Boys in the Valley by Philip Fracassi
A Horror Book Review by Justin Allec
Boys in the Valley continues Philip Fracassi’s winning foray into horror, presenting a lean story of demon-fueled violence overtaking a boy’s orphanage at the turn of the 20th century. Using aspects of possession/exorcism narratives compounded by rural isolation, Boys is a true thrill ride from the dramatic opening all the way to the bitter, frigid end. Propulsive yet measured, Fracassi’s writing occupies that slim space between the knife edge and the tip of your finger, and he knows just how hard to push to get the blow flowing.
Before all the madness happens, Fracassi establishes a rigid, impoverished world for his characters. Boys centers on Peter, who was tragically orphaned when he was nine-years old. Now sixteen, Peter is one of the oldest boys at St. Vincent, a small orphanage nestled in the Pennsylvania wilderness and administered by a cadre of priests. Peter is on the cusp of manhood and is portrayed as ‘St. Peter’ due to his shepherding ways with the younger boys and his own interest in joining the clergy. Fracassi does excellent work in this part of the book establishing the setting, routines, and dynamics of the orphanage, not an easy task when you have over a dozen characters with agency. The daily toils of the boys as they work the fields and learn their catechism would be horror story enough without the eventual demonic intervention, and it’s a joy to see how all these men and boys interreact in this strict world ruled by scriptural interpretation. The isolation, the pressing cold, the ongoing hunger, the lack of affection are all perfectly articulated through Fracassi’s writing:
“When you’re hungry, goodness is forgotten until you’re not, and the guilt lives in your stomach along with the meat and bread. You get used to it.”
It’s an impressive act that lets the characters directly inform us while giving the reader room for their own judgement. This balanced writing brings you just close enough to the action that you will check for dirt under your fingernails.
Shortly after establishing the normal routines of the orphanage, Fracassi blows it all up with a midnight visit from hell. From this inciting incident Boys is a breathless sprint as demonic forces split the orphanage into two sides for a violent show-down. It’s a compelling premise, one that’s reminiscent of an old-school shocker from Bentley Little or Richard Laymon. Fracassi isn’t interested in a slow drip of bump-in-the-night creepiness; when the action starts, it’s an elevator door opening to release a deluge of blood. Thankfully, and due to the work put into the early chapters, the author keeps the chaos in check while keeping us caring. We know who’s doing what, where, and why, no small feat with a cast this large.
While Peter remains our focus throughout, Fracassi fleshes out other characters and often adopts their point of view to give the events a larger scope. David, as Peter’s wilder peer, has an especially fun arc and could’ve held my attention as the main character. Other boys such as Simon, Basil, Timothy, and Bartholomew are given just enough detail and backstory to wind them up and get them moving. The adults factor just as strongly, and Fracassi’s created some great characters using familiar archetypes. Young Father Andrew is Peter’s kind familial surrogate with a gentle interpretation of Christianity, while old Father Poole represents the most rigid (and most sadistic) aspects of the patriarchal church’s authority. Brother Johnson, a reformed criminal doing penance at the orphanage under Poole’s hand, plays a transitory role in the story as he both suffers and surmounts the ensuing bloodbath.
The bits of promotion I’ve seen for this book all reference William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954) and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971), but Fracassi’s Boys is driven by action (and an impressive body count) much more than those canonical works. With so much demonic murdering going on, the binary between good and evil remains fairly static: good guys practice goodness to varying degrees, while bad guys remain demonically bad. Some of the hallmarks of exorcism narratives, as well Golding’s questioning murkiness, are noticeably absent in the back half of the novel due to this acceleration. For example, there’s very little in terms of offered temptation that would lead to traitorous behavior, despite strong threads—particularly around food and the lone female character—being laid in the novel’s front half. Similarly, these demons are more akin to what James Wan offers than the goopiness of Fulci. Blood flows, but where’s the wanton releases of fluids? The humiliation and degradation of those lacking in the proper quantity of the Christian spirit? Where’s the pea soup and crucifix-fucking, Mr. Fracassi?!
While decidedly more black-and-white in terms of his characters’ morality and their subsequent efforts to either kill or survive, Fracassi’s Boys overcomes any need for grey-area musing with rapid-fire set-pieces and a willingness to escalate the horror. It’s appropriate this book is coming out in July, because this is one that deserves to take over at least one warm summer night.
Boys in the Valley by Philip Fracassi
‘The terror’s exquisite. Fracassi’s got his hand on the chisel going into your chest’ Stephen Graham Jones, author of The Only Good Indians
St. Vincent’s Orphanage for Boys. Turn of the century, in a remote valley in Pennsylvania.
Here, under the watchful eyes of several priests, thirty boys work, learn, and worship. Peter Barlow, orphaned as a child by a gruesome murder, has made a new life here. As he approaches adulthood, he has friends, a future. . . a family.
Then, late one stormy night, a group of men arrive at their door, one of whom is badly wounded, occult symbols carved into his flesh. His death releases an ancient evil that spreads like sickness, infecting St. Vincent’s and the children within.
Soon, boys begin acting differently, forming groups. Taking sides. Others turn up dead. Now Peter and those dear to him must choose sides of their own, each of them knowing their lives – and perhaps their eternal souls – are at risk.