Saturday, April 2, 2011


Daniel Mills' first novel is bookended by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  It opens with an epigraph from one of Hawthorne's most famous stories, "The Black Veil," and ends with an acknowledgments section mentioning Mills' "considerable debt" to him.  And indeed, any reader familiar with Hawthorne's powerful if difficult fiction will recognize similarities in the subject matter taken on by the two writers.  Both recognize the marvelous atmospheric potential of colonial America for dark fiction: a vast continent, unexplored and (to European sensibilities) wild and dangerous, and the tiny towns that dotted it, bound together as much by isolation as by a fierce religion that was merciless in its treatment of ordinary human frailties.  Both write about those in a sympathetic yet pitiless way.  And both allow hints of the supernatural, of some force so large and strange that it can only be called fate.

Where Mills and Hawthorne differ is style.  Anyone who was assigned The Scarlet Letter at school will remember how Hawthorne writes, and while I admire his fiction very much, I admit that it can be difficult to read, especially in the longer works.  (Assigning these to schoolchildren is ridiculousness of the sort tragically common in educational systems.)  Mills' style, on the other hand, is equally distinctive, but sharply contemporary, written in third person present tense that's atmospheric but easily readable in a way that Hawthorne is not.  Like Hawthorne, Mills recognizes the powerful symbolism inherent in the physical world, the way in which what is seen, and how it is seen, has to do with the mental state of the one doing the seeing.  Here is a particularly fine example:
The fog is suffocating, a flat stink that turns sour in Edwin's nostrils, a cold stillness perched at bone and center.  In its coils, the village is a no-space, dank and dimensionless.  Houses fade into the mist only to surface again unexpectedly, veering close with the sounds of voices: a man reading scripture, a family sharing Sunday supper.  The trees are black lines, nothing more.  Voices grow louder before subsiding to whispers, drifting away to leave an immutable silence.
A wolf shrieks and shatters the dreamlike calm.  James begins to walk faster.  He passes Edwin's father and stalks ahead into the mist, taking on speed until only his lantern can be seen.  William calls after him.  He hurries after the carpenter, and Edwin must run behind to catch up.  His chest heaves as he sprints and he prays he can keep his footing, unable to look down at the track for fear of losing his father's light.
These descriptions have substantial cumulative effect.  And that's a good thing, because for a large chunk of its length the novel has little else to offer.

The first fifty pages, in which the characters' complicated histories and relationships are slowly revealed, are excellent.  But following that is roughly a hundred pages in which the characters are stagnant, and the narrative moves in ways that are predictable even if you haven't read the cover copy, which gives it all away.  The descriptions of landscape and of the protagonists' ruminations are well-crafted but thematically repetitive (as is often the case in Hawthorne's novels), and one begins to wonder if anything much is ever going to happen.

At about the halfway point of the novel, something does, a series of inexplicable but suggestive incidents that reminds one how a strange landscape can, like the mind, blur past, present, and future, in disturbing ways.  From that point, the narrative takes a more satisfying pace, leading to revelations and resolutions, but not, fittingly, to any redemption for the harsh, guilt-ridden world of colonial New England.  There is only the town, and the wilderness beyond, and the people, struggling with an existence that ought to be unbearable.  It is this milieu that is the ultimate subject, and triumph, of Revenants.

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