Review: Mystery Lights

Mystery Lights, Lena Valencia's debut story collection, offers 10 genre-bending tales, mostly set in the American Southwest, that are as thoughtful as they are full of wonder. A perfect marriage of quiet character insight and pulpy plot, these stories entertain as they enlighten.

Valencia's stories range from the grounded to the supernatural. Some stories lean toward more realistic, albeit revelatory, conflicts, such as "Bright Lights, Big Deal," in which a recent college graduate struggles to find her footing in New York City while starting a social-climbing blog, and "Dogs," in which a horror movie screenwriter must determine the difference between real and imagined danger.

Meanwhile, surrealist obsession takes over in tales like "Reaper Ranch," which features an elderly widow who can't help but suspect that something isn't right at her care home, and "The Reclamation," which follows a group of women into the desert for a days-long retreat with a viral lifestyle guru that turns violent, fast. Valencia's skill with wide-ranging genres comes to the forefront in the titular "Mystery Lights," in which a marketing executive overseeing a reboot of an X Files-style cult classic whips the fan base into a frenzy after she uses a series of mysterious lights in the desert for her campaign.

With cinematic sensibilities, Valencia excels at blurring the lines between the literary and the commercial. While rabid fans become a chaotic mob in "Mystery Lights," the woman at its center remains an achingly realized protagonist, aloof despite her longing for familial connection. Such perceptive handling of characters allows quieter, existential insights to serve as the eye of the storm amidst rapidly progressing plots.

But the craft behind constructing such breakaway-train plots should also not be underestimated. The fast-paced progression of the horrors at the heart of "Reaper Ranch" and "The Reclamation" give many of Valencia's tales a heartbreaking but nonetheless breathtaking sense of inevitability. The more characters try to exert control, the less in control of their own stories they become. The tender touch of endings like that in "Bright Lights, Big Deal" are well-executed, but just as impressive are the perfectly timed punches of "The Reclamation." Using the raw, strange setting of the desert, and its uneasy proximity to the glossy grit of Hollywood, Valencia probes the dark obsessions her characters have with control and sublime spectacle, power and the surprising catharsis of a lack thereof. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor

Shelf Talker: Mystery Lights is a genre-bending debut collection by short story master Lena Valencia that follows its characters down the paths of chaotic transformations, both real and imagined.

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