I’ve been lost in the bush before. Some years back, I was tramping in Southland, through a really quite overgrown track in the Longwood Ranges. It was so overgrown that, at one point, the track seemed to disappear. I could just perceive two possible paths before me in the undergrowth. The map wasn’t much help, so I took the one that looked slightly more trampled than the other.
It was a mistake.
A couple of hours later it was getting dark and I was lost. The Longwoods used to be mining country, back in the day, and I’d been warned about holes suddenly opening up in the ground—so I wasn’t about to keep walking around in poor light. I didn’t have a tent, so I built a lean-to out of giant fern fronds and spent the night in my sleeping bag. I had plenty of food, and the New Zealand bush is thankfully free of bears and wolves and what have you. I wasn’t afraid. The next day I packed up, and navigated myself across country to the hut I was supposed to stay in. It was lovely.
Then again, I wasn’t dealing with radiation poisoning, alien spacecraft, and a dead schoolmate who, having impaled himself on the local vegetation, had come back to life as a zombie.
You could say I had it easy.
In Steph Matuku’s Flight of the Fantail, a school bus full of teenagers crashes off the road and into a river, deep in the New Zealand bush. Both adults aboard die, as do most of the students. A handful are left alive, waiting for rescue. And, river aside, the environment they’re lost in might as well be the Longwoods. It’s familiar to me, is what I’m saying, and it’s a lovely treat to have a horror story in a setting that’s so very recognisably Kiwi. (When you’re from a small country, you don’t get that often.) Plants, animals, environment … I was excited to read about all of them, and to see what these kids would do with them.
And they’re pretty resourceful, those kids—or at least one of them is. (I’ll get to Devin later.) Hunger is a deeply unattractive prospect, as is dying of exposure, so they hole up in an old mine and eat eel. Well, fern fronds too, and on one occasion even a kiwi, which was the real moment of abject horror for them and me both: “it had been stringy and tasted gamey, and everyone had felt like they were breaking some sort of sacrilegious code eating their national bird” (p. 225).
That’s the thing about survival. You do what you have to do, adapt to the situation that you’re stuck with. Survive a plane crash in the Andes, then, sure, you might end up eating a person. A kiwi seems more awful somehow (thank goodness it wasn’t a kakapo, I don’t think I could have kept reading!); but perhaps starvation could drive a person to it.
And if it sounds familiar, this story—a group of young people in the wilderness, and there’s something unnatural, something abnormal picking them off—well, it’s a horror staple, isn’t it? We know lots of stories come out of this basic conceit. That’s what makes it fun. This particular trope is so popular because we know what’s going to happen. We know there are going to be more deaths—and bloody, terrible deaths at that.
There’s something satisfyingly voyeuristic about it. It’s no coincidence, I think, that stories with this structure are often movies. It’s such a visual narrative: all those looming trees, the darkness and the terror. And something hiding in those trees, waiting to snatch you. In this case, what they snatch is mostly sanity, but the shocks and the deaths are still cinematically vivid. (If this book doesn’t get the NZ Film Commission drooling over it I’ll be genuinely amazed. It’s perfect for the big screen.)
Another kind of adaptation is what this story is really about. The ability of the stranded kids to adapt to their environment is key to their survival. They are stranded for the long haul, with rescuers not coming—or coming with their own agenda, which isn’t always that of survival—and that first, basic adaptation to living in the wilderness is difficult enough. The ecosystem they’re used to is, after all, so very different. All the real adaptation they’ve had to perform in the past has been social—navigating the currents of high school, for example—and a lot of what they confront in those contexts can feel more lethal than anything in New Zealand’s bush.
Take Liam. Seems like a good kid, initially. Strong, brave. After the bus has toppled into the river, he keeps his head and drags out one of his schoolmates, saving his life. Then he risks himself again, going back to try and save the others. He does it thinking of his dad, who used to serve in war zones, who did so because helping others mattered to him. It matters to Liam as well, but then he discovers that the only person left to save is a kid who he just can’t stomach. And for good reason: it turns out that Eugene has been harassing Liam’s thirteen-year-old sister:
“He ripped her dress and everything. Lucky Dad had taught her a few moves. She smashed Eugene in the nuts, socked him in the face and took off. I was trying to figure out how I could nail him without getting sprung. And then the chance came, and I took it. I left him there.” (p. 82)
Left him to drown, left him pleading for his life. School kids aren’t innocent here, and the survivors aren’t always nice. Some of them are, but every environment has its predators. Every environment evolves predators, in fact—and you might drop them in a remote area of the bush but the capacity to hunt, to hurt, survives.
Sometimes that’s positive. If you’re stuck in the forest and need to hunt, need to hurt, the animals around you in order to survive, well. Hunting and hurting are useful skills. It’s horrible to say, but they are. Devin, that kid I mentioned earlier, is particularly good at this sort of thing. Raised by a single dad who takes living off the land to extremes, Devin comes from a school environment characterised by ostracism. She’s called “Dozy Devin,” is the target for every bully, because she can’t quite adapt to school life, can’t quite get the hang of the cutthroat interaction of wealthy urban teens. Her dad seems a bit dozy himself, frankly, and sealed his daughter’s fate early in her school days when it got around that he fed her roadkill. Some hedgehog stories don’t need to come to light, and the culinary fate of one particular hedgehog has for years isolated Devin from her peers, when all the poor girl wants is to have a friend and achieve her modest dream of becoming a plumber. That’s the kind of ambition that gets her laughed at and looked down on by those peers, but it turns out that Devin, lost in the woods, has found the environment she’s best adapted to.
In the bush, being able to adapt gives you worth, as rugby star Rocky makes very clear. “‘Dozy Devin,’ he said, through gritted teeth, ‘saved me from drowning, got you across the stream, built a fire, caught breakfast and has just finished sewing up my leg. Dozy Devin deserves a little more respect’” (p. 42). She catches eels, catches fish, guts and cooks them. This is hunting, this is hurting, and in this environment she’s good at it. Hunting and hurting are adaptations for school life, too, but she never quite got the hang of them there. There were always other kids who did it better. Other kids who got by without being targets, whose social camouflage was more effective. Kids like Rocky himself, who rose to the top of the heap without even trying.
Environment influences behaviour. These kids live through the crash, some of them. They live through the monstrous abnormality turning the bush into something even more unfamiliar. They don’t always live through each other. Liam might not actively have beaten Eugene to death, but he’s not the only opportunist among these kids, and he’s certainly not the worst. Some people adapt quicker and more efficiently—and in different ways—than others.
Starvation and shock might lead to eating endangered birds or covering yourself in the blood and brain matter of classmates, but there’s more to adapt to here than nature—human or otherwise. That alien spacecraft I was talking about earlier? It’s half-buried in a hillside, and what comes out of it is … strange. Not aliens themselves, but a radiating kind of force that gives headaches and nosebleeds and hallucinations. That forces changes in behaviour, that makes vicious kids more homicidal, that makes lonely kids fall into dreams of romance. It resurrects the parts of them that have been previously buried over, ruthlessly exposes the parts they hide in order to fit in better. It strips them of their adaptations, and it creates new ones: Rocky’s leg, healing faster than it should; Jahmin, realising that he’s been dead for days, and has somehow been brought back, without the need to breathe, without the capacity for pain, with the ability to just … go on.
The balance of events and relationships between these kids is so well done. They read like teenagers, too, not like adults pretending to be younger than they are. And because the alien craft is, apart from its mysterious effects, almost tangential to the text, the story is closely focused on the horrific imagery of isolation and adaptation, and on how insanity and environment affect the two. It’s strange and claustrophobic and nothing like lying in the Longwoods, looking up at sky and knowing that morning is coming and you can get yourself out. It’s the bush turned unfamiliar, uncanny, an ecological estrangement that undermines all previous encounters with the environment. I wish the focus had stayed on that, but there is a thread running through of what’s happening outside this affected wilderness, and it’s not nearly as successful.
For a start, it’s simply not as believable: suddenly, this horror trope of kids killed one by one in the wilderness is smack up against the evil corporation trope … and, look, New Zealand is small and top of the anticorruption charts but it’s not perfect. My country has its fair share of dodgy companies, but this one’s been studying the ship for generations and has enough clout to see off Search and Rescue, as well as the Department of Conservation. When the zombie kid sneaking up on the alien ship, and the murderous schoolmate who’s dancing naked before it, is more credible than the search and rescue efforts, that’s a problem. And try as she might, Matuku cannot convince me that New Zealand has adapted to the point where S&R and DOC rangers don’t look severely askance at a company saying, “Don’t search for your missing kids here!” To quote a national beer billboard: “Yeah right.”
But everyone goes along with it! The media, the government, the parents. The general public. I get that this is a device to keep the kids from being rescued too quickly, but I think there might have been a better one. This is an element that not only feels like it comes from a different country (and everything else here is so recognisably Kiwi, from the environment to the speech patterns to the metaphors—hello, fantail of death, you ill-omened creature!); it feels like it comes from a different story, one focused on mechanism rather than mystery and horror, and on how individuals adapt to mystery and horror. That adaptation is a strong and scary thing, and when Matuku focuses our attention on it, which in fairness is most of the time, her novel is genuinely compelling.