Stella Birch sees her family’s god when she is nine years old, in 1933. Her father has dropped her off in a sheltered valley, the cove, in the Smoky Mountains. He says he’s leaving her with Motty, her grandmother, while he looks for work, but he’s never coming back.
Daryl Gregory’s 2021 southern gothic horror novel Revelator trades in bone-deep horror, stunning beauty, strangeness, and acid-etched banter. Moving between two timelines, Stella’s time with Motty in the cove and her present life as a moonshiner in 1948, the novel reveals the secret of the Birch women and the god in the mountain, and includes interesting bits of history, like the creation of the Smoky Mountain National Park, which will include the cove.
There is a real god in the mountain, and we see it pretty early in the story. It seems like a non-human, unearthly being that dwells in a cave would be the most unnerving thing in the cove, but it’s not. There is Motty herself, there is whatever is happening with her hog sows, and there is Uncle Hendrick, who’s decided that the family faith and worship of the god must be brought to the outside world. The Birch women are the only ones the god will commune with (at great cost); but somehow those who record the revelations the women bring back are always male. Hendrick has taken the “recording” one step further, adding lengthy commentaries, his opinions on what the god’s words truly mean.
In 1938, after a terrible event happened, Stella fled the cove and left the god behind. She planned to never go back, but when Motty dies in 1948, there is another girl Stella has to save from the clutches of both the god and Uncle Hendrick. When she returns, she soon discovers that the girl, Sunny, has ideas of her own.
Gregory’s writing is equal to any task he sets himself within Revelator. The landscape descriptions are vivid, the cave is scary, realistic and strange, as is the god; the dialogue sings and snaps. Loving attention is given to the act of distillation and the description of Stella’s still. We see adult Stella in the world, a confident (criminal) businesswoman, a highly-competent risk-taker, and we see her equally clearly as an isolated, confused child, the center of a cult, the conduit for a nonhuman entity. Child Stella is told over and over how important she is, but she has no say and no control over what’s done to her, and her attempts to assert control are unfailingly met with violent punishment. While I thought Stella was a little too composed and self-contained in her shy, growing relationship with preacher’s son Lincoln, I loved watching the two young people get closer. The book is a horror book, and part of what makes it horror is that, for a time at least, it seems like young Stella might actually escape with, at least, a minimum of damage.
It’s clear that this is a personal book for Gregory — it’s set in the area his family is from. Moonshine itself is lovingly and reverently treated. Distillation is a theme — there’s the distillation of liquor, and there is a sense of distillation threatening the god as chemicals from mining and other industries leach down through the rocks into the cave.
Revelator hits all the notes; you’ll root for Stella, you’ll wonder what in the world is going on, you’ll start shivering and looking over your shoulder as you read. It’s scary, high-action, beautiful, sarcastic and grotesque, and all that builds a creepy, engrossing read.