Revenants by Daniel Mills (Chomu Press, 2011)-The year is 1689. The place, New England. Over the course of the last year two young women have gone missing from the village of Cold Marsh. One’s body was recovered. The others was never found. Now a third young woman has disappeared and the town is in an uproar. Fourteen years before, at the outbreak of King Philip’s War, the men of Cold Marsh slaughtered a nearby village of Indians, an act that still casts its shadow over the populace. Now, with this new mystery, hidden guilt and dark memories stir. The town has sent search parties into the wilderness in the hopes that the woman might still be found, yet the course they walk leads beyond the unknown and into that place where the human heart beats in turmoil with itself.
In Revenants Daniel Mills succeeds in evoking both the physical and mental landscape of 17th century Puritan New England through his use of terse, but lush prose. While it’s possible to explain away the novel’s supernatural elements as the physical manifestations of malnourishment, repression, and psychosis, there’s more going on here. Revenants is a horror novel but one situated somewhere between Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Black Veil” or “Young Goodman Brown”. While the Puritan settlers and the wilderness are adversaries, the clash is less between the two than it is with the settlers’ struggle within themselves. The wilderness is not only the great unknown, but the great unknowable, an elemental and timeless force that ultimately defeats every effort to control or contain it. It’s this unknowable that each character encounters and struggles with, an unknown, evil not from any inherent quality, but because that is the mask human frailty and fear too often chooses to wear.
While there are individuals in the story such as the minister, the soon to be wed young woman that disappears and her parents, the former soldier who leads Cold Marsh and his son, who is also the missing woman’s fiance, and the minister’s protege, the true character that emerges is the community as a whole.
As the narrative flits between them and others, what emerges is less a picture of any one character and more a composite of Cold Marsh. This place with all its fear and isolation sits both physically on the edge of the known and unknown, as it does in a more liminal place resident in each individual’s soul. It’s each character’s success or failure in their encounters with this that results in their doom or salvation. Midway through the novel, the search party led by the missing girl’s father comes upon a bird’s nest. As the mother grouse mimics a wounded wing in an attempt to lure the party away, there’s a stretched moment, a shared panic between man and animal for their offspring-a connection or illumination that’s missed as the men discover the bird’s nest and its freight of eggs. In an instant the mother is caught, slain, and her eggs smashed, the events as incomprehensible to the bird as the mystery of the girl’s disappearance is to the villagers.
Revenants conveys a sense of rapture and awe that exists close beside our fear of the unknown, a place where one might shudder at a wolf’s howl, yet still stare in wonder at the moon’s light. In the end, it’s this that makes Revenants so compelling.