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Valley Of Lights
Stephen Gallagher
N.E.L. paperback

review by Tom Matic

The title of Stephen Gallagher's 1987 novel refers to its setting - Phoenix, Arizona, also the home of the doomed heroine of Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). The book makes excellent atmospheric use both of the city, and the mountainous desert that surrounds it, in unfolding its memorably harrowing tale.
   Narrator Sergeant Alex Volchak's grisly anecdote about a murdered prostitute on the second page of the novel establishes the cop as the hard-boiled type, desensitised to the workaday sadism around him, which only serves to emphasise the unearthly horror of the events that dominate its opening chapter: "I had that cop buzz going on in my mind, the feeling that I get sometimes when I think I've seen everything and then I run up against something new."
   The matter-of-fact sang froid with which Stephen Gallagher's narrator describes the gruesome events in this novel is one of the things that gives it so much impact. Take this description of a blood-soaked murder scene half way through the book: "as if somebody had dynamited a live pig" in the room. He then goes on to describe the mark left by the corpse with devastating understatement: "The shape, which was sexless like they always are, wasn't too big."
   As if to twist the knife in showing the necessarily clinical detachment of the police in the face of barbarism, the two drug-squad detectives Morrell and McKay are shortly afterwards shown raiding the fridge of the house where the atrocity has been committed. Their double act of callousness in the face of carnage recalls Aldo and Royce in Gallagher's Doctor Who script Warrior's Gate (1980), another story where a cynical and world-weary bunch of men nonchalantly break for lunch in a macabre setting (in this case at a banqueting table occupied by a mouldering corpse).
   This kind of gallows humour is present right from the start of Valley Of Lights, where we first meet Morrel and McKay and the paramedics "turn up as jaunty as anything" even at the worst carnage, and the whole subtext of their manner is that "Your bad news is our good business." It is here too that we are presented with the mystery of the Paradise Motor Court: three random men lying apparently comatose in a motel room, rented in the name of Gilbert Mercado, kept in a state of living death. The clue to the reason why they are being kept in this condition lies in the novel's Arizona setting: Phoenix, a bird that symbolises death and resurrection. When Volchak finally tracks down Mercado, the suspect dies, seemingly deliberately, and one of the three 'zombies' promptly walks out of the hospital ward after they have been pronounced brain dead. Pretty soon Volchak is the only one who really knows what is going on, that a deathless, ancient intelligence is using these expendable human shells to evade retribution for his grisly pastimes.
   And since Volchak scarcely believes it himself, it is clear that he is going to have a hard time convincing anyone else: "I was OK on Mercado keeping three empty shells in a darkened motel room as he cruised the city's parks and playgrounds, but beyond that everything started to sound very shaky."
   However, the author has Volchak narrate the incredible events so baldly and matter-of-factly that the reader is convinced and drawn into this nightmare scenario. Gallagher achieves this firstly by giving its supernatural subject matter an injection of the mundane and everyday. Thus the villain does not recruit his zombies by means of voodoo, but keeps them just this side of death's door by feeding them a diet of baby food. As well as evoking the banality of evil, this method is horribly apt, for the creature's preferred victims are children: the entity's agelessness has given it a vendetta against youth. Secondly the novel keeps us down to earth by its interplay between Volchak's increasing incredulity at his discoveries about the nature of his body-hopping adversary, and the burgeoning relationship between him and his widowed neighbour Loretta. Given the nature of the enemy, it is only matter of time before she and her nine-year-old daughter become the focus of the creature's unwelcome attentions, allowing Gallagher to weave together the two contrasting storylines with nail-biting results. This would not work so well if Gallagher had not made us care about these characters as much as his cop narrator clearly does.
   It is this marriage of the everyday and the extraordinary, the bizarre and the banal, and its masterly sustaining of first person narration, that have made Valley Of Lights into an acknowledged classic of the horror genre. Both devotees of and newcomers to this novel can look forward to the Telos Classics edition to be published in 2005, complete with a new introduction by the author.
Valley of Lights

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