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Is It Good to Mix Genres? Horror, Fantasy, and the Western in Lone Women

Victor LaValle's 2023 Novel

Single woman on white horse on the plains
Photo: Taylor Brandon via Unsplash

The hook

A review of Victor LaValle's new novel, Lone Women included this synopsis by publisher, Penguin-Random House:

"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."

Lone Women was classified by its publisher, Penguin Random House, as Gothic & Horror, Science Fiction & Fantasy, and Literary Fiction. Wow. What a combo! I can't recall anything I've ever read that might be described as horror combined with literary fiction.

I NEVER read horror. First, I dislike blood and gore, a frequent component of the genre, and second, my practical nature just doesn't find it scary. Instead, I roll my eyes and think, "Oh, come on! For crying out loud..."(which may be a more apt response than I intended.") While I can buy into fantasy and an occasional supernatural story, my personality just doesn't embrace the horror genre.

Could I get over my aversion to the horror genre and give this book a try?

Yes. Mostly because I love the history of the American West and this book promised a look at a time period I hadn't studied much, and because it focused on the often unacknowledged role of women.

Questionable beginnings, strange characters, and isolated cabins

Lone Women starts off with activities typical of a horror novel to be sure.

It's 1915 when Adelaide Henry hires a driver to take her to the docks from the home where she lived with her parents in the Lucerne Valley of California, part of a farming community of 27 black families. She rushes out after we see her covering up her dead parents and dousing everything with gasoline, setting the house on fire before driving off in the wagon, bringing with her a very heavy trunk.

Adelaide's goal is to go to Montana and start a new life where nobody knows her secret and where single women can own land if they can tame it. On her travels there, she encounters a kind wagon driver who contracts with her to deliver her to her claim, along with his other passengers, a woman with four blind boys. They are forced to take cover in an abandoned hotel that night, but in the morning Adelaide discovers that the lock on her trunk has been tampered with, and the woman and her sightless sons are gone, leaving their goods behind with the wagon driver.

Adelaide is taken to her claim by the wagon driver, but when she gets there, she does not open her heavy trunk and take out her supplies. Instead, we are to believe that a single woman starting a new life in an isolated cabin has arrived with no food, no supplies, no furniture, no extra clothes, no candles, lanterns, utensils, pots, pans, or farming tools and very little money. (This strained my credulity more than any of the other events that were to come.)

Luckily, Adelaide was able to set up housekeeping by purchasing the furniture and household goods that the blind woman and her boys had abandoned. One night, Adelaide

is surprised by a visit from a widowed neighbor who lives a few miles away, Grace Price and her child, Sam.

Eventually, Adelaide also gets to know Birdie Brown, the only other black woman in the region, and Birdie's Chinese lover who does laundry for businesses in town.

These five isolated people form friendships partly because they are so lonely and partly because they are different from everyone else.

Horror and Fantasy

Was I curious about what was in Adalaide's trunk? You bet.

Did I wonder why Adelaide burned her house down? Yes.

Was I surprised when a one-night stand for Adelaide went very, very wrong? Sort of.

Elements of horror and fantasy are, indeed, part of the plot. Even a bit of the supernatural creeps in when Adelaide begins to have conversations with her dead mother.

But did my stomach turn? Did I break into a cold sweat? Were my knees shaking when I found out what was in Adelaide's trunk? Was I afraid to turn out my lights at night when I found out what was in her trunk, why she burned her house down, or what went wrong with her night of passion?

Not really. Maybe my predisposition against being frightened was too strong. However, my lack of fear did not mean Lone Women wasn't an interesting read. It was. It focused on other elements of life in a brutal, small town in Montana in the early 1900s, like how much prejudice existed against women in general and against women of different races and inclinations in particular. It showcased the difficulties of earning a living in small towns, and how the need for companionship drove people together.

Mostly, Lone Women emphasized a different kind of horror than was promised.

The real horror of the novel

The real horror of the novel is not what's in Adelaide Henry's trunk; it's the scary way people treat each other. The prejudice toward people who are different. The evil that comes from greed and results in theft, deception, and murder. The psychoses and mental states that twist minds into thinking their acts are righteous. The mob mentality in which a single person can whip a crowd into a frenzy and convince them that putting a noose around the necks of others is cause for celebration.

All the elements come together toward the end, and yes, there is bit of blood and gore, but but there is also poetic justice. The conclusion is not horrific, but redemptive.

What reviewers say

"LaValle is prodigiously talented at playing with stylistic modes, and here he deftly combines Western, suspense, supernatural, and horror—his prose is unfussy and plainspoken, which makes it easier to seamlessly skate across genres." - Kirkus Reviews
'LaValle’s Lone Women deftly weaves history, horror, suspense and the perspectives of those rarely recorded in the West.'
"LaValle subtly links Lone Women to an African American literary storyline envisioning a woman who unshackles herself from a societal yoke long weighed upon her. By replanting this narrative with small-town Southern roots into a western self-reliance tale, while mixing in the deranged, the author has fashioned an eccentrically satisfying literary mash-up." -Erik Gleibermann for The Washington Post

Satisfying literary mash-up, indeed.


Perfect Pairings: Inland (another interesting perspective of the Wild West)

Feeling adventurous now?

Pair Lone Women with Inland by Tea Obrecht.

Inland is another interesting Western novel based on the real history of the American military's import of camels and featuring two characters that frequently talk to ghosts. A totally different kind of novel than you've probably read before!


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