BOYS IN THE VALLEY by Philip Fracassi is a chilling classic.
Fracassi’s tale is labeled as horror, but is much more than that: this is a deep, gritty coming-of-age story that delves its own mark on readers.
In 1905, when the priests at a Catholic orphanage in rural Pennsylvania are brought a possessed man to heal, things go horribly wrong, for the clergy and for the 30 boys in their charge.
From the shocking opening to the pandemonium at the book’s ending, BOYS IN THE VALLEY grabs you and does not let up!
Fracassi has a great writing style that combines vivid imagery, tight-knit prose, and a tense build-up of suspense littered with unexpected action, as he creates an in-depth world filled with memorable characters.
It is because of the many aspects of the characters living within the winter-blasted setting that there are quite a few extremely moving scenes.
The following Book Review of BOYS IN THE VALLEY by Philip Fracassi has mild plot Spoilers*
The book starts with its protagonist, nine-year-old Peter, watching paralyzed as his father returns home drunk and faces scorn from his wife for not bringing the starving family any food.
Peter’s father, Jack, snaps. He murders his wife, he stares down his son, and then he turns the gun on himself.
It is the eerily realistic semblance of the defeated father losing it and the powerless boy that sees this play out, paralyzed and mortified, that captures people’s flaws and their humanity so well, and this knowledge shapes Peter, even as the event itself haunts him.
The way Fracassi writes the scene, you can feel how tired Peter’s father is when he “sits heavily” and takes off his battered hat. You get the feeling the man is, at the least, verbally abusive when he is in an angered state, and like the kettle that whistles in the home as Peter’s mother taunts her husband, Jack Barlow simmers on the page until, once boiled, he blows up.
Are the use of ‘Jack’ and ‘Barlow’ a nod to two of Stephen King’s earliest works?
Seven years later, Peter is among the kinder and older boys of St. Vincent’s Orphanage. He is training to become a priest under his friend and surrogate father figure, Father Andrew, and his insightfulness into the difficulties of life, at the orphanage and in general, makes him an interesting lens to watch the tragic story of BOYS IN THE VALLEY unfold.
Peter, now 16, has fallen in love with a neighboring farmer’s daughter, and he has to come to grips with his knowledge that his mentor, Father Andrew, thinks of him like a son, and that to tell Andrew that Peter will not complete his training and become a priest will likely break the man’s heart.
But Father Andrew is a fantastic character and one who continually reminds Peter, despite the priest’s own hopes, that it is Peter’s choice to make.
This is a beautiful display of affection that shines throughout the book and is not forgotten when Peter does not get to make that choice.
Life at the orphanage means strict adherence to the priests’ rules, daily farm work and meager meals that never fill any of the boys’ bellies.
The 30 boys living together act as brothers will, in both caring for one another, especially Peter looking out for the smaller and younger orphans, in entertaining one another, in ribbing one another, and in picking on one another.
Boys are curious.
But the more they learn of the priests’ attempt to heal a possessed man who is then killed and buried on the church grounds, the more a malevolent mood permeates many of them.
Peter’s best friend, another main character and a good foil that makes an impression, as the gruff, ever-cynical older boy, David, is stalwart throughout the book, a pillar that Peter can count on to show no fear. Until he cannot. And when David is afraid, Peter realizes just how wrong things have gone.
Fracassi writes: “David is not easily knocked off his course. He has walls within walls to keep himself insulated from things of the world . . . Any emotions he may or may not feel . . . are buried deep within him, visible only to his inner self . . . [But] to see him so visibly, dramatically shaken is like . . . the first time I saw my mother cry.” [BOYS IN THE VALLEY, Fracassi, Tor Nightfire, Earthling Publications, Orbit Books]
The entire passage is far more impactful than the condensed quote above, but you will just have to read the book, readers.
There are many more memorable characters, from Brother Johnson, the sadistic, lifelong criminal sentenced to serve the priests and therein is often the twisted enforcer of punishments for the boys, and then to Grace, the sweet love of Peter’s life who lends him a great work of fiction every time he visits her.
As the frosty fields are quickly covered with falling snow and then the fell wind of the incoming storm that grows and grows and, finally, blasts St. Vincent’s, so too does the evil follow in its wake.
The possessed boys carry out the most heinous of acts imaginable against their orphan-brothers.
Only the union of the resistant boys under Peter and David stand in the way of the demons.
Fracassi paints so many shades of black.
Though there are parallels between Blatty’s masterpiece THE EXORCIST, Stephen King’s IT, and BOYS IN THE VALLEY, when I think of this book, I keep coming back to two impactful coming-of-age tales: William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES and Kurt Vonnegut’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE.
The latter is a favorite of mine, and I would argue Billy Pilgrim as a young man dropped into WWII Germany grows enough to be a bildungsroman in its own right, just as much as Golding’s tale of boys surviving on their own devices does, if in different ways.
LORD OF THE FLIES pits one group of children against another in a poignant way that is echoed in Fracassi’s boys forming of two opposing sides.
Demonic possession has been depicted throughout culture as an evil being often self-describing itself as ‘many’ or ‘legion’ and in BOYS IN THE VALLEY, the demons that inhabited a child murderer spread, like a disease, so that a horrific army of possessed young boys is formed and bent on further infection of the clergy and their brethren boys and the world, and for any who resist they want only to maliciously harm them.
Dominance and survival are two of the qualities that seep from Golding and from Fracassi.
There are even two orphan boys that are so close in age and friendship, they are called brothers even though they are not related, and these two inseparable characters are pitted against one another in BOYS IN THE VALLEY and it is terrifically terrible.
End of SPOILER Warning*
The horrors of war, the sheer atrocities performed by humans pitted against humans, that Billy Pilgrim is caught in in Dresden, Germany are so harsh as to be revolting, which was the point: the writing is as real as the terrible acts of war were/are.
So too does BOYS IN THE VALLEY invoke violent depictions of its own deeply personal war. But this is also realism and writing at its most effective.
This is how these characters behave.
BOYS IN THE VALLEY sticks with you like a knife in the ribs: it never really goes away.
For horror fans, you may need to read this one in the warm light of the summer sun, because the darkness and the bitter cold stalks the reader, just as it daunts the characters in the book.
Yes, there are some brutal, graphic scenes in BOYS IN THE VALLEY, but they are reflective of the history that the story takes place in, as well as the realistic actions of the characters.
Fracassi’s tale is one you will happily reread even though it still hurts.
I was fortunate to receive an advanced review copy of this book to do a Preview Review of the Earthling Publications signed limited edition for Halloween 2021 that is a stunner, and I have reread the ARCs provided to me by Tor Nightfire and by Orbit Books to do this review to expound on BOYS IN THE VALLEY for their July 2023 release dates. The book is out NOW.
Philip Fracassi is on the BOYS IN THE VALLEY Signing Tour NOW.
Get your copy NOW, eager readers.
The Forgotten Fiction Grade: YEA (read it!)
“BOYS IN THE VALLEY by Philip Fracassi is a chilling classic” Was Written By R.J. Huneke.
R.J. Huneke will also be conducting a live interview with Philip Fracassi on August 21st in advance of his New York City appearance later in the week. Stay Tuned!