Boys in the Valley immerses the reader in the harsh, prison-like environs of St. Vincent’s Orphanage, deep in the hills of rural Pennsylvania, 1905. Here Peter Barlow and 31 other boys spend monotonous days working the fields and participating in church services under the watchful gaze of a handful of Catholic priests. Any perceived infraction or impiety is met with withheld meals, corporal punishment, or a trip to the dreaded “hole”: a subterranean cell dug into the grounds outside the dormitory. The boys’ already grueling situation goes from bad to worse with the midnight arrival of the local sheriff and his deputies with a grievously wounded suspect in tow. The injured man is combative and raving, with the sheriff evasive about the circumstances of his arrest. Former military medic Father Poole attempts to provide treatment, but what begins as first aid soon devolves into a harrowing exorcism that the wounded man does not survive. After the man’s death and interment in the orphanage grounds Peter notices an unsettling change come over a number of his fellows, beginning with one just returning from an overnight stay in the hole. Formerly cheerful boys have become inexplicably malicious and conspiratorial. They huddle together, darkly plotting and recruiting others, while the priests refuse to acknowledge that anything unusual is occurring. Violence seems imminent, and as the oldest boy with a strong sense of responsibility it’s up to Peter to protect his comrades. Assuming, that is, he can distinguish friend from demonic foe.
Like Fracassi’s previous novel, Gothic, Boys in the Valley involves devil-worship and demonic possession. The publisher’s pithy tagline describes Boys in the Valley as “The Exorcist meets Lord of the Flies, by way of Midnight Mass.” Similarities to The Exorcism are obvious, and both the absence of effective adult supervision and the pervasive child-on-child brutality certainly bring to mind Lord of the Flies. But despite being—at its heart—a religious horror novel, I would also recommend it to fans of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). Isolated and snow-bound, the orphanage may as well be as remote as an Antarctic research station, and its immediately clear that no outside help is forthcoming. Unlike many horror stories, where a singular devil flits from one host to the next in serial fashion, possession is treated here almost like an infection. Some demonic hosts are more insidiously subtle than others, engendering a heavy atmosphere of paranoia as alliances shift and former friends become lethal enemies.
Despite the claustrophobic setting of Boys in the Valley, Fracassi effectively manages a large cast of characters. The various boys are all named and given evocative quirks. The lion’s share of characterization is given to the oldest two boys, the noble aspiring priest Peter and his cynical counterpart David, but through brief passages and conversations Fracassi manages to communicate each boy’s essential nature with surprising economy of words. With the end goal, of course, of making the reader really feel the blow whenever a particular boy meets a savage end at the hands of his fellows.
The pacing is another highlight of Boys in the Valley. Many authors would be tempted to prolong the first third of the novel, after the first boys start to change. Those authors would drip-feed the reader a series of unsettling events over several more chapters before the first murder takes place. Fracassi’s demons are impatient and ready to get to the carnage, however, with the whole sequence of events escalating very quickly. I appreciated the apparent confidence Fracassi had in the strength of his basic premise and his scene-setting ability. Rather than dragging things out unnecessarily, all hell breaks loose within the orphanage soon after Peter uncovers the demonic threat.
Previously published in 2001 as a 500 copy limited edition by Earthling Publications, Boys in the Valley is now being released by Tor Nightfire. Hopefully this mass market edition from a major publisher will introduce Fracassi to a wider audience of readers. After reading both Gothic and Boys in the Valley I am firmly convinced that Philip Fracassi is a name worthy of being included alongside other contemporary horror greats like Paul Tremblay, Nick Cutter, and Stephen Graham Jones. Boys in the Valley is a tense page-turner, absolutely gripping.