[Note: I received a copy of The Ravine after contacting the publisher, Gryphonwood Press, to request to review that title, and they kindly supplied a copy]
By the time that I had finished reading The Valley by William Meikle, I was certain of two things: that I would be immensely disheartened if this novella had not sold incredibly well; and that it is one of the most atmospheric pieces of fiction that I have ever read. In previous reviews I have laid out my argument that one of Mr Meikle’s greatest skills as a writer is the ability to create an incredibly immersive and engaging atmosphere for a reader; whether a story is taking place on an isolated, rain-swept island haunted by a murderous spirit, the grubby, blood-stained back-alleys of Glasgow, or an isolated section of Canadian coast, his writing always instantly draws you in and makes you feel like you’re really there. Once I started reading The Valley, I found myself almost instantly transported to the setting – first the arid, sun-bleached sands and rocky terrain of a small mining encampment in the heartlands of Civil War-era Montana, and then the wild and fecund interior of the eponymous Valley that is uncovered by some unfortunate and ill-fated gold miners. The Valley is an environment filled with overgrown vegetation, oversized and terrifyingly deadly prehistoric animals, and beautiful but treacherous scenery; and such is the author’s skill that I felt like I was one step behind the protagonists throughout their entire peril-filled journey
The actual plot of The Ravine is quite simple, which I thought suited the book because it then allowed the author to focus on creating that atmosphere and work on filling out backgrounds and motivations of the small group of protagonists. A small, disparate band of individuals (there’s far too much tension and mis-trust to characterize them as a ‘group’) ride up to a mining camp in Montana, believing that they are going to find a potential windfall of gold in the nearby hills. Instead, however, they find an abandoned and ruined campsite, with tents and building’s either swept away by a flood, or torn apart by mysterious claw marks that don’t seem to match any known animal. As they explore, they hear mysterious, unsettling noises from the nearby river, and then discover that the missing miners hadn’t found gold, but instead a hidden valley filled with strange plant-life, animals and even natives – as well as creatures that could potentially wipe out all life in the state.
I really enjoyed the plot of The Valley because it’s incredibly focused and lean – there are absolutely no wasted pages, paragraphs, sentences or even words; just a relentless piece of action-adventure that draws you in and carries you along with it. And that plot is augmented by that atmosphere that I described earlier. As the characters descend into the valley and encounter the myriad of dangers lurking there, it quickly becomes obvious that the author planned out this entire geographical area in amazingly convincing detail; we get to see the different types of foliage and plant-life that grow there, a predator-prey system (that is thrown into chaos by the actions of the miners), and even a logical weather system that affects everything that takes place in that formerly-isolated location. I know that this may sound obvious to some readers – don’t all authors do this in their titles? Well sure, but I’ve rarely seen such convincing and authentic detail, and it really does help to maintain that atmosphere, even as Mr Meikle starts throwing in giant flesh-eating Scorpions, and a tribe of pygmy natives and the action ramps up.
The characters are also a strong feature of The Valley, because while they start off as a set of almost generic ‘Wild West’ stereotypes, like a desperate outlaw, a Confederate deserter and so forth, by the end of the novella Mr Meikle has really given them some depth and interesting backstories that make you root for them – even the more obviously villainous ones. The character development of Pat, in particular, was impressive, the way that in a few chapters he moves from a naïve and rather childish individual, to the saviour of the occupants of the valley. I’d also like to mention the cover of The Valley, which Gryphonwood Press have done an excellent job in commissioning for the title; it’s a simple but effective piece of cover art that simultaneously attracts the eye of a potential reader and lays out the main highlights of the plot – a small band of miners, a verdant jungle, and predators lurking in the background.
In conclusion, once again both Mr Meikle, and his publishers have pulled together a piece of fast-paced, entertaining and imaginative fiction that does credit to both of them, and is to be highly recommended.