I just finished Jenny Kiefer’s This Wretched Valley, by first-time novelist Jenny Kiefer … and I almost liked it. But there was something missing… and I wonder if anyone else felt it, too.
You remember the podcast, Talking Scared, that I reviewed a while back? They had Jennie Kiefer on as a guest recently, and I was really intrigued by her story – and her, she’s smart and worked hard to get this right. But I was especially interested because This Wretched Valley is a novel of ‘survival horror,’ which is a kind of subgenre of horror in general: when people get caught in a horrible ‘natural’ disaster, where some horrific element is introduced, or maybe simply madness, and evil – supernatural or psychotic – intervene. Dan Simmons’ The Terror, based on the historical event of two sailing ships frozen in the ice during a really stupid attempt at finding Northwest Passage, and Alma Katsu’s The Hunger, a horrific re-telling of the Donner Party, Nick Cutter’s The Troop, about a Boy Scout camping trip that goes terribly, cannibalistically wrong, Gregoire Courtois’ The Laws of the Skies, which does horrible things to an entirely different group of young campers, are all great examples. In fact, Stephen King even got into the game with The Girl Who Loves Tom Gordon, about a girl lost in the forest and maybe pursued by a monstrous bear… thing. And probably the best known – and one that was mentioned in the interview with Jenny Kiefer’s interview, is Scott Smith’s The Ruins, which was made into a pretty damn good movie way back in 2008 – about a tumble of ancient, overgrown buildings in the jungle that literally eat up some unsuspecting hikers.
And yeah, This Wretched Valley bears a superficial resemblance to The Ruins. This time it’s a huge shelf of rock in the middle of the Kentucky Wilderness and a small group of rock climbers who want to be the first to conquer it that are… well, consumed? Haunted? Eaten? By a clearly malevolent nature with an especially bloody history.
Now I liked the Ruins. Even Stephen King called it the best horror novel of the new century – though hey, admittedly, the century was only a couple of years old at that point. The gradual desperation and madness of the characters was just … hypnotic – and it’s way more brutal in the printed form than the movie. And I was hoping for much the same in Wretched Valley.
But… it falls a little flat. Kiefer’s writing style is very good, very polished. Her action sequences, her imagery, her attention to detail – this is the kind of thing you look for in a book, right? But as much as I wanted it, the story just never grabbed me, never convinced me, and ultimately the problems I found in the logic of its backstory, the reason for all this horror, just didn’t convince me or affect me.
And I’m really sorry.
So… here’s the puzzle? Why didn’t it work? It’s a good idea. It’s a strong, if small, subgenre that really can grab you by the nads =– all the books I mention managed it. And I went through a similar ‘reality meets the monstrous” in my recent there-book set, The Rain Triptych, where it was creatures coming out of the rain to murder completely normal people in the must awful ways. So I get it. I want it.
So why didn’t it work?
I’m thinking… it was the characters. I think the real horror, the real emotion that survival horror affords you isn’t from – or at least not only from – the imagery or the tension. I think you have to believe in these people, you have to think you know them. Not like them or ‘identify’ with them – stupid term, almost never applicable – but you have to have enough details and background, even if it’s offered only in dribs and drabs, even if it’s as much from dialogue or dreams as it is from info-dump narration – actually, not info-dump narration, thank you. Because if the people that all this horrendous stuf is happening to aren’t real … then all that horrendous stuff doesn’t matter.
And that’s what I couldn’t find in This Wretched Valley. Two of the main characters were supposed to be boyfriend and girlfriend. They were supposed to love each other. But I don’t recall any scenes, especially pre-horror, that really made us feel that connection. One of the characters was absolutely focused, even obsessed, with being a famous climber. An internet influencer. But we never got a sense of why this was so important to her, who drove her to do some of the truly crazy stuff she did. One of the climbers was truly dedicated to his dog, who seemed to fall victim to the wild evil of the woods first… and look, I’m a huge dog person, there’s a Staffordshire doing at my feet right now. But what made this guy so focused on, so obsessed with his dog, to the point that he was more important than the other humans or the money or … well, anything else?
That was the problem for me. The characters that I was supposed to care about – that I had to care about – were shallow little bowls, when what I needed were deep wells… especially if I was going to follow them all the way into the dark woods and see them fall, one by one… and feel terrified WITH them.
So .. what you you guys think? If any of you have read This Wretched Valley or listened to the audiobook –which isn’t bad! — Drop me a note and tell me if it worked for you… and if it didn’t, why you think it didn’t?
Meanwhile, I’ll tell you this much: I really am looking for to what Ljenny Kiefer does next. She’s got real talent, and good stories to tell. But this one … but didn’t work for me
Links to all the versions, as well as a bunch of other survival horror – including mine! — in the show notes. Dive on in. Let me know what you think.