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Moriah

Daniel Mills

Zagava, 182pp,

€11.81pb,€64 numbered hb.

There are profound and painful ironies at the heart of Daniel Mills’ Moriah, a shimmering work of fiction that is both indebted to the American Gothic tradition, and yet somehow remaining its own beast. The title makes explicit reference to a test of faith—Abraham’s binding of his son Isaac in preparation for his sacrifice at the behest of God—and yet nearly all the central characters have lost their faith. The main protagonist, a sceptical journalist, has come to Moriah to debunk the claims of two notorious spiritualists, said to be able to summon the dead, yet is himself haunted by ghosts. A man of reason, ultimately he retreats from exposing the lie.

Moriah, first published by Chizine in 2017, but available now in this beautiful numbered edition (there's also a paperback) from independent press Zagava, concerns the investigation by civil war veteran and ex-chaplain turned reporter, Silas Flood, into the séances hosted by the brothers Thaddeus and Ambrose Lynch at the Yellow House, their home a few miles outside the small Vermont town of Moriah. The narrative begins with a violent (though accidental) death, and closes with Flood’s memory of the same event as he departs Moriah. In between we are introduced to a diverse group of characters, each of them struggling either to rediscover their faith in God, or to invest their belief in something else. Few of them find solace, and for the reader, as for Flood, the questions the story raises are left mostly unanswered. Why does faith drive a man to abandon his young wife and a child not yet born, in favour of war? How can the love of a child hold less sway in the mind of a father, than the fear of a vengeful God? Why must a young girl serve as betrothed in the place of a dead sister? What is it that one parent can recognise and accept in the face of a ghost, that the other cannot?

At the heart of the story is Silas Flood’s need to make sense of what he—a former believer in a rational, ordered and, most crucially, Christian way of life—has come to see as a violent, senseless and disordered universe. The horrors he witnessed in the war—one or two precise and shocking incidents are cited—the fearful premonitions of his young wife and her subsequent death in a fire, have literally exploded his faith in God. He comes to Moriah seemingly determined to expose the Lynch’s cyclical exploitation of grieving parents and lovers, but what he finds is something far more complex and elusive. Without giving too much away, there are smoke and mirrors at play in the Yellow House, but there are also people striving to rebuild their shattered lives, the Lynch brothers and their young sister Sally, not least among them. It begs the question, who is using who? Who are the exploiters and who the exploited? The more Flood discovers through his sometimes fractious, sometimes hopeful, but always painfully real, encounters with the Lynch siblings and their guests, the less certain he is of the truth of what is happening in Moriah.

Setting aside its title, the novel is replete with Biblical, particularly old testament, allusions, most obviously in the naming of characters—particularly siblings Thaddeus and Rebecca, but also in the protagonist’s surname, with its connotations of an apocalyptic purging of sin. The threat posed by Flood is recognised by the tormented Thaddeus, who seems to both fear and desire what Silas represents. Different characters are caught in various acts of punishment or sacrifice, atonement or contrition. The book Silas is reading throughout his stay is Longfellow’s translation of Dante’s Purgatorio—apt reading, perhaps for a man who has turned his back on God. It’s significant that in an argument with Flood, Thaddeus tears the book from his hand and throws it to the floor where some of its pages come loose. He immediately describes the cruel punishments he and his siblings have suffered at the hands of their God-fearing father—his own living purgatory—and notes, as he leaves Flood picking up the pages, that he looks “like a penitent,” and that the jumbled verses of the poem represent “a narrative all in pieces,” a statement that not only serves as an accurate description of the novel’s structure with its competing narrative perspectives, but also points to the fragmented lives of the inhabitants of the Yellow House. It’s significant too that Silas, on completion of his—knowingly false—written report into the goings on in Moriah, stores the pages inside the disordered leaves of the Purgatorio.

The name of the Lynch’s dwelling and specifically the journal entries—written by Thaddeus’s much-loved and deceased sister Rebecca, in the bedroom where she had been forcibly detained as punishment for her romantic involvement with a cousin—evoke the similarly confined young woman at the centre of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. These allusions, and the numinous, almost hymnal prose, suffuse the story with a deep air of melancholia. This sense of being bound by invisible constraints, of being subject to the whims of a cruel and capricious fate is amplified by glimpses of past events remembered by the characters, as here, when Flood reflects back to the early days of the war, when it still seemed “a dim prospect to us then, half real, like mountains glimpsed at the fall of dusk, and the whole of the future …lay open to us; children and grandchildren and a place of rest beneath the cedar trees,”—a memory made all the more poignant by the subsequent loss of his wife and infant child. Or the memory of a young soldier who had come to Flood seeking advice on how he should make his peace with God. Flood told him that, like himself, he should pin to his breast a note with his name and the name of a loved one on it, “so they might know where to send me after they had carried me from the field in pieces.” Though the young man disdains the counsel, Flood observes when he next saw him, he had pinned such a note to his breast, but tells us that he never saw the boy again.

Then there are the voices that haunt Ambrose, reminding him of the horrors he has witnessed, leaving him forever caught in the web of his father’s unspeakable cruelty. The extent to which Ambrose’s visions and his powers as a medium, are real is uncertain, but there’s little doubt about how profoundly his psyche has been damaged by those dark memories—just what, for example, is going on with his father’s self-flagellation?—and his consequent, debilitating guilt. Rebecca’s journal entries also contribute significantly to the pervasive sense of the inescapability of the past, of characters trapped in a cage of memories. At first the entries are matter of fact, describing the room where she is confined, the looking glass and the basin where she washes herself every morning, and the bed that was her mothers “when she was a girl.” There’s even a suggestion of hope in the glimpse of the summer’s hay from the window, but it is a hope that is never realised as subsequent entries take on a darker, more despairing tone. Her mother’s bed is one “which I would have shared with my sister had she lived.” The room is locked, the window sashes nailed to the frames. In another entry that portends Flood’s jumbled, indecipherable Purgatorio, we’re told that the bible is the only book her father allows her, but that having read it until her vision blurred, she can no longer “see the page before me”. It’s no surprise then when she describes her faith as “a broken and flapping thing”, again echoing the shattered faith of so many of the other characters.

Moriah is not an easy read, it is too steeped in suffering, too redolent of the scent of death. The ending offers little in the way of consolation, and yet it is not completely without hope. The dead child killed at the start beneath the wheels of the train that carries Flood to Moriah, is remembered at the end, even if only in passing. It is a hauntingly beautiful work, free of false sentiment and yet compassionate about the fate of the lives its portrays. Mills’ ability to convey the ambivalent and conflicting thoughts and emotions of his characters, his poetic and evocative prose calls to mind Poe and Hawthorne, but also writers of more recent vintage—Shirley Jackson, and even Flannery O’Connor. What he reminds us is that life is not black or white, that we are not all good or all bad, but, as with Flood’s final account of the events at the Yellow House, somewhere in between.

I should also point out how the publishers have incorporated elements of Mills’ haunting podcast series, These Dark Mountains, into the book. A cutaway in the front cover allows us a glimpse of an engraving of a young woman. Opening the book, we find the endsheets adorned with newsprint: adverts for boots and shoes, Stove polish, rail timetables, a report from an ongoing trial, and most pertinently, the front age report into the murder of Miss Mariette Ball, the subject of episode 6—The East Hill Murder—of the podcast, a real life murder contemporaneous with the events played out in Moriah.