myself wondering just how far we actually have got.

Walter Benjamin's Angel of History keeps on being swept backwards into the future, lamenting - but powerless to alter - the catastrophes happening in front of its face.

Walter Benjamin: The Angel of History (1920)

Craig Harrison

Craig Harrison

Select Bibliography:


  1. How to be a Pom. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 1975.

  2. Broken October: New Zealand 1985. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1976.

  3. The Quiet Earth. Auckland: Hodder and Stoughton, 1981.

  4. The Quiet Earth. 1981. Introduction by Bernard Beckett. Text Classics. Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2013.

  5. Ground Level. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 1981.

  6. Days of Starlight. Auckland: Hodder and Stoughton, 1988.

  7. Grievous Bodily. Auckland: Penguin, 1991.

  8. The Essence of Art: Victorian Advice on the Practice of Painting. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 1999.

  9. The Dumpster Saga. Auckland: Scholastic New Zealand Limited, 2007.

  10. Plays:

  11. Ground Level. Wellington: Radio NZ, 1974.

  12. The Whites of their Eyes. Wellington: Radio NZ, 1974.

  13. Tomorrow Will Be a Lovely Day. Reed Drama Series. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1975.

  14. Joe and Koro. Wellington: NZBC, 1976-77.

  15. The Quiet Earth. 1986.

  16. White Lies. Auckland: New House, 1994.

  17. Screen Adaptations:

  18. The Quiet Earth, dir. Geoff Murphy, writ. Bill Baer, Bruno Lawrence, Sam Pillsbury (based on the novel by Craig Harrison) – with Bruno Lawrence, Alison Routledge, Pete Smith – (NZ, 1985).

  19. Homepages & Online Information:

  20. NZ Book council profile

  21. NZ on screen profile

  22. Wikipedia entry

Thursday, August 01, 2019

My new book Ghost Stories is available today:

Cover image: Graham Fletcher (by courtesy of the artist) /
Cover design: Daniela Gast (2019)

The official publication date for my new collection of short fiction, Ghost Stories, was yesterday, 31st July 2019.

It's been a great pleasure to work on it with the team at Lasavia Publishing on Waiheke Island: editor Rowan Sylva, designer Daniela Gast, publisher Mike Johnson, as well as the other members of the collective. I also owe a big thank you to Graham Fletcher for the use of his cover image, and (as always) to my lovely wife Bronwyn for invaluable advice at every stage of the process. Thanks, too, to Tracey Slaughter for the use of that blurb quote.

So how do you obtain a copy of the book? That is, after all, the $64,000 question. If you wish to order one online, it's available from any of the following websites:
RRP: $US 15.00 (+ postage)
RRP: £UK 12.28 (+ postage)

Book Depository
RRP: $NZ 29.44 (free postage)

Wheelers Books
RRP: $NZ 49.50
As usual, the Book Depository seems to offer the best deal, but remember that copies can also be purchased at a discounted rate, $20, at the Waiheke Market, or (for that matter) directly from Lasavia Publishing:
Lasavia Publishing
37 Crescent Rd West
Waiheke Island
Auckland 1081
Lasavia Publishing: Editorial

RRP: $NZ 20.00 (+ postage)
We're planning a big launch party later in the year, which I'll describe in detail here on the blog once all the arrangements are finalised, so - if you prefer - you could wait until then. But I know what eager beavers some of you readers can be!

So what exactly is the book about? The easiest thing might just be to quote from the blurb:
David Foster Wallace once wrote that 'every love story is a ghost story.' Not all of the stories in Jack Ross’s new collection are about love, but certainly all of them concern ghosts – imaginary, real, or entirely absent. As it turns out, there are even stranger things in the world: from haunted hotel rooms in Beijing to drunken poetry readings on Auckland’s North Shore. Or perhaps, as the Mayan prophets foresaw, the world really did end on the 21st December, 2012, and 'all bets are off, all the rules have changed, and – new Adams, new Eves – we have to find the courage somehow to start naming the strange new things we see.'

'There’s no one in New Zealand literature exploring the dark ways of narrative with the alchemical touch of Jack Ross, and his gift of spinning tales which jump "from track to track on the time-space continuum" never fails to leave me exhilarated, in outright awe'.
- Tracey Slaughter

Jack Ross works as a senior lecturer in creative writing at Massey University. He is the author of five poetry collections, four novels and three books of short fiction. His novel The Annotated Tree Worship was highly commended in the 2018 NZ Heritage Book Awards. He has also edited numerous books, anthologies, and literary journals, including brief, Landfall, and Poetry New Zealand. He blogs at

And here's a - slightly more informative - abstract I composed to send to my masters at Massey University, who insist on full details of every publication by their staff:
This is a set of ten short stories, with two essays: 'The Classic New Zealand Ghost Story,' an introduction to the collection as a whole; and 'Kipling and the Cross-Correspondences,' an account of the alleged attempts at communication from the other side by various dead members of the Society for Psychical Research in the early years of last century. The stories, too, are grouped around the common theme of ghosts and ghost stories, but in some rather unexpected ways. Two ('The Scam' and 'The Cross-Correspondences') are set in China, but most are explorations of the haunted landscapes of the New Zealand's North Island, from Featherston and Eketahuna to Raglan and Auckland. All of them (with the exception of 'Paragraphs') have been previously published in periodicals or online.

Now those of you obsessed (as I am) by numerology, might well have noticed an ominous feature of that list of publications in the blurb above. My breakdown of books now stands at:
5 poetry books
4 novels
3 short story collections
+ 1 stand-alone novella
= 13 in total
Yes, this is indeed my number thirteen!

All I can say is that nearly as many traditions see thirteen as a lucky number as fear it for being unlucky.

Mind you, I could fudge the count a bit if I wished. I could count my novel The Annotated Tree Worship as two books rather than one, given it appeared in two separate volumes. But they are intended as interlinked novellas, and were never really meant to be read independently.

There's also the fact that I've published 16 chapbooks at one time or another. That would bring up the total to an innocuous 29!

And then there are the various books and anthologies I've edited (15 in all, it would appear). That would bring us up to 44.

But these expedients would really just be cheating. So far as I'm concerned, I've now written 13 books, so I've taken some care to make the thirteenth as appropriate as possible. It is, after all, an exploration of the paranormal, the supernatural, as it manifests (for the most part) in some of the gloomier parts of New Zealand ...

I hope it's enjoyable. I know not everyone shares my fascination with such matters, but a great many people do. And I would argue that most of these stories can be read in a variety of ways: as actual 'ghost stories' being just one of them.

Here's a list of the contents:
The Classic New Zealand Ghost Story

The Scam
Leaves from a Diary of the End of the World
Is it Infrareal or is it Memorex?
General Grant in Paeroa

The Cross-Correspondences
Kipling and the Cross-Correspondences

And here's a list of my 13 books to date:

  1. City of Strange Brunettes. ISBN 0-473-05446-9 (Auckland: Pohutukawa Press, 1998) [poetry book 1]
  2. Nights with Giordano Bruno. ISBN 0-9582225-0-9 (Wellington: Bumper Books, 2000) [novel 1]
  3. Chantal’s Book. ISBN 0-473-08744-8 (Wellington: HeadworX, 2002) [poetry book 2]
  4. Monkey Miss Her Now & Everything a Teenage Girl Should Know. ISBN 0-476-00182-X (Auckland: Danger Publishing, 2004) [short story collection 1]
  5. Trouble in Mind. Titus Novella Series. ISBN 0-9582586-1-9 (Auckland: Titus Books, 2005) [novella]
  6. The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis. ISBN 0-9582586-8-6 (Auckland: Titus Books, 2006) [novel 2]
  7. To Terezín: A Travelogue. Afterword by Martin Edmond. Social and Cultural Studies, 8. ISSN 1175-7132 (Auckland: Massey University, 2007) [poetry book 3]
  8. EMO. ISBN 978-1-877441-07-3 (Auckland: Titus Books, 2008) [novel 3]
  9. Kingdom of Alt. ISBN 978-1-877441-15-8 (Auckland: Titus Books, 2010) [short story collection 2]
  10. Celanie: Poems & Drawings after Paul Celan. by Jack Ross & Emma Smith, with an Afterword by Bronwyn Lloyd. ISBN 978-0-473-22484-4 (Auckland: Pania Press, 2012) [poetry book 4]
  11. A Clearer View of the Hinterland: Poems & Sequences 1981-2014. ISBN 978-0-473-29640-7 (Wellington: HeadworX, 2014) [poetry book 5]
  12. The Annotated Tree Worship (Auckland: Paper Table, 2017) [novel 4]
    • Draft Research Portfolio. ISBN 978-0-473-41328-6. Paper Table Novellas, 2 (i).
    • List of Topoi. ISBN 978-0-473-41329-3. Paper Table Novellas, 2 (ii).
  13. Ghost Stories. ISBN 978-0-9951165-5-9. 99% Press (Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2019) [short story collection 3]

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Islomanes (3): Elizabeth Knox's Mortal Fire

Elizabeth Knox: Mortal Fire (2013)

People often accuse me of taking a perverse angle on the texts I write about. I recall composing an essay on Angela Carter's wonderful novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman which was devoted almost entirely to the question of whether or not the book was set in South America.

This essay (eventually) formed part of my Doctoral thesis, and I recall my supervisor, Colin Manlove, saying two things in response to it:
  1. What a wonderful book!
  2. What a bizarre and reductionist approach to take to it!
In a sense I agreed with him, but given the thesis was about the various imaginative spins European writers had put on their own pet images of an increasingly imaginary continent they called 'South America,' the emphasis did seem an inevitable one. And it did allow me, contextually, to say a lot of other things about the novel as well.

Elizabeth Knox: Black Oxen (2001)

Elizabeth Knox has already written her own Latin American epos, Black Oxen. In this post, though, I'll be continuing my reflections on Southland, her close-cousin-to-New-Zealand, albeit in a parallel time-line, mainly because she wrote another book set there, Mortal Fire, a few years after completing the Dreamhunter Duet.

I began my previous post on the subject with a quote, as follows:
Southland is a landmass without a native people, so there are not songs or legends for us to consult.
This statement is not so much contradicted, as supplemented, towards the end of this new excursion to Southland, Mortal Fire:
'University isn't for us, eh.'
Jonno said ... 'If I get the job I'll be the first person from my family to go north in five hundred years.'
Jonno's 'five hundred years' made Canny forgive his 'not for us' remark. 'I love it that you can say that,' she said.
'You know, we all read your brother's book.'
'Your family?'
'Nope. All of us.'
He meant the Faesu, the people of the archipelago, Southland's first people, who had twice settled, and twice abandoned, the mainland. [412]
The 'book' mentioned here is by Canny's brother Sholto - a restatement of his undergraduate essay about Southland, which I quote from further down. For the moment, though, let's just look at Knox's map of that 'mainland' again:

Elizabeth Knox: Southland (2013)

It seems, then, that Southland did once have an indigenous race, who 'twice settled, and twice abandoned' their lands. Why, one is tempted to ask? To clear them for white settlement?

Quite a few new parts of Southland's history are filled in in this new book, in various not too unsubtle versions of the old 'So tell me Professor, what did happen in the ...?' 'Well, my boy, I'm glad you asked me that. It was in the early -- hundreds that ...' trope so beloved of genre novelists generally.

Here's one example:
Ghislain took a breath and began: 'The Zarenes were one of the five Elprun families who ended their long wandering in Southland. The island of Elprus was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in - do you know this?'
'And the people of Elprus arrived in Southland?'
'1730. I'm good at dates. Sholto is always telling me snootily that history isn't all dates.'
'No, it's currants and raisins too.' [270]
Mortal Fire is yet another of Knox's magical tales, based on yet another of the five Elprun families who caused all the trouble in Dreamhunter. Then it was the Haims; this time it's the Zarenes. The common feature in their magic, though, is the fact that it all stems in one way or another from the powerful supernatural forces unleashed by the raising of Lazarus in the New Testament.

Christ's raising of Lazarus (12th-13th century CE)

I was actually asked to review Knox's book when it first came out, in 2013. It was frustrating to have so little space to discuss it, so I had to content myself with a few generalities on that occasion, but I do hope that I was able to make it clear just how much I admired the skill with which she managed her narrative, as well-populated with ideas as it was with people:
There was a time when I used to wait eagerly for each new Young Adult novel by Margaret Mahy. Starting with The Haunting in 1982, she had an extraordinary run of success in this very exigent genre. Come to think of it, there was a time before that when I used to read Maurice Gee’s Halfmen of O series with something of the same feelings of fascination and awe.

I don’t know what Elizabeth Knox’s future plans include (perhaps she doesn’t either), but I have to say that I would be very sorry indeed if she stopped publishing teenage fantasy novels such as Mortal Fire (and its predecessors, the Dreamhunter Duet, also set in her imaginary republic of Southland). I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that her books are every bit as good as Mahy’s and Gee’s, but with an extra edge and sophistication belonging solely to her.

That’s not to say that Mortal Fire is easy to read. In fact, there were moments in the first couple of chapters where I found it quite hard to assimilate the sheer weight of information she throws at her reader. Once the story really gets going, though, with Canny Mochrie and her step-brother Sholto’s arrival in the Zarene valley, any such obstacles melt away. This is not a book which could ever be exhausted on one run-through, though.

For myself, I like a bit of a tussle with ethical responsibilities in the dreamworlds of fantasy, and Mortal Fire does not disappoint in this respect. It’s hard to imagine any other New Zealand writer so adroitly mixing a plotline based on the Pike River Mine disaster into the rest of her narrative (though I suppose one might have anticipated it from her use of the Cave Creek disaster in her previous adult fantasy novel Daylight).

Southland is a useful palimpsest for Knox: a new land which can be overlaid with just enough of the actual history of New Zealand to make it relevant to the specific aspects of our culture she wants to examine, but which is also “fictional” enough to combine them with the powerful symbolic realms of magic which interest her just as much.

She does, after all, at the end of the day, have the central duty of constructing an interesting story. And this one adds race and class prejudice to the starker issues of crime and punishment from the Dreamhunter Duet. It’s worth emphasising, though, that this novel can be read and enjoyed without any knowledge of the earlier books. It is, after all, set fifty years after the events in those stories, referred to only in passing towards the end of Mortal Fire.
- Jack Ross: "Wearing their ethics on their sleeves." NZ Books: A Quarterly Review vol. 23, no. 3, issue 103 (Spring 2013): 16-17.

NZ Books 103 (Spring 2013)

I'm sorry that it's taken me this long to get round to saying some more about that 'useful palimpsest' - Knox's choice of:
a new land which can be overlaid with just enough of the actual history of New Zealand to make it relevant to the specific aspects of our culture she wants to examine, but which is also 'fictional' enough to combine them with the powerful symbolic realms of magic which interest her just as much.
One advantage of the wait, however, is that she's now made her own statement about the novel, on her author's website, which is also where I borrowed the map of Southland (above) from:

Grant Maiden: Elizabeth Knox

David Larsen, interviewing me for The Listener, wanted to know why I’d set the book in 1959. It’s a big decision with a huge input into the flavour of the book, but it was one I came to kind of expediently – although very happily. I’d decided one of the defining characteristics of my protagonist, Canny, was that she had a mother who was a heroine. And that Sisema was the kind of heroine who becomes more celebrated as time goes on, because her story is one that her Nation’s identity is forming around. I decided that this would work best if Sisema was a war hero. That immediately led me to World War Two and a Pacific island occupied by Japan. I’m not going to tell Sisema’s war story here, but this decision gave me a possible date for Canny’s birth. I wanted to write about a sixteen-year-old, and my addition gave me the year 1959. To my amused exasperation one mostly very positive review on Goodreads worries that Canny sounds “young for her age compared to US teenagers I know”. Perhaps – the reviewer writes – that’s because she comes from this New Zealand-like place and maybe teens grow up slower there. And I’m reading this and going like, “Um – it’s 1959.”

Beekeeping. I wanted to set my story in a pastoral paradise. The Zarene Valley is kind of based on valleys now beneath Lake Dunstan. Those now-drowned valleys circa 1981, when I was down there with my sister and some friends (touring about in a 1957 Plymouth station wagon). Back then there were no vineyards, and more kiwi holidaymakers than tourists. 1981 is pretty much equidistant from 1959 and 2013, but it was more like 1959. Also I felt that I was in some ways writing the book for my editor, Frances Foster. I was thinking of her as a first reader. And I remembered how, when I met Frances at the Disney Convention Centre in 2008, when I was there for the American Library Association Conference, she told me about being a child visiting her grandparents’ farm in Anaheim, back before Disneyland bought up all the land. I remember her description of the pastoral paradise now under the theme park and hotels and highways. So – old Anaheim, and the apricot orchards under Lake Dunstan, are what made the Zarene Valley.
- Elizabeth Knox: "Letting in the Ghosts: Why certain things are in Mortal Fire." Elizabeth Knox: Author's Website (c. June 2013)

Lake Dunstan (2018)

I think that I might have guessed that detail about the lost orchards around Cromwell, along with that still contentious dam on the Clutha river, but for the most part I'm struck by how sedulously she sticks to personal details, and how little she gives away about the larger questions behind the novel ...

Why, for instance, has Southland now been supplied with a native race, and even an island protectorates off in the Pacific?
Cyrus said to Sholto, 'But she's not your sister, is she?'
'She's my stepsister.'
Canny's mother is Sisema Afa,' Susan said. 'The war hero.'
'So she's not a Southlander?'
The young man looked irritated. 'The Shackles are a protectorate of Southland.'
Cyrus thought, 'Any minute now he'll accuse me of bigotry.'
'Shackle islanders have citizenship,' Sholto went on, then added, 'whether you like it or not.'
Cyrus laughed. 'I didn't mean any offense. I was only curious. I hope my amateur curiosity is acceptable to you, as opposed to your professional one.' [213]

Margaret Mahy: Kaitangata Twitch (2005)

It's interesting, too, that Knox should choose to employ a brown-skinned rather than a white-skinned heroine this time - a little like the TV producers of Margaret Mahy's Kaitangata Twist, who changed its originally white heroine for a Māori Meredith instead.

Margaret Mahy: Kaitangata Twitch (2010)

That may sound like mere tokenism, but I have to say that the substitution immediately made better sense of Mahy's story - and it's now hard to imagine the narrative any other way. The TV Meredith's motivation is far easier to understand than that of her novelistic counterpart.

Is the same true of Knox's narrative? It's hard to say. I do feel that she must have feared some co-option of her stories by 'Celtic New Zealand' fanatics if she didn't acknowledge this gap in the first two novels - so seized the opportunity to elaborate creatively on the larger Oceanic context of her imaginary island in this way. After all, any version of New Zealand without Māori is a little difficult to justify ...
'Yes,' Sholto said. He knew that the [Lazuli] dam was first planned in the mid-1920s. If it had been built it would have flooded the Zarene Valley and drowned all the orchards. The plans were shelved after the stock market crash, resurrected in 1938, and shelved again when Southland went to war in 1941. [179]
Why, too, did Southland go to war in 1941 rather than in 1939? The rest of the dates here sound reasonably compatible with those in our own 'real' world. Presumably it must have been because Southland is a republic, not a monarchy, and therefore affiliates more naturally with the United States than the United Kingdom.
Calvary was the only sizable town on the Shackle Island chain ... The Shackle Islands produced sugar and, lately, copper. The islands were peopled by their original inhabitants, the Ma'eu; by the descendants of cane cutters brought to the island by blackbirders in the late eighteenth century; and by the descendants of colonial settlers, most of whom had originally come from Southland. [49]
The Pacific paradise of the Shackle Islands has experienced far less of a 'fatal impact' than the real Polynesian islands on which it's presumably based, but I suppose the essence of a parallel time-stream is that you can alter the dates of events, and thus alter their consequences.

Elizabeth Knox: Dreamhunter (2005)

Perhaps the most vital change is expressed by Canny's would-be-historian brother Sholto, in his own overarching theory of Southland:
'He was a dreamhunter!' said Sholto.
'Ranger,' said the barber. 'He was making photographic landmark maps for the Dream Regulatory Body.'
The silence of loss came into the room.
As an undergraduate Sholto had once tried to write an essay about this. The Professor said that it was very interesting, but was Sholto trying to invent a new kind of history? One without historical references and facts? Sholto's essay argued something like this: Southland was a big country, with a population that was sufficiently large but not too large; with industry and a wealth of minerals, with scientifically developed agriculture, good roads, and rail, three deepwater harbors, some fine universities - so why wasn't it more of a player on the world stage? Sholto's answer to his essay's question was that Southlanders were in a sense a sad and defeated people. They were people who had once lived in a beautiful house, which had burned down ... Southlanders had had something irreplaceable - the Place, a mysterious territory where some could go and catch dreams that they could perform for others - they had that miraculous thing, and they lost it.

Am I wrong to hear in this thesis of Sholto's about the 'silence of loss' in Southland culture a distant echo of such portentous 'whither Aotearoa?' essays as Monte Holcroft's The Waiting Hills (1943) or even, perhaps more plausibly, Bill Pearson's classic 'Fretful Sleepers' (1952)?

Paul Millar: No Fretful Sleeper (2010)

Some sense of isolation is inevitable, some detachment and discrimination, but that is the occupational hazard of every artists and especially of the novelist who must always be, so long as there are conflicts within his society, something of a spy in enemy territory. The thing to avoid is developing one’s isolation because that way lies desiccation, etiolation, clique-writing that will get yellow in manuscript and deserve to. Emigration is no solution, even for the novelist or dramatist to whom ideas are more important than sense-impressions. There is stimulation at first, a sense of expansion – but in England the artist’s loneliness that we have known longer is beginning to be felt, and publishing, because of rearmament and American stockpiling of paper, is getting costly and difficult, and liberties of thought are slipping away too. But after the stimulation you will dry up: you can neither feel completely at home in your adopted country, not enough to write deeply of it, nor can you write of your own country except through a mist of nostalgia and unappeased resentments. We New Zealanders have far less in common with the English middle classes than we may think and at best they will patronize us and emasculate us. We could no more lose our national habits if we were to try, than we could, if we wanted to, disguise our kiwi twang. Our accent stands out a mile and the time will come when so does the accent of our literature, but not before we have a social system that makes possible the meaningful liberation of the talents and energies of the common people. Until then there is hard work to be done, there are quiet mortifications to be suffered, humiliations and misunderstandings to be put up with, and yet one will meet a lot of cheerfulness to ease the effort.

Bill Pearson: Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays (1974)

We're doomed to be Kiwis, in other words - so we'd better get used to it, and try to do a good job.

To conclude, then, what is Elizabeth Knox's 'Southland' trilogy really about? Many things, certainly - state oppression; the responsibilities underlying fantasy, the free flow of the imagination; class; families, magic; bees; ice-cream ... There are lovely evocations of her mirror versions of actual New Zealand cities - Castlereagh / Wellington, for instance:
Castlereagh was all hills, ridges around the harbor, and steep-sided valleys where the desirable houses were built up high to catch either the morning or the afternoon sun. Much of the inner city dated from the time when cars were rare, so roads were narrow and steep and many lacked footpaths. Instead there were dozens of ... official and unofficial shortcuts, steps and paths, some with safety rails, some without. The citizens of Castlereagh had strong hearts and big calf muscles. [34]
Predictably, Founderston / Auckland is rather further from the reality of our own garish Big Smoke.

Unlike Elizabeth Knox, Austin Tappan Wright did not live to write any sequels to his own vision of Islandia in the mid-1900s. This deficiency was partially made up for, however, by the editor of his novel, Mark Saxton:
There are also three sequels/prequels ... Reviewers describe these books as entertaining and self-contained. The prequels concern events that are mentioned briefly in the original novel, and are likely based on Wright's unpublished notes. All three books were published with the permission of Wright's estate. Sylvia Wright, Wright's daughter and the executrix of the estate, died shortly before the third Saxton book was completed, and there have been no additional books since.
  • The Islar, Islandia Today - A Narrative of Lang III. Published in 1969, this book is set in the then-present day. The plot concerns a coup attempt in Islandia that occurs while the national government is debating whether to join the United Nations. The protagonist, as indicated in the title, is John Lang's grandson.
  • The Two Kingdoms, published in 1979, is a prequel set in the 14th century. The plot concerns the events surrounding the reign of the only female ruler in Islandian history, and the dynastic change that ensued from this.
  • Havoc in Islandia, published in 1982, is yet another prequel, set in the 12th century. The Roman Catholic Church attempts to overthrow the government of Islandia, and, having failed, is itself expelled from the country (parallel to the expulsion of Christians from Japan).

Athanasius Kircher: Mundus Subterraneus (1669))

It must be very difficult to leave behind any imaginary kingdom so fully formed as these two are (as Plato must have discovered, when he kept on returning to his original inspiration in the successive, not really fully consistent, dialogues Timaeus, Critias and the unfinished Hermocrates).

J. R. R Tolkien, too, at one point in his unending struggles with the unfinished (unfinishable?) Silmarilion, started to draft a sequel to the Lord of the Rings where the rebellious youth of Gondor had developed a fashion of dressing up as Orcs and fetishising the vanished Dark Lord, rather like the skinheads and Neo-Nazis of his own time.

Elizabeth Knox: The Absolute Book (2019)

I haven't been privileged (this time) to see an advance copy of Knox's new novel, The Absolute Book, due out from VUP in September this year, but judging from the blurb description of it as:
a book of journeys and returns, set in London, Norfolk, and the Wye Valley; in Auckland, New Zealand; in the Island of Apples and Summer Road of the Sidhe; at Hell’s Gate; in the Tacit with its tombs; and in the hospitals and train stations of Purgatory.
it's pretty safe to say that she's managed to break free of her own island paradise - for now, at least - though possibly at the expense of an even more perilous sojourn in the Forbidden Realms of Faerie.