More Dark Than Spooky, But Still a Good Read
The Uncanny Valley: Tales from a Lost Town by Gregory Miller will probably be one of the hardest books I’ve ever had to review. It’s a collection of spooky/gory/scary/goosebumping short stories from the fiction town of Uncanny Valley in Pennsylvania. It’s a great book for Halloween/fall/early winter, since that’s the time most of the tales are set. And the ending, if you get to it, will leaving you craving for even more chills down your spine.
But the reason I say that it will be one of the hardest books I’ve ever had to review is because there are not many books out there like this that I know of. There aren’t many that try to have individualized stories in a common setting but also with an overarching plot. I enjoyed it, but I enjoyed it once I got to its latter half and saw how all the pieces were coming together. And when looking back to try and find how the stories all connected, I found some gaps. I enjoyed its style when it worked well, but there were moments where I didn’t enjoy its style and found it repetitive. It scared me really good in some parts, but it didn’t scare me in others. And I’m still wondering if it was intentional.
Anyway, let’s carve this pumpkin, hollow out, and examine its seeds and fibers. Shall we?
What I Thought Didn’t Work Well
The Micro/Macro Aspects
For every piece of fiction, I like to think that there are micro-level aspects and macro-level aspects. Micro-level aspects happen on the word, sentence, paragraph, page, chapter, and all successive levels of prose. Macro-level aspects encompass the character, plot, setting, and theme.
While these levels might seem unbalanced, I like to think of them as the yin and yang of story telling. For every character in a story, the writing style associated with them must enhance/reflect them in the diction of their dialogue. For every plot point that happens, the text must have hints of this or have the ability to drag the reader along. For each setting or each place, the writing must be vivid and reflect/enhance that setting.
And in this yin-yang dance, the themes that emerge from the story — whether polticial or psychological or economical or social — are enhanced even more on the micro level and achieve unity.
To put it bluntly, I felt some unity in the story, but not all of it.
Characters, Setting, Style
The Uncanny Valley‘s premise begins with a writing contest. Supposedly, thirty-three entries, all from the same non-existent town of Uncanny Valley, appeared in the contest submissions — some from people, spookily enough, that are known to be deceased.
Tick up on the spook scale.
Anyway, most entries have a name, age, and occupation of the author. So you’ve got entries from people ranging from the age of elementary school children to those in retirement. Some of the voices, as a result of their mispellings and dialects, are unique and memorable, while others aren’t. And part of me wants to blame it on the fact that the characters are all from Uncanny Valley and therefore share the same setting, but…
I don’t buy it. If a child author has that distinct a voice, more characters can have distinct voices, even if they are from the same place. I don’t buy setting as an excuse when there is evidence in the story that says otherwise.
For that reason, I thought some of the micro aspects of the work were not as strong as they could have been, which made the story sag in some spots.
However, there were other spots that made the story sing like a ghoulish banshee — in all the right places.
What I Thought Worked Well
The Macro Level: Characters, Plot, Theme
On the macro level, The Uncanny Valley knows how to scare you well. It had the right amount of hook, set-up, and payoff in some stories to send chills down my spine. I don’t want to get into the stories themselves, as that would get into spoiler territory.
But I will say this:
There is one very, very mysterious entry. Without a name, age, or occupation. And what it says on it will make you want answers and at the same time give you none.
Which sort of falls in line with the theme of The Uncanny Valley itself. Thee entires arrive under mysterious, paranormal circumstances. The stories themselves talk about mysterious, paranormal circumstances. In psychology, the term “uncanny valley” refers to the point at which we get scared of a human-like being or face that isn’t human, much like how staring at a doll creeps you out. So in a way, it’s almost a meta-narrative about how things about creepy things freak us out, and that there’s an “uncanny valley” of psychological understanding that we have a hard time reconciling.
I like that kind of cerebral stuff. And I like how the macro level took me there in some of the stories and in some of the stories overall.
Unfortunately, I’m a harsh critic. I am forgiving when it comes to a story with great macro but not enough micro. But when the micro is there and isn’t taken advantage of and impacts my enjoyment of the story, that’s where I draw the line.
When I give a book 5 stars, it’s got to hit all the buttons and keep them pressed from the first page onward. I wanted to give this book 5 stars, and I still think it’s very good in its own right. I’m looking to pick up the sequel. But to me, it feels like the story was thought up at the very end, and that some of the stories were stuffed in there to give it a little more padding than it needed.
Still, I can’t deny this book’s power and strength in the places where it exists.