reviewed by Max Booth III
A cowboy with a dark secret, floating from honky tonk to honky tonk, claiming the lives of drunk women with a blade blessed with death. A motel owner with a troubled son and a diminishing bank account. A woman cursed with immortality and an insatiable hunger. An FBI agent racing through the desert, obsessed with catching a serial killer. A cast of powerful, dangerous characters stalked by one mean bastard of a sun.
Ask most fans of horror about what they think about vampires these days and they’ll most likely respond with some bullshit BuzzFeed headline answer like: “Vampires Aren’t Scary Anymore. All They Do is Sparkle.”
Well I’m here to tell that response to go fuck itself. Actually, Andy Davidson is here to say it, and in a huge way.
It feels like Andy Davidson came out of nowhere with his debut novel. Like he’s been hiding in the shadows, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. A rattlesnake biding its time for the perfect bare ankle to cross its path. In the Valley of the Sun reads like a lost William Gay novel. From page one this thing is gonna sink its fangs into you, which is the one and only vampire pun I’m allowing myself for this write-up.
Davidson’s prose is poetic and, when it needs to be, dirty. When a human spends too much time under a West Texas sun, reality distorts itself. And if you think the sun in West Texas is the same as the sun anywhere else, then you simply have never been in West Texas. Under this sun, life spins surreal. The line between perception and hallucination become muddled. In interviews, Davidson reveals he got the original idea for In the Valley of the Sun while spending an entire summer painting a fence and listening to music. If someone spends enough time out in the sun, something happens to their brain. They start seeing things differently.
West Texas is one of my favorite settings for a novel. Just look at the works of Cormac McCarthy or Stephen Graham Jones. Characters never come more to life than when they’re trapped in the sweet, terrible nothingness that represents this gorgeous landscape. The sun is just as much as a character as anybody else in these books. It lays down a certain type of dread even the most talented horror writer sometimes struggles to conjure. Think of Llewelyn Moss (No Country for Old Men) stumbling across a drug deal gone wrong. Sweat soaking his clothes, stinging his eyes, the sight of riches and death presented before him. Think of Tanner Howard (Hell or High Water) bleeding and dying on top of that rocky hill, sniper rifle in his hands. The sun beating down practically laughing at his misfortune. Saying, “Don’t you know, boy? Don’t you know nobody ever escapes once they get caught in my glare?” The characters in In the Valley of the Sun were doomed the moment they looked up at the sky and declared it bright and hot.
I read this novel back in June while visiting my girlfriend’s parents in California. Every morning I walked down the street and sat at a diner and drank coffee and ate a breakfast burrito and read a good chunk of it. This book is not short by any stretch, but it never feels long, not for a second. One morning, my server asked me what the book was about, and I got maybe halfway through the sentence, “Well, a serial killer gets turned into a vampire and starts working at a motel,” before she turned around to help another customer. I’ve been thinking about my response to that question a lot lately and I aim to stick with it. There are many kinds of people in this world. Some of them will get excited at the prospect of a serial killer turning into a vampire and working at a motel and some of them will turn around and ignore you the first chance they get. That’s okay. If everybody got excited about the same things, life would be very boring.
Serial killers and vampires are kind of the same thing, aren’t they? It makes sense to mash them together. A vampire is always a serial killer but a serial killer isn’t always a vampire. But sometimes, serial killers get turned into vampires after they’ve already done their share of killing. The wonderful thing about this novel is, take away the vampirism and the story still works. At its core, this is a novel about a man with an edgy past doing his damnedest to resist his urge to kill. He’s met a kind woman who’s given him a job at her motel. He’s bonded with her son. Just that alone is enough for a great tale. But now add in the fact that this fella’s recently been converted to a blood drinker, and you have a whole new level of suspense. Every time this guy’s close to either the woman or boy, you’re left with little choice but to hold your breath and wonder if the disease rotting him from the inside-out is going to finally take over and feast.
In the Valley of the Sun is part ’Salem’s Lot, part Red Dragon, part Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, part No Country for Old Men. It’s the perfect mix of everything I love about the horror genre. Davidson managed to take every vampire and serial killer trope and bleed them dry until something fresh and truly exciting emerged. It’s the best book I’ve read this year and I don’t think anything else I come across in 2017 is going to top it.
Go buy it. Go read it. Right now.
Max Booth III is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Perpetual Motion Machine and the Managing Editor of Dark Moon Digest. He co-hosts the podcast Castle Rock Radio with his partner, Lori Michelle, and writes online for LitReactor and Gamut. He’s written some novels, too. Follow him on Twitter @GiveMeYourTeeth.