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Victor LaValle's novel 'Lone Women' is infused with dread and horror — and more

One World

"You kept too many secrets," Adelaide Henry says to her parents, early in Victor LaValle's new novel Lone Women. "Look what it cost you."

Her mother and father don't react. They can't. They're both dead, their corpses lying in their bed in the house that Adelaide has just finished dousing with gasoline. She strikes a match, tosses it on the bed, and leaves her old life behind forever.

It's hard to imagine a darker start to a novel, and Lone Women is indeed infused with creeping dread and chilling horror. But there's more to this book than just that — it's an excellent novel that blurs genres and looks at early-20th-century America from a perspective that's been ignored for far too long.

Adelaide is 31 years old when the novel begins, living in California's Lucerne Valley in 1915. Her family runs a plum orchard in the area; they're one of more than two dozen Black families who moved there to homestead. They also have, as Adelaide says, a secret, locked away for years, and that secret is responsible for her parents' gruesome deaths.

After the slaying of her parents, Adelaide decides to strike out on her own in Montana, a state she's been fascinated with for years. She takes what little she has, including a locked steamer trunk with the family's secret — what she calls her "burden" — and heads northwest, where she will homestead as a "lone woman." (Montana allowed any person to claim homesteads, regardless of gender or race.)

She hires a wagon driver to transport her to her property near Big Sandy, a town in the north-central part of the state; they're joined on the journey by a family called the Mudges, a single woman with four blind sons. The driver warns Adelaide what she's in for: "This land is trying to kill every single one of us, let me tell you. And we keep each other alive. Your neighbors might not all welcome you, but I promise you they will help you if you need it."

This proves to be correct. Adelaide despairs at first when she arrives at her property: "An empty cabin, no food, a well that didn't work, the utter emptiness of the landscape, and that wind, which never seemed to stop." But she soon meets a neighbor, Grace Price, and her young son, Sam, and befriends them. Soon, Adelaide learns she'll need all the help she can get: After she brings home a cowboy for a night, her "burden" gets loose, maiming the man and nearly killing him. She realizes she might not be able to keep the force contained, like she had planned.

Making matters worse are the Mudges, who turn out to be violent criminals dead set on tormenting Adelaide, and a cabal of wealthy, white townspeople — sort of a chamber of commerce from hell — who are, to say the least, decidedly unfriendly to anyone they consider outsiders. Adelaide knows she has to stop her family's secret from its killing spree, and she's helped by the Prices, along with some other people in the area: a Black woman named Bertie Brown and her partner, Fiona Wong, both of whom are dealing with struggles of their own.

The climax of the book is explosive, which is no surprise — as he has proved in novels like The Devil in Silver and The Changeling, LaValle is a master at building suspense and creating a tense atmosphere that makes it difficult to stop reading. This novel ends with a welcome left turn, one that's unpredictable, but fully earned, a fitting conclusion to a book that's filled with twists.

There's no shortage of physical violence in the book, thanks to Adelaide's murderous family secret and a handful of townspeople with a similar taste for blood, but it's the psychological horror that really makes the novel scary. At one point, Adelaide considers the burden she's kept hidden for so long: "There is no moment when the secret recedes. It's a sound that never stops playing in one's ear; a pain in the body that never quite seems to heal. The keepers of that secret — meaning every member of the family — each one hides it differently, but they are always hiding. The idea that you would ever stop is as impossible to imagine as all the stars falling from the sky. Better to take the secret to your grave."

As much as Lone Women is a horror novel, it's also a western, and LaValle's take on the genre is refreshing. He centers the book around women and people of color — it's a welcome antidote to the westerns of the past, where the heroes were always white men, and anyone who wasn't one was either a villain or a supporting character.

This is a wonderful novel that expertly combines adventure and terror, sprinkled with LaValle's mordant wit and assured prose. We didn't need any more proof that LaValle is one of the country's most exciting and imaginative writers of fiction, but it sure is nice to have anyway.

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.