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Mystery Lights

Reviewed by Sara Hagar

Mystery Lights by Lena Valencia, Portland, OR: Tin House Books, 256 pages, $17.95

Mystery Lights by Lena Valencia is a series of short stories featuring different characters, but the same eerie theme throughout. In this book, we see these stories combined as a collection, and I must say, the stories are strewn together beautifully, even as our characters change with each story. Valencia captures horror and fear in a way that fully enraptures the reader, making them wonder, “What is going on?” and leading them to feel as though the very incidents happening in the book could occur to them after they close the cover. These are stories of fear, and we see them told from the viewpoint of women. Some of these fears are entirely rational and highly plausible, while others are totally far-fetched, but after reading this book, you will wonder if you know anything at all.

These stories all carry a dark tone throughout, as they are all scary, speculative fiction pieces, but Valencia still manages to keep the reader wanting to continue even with the many spine-chilling events that occur. These stories do not contain happy endings, yet they still manage to provide satisfactory conclusions in their own unique ways, fulfilling the reader’s imagination to the fullest extent.

One of the standout stories for me was the opener, “Dogs”. The protagonist is a female on a solo trip to Joshua Tree doing research for her work. She is confronted by two scary situations, and though she and the reader may feel like one of them is a better alternative to the other, we quickly begin to question what really is the worst-case scenario? The moment that made me really feel an outwards emotional response to this story was when the protagonist seems to have an epiphany that not everyone in the world is as nice as they might be perceived at first. “For a moment she thought to tell him that her boyfriend was waiting for her in the trailer.” This is the turning point when we see the fight-or-flight responses start to kick in and wonder how our protagonist will react when danger surrounds her.

The story that surprised me the most was “Mystery Lights” itself. Granted, this is the book’s namesake, so I expected something pretty good, but I was highly impressed with the way Valencia is able to create a sinister setting, only to leave the reader with a totally unexpected message. The character-building in this story is fantastic because it is hard to tell if we should sympathize with the main lead, or if she is reaping what she sowed. Keep in mind, all of the stories included in this book are connected by the thread of fear, and in this story we see the protagonist as a mother as well. Being able to see the protagonist as not only a working professional, but also a mother who is estranged from her daughter, allows us to dive deeper into why people do the things they do. As a mother, she acts differently than she would if she had no child, and her child is what changes her mindset about the ending. “Purity through chaos. Serenity through disorder.” These words contain a harrowing meaning and a hopeful meaning. In “Mystery Lights”, we see sci-fi meet real world technology concerns combined with a cultish twist. This story keeps you eagerly waiting for the moment you can flip to the next page.

Even within what is predominantly scary, there is still room for humor. Valencia proves this to be true as she writes “The Reclamation”. MLMs and influencers spreading misinformation is everywhere these days, and albeit it is creepy how easily people can be persuaded to purchase a product, most of these do not have anywhere near the cult-like/literal cult following that Brooke Soleil has managed to capture with her self-love brand. This being said, imagining an expensive retreat where the leader gives instructions and berates those who do not follow her is terrifying, but probably not too far off from current reality. Brooke leads her followers with an affirmation, “My mind knows, My heart shows. My self glows.” When compared to the many people that crowd social media platforms today, Brooke is a highly believable character. And like many of the influencer/self-care gurus in our world, Brooke is not all she seems to be, but you better not go against her, or else she will be out to get you.

Mystery Lights is such an unparallelled series of short stories that it will surely make a huge impact on readers everywhere. Valenica works a magic of her own in this book, one that you always want to figure out, but you never seem to be able to.