A Review of The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard

*SPOILER ALERT* This review contains plot details about The Other Valley.

Published February 2024 by Atria Books.

In a world where the layers of time must coexist simultaneously, Odile Ozanne faces a choice that could rewrite the future or seal her friend’s fate in the past.

Scott Alexander Howard’s debut, The Other Valley, is a captivating speculative-fiction novel nuanced with philosophical questions about the delicate balance of time and the nature of free will. The first half is a coming-of-age story complicated by secrecy and moral turmoil. Odile is a clever and introverted sixteen-year-old who resides within a valley nestled amidst an array of identical, repeating valleys. To her east lies a valley twenty years ahead in time, while the valley to the west is twenty years in the past. The exclusive authority to grant passage across their guarded borders rests with the Conseil, which Odile is on the verge of joining as an apprentice. When two visitors from the future come to Odile’s valley on a mourning tour, she recognizes them as the parents of her cherished friend, Edme. Odile is left at a crossroads with her mind and heart divided. Should she keep this knowledge a secret, preserving the integrity of the timeline? Or should she risk warning Edme, whose impending doom inches closer every day? As her bond with Edme deepens, the weight of her moral dilemma grows heavier, casting a dark shadow on her destiny.

Howard’s storytelling is marked by his deft use of Odile as the first-person narrator. Narrowing in on Odile’s coming-of-age narrative, Harold seamlessly eases readers into the speculative realm of the novel. He opts for a gentle immersion that begins with mundane aspects of the story, rather than a jarring, action-packed scene. I appreciated this approach because it set the tone for a more dimensional narrative to unfold at a measured pace alongside Odile’s character growth.

The novel begins in Odile’s school as she stands at the precipice of transitioning into the workforce. The last school year marks the apprenticeship level, during which students apply to different vocations. It isn’t until her teacher, Pichegru, instructs her to write an essay to earn a spot in the Conseil’s vetting program that the speculative nature of the story comes to light. Pichegru asks, “If you had permission to travel outside the valley, which direction would you go?” This question becomes the gateway to Howard’s intricate exploration of a world where everyday citizens, despite their awareness of neighboring valleys, remain bound by cautionary folklore that deters them from venturing out. Odile’s journey slowly unveils the enigma shrouding the valleys and sheds light on the Conseil’s vital role in safeguarding reality. As she learns more about her world and strives to find a place within it, I was increasingly lured into the narrative and the mounting gravity of her situation.

Image: The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard

I was most impressed by Howard’s remarkable talent for crafting a heart-wrenching narrative that masterfully explores metaphysical quandaries. He builds a world that lays bare the fragility of reality and identity. This metaphysical contemplation shines through the Conseil’s vetting program, where Howard’s background in philosophy comes to life in the character of Ivret, Odile’s mentor. Her eloquent explanations provide profound insight into the perils of tampering with the valley to the west. Interfering with the past does not create simple absences in the present valley, rather, whole existences and facts are undone and rewritten. Howard writes, “A person goes west, he interferes, and then time rolls over him like a wave, leaving nothing behind.”

Intriguingly, visitation to the other valleys is allowed, but gaining approval from the Conseil is difficult. Guided by Ivret, Odile and her peers grapple with a series of tests in which they approve or deny mock visitation requests. Their decisions must balance compassion for human grief while weighing the risk of the bereaved potentially tampering with the past or future. Ethical dilemmas persist beyond the vetting program, allowing the theme of morality to remain present throughout the novel. I felt the Conseil’s presence served to underscore a utilitarian perspective prioritizing the welfare of the majority over the happiness of an individual. However, Howard also evokes empathy for characters who prioritize their personal interests over the greater good. He further pushes the boundaries of morality by suggesting that those put in harm’s way through the tampering of time might be erased from existence. I found myself contemplating whether the immorality of their actions could be excused if those affected never truly existed in the first place.

The second half of the novel follows Odile in her mid-thirties. The narrative sharply shifts from the optimism of her adolescence to a more somber tone, revealing the stark disparity between the life she had hoped for and the bleak reality she faces. I wish that Howard had offered a smoother transition, as there is no immediate explanation for the position Odile finds herself in. I had to resist the temptation to peek ahead for signs of her youthful self returning because I couldn’t accept that the promising sixteen-year-old we initially encountered was gone so suddenly. I mourned the loss of Odile’s hopefulness and innocence, finding it difficult to adjust to her colder perspective as an adult. The transition, while frustrating, proves necessary to lend her character greater depth. As the novel progressed, I realized that Odile’s emotional detachment was her coping mechanism for regret and the consequences of her past choices. However, just as she begins to accept her circumstances, she reconnects with old friends and sets forth on a path that surpasses her wildest imagination.

The stakes presented in Howard’s novel are undeniably unsettling and beckon readers to ponder weighty philosophical questions. As Odile struggles with a choice that could rewrite the lives of everyone in her valley, Howard leads the reader through a narrative that compellingly explores the intersection of fate and free will. The Other Valley is an enthralling emotional and intellectual journey that lingers past the final page.

An Interview with V. Castro

What inspired you to write your latest novel, The Haunting of Alejandra, and what do you hope readers take away from it?

I want this book to terrify you, but also leave you with an immense sense of hope and love. This book was inspired by my own struggle with mental health after I had my last child. Being a parent can be terrifying, as is losing your sense of self. This book explores what it feels like to have the floor dissolve beneath your feet and all you see is darkness.

You often weave elements of Mexican folklore and culture into your horror stories, as seen in The Haunting of Alejandra. How important was it for you to reimagine the La Llorona legend, and how did you approach the task of putting your own unique twist to this well-known story?

I didn’t set off to write her story; it just happened as I began the tale of a woman experiencing immense pain from losing her sense of self. It occurred to me that La Llorona has always had her story told for her. No one knows how the story originated. Women should have the ability to tell their own stories in their own voices. It is very important for me to write about my culture and our history because there are so few books that do this. There should be more stories with Women of Color as leads, written by Women of Color.

Generational trauma is a major theme in your novel. How did switching between time periods and the perspectives of women in Alejandra’s ancestry aid in your exploration of generational trauma? Did you face any challenges or make notable discoveries in this narrative structure?

It was important to show how different women viewed themselves and interacted with others at different periods of time while also grappling with their demons. This evolution shows how trauma passes on through the generations if not addressed. In some cases, it couldn’t be addressed. It felt very natural as I wrote it because I have seen it in my own family and personal experience.

In addition to your novels, your most recent short story collections, Out of Aztlan and Mestiza Blood, showcase your skill in shorter forms of storytelling. How does your approach to short stories differ from full-length novels, and do you prefer one format over the other?

I get an idea in my head and write. The story determines the length. It’s something I don’t overthink. Sometimes, I see the narrative start to finish.

In The Haunting of Alejandra, Melanie’s character bridges the gap between science and spirituality, embodying both a therapist and a curandera. Can you elaborate on the opportunities this duality presented in your storytelling? What insights might aspiring authors draw from your experience in crafting such a character?

I wrote this character because I want people to feel comfortable returning to their indigenous beliefs for healing and comfort. Since this is a supernatural book, I want the magic that I truly believe in to shine through. As a Woman of Color and someone who practices brujería, this felt true to me.

We all experience pain and sometimes terror in life. Fear is universal, but how it manifests is different for everyone. Narratives that do not conform to the dominant culture are valid.

Image credit: V. Castro

You’ve skillfully incorporated historical fiction into select chapters of The Haunting of Alejandra. Could you share more about the creative decisions behind integrating specific historical figures and events? Were these historical elements present in every draft or did they come as you edited the book?

The historical aspects were included in the original manuscript. I wanted to show generations of women from different time periods to show what had and hadn’t changed. Identity is also a large part of Alejandra’s journey. Self-discovery and change are painful, but they can open so many roads toward a better future.

The Haunting of Alejandra delves into the topic of postnatal depression. How did you balance the need for emotional depth and accuracy while still taking care of your own well-being?

It was something I experienced, which is why I felt compelled to write the book. There was a lot of pain I had to express. Writing about this and hopefully helping others was a big part of my own healing process. Some things in life are hard to share. Picking up a book and feeling seen can give comfort. I want to give others hope with this story, even though it is horror!

Are there any books or authors that have helped guide your journey in crafting your unique writing style and voice as an author?

I never thought this would be what I ended up doing. It was a vivid dream that led to one story in 2017. All my life, I have been an avid reader, but I didn’t know this was inside of me. It has been a beautiful gift of tears and joy. We all have a voice; it’s just a matter of finding it.

The publishing process can often feel more challenging than writing a book. What has that process been like for you throughout your career and what advice would you give to aspiring authors who are just starting or currently navigating this stage?

It has been a journey of highs and lows, and I am still reaching for certain milestones. It takes a lot of grit and perseverance. I think if you can take rejection and have patience, then go for it. But always be true to your voice. Find your voice and follow it. There is only one of you, and the story you want to tell can only be told by you.

An Interview with Gerardo Sámano Córdova

Spoiler Alert—The following review contains plot details about Monstrilio.

What was the origin of the idea behind Monstrilio? Is there a particular experience or event that influenced your decision to write this book?

There isn’t a specific event, but rather a question we all have, particularly queer people: Am I going to be loved no matter what? I wanted to see how far love could be stretched. I wondered if it could break. I decided to explore a family’s love if they had to love something monstrous.

How did you manage to strike a balance between infusing elements of horror and the supernatural with themes of tragedy and grief in your novel?

I think horror is the potential of tragedy. What if the worst thing that could happen happens? How do we react? Do we survive? Horror deals a lot with grief—grief as cause and consequence. Grief is so powerful; death so alarming for us mortals that horror finds fertile ground here, as does the supernatural, attempting to explain things that perhaps we humans will never understand.

Monstrilio also explores themes of queerness, not just for young M but for almost every character in the novel. How important was it for you to write a story so representative of queer identities?

Extremely important. I had two goals: one, to have queer characters exist in a world without prejudice, acceptance, or the need for explanation; two, to tell a story in a queer way, challenging what we think traditional narrative should be.

Using multiple narrators isn’t a conventional storytelling method, especially in the context of horror. What was your intent behind featuring four distinct narrators in Monstrilio? How did their voices evolve during the writing process?

I wanted to capture a family’s experience of loving each other—how it changes. Does it vanish? Strengthen? Shape-shift? It was crucial that I get each member’s individual perspectives, each with their unique take on Monstrilio, while still having their own goals and dreams. It was interesting to me how the individual informs the collective and vice versa.

In addition to Monstrilio, you write a lot of short stories. How did writing a novel differ from your experiences in crafting shorter fiction? What challenges and creative opportunities did you encounter in making the transition from short stories to a full-length novel?

Short stories, by virtue of their shortness, have the agility to shift and experiment before they take their final shape. You can write several versions of the same short story without (usually) spending decades on it. Novels cannot shape-shift as effectively. I learned commitment while writing my novel. I couldn’t write a whole new novel every time I got anxious and wanted to scrap the whole thing! I was forced to seek the beauty and awesomeness in what I already had, and trust that even if it was only a paragraph, a sentence, or a funny phrase, it would carry me through.

Why did you feel it was important to separate the identities of Santiago and Monstrilio from M while keeping him connected through shared memories? Was it always your intention for Monstrilio to evolve into M or did this decision come about as you drafted and edited the book?

A lot (MOST) of the book evolved through drafts and edits. But this one thing, the decision to have Monstrilio evolve into M, I always had in mind. I didn’t want the book to simply be a long metaphor for grief. I wanted the metaphor to fight back and say, “I’m not a metaphor. I breathe, talk, and eat,” and see what happened. I wanted the book’s initial conceit to evolve, just like Monstrilio turns into M, hopefully leaving the reader with a more layered and nuanced (or at least more interesting) story.

Monstrilio has received acclaim for its successful blend of horror with elements like folklore and family drama. What tips would you offer to aspiring authors interested in experimenting with the blending of multiple genres in their writing?

Do it! Genres are not set in stone. Play. Create. Art should experiment, question, challenge. Take a trope you love and twist it in a new way, maybe pile others onto it. The more you play around, the better you’ll be at the game.

Are there any books and/or authors that have been fundamental in crafting your own voice as a writer?

So many. Every book I read leaves a little crumb in me. At any given time, I’ll have a few hovering around me that I can’t stop thinking about (although if you ask me in a month, these may have changed):

The process of getting a book published can often feel more challenging than the writing itself. Could you share your experience with the publishing process and offer some advice to emerging authors who are either just starting or currently navigating this stage?

It is challenging! I’m extremely fortunate to have the amazing Jenni Ferrari-Adler as my agent. She’s been with me since the first drafts of the novel, helping me through the revision process, the publishing process, and everything that comes before, during, and after it’s bought. As harrowing as the process is (you don’t know if your book will be bought!), my advice is to surround yourself with people you trust and who are knowledgeable in the process. Ask a lot of questions. Also, understand that this process will be unique to each writer.

Both Sides of the Coin

I hold my son’s plush hands and count his pink fingers to make sure there are ten. I wouldn’t forgive myself if there were any missing, though I would forget how it happened. I have three severed fingertips—I can’t remember how it felt to lose them, but each finger fed my son for three months.

My phone vibrates like a heartbeat in my pocket, and I know it’s a request.

How much for a thumb?

I reply, $8,000.

The buyer accepts. I place my son in his playpen and kiss his soft head. He squirms like a little worm that thinks it’s about to be eaten.

When memories became a new type of NFT, everyone was quick to unload their baggage in exchange for vacations to faraway places and sex with people they never thought they’d meet. Happiness became the equivalent of fast food—cheap and of no nutritional value. These days, painful memories are scarce, and the market is teeming with people begging to feel something.

The memory must be at least ten seconds long. I take the knife I once used for cutting apples and place my thumb on the cutting board, like a nub of ginger waiting to be peeled. I know where to cut, I know how far to go. I cut through the red, counting the moments through gritted teeth. I can’t look away until it is done. I press the back of my ear to sync the memory and send it from my phone. The buyer instantly pays, and I am left with blind pain. My body moves automatically, a puppet pulled by the strings of the nurse I was before. I treat the wound with my son crying behind me, as if he feels it too. Then the world grows still, dark, and numb.

The memory from this woman pounds into my skull like a drill. I feel the sawing of her thumb, the anguish of hot flesh against cold steel. A scream rips through my throat and the skin on my forehead floods with salty sweat. It’s delicious. A rush of laughter erupts from the deepest part of my gut. I spiral in this feeling of pain that is not mine, of pain I paid for like a prime rib served on a broken platter.

It is over too soon. The memory clings to me sticky sweet, but the feeling is gone. I pull my phone out and view my collection with pride. There is the thumb, there is the fetus in a closet, there is the eye of a soldier, there is the burned flesh of a child in a war zone. It’s all there and so much more. I am rich with pain that I bought and now own.

My phone rings.

Sir, it’s time for your press conference.

I straighten my red and blue tie, adjust the pin over my heart, check my teeth, and smile.