Gary K. Wolfe Reviews Revelator by Daryl Gregory

Revelator, Daryl Gregory (Knopf 978-0-525-65738-5, $27.00, 352pp, hc) August 2021.

As he demonstrated again earlier this year with The Album of Dr. Moreau, Daryl Gregory is among our most inventive and eclectic writers, but there are a few themes that recur often enough that they begin to seem like preoccupations, if not quite obsessions. One is that families are weird, and dealing with them can be especially trying if you thought you’d escaped by moving away (as in The Devil’s Alphabet or parts of Spoonbenders). Another is the nature of consciousness and perception, which Gregory sometimes explores through supernatural or religious motifs (possession was a major plot element in his first novel Pandemonium, back in 2008), sometimes through neurology (as in his classic story “Second Person, Present Tense”), and sometimes by suggesting that neurological disorders and religious visions might be sides of the same coin, perhaps due to brain disease or drug use (as in his story “Damascus” or the novel Afterparty). So we’re never quite sure if the odd manifestations in a Gregory story are going to veer off in the direction of SF or fantasy (or sometimes horror), or just keep us in that liminal space of – well, oddness. This is certainly the case with Revelator, which shares with Spoon­benders its portrait of a complex and strangely gifted family, with The Devil’s Alphabet a semi-autobiographical setting of rural Tennessee, and with “Damascus” some intriguing speculations about religion and revelation. But it’s very much its own novel, held together by one of Gregory’s most intriguing and memorable characters.

The tale unfolds in alternating chapters, some detailing the childhood and early adolescence of Stella Wallace in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee in the 1930s, and others set a decade later, after Stella has moved out and become a successful bootlegger of premium moonshine. Since the Civil War, Stella’s family has practiced its own religion, centered around the God in the Mountain, a pale, mantis-like being who dwells in a nearby cave. In each generation, one family member – always a girl – can commune with the god (who they sometimes call Ghostdaddy), which is why she is called a Revelator. Stella has her first encounter at nine years old, after her father has essentially abandoned her to be raised by her grandmother Motty, a surly and embittered woman who was once a Revelator herself. Stella is next in line, but as she grows older and more skeptical, she begins to notice some questionable features of her family religion – such as the fact that the revelations are given only to women, but are recorded and interpreted by the men of the family. Motty’s brother Hendrick is in the process of combining all these accounts into a “New Revelation From the God in the Mountain” with “commentary and clarifications” that are far more extensive than the gnomic messages from the women – mansplaining literally as gospel, and a rather pointed commentary on how some religious doctrine gets made.

In the 1948 timeline, after learning of Motty’s death, Stella is called back to the cove (based on the real Cade’s Cove, whose citizens were largely displaced by the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park). By now she’s in a successful, if illegal, moonshine business with her partner Alphonse, who has his own challenges as a Black entrepreneur in a culture not known for tolerance. By now the role of Revelator is being assumed by Sunny, a young girl widely assumed to be Stella’s daughter by Lunk, a preacher’s son who was madly in love with her, but who died years earlier. Stella realizes that Sunny is being endangered and exploited by Hendrick, who has even brought a film crew along as he hopes to persuade her to summon the Ghostdaddy. Aided by her old friend Abby, Alphonse, and a couple of other friends, Stella hatches a plan to save Sunny (whose real parentage is revealed later on, as is Stella’s). For a novel which has largely unfolded as a family saga, with its supernatural (or apparently supernatural) effects carefully modulated, Revelator turns into a pretty effective suspense tale in its final chapters, unraveling key plot mysteries as it amps up the tension and the special effects. If the Ghostdaddy itself remains something of a mystery, hovering on the edge of supernatural fantasy and SF, Stella herself is a striking and complex figure, as we watch her mature from a confused young girl to a sharp teen willing to challenge her elders, and then to a skilled entrepreneur and defiant protector. (Her argument with a local pastor over exactly who God was sacrificing Jesus to is priceless.) Like Spoonbenders, Revelator is a novel in which the magic is real, but the real magic lies as much in figures like Stella and her oddball community as in the spectral figure of the Ghostdaddy.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

This review and more like it in the August 2021 issue of Locus.

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