I wanted to learn something, and felt that this might be my only opportunity in an age of noise, distractions, proscribed imagination and inattention, an age where as an intelligent, educated person I was only sufficiently powerful. This — house, storm, closed road — was my element. Out in the world I was at ease. But here I was alive, surrounded by a warm crowd of ideas and possibilities, knowing that even to surrender myself to the circumstances would not endanger me — I couldn’t be endangered, not just because I have a strong will and, inside myself, a great hinterland of anger from which strength flows like an endless army, but because here I was whatever could endanger me. [loc. 956]
After Z-Hour is Elizabeth Knox's first novel, originally published in 1987 and reissued in 2014. It begins with a tremendous storm, and landslips that strand six travellers overnight in a house that is not as abandoned as it seems. There is much debate between the travellers -- three of whom (Kelfie, Jill and Basil) share the narrative -- about whether the house is haunted. Meanwhile, another voice gradually coalesces: Mark Thornton, a New Zealand soldier who served in the First World War. Whatever channel has opened, it flows both ways: Jill dreams Mark's dreams, Mark catches glimpses of Kelfie, Kelfie wakes from a swoon to speak in 'quaint' slang.
This is not a straightforward novel. It is certainly not a traditional ghost story with creeping fear, revelation, and a culmination of exorcism or escape. Instead, the pasts (and presents) of each character are slowly revealed: Jill the bereaved step-mother, Kelfie the abandoned teenager, Simon with the secret in the boot of his stranded car. It's clear that they are all changed by their night in the house, but their futures remain implicit, beyond the scope of the novel's Aristotelian unities. Except Mark: Mark's future is already past, though his dreams and memories -- vividly resurrected -- are as immediate as Jill's grief or Simon's guilt.
Come to think of it, most of the characters carry their own ghosts with them, either literal dead or figurative losses. I'm unsure about Hannah and Ellen: of all the characters, they are the two I felt I still didn't know well by the end of the book. But Basil's disappearing house, Jill's dead stepdaughter, even the presence of a dead friend in Mark's narrative ... they are all haunted.
Several of Knox's recurring themes -- mourning, dreams, the importance of community -- make an appearance here: so does her gift for precise, lapidary metaphor. ("Rain says, ‘this, this, this, this …’ Snow says nothing." [loc. 1278]) Her characters are all fully rounded, perhaps more self-aware than the average individual -- or perhaps they are simply in a situation which promotes that self-awareness. I was especially intrigued by Kelfie -- Knox describes him in the foreword as 'Machiavellian' -- who is perceived by the others as something not quite human but whose secrets are at once commonplace (in their roots) and profound (in their effects). It's interesting to speculate what he would become, as an adult.
I had to read After Z-Hour twice before I felt that I understood it. This was, however, no hardship.
Afterword: this anecdote of Kelfie's is me to a T. Except for me it was willows and reeds.
‘When I was a kid—’
‘You still are.’
‘—I found a narrow, crescent-shaped gully, in the middle of some low hills, cut by a stream which emerged from the ground, ran for a little way in the open air, then went underground again. I used to spend a lot of time there. I made mud idols and put them in the branches of trees. I made shrines. When the land was sold for a subdivision some guys in bulldozers scraped the top off a hill and pushed all the earth into the gully, filling it up. They never climbed down to look at the tarata, hawthorn, mahoe, and the shallow brown stream. I always wanted to go back there—and it took me a long time to realise I could. Not only am I walking among the trees now, through sunspots on the stream, also I’m buried, still immersed and still unearthing myself.’ [loc.3383]