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"Weird Tale" From a UVM Grad Plumbs New England History

State of the Arts


Published April 20, 2011 at 8:59 a.m.


A great, dark wilderness. Villagers eke out an existence on its edge. One by one, the young women vanish, and with them goes the town’s hope for the future.

The situation is primal, archetypal: One could be describing the lost Norse colony of Greenland, a Grimm fairy tale or a slasher movie. For his debut novel, Daniel Mills of Hinesburg has chosen to set such a tale in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1689.

Published by Chômu Press, a small UK publisher specializing in literature of the “strange,” Revenants would never be mistaken for a Stephen King-style horror novel. Instead, it’s an insidiously chilling meditation on the darker side of New England history — in the tradition of Nathaniel Hawthorne — and a striking piece of prose poetry, particularly from a 25-year-old author.

Take this passage in which a young man surveys the unmapped landscape where his fiancée has mysteriously disappeared:

The forest flows from itself in waves that sketch the lay of the land, slate colored and oppressive, an ocean in winter. Its course is disrupted in a few places by ponds and meadows, storm-cleared or beaver-made, linked together in a northward-reaching chain like beads on an Indian necklace or stars along the Milky Way: endless, ever-flowing.

This country is too large, he thinks, as cold and inhuman as the Atlantic. But even the sea coughs up its wrecks and sailors, given time. He does not believe this continent will reveal itself, now or ever, nor will it give up its dead...

The fictional town of Cold Marsh, founded by Rev. Isaiah Bellringer and his followers, is a dot in this wilderness, and the “dead” whose spirits press around include the Native Americans who once inhabited the environs. The young settlement’s grim secrets emerge only gradually, after 16-year-old Ruth Eliot vanishes in a thick fog. Her betrothed, the pious Edwin Brewer, searches frantically. But the reader knows something lured Ruth to the forest — a sound, a vibration, a “bass drone like the murmur of a heart.” The landscape is traversed by forces that the settlers must deny, much as they deny their own desires.

Mills had just graduated from the University of Vermont and was working at IBM, in a “completely artificial environment,” when he conceived this story of people who live closer to nature than they’d like. An environmental studies major, he wanted to “capture something of the landscape I love so much,” he says. In his mind, capturing New England meant conveying a “starkness” at odds with more conventionally “rhapsodic” nature writing.

When he was “very young and impressionable,” Mills says, his parents participated in local Revolutionary War reenactments, and he clearly knows his colonial history. The massacre of Indians he describes in Revenants was partially based on the Great Swamp Fight of 1675, in which English settlers struck preemptively against the Narragansett tribe.

But Mills says he never saw the novel as straight historical fiction; the town of Cold Marsh is “allegorical ... crafted to evoke contemporary ideas about sin, grace and redemption.” Likewise, it isn’t a simple ghost story but a work that uses supernatural motifs to illuminate something about our fear of the unknown.

In that sense, Revenants belongs to the tradition of the philosophically tinged “strange” or “weird” tale, which helped it find a home at Chômu. After finishing his manuscript in 2009 and making the rounds of agents — one of whom signed him but concluded she couldn’t sell the book — Mills began submitting to small presses. He’d discovered like-minded editors and readers in the UK genre community: One of his short stories, which appeared in the anthology Strange Tales, Volume III, was long-listed for a 2010 British Fantasy Award. Published in paperback and electronically by Chômu, which calls itself dedicated to “new vistas of irreality,” Revenants has won praise, as well. Booklist calls Mills a “promising new talent.”

Mills has left IBM for his alma mater, where he’s a departmental assistant; meanwhile, he’s working on a group of linked short stories set in New England at the dawn of the 20th century. “In an ideal world, I would be able to write and make a living at it,” he says.

In the real world, with so many books vying for attention, that’s seldom the case for writers. A novel like Revenants, with its long descriptions and slow-burn plot, doesn’t reach out and grab readers by the lapels. But this “Dream of New England” — as Mills subtitles it — could get under your skin, because every generation dreads and desires its own version of the wilderness beyond the circle of lights.

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