Among the Lilies
by Daniel Mills
Among the Lilies
(Undertow Publications 2021, pb, 260pp)
I wish I had encountered the work of Daniel Mills sooner than I did. I first heard of him a few years ago when Black Static interviewed him alongside a review of his novella—‘The Account of David Stonehouse, Exile'—that is reprinted in this subtly mesmeric second collection of his fiction. I made a note of the name at the time, a reminder to check out his work, in particular his newly published novel, Moriah. But, with one thing and another, it slipped my mind until the announcement earlier this year that Undertow would be publishing Among the Lilies. After reading the twelve stories in this collection, I have Moriah (a second edition of which has recently been published by Zagava) on order. Mills’s stories are steeped in a deep knowledge of the history and traditions of Gothic fiction, and yet they wear that knowledge lightly. There is a clarity and power in his writing that makes me feel that my previous neglect of his work has been an unnecessary act of self-deprivation.
Part of what makes these stories so powerful is their directness. The carefully layered texture of his prose, the simplicity and rhythm of the language, at times calls to mind the work of Cormac McCarthy. One of the standout tales is the previously mentioned ‘Account of David Stonehouse, Exile,’ an allusive, multi-layered but beautifully rendered story. His account, told in the form of a journal, (journals and diaries are a trope that Mills frequently deploys) recounts his early life in the Village, a strict religious community, and how, as a young man he came to be exiled from it. With his dog Judah he came to live in an abandoned house in the woods, plagued at night by wolves and perhaps something worse. Though the narrative moves back and forth through time—as well as featuring entries in different hands, possibly his lover and his daughter’s—there’s a deceptive lightness and beauty in his sentences that evokes real emotion, as in these lines, after the narrator has shot and failed to kill a moose:
I walked home at noon with the gun unfired, my belly empty, thinking of the moose I had seen and of the shot
which struck it. His terror like mine in that instant when he felt the end at hand and sought for shelter, a place
of hiding where he might die alone and unremembered.
In comparing his own fear to the stricken moose’s, Stonehouse reveals to us something of the extent of his loneliness and isolation from his fellow man. It’s an impressionistic story in which much of what is revealed is contingent upon the conflict between love and faith, between dreams and hauntings, and the failure to escape the pull of the past. It is his own past and what he perceives as his weaknesses that haunt Stonehouse every bit as much as the ghost of August Fitch, the house’s previous occupant, whose fate he seems destined to re-enact.
Stories as different in tone as ‘A Sleeping Life,’ and ‘Dream Children’, like the work of Hawthorne or Poe, share a numinous, unsettling quality that lingers in the mind long after reading. In ‘Lucilla Barton (1857-1880)’, Mills uses a range of narrative devices, including parish records of births, deaths and marriages, newspaper reports, and personal correspondence (echoes of Bram Stoker’s similarly broad range of narrative techniques in Dracula), to tell the tale of an unfortunate young woman who appears to bring illness and premature death to those close to her.
In its opening sentence, ’Below the Falls’ alludes to the kind of ghost stories that feature in the ‘club’ tales of Lord Dunsany or MR James, only to state that this tale will be of a completely different nature. Prefacing the story he is about to tell, the narrator tells his listeners (and readers):
But if the defining quality of a ghost is its mystery, its otherness, I propose to you we are surrounded by such
spirits whether we acknowledge it or not. In pain the mind hides even from itself, becoming a darkened star
around which light bends but does not itself pass through.
Thus, the essential hiddenness or unknowability of what haunts Mills’s fiction. He captures this elusive quality a little later in the same story, in the pages of the diary of Isabella Carr, recently deceased, and which forms the bulk of the narrative. Writing of the sight of the frozen river she glimpses behind the “blue-grey ice” a “creek … like the words in a palimpsest”, an image that captures beautifully the notion of a deeper, elusive truth hidden beneath the surface reality.
Another diary provides the narrative of ‘The Woman in the Woods’, with struck-thru entries revealing the tormented visions of James Addison Thorndike, a troubled boy sent to live with his Uncle in the hope that the country air will heal whatever ails him. We can guess at some form of mental illness, but the power of the story resides in the tension between James’ desire to adhere to the strictures of his Calvinist faith, and to succumb to the lure of Lilith, the woman in the woods, who knows the thing that is inside him, and who know too, that, in the end, he will go to her.
Abuse, and its consequences, not just for its victims but for its indirect witnesses, lies at the heart of the profoundly moving ‘The Lake’. The memory of a boyhood friend’s bruises and unvoiced terror, echo down the years, scarring Samuel with a merciless guilt at his inability to act in a moment of physical crisis, and, more deeply, because of his silence—enduring into his adult years—and failure to speak up for his friend.
‘Arena’ gives us a first person viewpoint of a gladiator battling a stronger opponent; interspersed with these vivid, violent passages are memories of an encounter with a man referred to as the Teacher, who, it's safe to assume, is Jesus Christ, but this Christ’s message is more old testament than new: for he will break the chains of bondage not by peace, but through the sword. It’s a startling reversal that is in keeping with the book’s overall perspective on Christianity as hard and unrelenting, a faith system that blights the lives of these stories’ inhabitants, whether it be the sickly boy abandoned by his mother in ‘A Shadow Passing’—there’s an unsettling image of her final parting from the child near the story’s end, where “the pieces of her move away down the street like flapping leaves: shadows of the coming winter”—or the suffering penitent who narrates ‘Canticle.’
My own personal favourite among these quietly enduring tales is ‘Lilies,’ whose protagonist, Henry Feathering, looks back on the events of his life as being “like the strands of a story that can never be knitted.” Yet, knitting these strands together is precisely what Mills achieves in this haunting tale of loss and regret that reverberates with echoes of Poe. Against the wishes of her brother, Justice, Feathering courts and eventually wins the hand of the well-to-do Clemency (perhaps a nod to Poe’s young wife, Virginia Clemm). Before their marriage, Feathering’s Uncle, with whom he has come to live, warns him not to bring his bride to live at Bittersweet Lodge. Feathering ignores the warning and soon Clemency becomes obsessed with the fate of Lily Stark, a former, ill-fated occupant of the house. As in stories like ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, the story is suffused with portents and omens—of sexual abuse, incest, insanity, and the fear of miscegenation—the cumulative effect of which are analogous to the weight of regret that Feathering—breaking a promise he made to Clemency—carries with him into old age. In fact these regrets are the source of the memories that sustain him; he has learned to accept life’s vagaries, knowing that “life, as it is lived, rarely conforms to the shapes prescribed by literature.”
Given our association of lilies with purity and with the soul being reborn into a state of innocence, the book’s title is more than apt. Collectively, the stories in Among the Lilies are about the loss or corruption of innocence, and the possibility —not always attained—of regaining a state of grace. There are resurrections here, albeit not of a divine nature, for Mills’s characters, with all their weaknesses and flaws, are all too human. He is a fine writer possessed of that rare ability to delineate ordinary lives shattered by delusion and false belief, by circumstance and ill-fate, without recourse to sentiment or exaggeration. He is, quite simply, a writer at the top of his game.
Among the Lilies is available from Undertow Publications here