Friday, January 25, 2013

Review: Revenants by Daniel Mills

Daniel Mills is a writer who is fast becoming a favorite here at The Arkham Digest. In previous reviews of A Season In Carcosa and Fungi, I found both of his stories (MS Found Dead in A Hotel Room and Dust From a Dark Flower) to be among the finest in either anthology. Also recently I picked up a copy of The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 23, and seeing that Mills had a story published in there I read it straight away. The Photographer's Tale was everything I had come to expect from the author; another unsettling period piece with wonderful prose. In the last couple years Mills has hit the scene running, and has been putting out stories that read like they've been written by a weird literature veteran.

As much as I've been enjoying his short fiction, imagine my delight when the opportunity arose to review Revenants, his first novel. As Mr. Mills pointed out to me in correspondence, Revenants was published last year by Chomu Press, and while pulling in some good literary reviews, it seemed to lack some exposure within the genre community. That's a shame too, because Revenants deserves to be read by any fan of weird, historical fiction.

Revenants is a story about Cold Marsh, a colonial town in 1689 New England. Typical of most towns of the time, it is strictly Puritan. The novel follows a few characters and their experiences when a third young lady, Ruth, mysteriously goes missing from the isolated town. The story mostly follows a few characters: Ruth's father James, her betrothed Edwin, Edwin's father William, Ruth's mother Constance, and the reverend Isaiah Bellringer. Each character is flawed, and has his/her own secrets. Many of them are filled with regret, and what they perceive as their past sins (some rightly so) haunts them.

The plot follows the men as they split into groups and strike out into the dark wilderness in search of Ruth. Their individual past deeds haunt them as a mysterious force in the woods grants each of them separate visions, causing all of them to have a crisis of a faith. The plot takes a bit to get started, taking it's time to establish the characters and their relationships between each other. When everything finally comes together in the end, and certain revelations are made, the novel ends exactly the way it should.

The character's themselves are difficult, and Mills is accomplished at making each of them interesting, if only a few of them likeable. William Brewer is perhaps the most likeable throughout the book, and the only one who seems to truly seek redemption for his past sins. James has made some wrong choices, but his downfall is mostly the way he handles dealing with them. Edwin is perhaps the character who elicits the biggest change as we see him make some of the same mistakes some of the elders have in their past.

The weird elements of the book tend to be more subtle, and while there aren't many scenes of hair-raising horror, the mood and tone of the book remain eerie and melancholy throughout. I found the biggest horrors of the book to be the people themselves, and the Puritan way of thinking as opposed to the weird elements. The attitude of the townsfolk and how easily some of them are led is quite scary, and Mills drives the point home throughout the novel.Their stifling, rigid attitude about sex especially, which is so completely different from today's view that modern readers such as myself find it downright disturbing. The ease in which the people of the time would do terrible things at the behest of their firebrand religious leaders is an aspect that I find especially terrifying.

Revenants has a good, if simple plot, and interesting characters, but where it truly shines is the language Mills uses. The back cover describes the book as "a poetic meditation on the colonial landscape of New England, the hills and wilds of a vanished country." This description is accurate, and Mills is quite at home taking his time describing the landscape. He paints a beautiful, eerie portrait of a town in isolation, surrounded by deep, dark woods and stagnant, rotting bogs. In reading it I could picture it perfectly, could even smell the forests, and I enjoyed his evocation of place just as much as seeing the plot come together.

Although the book tends to move at a somewhat slow pace, and seems to take awhile for the plot to kick into gear, I enjoyed every page. Some might find it a bit too slow for their liking, maybe a bit longer than it should be, and skimpy on the weird supernatural elements, but I found that these few small criticisms are just that - small nitpickings and nothing more. This novel didn't need to be as overtly weird as his short stories, because the important things are the characters themselves, how they dealt with regret, and how they got along through a dark time in history. Never have I seen the harsh coldness of colonial times depicted so strongly.

Revenants is a moody novel, and is all fog and melancholy. Anyone looking for a strange, literate, gloomy and atmospheric book will find a lot to like. I'd definitely recommend this book to anyone with an interested in colonial period pieces. There is just enough weird and horror there to satisfy genre readers, and not too much there to scare off non-genre readers. With this novel Daniel Mills further cements himself as a great new voice in the world of the weird. I for one can't wait to see what he does next. 

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