It’s that time again. Thrift Store Finds is back with a brand new edition of screaming, scraping, slurping, and staring into the middle distance while your frightened mother shakes you and shrieks your name. Tina! Tina! What’s wrong with Tina?! I can’t answer that question, but after spending time with Valerie, I can guarantee that something is waaaay off.
We all go through that phase where we have to grapple with the concept of reality.
I remember sitting around a small kitchen table in college, the surface covered in aluminum cans, cigarette ash, and Lay’s potato chip crumbs, listening to a fellow student profess his theory.
“I can’t guarantee that any of you are real,” he said, blowing a stinking stream of smoke toward the open window.
Although this revelation was met with the appropriate level of groans, he continued. “It’s true. When I leave this apartment, how do I know that you all don’t disappear until I come back again?”
While most of us would probably file this collegiate philosophy under “supreme arrogance,” the idea of really questioning what we see around us isn’t anything new. Philosophers and scientists from Plato to Stephen Hawking have all turned their eye toward the phenomenon of existence and come back with little more than theories. Turns out, no matter what the actual “Truth” is, in the day-to-day world, reality is largely left to the eye of the beholder.
And that’s scary.
In What’s Wrong With Valerie? figuring out what’s real is a daily event for the title character, and it’s not as easy as it looks. What’s even harder is trying to explain the staggeringly bonkers plot of this book.
The tale concerns Valerie, a single woman who moved to Huntington, West Virginia three years ago to take care of her dying grandmother. While it’s not a glamorous life, it’s better than the deadbeat boyfriend and waitressing job she left behind. In fact, now that grandma has passed on, Val has it pretty good. She’s inherited the house and a little money, which means she can focus on her passion, writing fiction.
But money doesn’t grow on trees, and since Val knows it’s only a matter of time before the cash runs out, she’s renting her grandmother’s death room on the first floor. Her tenant? A dark, brooding library worker man named Gavin.
But there might be more to Gavin than meets the eye.
After dreaming her tenant has infested her house with miniature creatures (“wet, slimy things with big yellow eyes”), Valerie begins to have second thoughts about renting to this stranger. But what to do?
While trying to determine her next move, Val decides to do a little writing. She looks down at her typewriter to see three words she doesn’t remember typing. They are here. Who is here? She wonders. Turns out, the house is haunted by the ghosts of her dead relatives, and one of them, Uncle Herb, knows how to help her with her tenant problem. “Kill him, Valerie. Before it’s too late. Kill him before they kill you.”
While most people would probably consider a visit from a homicidal dead relative as a sign to go visit a doctor, Valerie takes a different approach. The “they” Uncle Herb mentions must be the slimy creatures from her dream. Perhaps it wasn’t a dream at all. Perhaps Gavin brought them here to kill her. And perhaps still, killing Gavin is the only way to get rid of them.
This sounds like as good a plan as any, so Val grabs some tapioca and stirs in a healthy helping of cyanide from under the sink.
That’s when the ghost of great uncle Armand shows up. Apparently she’s got it all wrong. “You’re just crazy, can’t you see that?” Uncle Armand asks. “Been getting that way for a long time.”
And there might be some truth to that. After all, living with an abusive dying woman who calls you a bitch all the time will get to you after a while.
Meanwhile . . .
Across town, Valerie’s cousin Elisabeth is caring for her sick daughter Tamara. The poor seven-year-old has been having a rough time of it recently. In fact, just the other night she claimed to have seen two glowing yellow eyes near her closet. The poor thing.
Although Elisabeth has no love for her cousin (“In her opinion, the less anyone has to do with Valerie, the better off they would be”), she reluctantly agrees to let Valerie watch Tamara while she runs some errands.
Of course, it’s only a matter of time before Tamara tells her older cousin about the eyes in the closet. But as opposed to Elisabeth, Valerie is only too ready to believe her, and she knows just what to do about it.
While this little synopsis might serve to peak your interest, if you’re reading this and think you’ve gotten the gist of What’s Wrong with Valerie?, think again. Writer D.A. Fowler has created one of the most effective portrayals of lunacy I’ve read, and the result is a story that flows along with the confidence of the insane.
But just who deserves the straight jacket?
Valerie takes every moment of supernatural horror in stride, with only the soul sucking mini monsters really giving her anything close to a fright. When great uncle Armand first shows up on the porch, she thinks he’s just a passerby looking for a drink of water. When she returns with the glass and finds him gone, she doesn’t shrug and close the door. Instead she’s immediately convinced he’s walked into her house and is hiding somewhere. While it’s not a totally illogical conclusion to jump to, it’s probably not most people’s first reaction.
It’s this tone that really ties the novel together and makes it so fun to read. We see the story’s events almost solely from Valerie’s point of view, and how she approaches the challenges in front of her are uncategorically batty. But because we’re looking through her eyes, her casual acceptance of ghosts, undead flesh eaters, homicide, kidnapping, and grave desecration starts to make you second guess yourself. By the halfway mark, I was getting suspicious of my suspicions. After all, this is a horror novel, maybe the things Valerie’s seeing are real.
In life, if I met someone that believed the things Valerie does, I’d swiftly make an excuse to hightail it out of there. But thanks to the novel’s construction, I found myself left in limbo, wondering just whose side I should be on.
Reading What’s Wrong With Valerie? is like being trapped in a dream where you’re trying to complete an obstacle course in the middle of an arena while spectators decapitate each other in the stands. You want to stop and save the victims, but there is always another challenge in front of you, another bump in the road, and you have to keep moving, or else someone might notice.
And God help you if that happens.
Wanna take the plunge? Capricon Literary’s got you covered.