The front cover for Boys in the Valley. The cover is white with the title covering most of the page in big red capitals. Beneath the title is a small building with some birds flying overhead.

Boys in the Valley

Boys in the Valley by Philip Fracassi from @orbitbooks #BookReview #Horror #DemonicPossession

Boys in the Valley by Philip Fracassi

Orbit, pb, £8.79

Reviewed by Sarah Deeming

The front cover for Boys in the Valley. The cover is white with the title covering most of the page in big red capitals. Beneath the title is a small building with some birds flying overhead.

Peter lives at St. Vincent’s Orphanage for Boys in a remote Pennsylvanian valley. Raised by the priests after his father shot his mother and them himself, Peter spends his days farming the land and caring for livestock, studying and caring for the other younger boys in the orphanage. He has friends and a future. The biggest decision he has to make is whether to become a priest and stay at the orphanage or leave and start a family.

Then, late one night, a group of men arrive, one of them fatally wounded. With the man’s death, an evil spirit is released into the orphanage, dividing the children and turning them against each other. Peter finds his life choices become much bigger than marriage or the church. It is life and death, and what chance does a 16-year-old boy have against an ageless evil?

Written from multiple points of view, Boys in the Valley charts the hard life of orphaned boys in 1905 living under priest rule. They are up at the crack of dawn and work all day on the land, growing crops or caring for the animals that feed them. They must study the bible and learn lessons. There are strict rules that must be obeyed at all times. Punishments are severe. It is not an easy life for them. There are already some factions between the boys, but most conflicts are held at bay by Peter and David, the older boys. There are also factions among the adults, with Father Andrew being the softer influence in the boys’ life and Father Poole being the disciplinarian, so tough he has a hole in the ground the boys are sent to for minor infractions. Boys in the Valley isn’t a cosy read even before things go wrong.

The orphanage’s fall into madness is like something out of Lord of the Flies. From a steady build of increasing factions and tension among the boys, bad dreams and uncomfortable feelings, it abruptly descends into a brutal blood bath with torture, abuse and murder. The boys’ rebellion is like a huge, feral sigh of relief, shaking off the harsh rules they’ve abided by but one that goes too far. But the violence isn’t glorified or gratuitous. It stays within the rules of the story’s world.

Unlike some horrors that don’t explain what the evil is, with Boys in the Valley, we know up front this is about demonic possession. Knowing that only builds tension as the adults try to explain the boys’ change in behaviour as a rebellion against their hard living conditions rather than admitting the exorcism they performed has unleashed something on their wards. That the current victims are children might trigger some people, so be warned. This is not a cosy horror that is becoming more popular at the moment. This is full-on, uncomfortable horror examining the eternal battle between good and evil. Billed as a cross between Lord of the Flies and The Exorcist, Boys in the Valley delivers on that promise and more.

My only complaint and this is so minor that I’m nitpicking, is the way Father Andrew hops about in how he is going to handle Peter becoming a priest. Andrew wants Peter to take his vows and stay on at the orphanage, but he wants Peter to understand what he is giving up, so Andrew has let Peter form a friendship with a girl at the nearest farm. But for all his talk that it must be Peter’s choice, there are some times Andrew thinks about Peter’s commitment to the church as if it is a foregone conclusion and has even arranged a date for Peter to take his vows. But that is the only thing that halted my reading. Otherwise, it was a white knuckle, edge-of-my-seat read that I couldn’t put down.

I found Boys in the Valley a deeply dark book with pockets of hope and bravery that stopped it from becoming too bleak and extreme. If horror is your thing, this is definitely one to check out. I will certainly be looking out for more from Philip Fracassi. Highly recommended.

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