If you’ve seen the film Deliverance or read James Dickey’s original book – and if you haven’t, you should – then you’re familiar with its classic premise: outsiders heading into a remote, sparsely-populated area that is about to get flooded and having a set of unexpectedly weird and perilous adventures. Shadow Valley has the same basic premise – an outsider (in this case, a female bureaucrat rather than a group of white-water rafters) must enter the eponymous Shadow Valley to deal with the last few inhabitants before the valley is flooded as a reservoir – but veers off into an entirely different direction. Instead of an outdoor adventure with dire physical consequences, Shadow Valley offers a low-key, atmospheric exploration into a family’s dark past.
Minor plot spoilers follow.
Lila Ellis is a bureaucratic functionary trying to collect the last handful of quit claim deeds for the few remaining inhabited properties in Shadow Valley before the entire valley is intentionally flooded for a public works project. Her job is mostly done, except for one last place: a rundown farmhouse where an enigmatic old lady lived, or lives. Lila needs to either get a signed form from the lady or verify that no one is still living there. And that’s going to require that Lila ventures inside a house that turns out to be far more than it appears. In the process, Lila ends up getting far more involved in the home’s past residents lives than she had anticipated.
I don’t want to say much more than that about Lila’s encounters in the old Stevenson house. It’s a slow-to-build but nevertheless rewarding ghost story that is unveiled through Lila’s reading of a family journal. I hadn’t actually anticipated supernatural occurrences in Shadow Valley for some reason, so I found myself a bit surprised when the supernatural stuff began. It wasn’t at all over-the-top, but it was just a tad jarring when the weird stuff that couldn’t be explained by normal – if mysterious – events showed up. Once I got in the groove though, everything fell into place and I could see where the plot was going. I must also compliment the novel on its superb final note, which brings things to a close very nicely (but no, I’m not going to ruin it by giving you any more specifics than that).
In some ways I was reminded of H. P. Lovecraft’s classic story “The Call of Cthulhu” as I read Shadow Valley, as the two stories share some of their basic structure. In both, the protagonist is mostly reading about or otherwise discovering the heart of the action – strange events that occurred in the past as a result of other people’s actions, but because of their weight and importance to the protagonist still play a major role in the story’s present. There’s probably a fancy literary term for this sort of device, but I don’t know what that might be. It works in both stories, despite the fact that much of the “action” is revealed in long expository passages and has already occurred to other people, because of the richness of the storytelling. Collings does a terrific job of making the reader care about learning about the long, strange history of a family of eccentrics. Speaking of which, there were times that I’d have liked a family tree or other set of references for all the names that show up in the family history; I sometimes found myself just a little lost as I struggled to recall who was whose wife/daughter/etc.
I recommend Shadow Valley as a good, creepy haunted house/ancient family with a weird history mystery/low-key horror novel. It starts off slowly, letting the tension build, and then the weirdness comes in with a bang. If you like slowly building tension and dread, you’re going to like this. And let’s face it: Michael R. Collings is the only author I know capable of making a mound of chocolate candy boxes, each with a single piece missing, creepy.