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Book Review: In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson

“A supernatural rural noir, reeking of Texas and blood, that grabs you by the throat and never lets go.”

 

In the valley of the sunTravis Stillwell isn’t a very nice guy. Cruising Texas honkytonks by night, Travis plays the ladies’ man part well enough to add the notches to his belt. Unfortunately, the ladies never wake up after the evening’s festivities. Unable to control himself, he does his best to stay one step ahead of the law. But there is someone else in the dark, watching Travis, and she knows they were meant to be together … forever. With a feisty Texas Ranger nipping at his heels, and a vile evil swallowing his soul, Travis finds refuge with a young woman and her son. If only for a moment, he thinks he can make everything right. But time is running out for Travis, and it might be too late for salvation.

In the Valley of the Sun, the debut novel by Andy Davidson, takes hold of one of the most popular tropes in horror, and brings the clichés to their knees, twisting tired concepts in thoughtful, and dare we say, original, ways. The result is a supernatural rural noir, reeking of Texas and blood, that grabs you by the throat and never lets go. This novel is truly scary, one of the scariest we’ve read this year, both in tone and scope. The horror remains unnamed, but it certainly has bite. It’s best to say that just when you think it’s safe to go out in the night, this book proves you should lock yourself inside and bolt the door, at least until the sun comes up.

Broken into several parts, Davidson’s use of perspective and pacing is spot on, giving readers a laser focus on what’s happening right now, then taking the time to look at the main characters individually, pulling the lens back to wide-angle so we can observe from a distance, letting us read between the lines and form our own conclusions. We start with Travis, and we see the carnage he’s capable of with no apologies. On the run from something he can’t explain, or even remember at first, he parks his truck at The Sundowner Inn. There he meets Annabelle Gaskin and her son, Sandy. When he comes up short for the water hookup to stay on the property, Annabelle offers Travis the chance to work off his welcome. Reluctant at first, Travis is too sick and too tired to go on, so he takes the job, working in the sun and sweltering heat as he gets to know Annabelle, who has troubles of her own to deal with. As each day passes, Travis grows sicker; he knows something isn’t right. Unable to hold food down, he continues to suppress his urges. Several hundred miles away, a grizzled Texas Ranger named Reader begins to build his case, on the hunt for what he believes is a serial killer.

When Davidson does breakaway from the main story, these sections shine with deep introspection while maintaining a safe distance, giving the reader glimpses of the past, never going in close enough for explanations, heightening the mystery. We get to know the other player in this story, Rue, and discover her own personal hell. Unable to escape her past or fate, Rue’s acceptance of what she has become is harrowing and ruthless. Seeing a connection to Travis, and believing he is her kin, Rue forces her ways on him, wanting to hold him in her clutches forever. We see the struggles of Annabelle; her run down hotel, raising her son by herself, and get a close look at Sandy, growing up fast, soon to be a teenager, and more aware of the horror that has come than he should be. Another lengthy break with Texas Ranger Reader gets us up to speed with his investigation without bogging the narrative down with boring police and forensic jargon. Once he identifies his killer, Davidson breaks away from the main story once more, going through the years with Travis as he develops into a killer with terrible urges he cannot satisfy.

Davidson ratchets up the tension so well that the most common aspect of the genre tropes are completely forgotten, but only until he brings them up again in ways you never see coming. The dread begins with the first page, and steadily ramps up throughout, building as the tension increases. As much as these characters fall within the moral grey area of the spectrum, we can’t help but to feel for them, even Travis, who is about as bad as they come. We don’t feel sorry for them or the mess they’ve gotten themselves into, but they are compelling nonetheless, and we do care what happens to them, which is what makes us squirm when the pressure pops like a cork. The dialogue here is realistic and fitting, not a word wasted, providing expert character insight and movement of the plot. Davidson doesn’t rely on southern dialect, but he does get a little creative with some word choices, providing local color and firmly setting the story in Texas. Skillful misdirection leads to some of the most horrifying scenes in the book, with readers only knowing what’s happening a split second before the characters know. By building the dread he set in place early on, Davidson makes this all seem so easy, and the story moves swiftly from one set piece to another, yet it also feels like he’s just taking his time with us, toying with us in ways we can’t help but to enjoy.

In the Valley of the Sun is not a story about heroes or heroines, but of people cut from reality, flawed and wretched, harboring secrets and fears. Yet Travis Stillwell may be the most sympathetic killer ever, instantly relatable regardless of his horrible deeds. There’s something about him that we feel, something hard to define and describe, beyond the periphery, tickling our minds. The thing that Davidson brings to the table here is a deep understanding of human behavior, showing us that even the most corrupted among us, even the evilest inhuman thing in the world, is still capable of feeling the worst of our human pains. Grounded in reality, this supernatural story is at its scariest when we see people we care about facing the cold hard facts of life in ways we’ve all experienced before, only this time it’s a matter of life and death. The scenes in the book with Rue are among the most horrific we’ve experienced in quite a while. There’s a pale monster lurking in Travis’ cabover, and she’ll never stop, relentless and undying. Davidson’s descriptions are terrifying and inventive, as are his use of some of the conventions of the genre. Some of the images of Rue are difficult to shake, and she’ll no doubt be visiting your nightmares soon enough.

Reading this book easily suggests the wonderful Kathryn Bigelow film Near Dark. The rural setting, the choice of never naming the evil, the tone and mood, all fit very nicely here. If comparisons are to be made, think of it as though Cormac McCarthy or William Gay wrote Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. There are shades of Red Dragon by Thomas Harris here as well, even though those particular scenes aren’t very typical of police procedurals. Actually, there’s nothing typical at all about this novel, which is one of the reasons it’s so good. Davidson has taken all his influences, wore them on his sleeve, and cobbled something distinctive and compelling, transcending his inspirations with a tale only he could conceive. In the Valley of the Sun could very well be the debut horror novel of the year, and in a year that’s already killing it with horror releases, that is something very special indeed. This one comes highly recommended, and Andy Davidson is one we should all keep our eyes on. We can’t wait to see what horrors he’ll unleash on us next.

 

BOB PASTORELLA

 

Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Hardback: (384 pp)
Release Date: 6 June 2017

 

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