Nathan’s Review of Boys in the Valley, a sublime gothic, action packed horror novel for fans of demonic possession stories.
Content Warnings: Religious abuse, child abuse, child murder, suicide, food insecurity
St. Vincent’s Orphanage for Boys.
Turn of the century, in a remote valley in Pennsylvania.
Here, under the watchful eyes of several priests, thirty boys work, learn, and worship. Peter Barlow, orphaned as a child by a gruesome murder, has made a new life here. As he approaches adulthood, he has friends, a future… a family.
Then, late one stormy night, a group of men arrive at their door, one of whom is badly wounded, occult symbols carved into his flesh. His death releases an ancient evil that spreads like sickness, infecting St. Vincent’s and the children within. Soon, boys begin acting differently, forming groups. Taking sides.
Others turn up dead.
Now Peter and those dear to him must choose sides of their own, each of them knowing their lives — and perhaps their eternal souls — are at risk.
The Exorcist meets Lord of the Flies, by way of Midnight Mass, in Boys in the Valley, a brilliant coming-of-age tale from award-winning author Philip Fracassi.
Review of Boys in the Valley
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.
I am not a huge horror book fan, but every once in a while I get the itch to shake things up. I grew up on horror movies because my mom is a huge horror movie buff. I have fond childhood memories of Friday the 13th just as much as I do The Lion King. I snagged a review copy of Boys in the Valley because the marketing was everything I love in horror. Demonic possession? Slasher aesthetics? Midnight Mass (quietly Flanagan’s best miniseries)!
The Boys in the Valley, while perhaps not doing everything the marketing says it does (this is not the author’s fault and I’ll return to this point later), is an action-packed, emotionally resonant, and genuinely dread inducing read that you’ll want to add to your horror book collection.
The Boys in the Valley follows a group of orphaned boys in early-20th century rural Pennsylvania who are abused by the religious leaders running the orphanage (the orphanage is clearly coded as Roman Catholic, but an exact denomination of religious authority is never exactly specified). When the sheriff brings an injured man to the orphanage (the orphanage is the only place close enough to seek help), the demon possessing him starts spreading to the boys, setting off a terrifying and exciting sequence of events.
Fracassi brings two different kinds of horror aesthetics into his book. The first half of the book is a slow moving, dread inducing gothic horror. He paints a beautifully malignant image of the orphanage; it is run down, draconian, and punishing. The boys are barely fed, punished by being placed in a hole outside, and are psychologically tortured by the men in charge. Despite being presented in the written word, there is a gray pall that permeates Fracassi’s world; a sense of hopelessness and lack of power. Even when the boys stand up for themselves they are brutally brought down.
This despotic running of the orphanage sets the scene for the second half of the book when the demon is unleashed. What was once a book that was about slowly building the dread becomes an all-out slasher. Fracassi rewards readers who endured the relentlessly dour first half with an action-forward and bloody second half. Ultimately The Boys in the Valley is like two books in one, and I absolutely relished both of them.
All of this means that this book is genuinely scary. In the first half I had so much anxiety built up because the powder was being set, and all we needed was for it to light. Right when you think things are about to go down, Fracassi pulls back, extending the dread and horror. The second half has genuine jump scares; as the action ratches up things move so quickly (and we jump POVs so often) that things get dizzying and disorienting (in the best possible way) to the point where you don’t know who is going to survive and what will happen next.
The story is told through several POV characters. The main character is Peter, one of the oldest boys at the orphanage who acts as an older brother, and almost father figure, to many of the younger boys. The other POV characters include Andrew, one of the young priests who is actually sympathetic to the plight of the boys, David, another one of the older boys who has been hardened by his experiences, and Johnson, maybe the cruelest of the orphanage leaders. Among these four POV characters we get the four “quadrants” of the world Fracassi constructs here – two orphans and two priests, two that are hopeful and sympathetic and two that are hardened and world-weary. As we see the story unfold through the eyes of these four characters, we get a clash of often contradictory worldviews. We see David and Johnson find opportunities for redemption, while Peter and Andrew start to question their almost painfully naive outlooks.
Fracassi also does some interesting things in constructing his POVs. Peter’s chapters are told in first person while the rest of the POVs are in third person. This allows us into Peter’s mind and worldview while the others are just a bit abstracted. This works beautifully as Peter is kind of an ideal reader stand in. He realizes he is in a bad situation, and yet he isn’t completely beat down by the system. He sees beauty in the world, including his care for the younger, oft-bullied boys and his romantic feelings for a girl at a local farm. I won’t say anything too specific clear, but the shift between first person and third person POVs also creates a climatic and heart wrenching ending for all involved. What results is a masterfully constructed and told end to this horrific tale.
A lot of the marketing around this book involves some element of The Lord of the Flies. I’m not sure I see the connection beyond the superficial. The Lord of the Flies was about the line between our human and animal natures; the ways in which masculinity and modern society work together to both keep us in communion while also setting us up to release the most savage parts of our selves. The Boys in the Valley doesn’t explore these kinds of internal power dynamics, and I think “oh, the boys are unleashed” isn’t enough to make that comparison, and ultimately it is a detriment to the novel. Don’t go in expecting The Lord of the Flies, but instead a thoughtful exploration of trauma – both past and present – and the build up of rage that results from it. The literal demon in this book is the instigating incident, but its the anger the boys have that Fracassi explores; anger is the metaphorical demon.
This means that as the reader you still have sympathy for the boys as they slash and murder their way through the orphanage. Like any good horror novel, Boys in the Valley challenges and questions exactly who are the villains? On one hand, the religious authorities subject these young boys to absolutely heinous punishments. While being horrified by the actions of the boys, I knew why they were unleashing these feelings. Fracassi puts his readers in an ethical and emotional bind of who you are actually rooting for in the book. I enjoyed this experience immensely because horror shouldn’t be black and white, but should explore the sticky middle grounds of morality and the human experience. Fracassi does that flawlessly.
I haven’t had a genuine five-star read in a while, but The Boys in the Valley joins those ranks. I read it all in less than 24 hours because I couldn’t put it down. The plot absolutely moves while exploring some real deep seeded traumas in its characters. Pick this one up; highly recommended.
Concluding Thoughts: Combining both slow burn macabre and action-packed slasher horror, The Boys in the Valley is a genuinely scary and dread-inducing book about the limits of abuse and the rage that results from it. Fracassi uses both perspective and character development to explore themes of religious, abuse, and long-lasting trauma, and asks whether genuine hope can emerge from these circumstances. This book is a real winner in the horror genre.