Review: Revenants by Daniel Mills

Monday, February 21, 2011

There is something nightmarish in the past. Since its inception, weird fiction has harvested the ghosts of history for its own literary ends. Into this elegant tradition steps Daniel Mills, with a debut novel titled Revenants, published by the energetic Chomu Press. Mills' book is an appetizing buffet of earlier traditions in American literature, colonial history, and subtle supernatural elements. These diverse foundations of the novel are not flung together, but carefully streamlined to bolster Mills' deeper explorations of nature, unrelenting guilt, and unexpected ghosts.

Cold Marsh, where the story takes place, is an isolated New England village conceived as a seventeenth century Anytown. Unlike other nameless townships one imagines from early American history, Cold Marsh is home to an exceptionally tormented crew. Like a body run ragged by disease, the town and its denizens mechanically pass through their lives under a heavy atmosphere of Puritan paranoia and blackened memories. Mills is careful to strike an intricate balance, always shackling the little disasters of his characters to Cold Marsh's larger roving demons. Just when the secretive suffering of the half-dead village is known, it receives a new shock, when three young girls disappear in close succession, the last prompting the shuttered inhabitants to leave their dark nest and venture into the unknown wild.

Daniel Mills realizes that Revenants' success lays in ballooning it with rich prose that evokes a bygone age and the unexplored wilderness. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, who he acknowledges his debt to, Mills' book comes across as a convincing account of life and attitudes in colonial America. The author seems to share a real passion for old New England, much like H.P. Lovecraft, as passages describing the fall harvest or the wolf haunted forests act as tributes, as well as vigorous backdrops. Similarly, old forces that seem difficult to imagine in a comfortable, modern context are given terrifying strength. God, the Devil, and Nature are equally ferocious, mysterious, and terrible powers in Mills' world. Cold Marsh's residents suffer beneath their combined weights, and the overwhelming hold each has in their twisted psyches.

Those inner worlds bewitched by the omnipotent are as key to the novel as its outer scenery built from a passionately resurrected history. Memories and spectral emotions escape his character's heads, invading one's own skull. Mills introduces us to James and Constance, an unhappy couple strung together by a single "sin" and imprisoned by the social norms of the era. William, meanwhile, broods from beginning to end about his own warrior past, gradually revealing what really happened during Cold Marsh's role in King Philip's War, when a neighboring American Indian tribe was exterminated. Edwin, his son, lives impressed by youthful inexperience and visions of a vengeful God. The trials experienced in Revenants are possibly most damaging to this young man. In the background there's Isaiah, an elderly Minister who conceals his bitter past and manipulation of the town folk in religious fervor - particularly with warnings about witchcraft and deviltry. This is a village drowning in its collective guilt, and by the end, even the untouched are corrupted.

Although Cold Marsh's dreams and perceptions are more responsible for weaving a strange atmosphere than anything else, Mills adds a subtle supernatural element that's enough to make Revenants weird as well as historical fiction. The mysterious disappearances and certain grotesque encounters in the wilderness make it apparent that more than mere paranoia and guilt is responsible for Cold Marsh's horrors. Mills never fully reveals or explains the town's dark curse, wisely leaving it up to the imagination. This choice echoes the best mysterious weird horror, and also the puzzling strangeness emerging from psychic fear and outside malevolence experienced in venues like Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone.

Revenants does not merely operate on the frightfully wondrous as a work of horror, though. Daniel Mills casts some particularly visceral scenes. A mutilated Indian and a blood drenched crime scene late in the novel are just a few instances where Mills chooses to aim his punches at the face rather than inside the mind. Regrettably, these tense scenes are responsible for moving the narrative forward, while the weird and mysterious element is more atmospheric than influential to plot. It seems Mills has not yet discovered ways in which the truly curious and chilling can leave impressions as powerful as violent horror can. However, he is a newer writer, and such talents may come with time.

Revenants is an excellent debut by an author who has obviously learned well from masters in the weird and beyond. The book is sure to appeal to nostalgic zealots who adore vanished times and places. Yet, it should also enrich so many others. Mills' horrors, blatant and quiet, are unsettling, as are his repressed and sometimes unhinged characters. The gray mood dominating Cold Marsh is not easily forgotten after reading, nor is the name Daniel Mills.

-Grim Blogger

  © Blogger template Writer's Blog by 2008

Back to TOP