DO NOT TOUCH THIS GROUND
Some monsters live outside the shadows, beneath the sun, sitting beside you, watching and plotting.
Jenny Kiefer’s debut, This Wretched Valley, will appease horror readers who crave fright outside the typical haunted house or killer’s dimly lit basement. Many hair-raising, nail-biting scenes occur in broad daylight, and exploring an uncharted rock in the valley leaves the team isolated from surrounding campers or hikers. Not that many visit that wretched valley, anyway. Not after all the disappearances over the years.
Kiefer doesn’t ease readers into This Wretched Valley. The first few pages unfold like the beginning of a true crime docuseries:
What baffled them was the skeleton.
Dylan and her old friend, Clay, now a geologist, discover an untouched cliff face in the Kentucky wilderness, and she is desperate to be the first to climb it. This could be her big break, and she plans to document her journey as Instagram’s next rock-climbing star. They bring Dylan’s boyfriend, Luke, and Clay’s research assistant, Sylvia, who also seek glory and renewal from the expedition.
But, something goes terribly wrong. Dylan’s Instagram feed goes quiet. When she finally shares a live video, she breaks up; she’s disheveled and frantic, pleading for help. Police searched the site several times with dogs and volunteers but found nothing. And to others, the rock doesn’t appear there, as if it never existed.
Seven months later, three bodies are discovered just off the highway. Coroners struggle to make sense of the bones. Had a squirrel taken the one boy’s eyes? Did they become desperate and resort to cannibalism? Had that triggered violence amongst the group?
Either way, Dylan is still missing.
Based partly on the Dyatlov Pass Incident, where nine highly skilled cross-country skiers and experienced hikers went missing, This Wretched Valley introduces a new nightmare on every page. Like most evil places, the valley comes with a history that Keifer unwinds in chapters dating back to the 1700s when the Cherokee and Shawnee said the area was alluring with pretty flowers and growth. However, they warned their harvest turned rotten, causing hallucinations, heart palpitations, vomiting, and death.
Another era within the valley speaks of famine and murder. The woods and the bleeding rock Dylan is so desperate to climb emit the grueling echo of the dead. Something lives in those woods. And it’s rumbling with hunger.
There’s a sophistication to Keifer’s storytelling that makes the setting more of a lead than Dylan or the ensemble mentioned above. None of the characters felt especially impressionable, but that is by design. Instead, the author uses her interest and experience in climbing to make the more anxiety-inducing scenes palpable and the characterization of the woods unforgettable.
The way Keifer makes readers squirm through the mounting dread from start to finish is worth noting. Despite being the author’s debut novel, This Wretched Valley is a glittering contender for Best Horror of 2024. This reviewer knows we’re only in the first month of the year and writes this praise with conviction.
This Wretched Valley is for readers who enjoy survival, supernatural, and body horror in the same vein as Scott Smith’s The Ruins.
This book is unshakeable. Inescapable. The blood lake. The kills.
You have to read it.