14 December 2017

Review - In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson

Cover design by Andrew Forteath
In the Valley of the Sun
Andy Davidson
Contraband, 2 November 2017
PB, 328pp

I'm grateful to Sara at Saraband for a copy of this book.

We all want to live and die in the wide-open valley of the sun, where secrets find no purchase and wellsprings of hope are plentiful and all sturdy things grow. 

- In the Valley of the Sun, p311

In the Valley of the Sun is a novel of contradictions. A classic horror story yet set in the present day (well, the 80s), a story featuring monsters of darkness yet taking place in the relentless Texas sunlight, a story of unbearably cruel monsters yet ones with whom you'll sympathise, it eschews the normal Gothic trappings, in particular never naming the monster. Nor will I, because while it's not exactly a spoiler, it's satisfying seeing their identity, their reality, take shape.

This is also a story that explores a recent darkness that is now often forgotten or overlooked. Many of the characters in this book are haunted by the Vietnam War. They either took part, or lost husbands or fathers (and losing doesn't necessarily mean death: at least one person here is still living, active, but lost indeed). It is a war nobody wants to remember, yet always starkly present, glimpsed in the corner of an eye.

There's even a nod to Apocalypse Now and to Heart of Darkness in a backstory involving a unit gone rogue killing and torturing at will. One might even see the violence, the darkness, of the war as contributing or balancing the supernatural evil portrayed. But there isn't a naive equation of the US Army with being killers or evil per se.  John Reader, a Texas Ranger and himself ex-military is a veritable avenging angel, patiently and deliberately tracking down a killer who's strangling young women (and his own memory of the war heightens his understanding of what he faces).

Reader is an admirable character, dedicated, competent and remorseless. The duel between him and Travis Stillwell - no less of one for the fact that Stillwell is unaware of the Nemesis approaching - is almost classic Western in form: the (slightly reluctant) lawman and the outlaw (and yes, Stillwell does wear a black hat). The story is though much more than that. Also central are Annabelle Gaskin and her son Sandy. Gaskin is, in her own way, as determined and courageous as Reader - her mission, to raise and protect her son. Sandy's missing a father because of the war, and he's the butt of jokes and bullies at school because of it to. The evil spreads and poisons the innocent.

But Sandy isn't the only isolated, vulnerable child here. As the story threads backwards and forwards in time we see other children left alone, or with abusive parents, or suffering the effect of patriarchy - for example in one very distressing sequence where a woman leaves her husband along with her boy and is pretty much captured by the police and returned. Again, the innocent are touched by an evil as as it festers and spreads.

Which is, in away, the central horror in this book. Innocence is corrupted and then itself must seek out new innocents to sustain it. The Texas sun is merciless, and darkness needs fresh blood to prevent it crumbling into dust. It's fitting the story concludes amidst the gathering dark and tawdry illusion of a fairground.

Altogether an accomplished, chilling and genuinely different take on an age old horror trope which - even in modern versions - has become tired.

In Davidson's hands, it regains its ability to unsettle, to scare, to outright terrify the reader.

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