In the Valley of the Kings, a collection of short stories by Terrence Holt, is beautifully written. The language is poetic and lyrical; from an aesthetical standpoint, the book is practically perfection. I can picture the author sitting at a manual typewriter (a much more romantic image than a laptop), expressions pensive, searching for the words to complete phrases like “locked between his thumb and forefinger the lighter-than-feather remnant of an ink-stained quill, the pigment plain along the inner curve of his middle finger: as all this and more, much more in ordinary wealth—the costly bric-a-brac, gold and ghoulish dressings, silver and silent shrines, lapis and luxuries”.
Each of the eight stories includes the lavish descriptions and achingly perfect phrasing. The final passage of the last story provides an ending not only to that story but the book itself: “But before the end we will speak once more, of everything that matters: of the brightness of the moon; of the birds still flying dark against the sky; of the man who brought me here; of the hours that she waited; of what we would name the child; of the grace of everything that dies; of the love that moves the sun and other stars”.
While the lyrical beauty runs through each story, the plot, place, and theme varies. I’ll confess after several readings I’m still not entirely certain how to summarize or even describe the basic plot structure of some of the stories. I liked them all, but part of their beauty is their ambiguity. After multiple readings, I have my own interpretation of each story; whether it is the interpretation Holt intended is another question. When a story opens “There is something I can’t recall. It has a name, like farther, or whom, but these are wrong. It was in the dream that woke me this morning, we call it morning when I awaken here, but I couldn’t remember the dream: only the shape of the world dissolving, a pair of lips parting, puckering shh”, sometimes all one can do is read, wonder, and enjoy.
Many of the stories have a medical theme—a disease that results in “confusion, euphoria, and glossolalia”, a human heart beating in a jar, and another disease that comes from an ancient world. All of the stories have first person narrators—most of whom I deem completely unreliable. In “Eurydike” the narrator questions “Am I a ghost?... My memory is empty. It is as if I never lived before now.” The narrator of the book’s hallmark piece “In the Valley of the Kings” is also puzzling. Whether this narrator—who reminds me slightly of the narrator from Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”—is completely whole at the beginning of the story is ambiguous, but within a few pages, it is clear he is unwell and that his grasp on reality is tenuous: “I am confident that whatever afflicts me is unknown to contemporary medicine and that no cure exists. I do not know if it will kill me, but I suspect it will.” Later in the book: “The whispers grow louder: often of late I have caught myself looking up to see who is calling. I look up, and almost speak, before I see I am alone.”
Considering Holt holds an M.F.A. and a Ph.D. in English along with a MD from University of North Carolina, the emphasis on unsolvable medical dilemmas is perhaps not unexpected. Another theme, though, is simply the human condition and how people react to the unimaginable. In the story “Scylla”, the Law comes to the world. We never learn what the Law is, where it came from, or who brought it. All we see is how the characters react to the Law and try to live with it.
Or take “Apocalypse”, possibly the eeriest story; in it, the narrator states “I know only that when it emerged last June—a faint gleam, low in the summer sky—the world changed”. Despite all the world changing, couples still argue about whose turn it is to take out the trash. Clearly along with the poetic language and ambiguity is a very subtle sense of humor.
In the Valley of the Kings is a unique collection of stories, full of mystery and wonder with fantastic glimpses into the unknown. Beautifully written abstraction, it’s not for all readers, but those who appreciate a bit of a literary challenge might very well fall in love with Holt’s prose.