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Savannah Book Festival: Lydia Millet brings a touch of horror into her latest novel

  • Lydia Millet

Savannah Book Festival: Lydia Millet brings a touch of horror into her latest novel

08 Feb 2017

Lydia Millet is an author who’s never shied away from going wherever inspiration takes her. In previous works, she included characters ranging from time-traveling physicists to a cannibal toddler to literal mermaids.

On the surface, the characters of her latest novel, “Sweet Lamb of Heaven,” are everyday humans. But this is just a facade, and something more sinister lurks underneath.

“I was following the horror movies most of us have some familiarity with,” she explains. “Movies like ‘The Omen’ or ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ or ‘Fallen’ or ‘The Exorcist,’ movies like ‘The Ring,’ that inject a supernatural darkness into their narratives without justifying or explaining that darkness, except as the opposite of light.”

While Millet seems to enjoy manipulating reality, she also uses it as a lens through which to look at everyday existence.

“Once you have the entrance onto the scene of an unexplained phenomenon or element, you can play with what that phenomenon or element might mean. You can bring ideas into the plot almost as you’d bring characters in. You can say: What does evil, that outmoded notion, actually look like now? Can we even identify it? And what might happen if we did?”

Millet isn’t alone in blurring the lines between literary and genre. Heralded authors such as Karen Russell, Manuel Gonzales and Kelly Link have earned their reputations by ignoring traditional genre divides. But while it may seem that we’re entering a golden age of literary fabulism, Millet believes that the supernatural is nothing new to storytelling.

“It’s true that pop culture’s embracing the overtly, formally ‘magical’ story these days, but when has magic not been popular? Sometimes it’s been mainstream, other times it’s had to go underground a bit, but magic comes in so many forms its position in culture can be hard to pin down.”

Even our biggest movie blockbusters have trended in that direction.

“My little boy was taken aback the other day, for example, when I suggested superheroes were just another kind of magical creature. He hadn’t thought of them that way.”

One of the aspects of everyday existence Millet takes on is religion. The novel strikes a delicate balance between outright criticism of organized religion and respect for those who are individually spiritual.

For example, the narrator Anna’s estranged husband fronts a phony sort of religiosity, an act he puts on to advance a budding political career, and with which he hides his darker ambitions.

“I needed to touch on religion in this particular novel because of the role fundamentalist voters, in particular, have been playing in our national politics over the past few decades. The way forms of genuine belief are being exploited by the opportunistic and the cynical for the sake of power.”

But Millet isn’t interested in criticizing so much as she is in raising important questions.

“How might it reverberate in our culture, in our country, if we were to understand God in less narrow terms? If we allowed ourselves to be less possessive of God, less threatened by different visions of divinity?”

As the novel delves deeper and deeper into its psychological horror, these question are, if not answered, then at least thrown into stark relief. And a careful reader will come out on the other side with a fresh perspective on the everyday.


Book: “Sweet Lamb of Heaven”

When: 11:20 a.m. Feb. 18

Where: Lutheran Church Sanctuary, Wright Square