While I was visiting family for the holidays, I stopped in at Butcher Cabin Books. I couldn’t be that close to an independent horror bookstore and pass it by. While paying for my finds, I noticed a book propped up on the counter. A small placard in front let me know it was written by “our own Jenny Kiefer.” It looked great, so I asked (unbeknownst to me) Jenny Kiefer about herself. She was extremely gracious about my not knowing who she was and gave me the pitch. Inspired by the Dyatlov Pass Incident? Set in modern day Kentucky with rock climbing? This Wretched Valley follows four young adults into the Kentucky woods. It followed me out of that store and into my heart.
Kiefer’s debut answers the question that has been asked so many times: What happened out there? Clay and Dylan enter the woods with big dreams. For Clay, this is a thesis. He used technology to find an unexplored rock formation in undeveloped woods. For Dylan, it’s a shot at a big break. She’s just gotten her first sponsorship for rock climbing. Now she can be the first to climb a newly discovered wall. But the two don’t go off together. Clay brings a fellow researcher, Sylvia, along for the trip. Dylan brings her boyfriend, Luke, to act as her belayer. Luke, I’m sorry to say, brings his dog. None of them will leave.
This is not a spoiler, the book opens this way. You know which bodies are found. You know the impossible states of those bodies. The magic of this book comes from knowing the end but needing to know the middle. And the middle is where all the best parts are. This book performed at a level that is a joy to find in a debut. I enjoy body horror, and I read a decent amount of it. This book had the most viscerally awful scene I have read this year. My skin started crawling and did not stop for some time. I loved it.
A comparison I’ve seen drawn a lot is to The Ruins by Scott Smith. The book is arguably a cult classic, and I definitely see the similarities. But, if you didn’t like The Ruins, I still think you should read this one. For a start, the characters are smarter and less insufferable. This may be due to the inherent difference between “academic expedition” and “spring break trip”, but I think it also helps that Kiefer’s characters—particularly the women—are more distinct and nuanced. I also did not find myself as frustrated with their choices. Poor decision making in This Wretched Valley was clearly coming from the valley itself. In The Ruins, it was coming from hormones and booze. To note, I didn’t dislike The Ruins. I just think This Wretched Valley improved on many outdated aspects of the survival horror classic.
When you’re explaining the unexplainable, it can destroy a sense of mystery. That is not the case here. I still cannot tell you why these things are happening—keep happening that is. These hikers are not the first to go missing in these woods. But even with the things we see, I think it is very much open to interpretation. I certainly have my theories. I don’t feel like the story is incomplete without clear answers. I think it’s more honest to the inspiration this way. After all, was it probably an avalanche and hypothermia that caused those deaths in the Dyatlov Pass all those years ago? Sure. But what makes a better story?
This Wretched Valley hits shelves on January 16th, 2023. You can pre-order it here.
Thank you to NetGalley and QuirkBooks for the copy, and to Jenny Kiefer for everything she does.
Image courtesy of QuirkBooks.
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