We are in unfamiliar terrain now – surprising, fecund and strange. It is January 1866 and in the smoking room of a hotel in the New Zealand mining settlement of Hokitika, ‘a town not five years built’, a secret gathering of 12 men, ‘bronzed and weathered in the manner of all frontiersmen, their lips chapped white, their carriage expressive of privation and loss’, is interrupted by a 13th – Mr Walter Moody, late of Edinburgh and Cambridge, newly arrived on this side of the world, drawn by the lure of gold. He is not, at first, made welcome, but he gains the confidence of the rest soon enough, upon which they reveal to him the reasons for their shadowy convocation. He, in turn, has a story to tell concerning something he saw on his long voyage, a ‘preternatural horror’, the details of which emerge only gradually, glimpses of a grisly tableau: ‘the bloody cravat, the clutching silver hand, the name, gasped out of the darkness, again and again’.
Of Moody we are told that ‘nothing caused his spirits to lift more surely than the promise of a tale’, a sentiment with which the reader is swiftly in agreement. There is much mystery here, complication piled on complication. The richest local prospector, Emery Staines, has gone missing, a loner