Marguerite Carson journeys into the god-fearing town, lake in the woods, in Suki Hollywood’s gothic novel Jesus Freaks (2023), unpacking religion fearing as conspiracy theory, 16th century occult beliefs, the story of Lazarus, and falling inside all of the gay undercurrents.
Jesus Freaks is a book about small towns. Jesus Freaks is a book about gossip. Jesus Freaks is dedicated to everyone whose hometown wants them dead. A book of bible bashing Christianity, spirituality, small town suspicion and queerness; the misfits and the troublemakers and the lovers, but also the criminals? Presumably your hometown wants you dead for setting fire to the school just as much as it does for kissing your next door neighbour if they happen to be a girl like you. Maybe you burned down the school because you want to kiss your next door neighbour? Maybe you just quite like fire.
But this is all beside the point,there are no burning schools in Jesus Freaks. There are, however, a number of people dead in the town and when Ariel Enkles joins their ranks, thinks start to get strange.
If this was real, then it meant it was all real, and the things she had buried inside her to rot were not fears but realities.
The boundaries of reality are toyed with throughout, though never straying all the way into the realms of fantasy. Instead slinking around, shirking responsibility and sitting in the spaces where need and want, desire and greed fill the gaps. In doing so, the book prods at something incredibly human, it points to and illustrates what happens when we try to make sense of the ways that society collectively invests in beliefs in order to fabricate a stable reality. In hanging the supernatural occurrence beside the devoted faith healer’s ‘healing’ of apparent infertility, all belief is cast into a space of spurious potential. Against the backdrop of this specific flavouring of enthusiastic (evangelical and dangerous) Christianity, sometimes described as bible bashing, the supernatural occurrences play out, blending into and with the religious fervour of the town’s belief so that the lines between rational and strange are intertwined.
Or rather, to be less cryptic; the novel takes place in a somewhat bland all-American town, very white, very Christian - that specific blending of church and state in positions of power, so that really there is no escape, just as there seems to be no escape from the town itself. A town that doesn’t exceed its limits, perhaps there’s nothing outside its boundary, the story never strays beyond; even those that do leave are described as though dead - entirely absent - there is no flow across this threshold.
This town could be anywhere and (almost) anything could be beyond its perimeter, it’s a perfect nowhere place and, tellingly, almost nothing outside its limits is ever referenced by its inhabitants. In this sense, a claustrophobia is sketched out, like a lingering. A withholding of the intensity means it, something, is always lurking; just a few moments of haunting abyss within forests and lakes. Always waiting. It's no accident that the films that come to mind are all filled with the ‘excesses’ and collective madness’s of young girls and their rampant teenage sexualities, powerful in their mystery and societal closeting. The systems that covet the power and resulting evils are the same systems that reverberate through the town, the repressed societal hush that fingers the text and kills those within it, sometimes literally. The queers are driven out, hidden, passed notes that say ‘do not be afraid’ and offered salvation by the intense bible readers; Jerome a greasy haired lost teen is driven to suicide. The faith healer is brought in to fix a baby-less household. And the mayor is the son of the town pastor, who also incidentally turns out to believe he is the descendant of angels.
Dana, our protagonist, is a cop in this town. Ariel Enkles is someone she used to know, Ariel winds up dead and then inexplicably mere hours after her funeral, her grave and those of four others are discovered by Dana empty. The ensuing search, for their bodies, for those responsible and for the reason for five empty graves in a churchyard of many, turns up stones that most would rather leave firmly planted. As the search plays out, Dana’s brother hides his own rather gruesome and very much moving, though questionably alive, woman-in-the-attic, whom he falls tenderly in love with in his bedroom. Ariel’s lost-presumed-dead sister Sera also reappears in town, shedding light on her strange family and reigniting something within Dana she’d long thought buried. At times the mood is of vintage horror; manipulating the undercurrents and signifiers of pop culture, building on a shorthand of collective references so that we feel we’ve been here before. Avery Gordon speaks of the ghost as a social figure that when investigated ‘lead[s] to that dense site where history and subjectivity make social life.’ Hollywood subverts these recognitions, toying with us. The collective madness could be said to be everyone’s, could be said to be one particular family’s. There is no beginning or end of each iteration; they simply bleed into one another, reflecting what is familiar. As such, religious fervour is cast almost as a conspiracy theory, the harms of the post-truth era ringing with the histories of collective indoctrination through the ages of the western, colonial society.
Enochian, for those that don’t know, is an occult constructed language said to be handed down from angels, recorded in John Dee’s journals alongside his magical investigations in the late 16th century. Blending Christian piety with various occult practices of the supernatural Dee and Kelley were said to be in communication with angels who dictated to them volumes of teachings such as the Five Books of Mystery and the Liber Logaeth - also referred to by Dee as The Book of Enoch - from which the Enochian language is derived through the distillation of many complex tables and magical grids. The manuscripts now sit in the British library collections.
‘I don’t believe in it as in I agree with it,’ she said. ‘I don’t believe in it. Some of it’s just made up, like Enochian was just made up by English colonisers,’ Sera looked at the ground.
‘But we can do things. That’s real, unfortunately. I believe it in like I believe in gravity.’
In invoking the 16th century occult beliefs, which it should be noted, drew heavily on a recognisable Christian system and Dee's devout and intense Christianity, the novel draws attention to the malleability of Christianity in particular; casting other, more contemporary iterations alongside that which we now dismiss as occult, or not within the Christian canon. Escape and religious trauma, the inheritance of a skewed perception of godly communication and a history of bled-into understandings of Christianity - asking what is the reality of an old belief system that in this sense feels so new? John Dee, it turns, out coined the term ‘The British Empire’; these things are all connected; this inheritance that leads people to take matters into their own hands and to take belief into their own hands in ways that feel specifically American, or colonial, or searching.
Bury your gays is a familiar and exhausted plot trope, arising as it does from the censor laws and the pulp fiction paperback publishing phenomenon. All-American in some ways, bleeding into Hollywood, bleeding into queer works. That the suicide of a young girl does not emerge as motivated by homophobia comes as a surprise. One that provokes an acknowledgement within ourselves that this whole time we were bracing for it, suspecting it and crucially, attributing blame to a reading of the society within which it takes place.
The expectation of the doomed character being persecuted for their queerness, the expectation of the tantalising suspense being driven by horrors that are untenable because of a queerness, is exposed to us in this moment.
The story of Lazarus echoes and reverberates through the script. Like a refrain, recast by redactions. To become accusing, to become accusatory.
There is no time to waste, there is no space.
The death drive is calling.
The story of Lazarus, you don’t need to know it. Jesus seems to leave him to die, and then travels nonchalantly to where he is buried and raises him from the dead. A miracle. Proof that resurrection is not only for Jesus.
Each new chapter begins with a quote, often relating to Lazarus, interweaving the Dictionary of Angels, the history of the town and the bible together. So that there is a background murmur always, so that the story is told against a backdrop. Briefly the lights show the curtain before we are absorbed again.
Dana thinks, as she always does in these moments, of Sera and how grief is never finished.
Resurrection is not only for Jesus. In Silvia Plath’s second collection of poems, published two years after her death, there is a poem titled ‘Lady Lazarus’. The collection is titled Ariel and contains a poem of the same name.
Soon, soon the flesh/The grave cave ate will be/At home on me.
Because, you see, Ariel is an angel of death. Ariel, or Azrael, is in Abrahamic religions responsible for transporting the souls of the dead. And so within Ariel lies the promise of salvation, the fear of death is gone because resurrection is near [allegedly].And so these things, interconnected as they are, become important. It has to do with fear.
One of the painted angels held a sword, Dana realised. It was stabbing the angel opposite it, but neither of them looked sad. They just had relaxed, open-mouthed expressions, eyes looking upwards, like kids did when they were making fun of each other with sex noises.
Jesus people were so weird.
The archetypal gothic haunting is subverted by disallowing the dead to return fully or successfully, instead Sera returns from the undead, disappeared but autonomous and only one to cross the (town’s) boundary and come back. Set in contrast to Dana’s absent mother, who we understand to have left but never returned, Sera is barely tolerated, threatening in the havoc wreaked upon her intimate familial unit, mirrored by the town (her brother Michael holding all the positions of authority; eldest male, mayor and later sheriff), and its responsibility to cohesion. Joe also queer, also a member of the Enkles family, escapes the perils of his threatening sexuality by virtue of his maleness, which renders his position tolerable and his ability to fly beneath the radar possible. He is afforded the luxury of realist, participating only where he must, whereas Sera’s body and her specifically gendered responsibility to the family makes her position untenable. Threatened with the prospect of enforced pregnancy she disappears, forced, but she has also escaped, while Joe keeps busy drowning his sorrows.
Diana Fuss speaks of the ‘mutual haunting’ at work between the homo and heterosexual positions in their co-existence, each reinforcing the other as definitive, boundaried and closed. Queerness threatens and heteronormity demands conformity; a ghosting and the casting of a negative image. Sera’s name is initially blacked out. She is erased, a ghost. Listed at the end as Dana’s redacted. Sera has an ability to disappear, to make people forget things, and Dana feels into the edges and recesses of her memory, like a tongue feeling the absence of a tooth to find things blank or sometimes ever changing.
Sera began to kiss her back, holding her tongue in her mouth. Dana wasn’t cold anymore, but she was still shaking, shaking as she held the two fingers Sera offered in her mouth, as she led them, wet, between her legs, holding on to Sera, burning all around her, barefoot in the mud.
The descriptions are lyrical, tender and beautiful; simultaneously gripped by the plot and what might happen, the answers to the great unknowns, and yet basking in this love that is finally realised. All the gay undercurrents paid off.
The ever building, ever deepening intimacy, which at some point tips into sex but was in fact always love. Dana missed Sera more than her disappeared mother, before they even fucked.
 Gordon A (2008) Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. 2nd ed. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press
You can buy a copy of Suki Hollywood’s novel Jesus Freaks (2023) here!
Text: Marguerite Carson
Image: Suki Hollywood