Lone Women, by Victor LaValle: Dread on the Range

I remember when and where I fell in love with Victor LaValle. It was Thursday, October 26, 2017, I was standing in the massive Waterstones off Piccadilly Circus in London, and I was reading the introduction he’d written for the then new Penguin Classics collection of stories by Richard Matheson. He described a particularly uncanny event he’d encountered in the home of a friend when they were both in middle school, and had done it in such an easy and open style, while never once letting up on the relentless darkness, the relentless weirdness of it, that I was captured.

It wasn’t long after (in fact, it may have been before, I don’t remember this part quite so well) that I read his brilliant novella The Ballad of Black Tom, which reframed HP Lovecraft’s hysterically racist “The Horror at Red Hook” as a story of empowerment and vengeance without masking or making amends for the fact that its protagonist had made himself into a monster in order to accomplish those things. Then came his dark but ultimately humane novel of official and systemic malfeasance The Devil in Silver, the deeply, deliriously weird Big Machine, and then his greatest work to date, the brilliant The Changeling. Along the way, he wrote the introduction to the second volume of Leslie Klinger’s The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft (Alan Moore did the honors for the first volume), too.

So imagine my surprise and joy when I found out he had a new novel, Lone Women, set for release this year, and my even greater joy to be chosen to receive an advance reader copy of it. I got the eARC back in December of 2022 and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. You’ll be able to get your copy, published by One World/Random House, today, March 28, 2023.

Lone Women takes us to the wide open spaces of Montana in 1915, where Adelaide Henry, a lone Black woman, flees after the deaths of her parents on their farm in Altadena, near Los Angeles. She makes her departure quickly and quietly, or as quickly as she can with a huge steamer trunk with a giant padlock on it in tow. She encounters hardships, violence, racist aggressions micro and macro, makes some friends, makes some enemies, makes some mistakes, and that trunk gets opened to no one’s benefit (well, maybe someone’s, maybe everyone’s eventually). 

As usual for a Victor LaValle work, it’s the characters who make this one. Adelaide is a great protagonist, but the supporting cast is filled out with individuated human beings, each with recognizably human motivations and fears, desires and hatreds (except for two folks who show up late in the book who either had a bigger role in an earlier draft or were cameos I didn’t recognize; it wasn’t enough to undo the goodwill I felt but I do wonder if there’s a better version of their story somewhere).

We also get one of those set pieces LaValle does so well (think of the outing to the pizzeria in The Devil in Silver, or the encounter with the Swamp Angel in the tunnels beneath Oakland in Big Machine) that’s so good, so genuinely creepy, and told so beautifully in the novel itself (two characters encounter something, and a chapter later, we find out what it actually is when two different characters talk about it) that I went back and reread it as a standalone story.

It’s a jangly sort of story, it sometimes zigs where you think it’s going to zig, but a few times it does what LaValle’s works do and zigs where you think it’s going to zag. And as can be expected, LaValle obviously loves his characters and writes them with a warmth that sets off his works, suffused as they are with bloodshed and horror, as something more than just chillers. There is a love at the heart of LaValle’s universe, and while not everyone taps into it, it’s there for those who do. This isn’t to say this world isn’t a harsh and terrifying place; there are enough dismemberments in this book to please the most hardened gorehounds. But it is to say that when someone in this world gets a happy ending, they deserve it and it doesn’t feel like a cheat.

I really don’t want to get into any of the plot points of this book; I went into it cold, months before the PR machine kicked off, and am happy for it. I will say that the end feels like it could have used a few more chapters because there’s a lot to wrap up, and that there’s a few details that could have either been dropped or expanded upon, as their state in the novel feel incomplete. Overall a good book, if not LaValle’s best. It certainly doesn’t pack the punch of The Changeling or the wonderful sense of deep weirdness of Big Machine, but it’s a damn sight better than most of what’s out there today, and being able to spend a few hours with LaValle’s creations is a nice treat.