There is a giant, spindly, otherworldly beast at the heart of Daryl Gregory’s Revelator, but it’s not what scared me most in this Smoky Mountain Gothic horror.
That honor belongs to the mortal men who alternately enable and harm that monster, all the while fundamentally misunderstanding its true nature. The mortal men who cannot fathom they’re supporting characters in a narrative of which they’ve lost the plot. The mortal men who never once lay eyes on their supposed god — do none of the work to support him — but expect their delivery to the promised land nonetheless.
But we’ll get to those men.
Gregory unfolds the layered aspects of Southern mystique here on two tracks: one starting in 1933 and the other 1948. In both timelines, we see through the lens of Stella Wallace, all but orphaned at 9 and dropped on her grandmother’s doorstep in the Tennessee backwoods.
At the time she’s taken in by her grandmother Motty, Stella is the latest in a line of Birch women who engage in a special “communion” with the God of the Mountain, who they refer to as the Ghostdaddy. Stella is reared to become the new Revelator, able to communicate the hallucinogenic visions of her family’s god.
The visions belong to the Birch women who came before, but they are transcribed, interpreted, analyzed, and kept secret by the men of the Birch family. Stella, 12 years old upon her first communion with the Ghostdaddy, is allowed to read the insights of her predecessors sparingly, at intervals prescribed by her controlling and foppish Uncle Hendrick.
Her own interpretations of the messages she receives from the god are unwelcome, considered the musings of hysteria and religious euphoria. Only Birch men are able to divine facts from their women’s fantasies.
Eventually, Stella learns the true nature — more clearly and resonantly than any before her — of her family’s relationship to their god, and she hightails it out of Cades Cove, Tennessee. In the intervening years, she carves out a life for herself in another male-dominated and hostile environment: bootlegging moonshine.
But then Motty dies, and the 1948 timeline begins, drawing Stella back to her family’s shadowy web of peculiarities.
In Revelator, Gregory has constructed a twisty, unnerving story that reveals its secrets as judiciously as Uncle Hendrick passes out the family lore. And by showing us this world through the eyes of Stella — and only through her eyes — we’re able to see the truth more clearly: the Ghostdaddy may be a monster, but he ain’t the villain.
There are many reasons that drive Stella out of the Cove, that repulse her and forever tarnish her faith in her family and herself. Some of those reasons are supernatural, but some of them are as plain and ordinary as the ingredients in our eternal human cocktail: greed, misogyny, and religious zealotry.
The Ghostdaddy isn’t the one who lies to Stella about its purpose. The Ghostdaddy isn’t the one who dismisses her truths because they’re inconvenient. The Ghostdaddy isn’t the one who marks her for a life of sacrifice and struggle.
Those are her uncles and cousins, each a mortal man whose deliberate and accidental distortions of the Revelator’s messages promise them — the men — a great and beautiful reward for their loyalty to the God in the Mountain. Those too are the men of law enforcement and the surrounding town who enable Hendrick and others, who go out of their way to “other” Motty, Stella, and every last ill-begotten Birch woman.
My first exposure to Gregory was his novella, We Are All Completely Fine, which focused on a support group for those who survived supernatural traumas. He has a talent for writing outcasts, for conjuring empathy and sympathy for those left to toil in the margins. That talent is certainly on display in Revelator, where it’s damn near impossible not to root for Stella but also for the family of choice she finds along the way: Abby, her lumbering, moonshining protector; Alfonse, her “hooch husband” partner in crime; and Pee Wee and Merle, the parents she ought to have had.
Revelator is a book of few heroes and many villains, but more than anything, it’s a book for the people — mostly women — who get caught in the path of both.