Lone Women – by Victor LaValle

Victor LaValle’s new novel is a horror set in the American frontier – that, of course, ends up being much more than that.

Title: Lone Women

Author: Victor Lavalle

Publication Date: 28 March 2023

Genre: Horror – Westerns

Pages: 285

Standalone or Series: Standalone

Representation: Black main character – Black and Asian secondary characters in a sapphic relationship – Transgender secondary character

Content Warning: Violence – Gore – Death – Murder – Racism – Body horror – Transphobia – Child death – Death of parent

Synopsis

Blue skies, empty land—and enough room to hide away a horrifying secret. Or is there? Discover a haunting new vision of the American West from the award-winning author of The Changeling.

Adelaide Henry carries an enormous steamer trunk with her wherever she goes. It’s locked at all times. Because when the trunk opens, people around Adelaide start to disappear.

The year is 1915, and Adelaide is in trouble. Her secret sin killed her parents, forcing her to flee California in a hellfire rush and make her way to Montana as a homesteader. Dragging the trunk with her at every stop, she will become one of the “lone women” taking advantage of the government’s offer of free land for those who can tame it—except that Adelaide isn’t alone. And the secret she’s tried so desperately to lock away might be the only thing that will help her survive the harsh territory.

Crafted by a modern master of magical suspense, Lone Women blends shimmering prose, an unforgettable cast of adventurers who find horror and sisterhood in a brutal landscape, and a portrait of early-twentieth-century America like you’ve never seen. And at its heart is the gripping story of a woman desperate to bury her past—or redeem it.

Analysis

Form & Style: The story is told by a third-person omniscient narrator that now overlooks the scenery from above, now zooms closer to the perspective of this or that character, now takes a step back to artfully increase mystery and suspense. LaValle’s writing is vivid and captivating, combining an engaging rhythm with an immersive, memorable ambience; a well-measured use of recurring mottos (“A woman is a mule“, “Queer folk. That’s what they say about the Henrys“) imbues the narration with the ominous inescapability of folk wisdom, and of small-town chatter. Regular chapters are now and then interspersed with poetic interludes – verses that show us a more surreal and primal perspective on the world, the meaning of which will soon be clear.

Setting: Our story takes place in 1915 in the American West, and more exactly in Montana, where our main character hastily moves after leaving her old town in California. While the events have of course no claim of realism, and more than a touch of magic is indeed essential to the story, the setting is otherwise well-grounded and believable. Specifically, the very premise of the novel is based on true historical reports about lone women homesteaders, as well as on the often neglected role of African Americans in the Old West. LaValle often indulges in portraying not just the most epic challenges and adventures, but also the daily struggles and mundane habits of these forgotten pioneers, thus evoking an incredibly lifelike, palpable ambience, that makes its supernatural elements even more striking and disquieting.

Characters: Adelaide, our main character, is an African American woman on the run from her past. She’s brave, tenacious, but also deeply troubled by what she considers her family curse – that is to say, the entity that lurks from inside her steamer trunk, that only Adelaide is seemingly able to subdue. At first, she might look like a fairly straightforward character: a strong but unfortunate woman, struggling to outrun an inescapable destiny. However, both her role and her feelings are much more complex than that, and while she’s at first reluctant to confess her story, she’s of course bound to gradually reveal her secrets, finally unravelling her tight bundle of guilt, hate, and love.

Her path gets soon entangled with that of other characters – from more or less sympathetic outcasts, to the so-called respectable society of her small town. Even though it’s clear enough who we’re supposed to side with, I really loved how no character is simplistically one-sided: antagonists have believable motivations and worldviews, and sympathetic figures aren’t necessarily likeable all the time. For instance, while Adelaide quickly bonds with Grace, a widowed single mother who recently claimed her own land, and who generally proved to be loyal and supportive, she can hardly hide her own impatience for her patronising intrusiveness – which I felt like a believable portrayal of how people may befriend each other under duress.

And of course, there’s Elizabeth – the monster in the trunk and Adelaide’s secret sister. I must say, even as her real identity is revealed at the end of the story, and even though her experience is rendered by the aforementioned lyrical interludes, we don’t really get to know her as intimately as other characters; which is likely intended, since her perspective is meant to stay “alien” to an extent. Nevertheless, in the end she’s given all the sympathy she deserves – even without denying the obviously dangerous side of her identity.

Plot: Lone Women starts out as a fairly traditional horror: our main character is setting her home on fire and herself on the run, right after the violent death of both her parents, for which she’s strongly hinted to be responsible. She’s carrying a creepy, mysterious steamer truck – that, of course, will get opened at all the wrong times, and a few jump scares will ensue.

After that, however, the novel takes a few unusual turns – which, indeed, will be no surprise to anyone familiar with Victor LaValle’s favourite themes. Without revealing too much of the plot, the original fear for an unspeakable, inhuman entity is soon replaced by a complex of different challenges, more or less supernatural. What follows is a slightly uneven – but always fascinating – story, that combines traditional Wild West tropes and unexpected detours, gory action scenes and truly heartwarming moments.

Themes & Overall Thoughts: Lone Women is, among other things, an extremely loose retelling of Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror . As such, it’s yet another masterful attempt to avenge oppressed minorities from the othering gaze that traditionally either erased their very existences, or singled them out as mindless enemies. LaValle’s endeavour is twofold: on the one hand, he chooses typically neglected – but historically believable – characters as the heroes of his story; on the other hand, he introduces a stereotypically monstruous figure, just to reveal that, despite her terrifying appearance and unrelenting strength, she’s actually a sentient creature who deserves love and understanding; while the true villains are much more mundane in looks and in methods, and just more despicable because of that. While such a twist is not necessarily new (the idea that humans are the real monsters is a popular trope for some good reason ), LaValle’s execution is especially brilliant, since he doesn’t trivialise the struggles and fears he portrays, instead honestly engaging with complexity – and telling us an amazing, page-turning story while at it.

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