In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson

Blood, bloody, bloodier, bloodiest…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1980. Travis Stillwell lives life on the road, travelling from small town to small town in Texas, running from the memories of his earlier life, seeking something lost. Some nights he’ll pick up a woman in a honky-tonk bar, but not for love – these women are victims, killed almost as a sacrifice to those demons he can’t shake off. But one night he picks up Rue, a beautiful young woman who is more evil than even the horrors in his own mind – a woman searching for her own kind of mate, who will change him in ways he could never have imagined even in his worst nightmares. When he wakes up the next day, he is wounded, bloodied, and prey to a strange and terrible hunger – a hunger he must satisfy so that he and Rue can live.

OK, so it’s a vampire novel. Let’s get that out of the way straight off. It has scenes of the bloodiest horror written in language so vividly, viscerally descriptive that I may never be able to wash my mind clean of them. But the odd thing is, I’m not sure I want to…

“Travis lay the knife on the floor and shuffled forward on his knees like a man about to perform a tender act. He put his face between the girl’s white legs and touched his lips to her wound, and his mouth filled instantly and he was forced to spit.
EAT!
But there was something else now too, wasn’t there? A warmth. A kindling.
He put his lips against the wound again and this time swallowed when his mouth had filled and the horror and revulsion he had imagined were not the things he felt. He felt only a bright relief as the blood slicked his throat and struck the furnace of his gut and its heat spread, and before all of this had even happened he had swallowed again, and again. . .
Take it all, Rue said. Take it all.”

…because the book is so, so much more than that. Part examination of the hard-scrabble life of rural Texans and part-metaphor for the lasting shockwaves of the traumas visited on America, and its young men in particular, by the Vietnam war, it’s right up there with the best of American fiction writing. I’ve seen it being compared to McCarthy and McMurtry which makes me want to go and read both those authors straight away. The prose is gorgeous, moving seamlessly between melancholy beauty and savage brutality and creating indelible images in both. I could see the landscape and the sky; feel the dust, the burning sun, the rain; smell the stale beer and cigarette smoke and the all-pervasive stench of blood and death.

The characterisation is intense and flawless, so that we come to know and care about each individual. Travis stops at a run-down motel, where young widow Annabelle ekes out a precarious existence and does her best to help her young son Sandy deal with the death of his father. Her kindness to this stranger, who is indeed strange, leads her into mortal peril, at the same time as it awakens in Travis a kind of longing that tears his dual nature apart. Meantime, Travis is being pursued by veteran detective Reader for his earlier, human crimes. Dogged and determined, Reader has seen too much horror already in his life and is haunted by his own personal tragedy, but he’s a good man – a moral man, who provides a rock of decency for us to cling to, a promise of hope amid the darkness.

Remarkably, the author makes us care too for Travis, serial killer turned vampire, as he gradually reveals the experiences that have formed him, first as the child of a stern, forbidding father and a pleasure-loving mother, and later, in Vietnam, a time which branded him physically and mentally. Even Rue, the disgusting, monstrously evil thing that gives the novel its truest horror, has her own back-story. Perhaps it’s too hard to sympathise with Rue, but Davidson makes us understand her, and oh, how we feel her hunger! For blood. For love.

Andy Davidson

To me, the vampire thing felt very much like an allegory for the rot and horror of Vietnam, for these men who returned to no hero’s welcome, whose stories were left untold for too long, left to fester in the darkness of silence. For most of the novel I wasn’t even sure whether the vampire aspect was real or a kind of figment of Travis’ tortured imagination. A part of me wishes Davidson had left it fully ambiguous, because inside here is a great American novel and I fear it may be sidelined into genre fiction. And at the same time, although the horror is handled superbly with some fabulously gory imagery, it may be too slow and too literary in style for many dedicated horror fans.

Certainly, the vampire element would have ensured I’d never have read it, had I not been sent a copy by the publisher. Even then I started it with reluctance, expecting to read a few chapters and then abandon it. But these are not the vampires of modern fiction – sexy heroes who seduce as they suck the blood of their victims. There is more of the original Dracula or Carmilla perhaps, lust and insatiable hunger, but much darker, more brutal – bloodier. But even nightmares are bearable when they are revealed with integrity and meaning and relayed in such astonishing language and imagery. There are scenes I will never forget – scenes of utter brutality that made me cry for the sorrows of the world. Nor will I forget the people – the desperate search for humanity and love that we see in each character, however distorted. And the writing! Ah, the writing!

“He watched her go, thinking of the children they had been when they were married. He eighteen, she seventeen. She a half-breed, he a white Texan boy, theirs a romance, Reader had always thought, befitting the romance of the land itself, the wide open spaces and faraway horizons, where the hearts of the young were as big and green as the vast sweep of the eastern grasslands, and the land and the courses of the lives lived on it moved and rolled in ways no man could ever predict, as though the breath of giants were easing over them, shaping them, turning them.”

Do I recommend it? I hope I’ve made it clear how graphically horrific some parts are, and also how exceptional I think it is, how it transcends horror to become something altogether more profound and strangely beautiful. The decision has to be yours. Personally, I am so glad to have read it.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Saraband.

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36 thoughts on “In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson

  1. WOW! I think this might just be the most powerful book review I have ever read. Especially knowing your personal feelings on vampire novels, this is indeed striking. I admit – I’m tempted. Well-written gore and horror can be as beautiful as any crafted purple prose. I’m not sure I will be picking up a copy of this right away, but I hope I come across it sometime in the future, when I feel like engaging with darker places. But this really is an exceptional review, FF. Bravo. 🙂

  2. Strangely, I had exactly the same WOW! as Lucy in my mind as my response to your disturbing and convincing review. This leaves me feeling both ‘why would I read this’ and ‘how could I not’. I think the latter sentiment is stronger. Thanks FF for a really well written and thoughtful review.

    • Thank you! 🙂 Ha – my review must have channelled my own WOW-ish feeling about the book! I know exactly what you mean – that’s why I didn’t want to just give a simple recommendation. But for me, it was more than worth it – and so long as can take the horror aspects (which are also superbly written and don’t feel gratuitous) I think you may well have a similar reaction. I hope so, anyway, and if you do decide to read it, I’d love to hear your opinion.

  3. This is such a strong review, FIctionFan! Well, all of your reviews are excellent, but this is really powerful. I’m absolutely not one for brutal violence or for vampires. But in the right hands, and with a strong story and characters… I’m honestly not sure I’ll read this, just because of the violence, but I’m glad you thought it was so well done.

    • Thank you, Margot! 🙂 Yes, that’s why I wanted to make it clear that there is a lot of horror in it – even though I loved it, I still don’t think it will be for everyone. Definitely an author to keep an eye on for the future, though…

    • Thanks! 🙂 I’m not really squeamish exactly when it comes to books – it’s more that I kinda disapprove of gratuitous violence and gore. But even though this was way out there, it didn’t feel gratuitous somehow, so I could cope. But I definitely think it’s not one for everyone…

    • Thanks! 🙂 Yes, I definitely think this one is going to depend on the reader’s preferences even more subjectively than usual. Brilliantly written, but still not for everyone, probably…

  4. Excellent review of a book I doubt I’ll be reading, but I see what you mean about the writing. I just don’t think I’m up to the horror.

    • The writing is brilliant – even the horror stuff has a kind of beauty. But it is pretty strong, so I definitely wouldn’t be pushing it on people without giving them fair warning,,,

  5. Oh, my. I would never have picked this one up, either. But now….now…I will feel like I’m missing something if I don’t. I’m having a meeting with my local favorite indie bookseller this coming Friday. Will take a look and see if they have it in stock. Otherwise, I’ll be putting this on order. I cannot stomach the visuals of war films (Haven’t seen one since “Apocalypse Now”), but a book that’s an allegory for the horror that was Vietnam I may be able to read.

    • Oh, you must let me know how you get on with it! I find horror much easier to deal with in books – it’s the visuals in films that get me too, and I also avoid war films, mostly. There were actually aspects of this that reminded me of Apocalypse Now, though it’s decades since I saw it. But even the horror and gore in this is written so well, and oddly didn’t feel gratuitous to me…

  6. I’m glad you read and enjoyed it, but I still say it’s not for me. I need a restful sleep at night, and this just doesn’t sound as if it would further that goal! Oh well, there’s always tomorrow, right?!

    • Definitely not one for everyone, Debbie. Mind you, I’d have said it wouldn’t have been for me either, so I was glad to have been shoved so far out of my comfort zone. But it’s one where I felt it was only fair to let people know just how dark it is…

  7. I’m like you where I’m definitely skeptical of the vampire element, but this does sound so well done. And you’re right that the older vampires are much more interesting-I loved Dracula for instance. It’s the newer modern vampires that are quite literally, a turn off for me, although they seem to be the exact opposite for other people (ahem).

    • The idea of the vampire aspect nearly put me off altogether, and it’s actually only because this particular publisher had shoved me out of my comfort zone a couple of times very successfully that I decided to at least try it. So glad I did! Hahaha – yes, I always hoped my boyfriend would bite me, suck out my blood and turn me into one of the undead… so romantic! 😉

  8. Generally my feelings for vampire novels are meh. But you’ve convinced me! If it’s allegorical it has a bit more to it. It seems my prejudices are not safe from your reviews, and so my TBR spirals ever upwards 😉

    • Hahaha – sorry about that! 😉 I pretty much avoid all vampires books written after about 1900, so really the wrong audience for this altogether. But as you can tell, it blew me away – nothing like the vampire ‘trend’ and full of so much other stuff. I do hope it works for you too… 😀

  9. Thank you! 😀 Yep, it’s one of the reasons I like getting the occasional unsolicited book – something I’d never pick for myself in a million years. Often they don’t work for me, but just every now and then you get one like this… 😀

  10. Like others, vampire books and horror are not my usual go-to book choices, but you do make this so compelling. I do like the writing style very much! I’m going to add this to my TBR. Did you know I have a Goodreads shelf called “Fiction-Fan-Recommends?” I do that with trusted bloggers so I’ll remember where I heard about a book.

    • Hahaha – I did spot that once on your Goodreads profile and must say I’m totally honoured! 😀 I try to keep a note of who I heard about a book from on my spreadsheet, but sometimes I forget. This one totally surprised me – I should have hated it, but it turned out to be so good. If you do get to it sometime, I hope it has the same effect on you… 😀

  11. I’ve been to several writing conferences with panels about literary genre fiction. It’s a small movement, but I hope it gains respect and momentum, because it is THE BEST of two worlds.

    • Totally agree – the one downside of genre fiction is that it’s often not terribly well written, so I’m delighted to be sensing a change. This one was at least as good as any lit-fic I’ve read this year… 😀

  12. Well, I’m another who’s first response as I read this astonishing review was “wow!”. I was totally unprepared for this. Having read the excerpt you gave us a few days ago, I’d clearly formed an impression of the book and it’s just not in the least what I expected. So a huge shock to begin with! Then – how to marry up blood, gore, zampire with such a strong review and evidence that this is an important book – both from the quotes, as well as your own response to such impactful and lucious writing? Frankly, I can’t – at least not right now. This sounds like something so totally out of my comfort zone that I’m momentarily floored. Speechless. Which is why I’m gabbling away here, hoping that something worth contributing might find its way to the front of my thoughts…. Nope, not happening yet!

    Will I read it? Almost certainly not. And I’ll feel cowardly for avoiding it. But I’m very glad to know of its existence. And I do hope his next novel will be of the same standard but in an entirely different genre.

    🙂

    • Ha – that was pretty much my response to the book! I should have hated it – so far out of my comfort zone. But the writing is so good, and it has as much depth – more – than most of the top lit-fic books I’ve read this year. Like you, I kinda hope he goes more mainstream in the future, but looking at his website makes me think he’s pretty dedicated to horror. Whatever he writes next though, I’ll read – even if it’s zombies! Sometimes the books that take us by surprise are the best ones… 😀 Apologies for the delay in replying… I needed to have a little break from blogging to recharge my batteries… 🙂

    • Thanks! 😀 Yes, I understand why people aren’t tempted to read it – I wouldn’t have been either if I’d known what it was going to be, but I’m glad it took me by surprise. A great read – maybe next time he’ll write something a bit less gory…

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