The Boys in the Valley by Philip Fracassi [Book Review]
Well, here’s a turn-up for the books. Philip Fracassi, known for his ambiguous explorations of the modern weird and uncanny, has dropped his first horror novel – and it’s a period piece in more ways than one. With its religious possession storyline and brutally violent action, Boys in the Valley could slot quite comfortably into the ranks of notable fright fiction from the mid-1980s, keeping company with works like T.E.D. Klein’s The Ceremonies and John Farris’s Son of the Endless Night. Fracassi’s debut is much slimmer than the fat horror books that dominated the racks back then, but its heart seems to be ripped from a similar place.
Since we’re talking about history, note that this is only Fracassi’s first horror novel. 1999’s The Egotist is long out of print, fetches a pretty penny on the collector’s market, and seems to be a modern literary tome that addresses its main character’s relationships with adulthood, women, and corporate America – three things conspicuous by their near-to-absolute absence in his new book. Boys in the Valley is a flat-out horror novel that examines themes of faith, choice, and sacrifice, set in a rural Catholic orphanage in 1905 where the boys outnumber the adults by eight to one. A more drastic contrast could scarcely be imagined, and the cosmetic elements would also seem a world away from Fracassi’s usual cosmic concerns. But while the numinous weirdness is toned down here, it’s certainly not gone – it just takes on a different form this time around.
Prose-wise, the novel is at the level you’d expect from this author – detailed yet easy to devour at speed, spiced with tasty morsels that beg to be savoured: Saint Vincent’s Orphanage lies “settled deeply in the hollow of the valley’s throat”, and smiling conspirators are “cats with sealed lips, their mouths filled with canaries”. A few choices do stand out as a trifle odd – using third-person for most perspectives but allowing first-person for young Peter Barlow, for example, or choosing a My Chemical Romance lyric for the epigraph of a story set in the early 20th century – but none destabilise the story or pull the reader out of its tight grip. Fracassi knows his nuts and bolts, and he assembles his story with practiced ease.
If there’s one aspect that jars a little, it’s the decidedly old-fashioned system governing the interactions between the intruding menace and its putative prey. Holy water burns evil, baptism saves souls – all the trappings of classic Catholic good-versus-evil storytelling, which Fracassi has completely avoided up to this point. It’s an oddly binary approach for such a modern author, especially as he shades characters on both sides well enough to avoid basic good/bad typing – one of the leading boys struggles with a strong urge toward self-preservation instead of altruism, and Johnson, the traditional brutish henchman who relishes his work, is seen to harbour some gruff sympathy for his charges. Which is more than can be said for the priggish Father Poole, who runs the orphanage with an iron fist and unbending moral spine – he’s your usual sanctimonious prick whose off-handed cruelty to the boys in the name of God leaves you anticipating his comeuppance. The irreligious reader will wonder what Peter even sees in his planned future with the Church, why he’s so torn between the grace of God and the Grace of a nearby farm, a girl who feeds Peter classic literature and the promise of earthly love. He’s certainly given little cause to relish his religion, what with the meagre slop the orphans are fed and the hard scripture learning and labour to which they’re put – the chaotic evil of the intruding presence almost seems charming by comparison, despite its penchant for brutally dispatching innocent children. But hard choices must be made in hard times, choices that will lead to pyrrhic victories at best, and no one is guaranteed a happy ending on this blood-sopped stage.
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At the time of writing, Boys in the Valley was nearing sell-out of its limited print run of 500 copies. Should any remain as you read this, it will be well worth your while to snap one up, and if none do, best start praying for a future trade edition. Fracassi’s on a bit of a hot streak at the moment, and this is as good a place as any to jump aboard. Boys in the Valley is a good old-fashioned horror novel like they used to write back in the day, and it bears all the trademarks of talent so obvious in Fracassi’s preceding work. As the adults at Saint Vincent’s Orphanage might say: have a little faith, and you will be richly rewarded… or perhaps they’d identify with another MCR lyric, one that would have made a more appropriate epigraph for this book: “All teenagers scare the livin’ shit out of me!”
Boys in the Valley is released by Earthling Publications on October 31, 2021.
Matthew R. Davis
Matthew R. Davis is an author and musician based in Adelaide, South Australia, whose novelette “Heritage Hill” was shortlisted for a 2020 Shirley Jackson Award and the WSFA Small Press Award. His books are the horror collection If Only Tonight We Could Sleep (Things in the Well, 2020) and the novel Midnight in the Chapel of Love (JournalStone, 2021). Find out more at matthewrdavisfiction.wordpress.com.
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