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This Wretched Valley by Jenny Kiefer3.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsAlways trust your dog. That’s a good rule to follow in life generally. But if you’re a character in a horror story, it goes double. Are you and your dog walking through gloomy, remote Kentucky woods that you’ve just been warned most people never come out of alive? If so, is your dog acting jumpy, agitated, and like he’d rather be anywhere else on earth? I promise you, he didn’t just see a deer or a squirrel. Trust your dog. Get the hell out of there.

The joke that all horror fans are in on is that many horror stories simply wouldn’t get going at all, if it weren’t for dimwitted human characters ignoring clear warnings of danger and casting all common sense to the winds, plunging headlong towards their fate with a glib confidence that it’s just another day. The premise of blissfully unconcerned city dwellers abandoning the comfort and safety of their homes for some quality time with Mother Nature has been popular for a while. But all it takes is a wrong turn, or maybe a woeful lack of preparedness, or perhaps insulting behavior toward the less cultured locals — and boom, before you can squeal like a pig, horror has descended upon you.

Jenny Kiefer’s debut This Wretched Valley adheres to all these tropes of wilderness horror, but in a very loving and self-aware way. For instance, these stories always feature either the last gas station or last diner. (Kiefer uses the diner.) It’s a location in the story’s first act that serves as the final outpost of normality, the characters’ last encounter with civilization before disappearing into the realm of nightmare. Someone at this location (in this book, a brassy hick waitress) will warn the characters that the place they’re headed to is one where those who enter are never seen again. The characters will then dismiss this warning with the usual urban condescension towards superstitious rustics, thus sealing their doom as they pull out onto that fateful final stretch of highway. But just when we think we’re in for nothing more special than another dumb-hikers-die exercise, Kiefer’s conventional opening turns out to have lured us into a false sense of security. Precisely like her setting, in fact.

In lazier hands, this book could have been just another Blair Witch redux. Instead, Kiefer has no hesitation to go harder than an avalanche the minute the story demands it. The book also gives a distinct New Weird vibe that brings parts of the tale close to Jeff VanderMeer territory. Though much has been made about Kiefer drawing influence from the notorious Dyatlov Pass Incident, there are moments here that feel distinctly inspired by the surrealism of Annihilation.

Our four explorers are going to die horribly, and we know this from the prologue, which describes the bizarre condition of their remains when found. One is a skeleton so cleanly stripped of every last cell of soft tissue that it looks like it came from a biology lab, or maybe a Spirit Halloween store. Two additional cadavers are found mutilated in unnatural ways. And the fourth isn’t found at all. We will learn later that Slade the dog took off on his own before everything went sideways for the humans. We never exactly learn Slade’s fate, but I choose to believe he made his way back to the diner, where the brassy waitress gave him leftover hamburger and took him home.

Clay Foster is a geology grad student who’s trying out a method using Lidar — Light Detection and Ranging, a state-of-the-art mapping and imaging system — to discover previously unmapped trails and rock formations. When he thinks he’s scored the jackpot, a hitherto completely unknown formation deep in the woods of rural Kentucky, Clay calls up his friend Dylan Prescott. Dylan is an experienced rock climber enjoying a promising launch as an influencer, having just scored her first sponsorship. Along with Clay’s research partner Sylvia Burnett and Dylan’s boyfriend Luke Woodhaven, everyone treks out to the location, having failed to be dissuaded by the waitress. Dylan is especially excited to discover a potential hot spot and make a first ascent, which comes with naming privileges and is basically like winning the climbing lotto.

But wouldn’t you know it, the woods have other ideas. Getting to the wall, which should have been a short walk from the highway, takes longer than expected. Then one of the team is injured badly enough to need an emergency room. But the trail out to the highway cannot be found. Paths through the woods seem to loop themselves, like the PT video game. Phone service stops cold, even though Dylan was at first able to post a few Instagram reels. Sylvia notices way too much toxic plant life and fungi. Clay loses his marbles faster than Jack Nicholson in Kubrick’s version of The Shining, collapsing into paranoid delusion. Luke, in panic over his dog’s disappearance, begins seeing things, then so does Clay — things that appear to see them back. Then everything gets worse, and worse, and even worse.

Kiefer’s sharply honed storytelling skills draw readers effortlessly into the growing panic. She keeps the pacing tight, but nothing feels rushed. Brief digressions into the history of the area are slotted in to provide backstory. But because Kiefer has to maintain tension despite our already knowing everyone dies, she wisely chooses to leave enough unexplained that the mystery and terror within the woods never loses its power to keep us on edge.

If I’d wish for more, it’s that apart from Dylan, the characters aren’t fleshed out much beyond what we need to know to grasp their specific role in the story. Even Clay, whose drive to make a name for himself in his field is no less passionate than Dylan’s own, spirals so fast that we don’t quite have the sense of connection we’d like to feel anguish for his plight. Everyone except Sylvia (who takes copious notes) starts acting selfish and insensitive, though we grasp that the woods are affecting their minds and altering their personalities. But a bit more development to humanize them more fully would have turned a damn good horror story into a great one. On balance though, This Wretched Valley is gripping and relentless, an exceptional achievement for a debut horror writer whose career is sure to climb.