Monday, 10 January 2022

Valley Of Lights, by Stephen Gallagher (a review)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I've just read and loved, which I think adds to the horror genre and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.  In this case, however, it's a book that first came out in 1987 (yikes, 35 years ago!), so chances are you might have already heard of it.  I discovered it, quite by accident, in the fantastic LOROS bookshop on Queens Road in Leicester, when I was in town a couple of years back (for my 50th) with The Crusty Exterior (as I wrote about here).  Last year, my friend Mark Morris posted about the novel on Facebook and I decided to give it a try and I'm really pleased I did.
cover scan of my copy, the 1988 NEL 2nd impression
Imagine the heartbeat of a murderer - and that it's someone you know.  You kill him.

But he returns in another body.

And when that body lies cold in the morgue...

...he's still out there somewhere.

No matter what you do, he comes back again and again.

Because he will never die - and he doesn't have a name.

Imagine - and shudder.

In Phoenix, the brain-dead are rising from their hospital beds and when local children are found, brutally murdered, Sergeant Alex Volchak of the Phoenix Police makes the connection but it’s so fantastic, nobody in the department will listen to him.

First published in 1987, this is a winning combination of crime and horror, perhaps the perfect companion piece to the equally assured Falling Angel.  Alex Volchak is a great protagonist, world weary, lonely and bereaved, keen to see justice done but happy to bend the rules when it suits the common good and he’s blessed with an amusingly deadpan film noir style voice.  His tentative relationship with Loretta, his neighbour in the trailer park where they live, is beautifully observed but rather than her be the stereotypical “single mum whose child needs a father figure”, she’s gutsy, independent and amusing, a force of nature who drives some of the plot later on and whose child, Georgie, sets off the last act.  The villain is a supernatural entity and here is the only place time hasn’t been kind to the novel - back in the late 80s, this may have been a more unique angle but, like the antagonist in Falling Angel, it’s been ripped off so many times it does perhaps lose some of its force for people who weren’t there to witness it the first time around.  Having said that, Gallagher has a lot of fun with the malevolent being and some of his ‘disguises’ (it’s an old novel, yes, but I don’t want to spoil it completely) are cleverly utilised.  Once Alex makes the connection between the killings and the brain-dead bodies they keep finding around the city, he tries to explain it to his bosses - who, obviously, don’t believe him - and then it’s down to him to try and stop the supernatural killer.  There’s a beautiful simplicity and logic to this, as the two characters come together, one a contemporary cop who’s struggling to make sense of everything, the other an ageless monster who normally manages to move amongst the living without drawing too much attention to himself.  

Gallagher uses Phoenix well, a dusty desert town with plenty of dark alleys and dodgy motels and sets a lot of his horror in bright sunlight, adding an almost banal atmosphere to the darker happenings, which only serves to make them even more powerful.  

With a strong supporting cast, a great pace and voice, this is well worth a read and I would highly recommend it.

Valley Of Lights might not the best known of Gallagher’s work these days (people are more likely to know the likes of Oktober and Chimera, as well as his numerous screenplay credits) but it was the first to bring attention to his name.  At the time he wrote it, he was “in the really low point of [his] career”, as he’d just shelved the novels The Boat House and Oktober “because nobody wanted to touch [them]”.  Happily, once Valley Of Lights sold, Oktober sold afterwards and The Boat House has also appeared.

There were plans for Valley Of Lights to be made into a film, as he told Paul Tomlinson in an interview that first appeared in the fanzine Other Times.  When Gallagher wrote the novel, he had an ongoing relationship with a director and they were looking for a film to make together.  He handed over some pages of the novel and the director showed them around in the USA and got some interest.  A producer took out an option and Gallagher wrote a screenplay but they couldn’t generate enough interest (“now the truth of this situation is that everybody in Hollywood, and everybody in the film business, is looking for reasons to turn things down. Because turning something down is the safest bet.”).  By the time of his tenth re-write of the script, he realised “rewriting on the basis of rejection was wearing the script down, just destroying it.  It wasn’t my Valley of Lights story any more.”  After two years, when asked for another re-write, he’d finally had enough and “I honestly can’t repeat what I gave as my answer.”

When the rights went to a British company called Zenith in 1990, they put together a new version of the script which Gallagher liked a lot “because it was my story again” - everything he’d had to include in re-writes to try and get a sale had been taken out.  The interview is undated but as Zenith ceased trading in 2006, I have to assume we’ll never get to see the film of this excellent novel.

Stephen Gallagher, born on 13th October 1954, is a novelist, screenwriter and director specialising in contemporary suspense (according to his website).  I had the great fortune to meet him briefly, after he spoke on a panel about screenwriting at Peterborough FantasyCon and he came across as a genuinely lovely man.

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