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Book and Media Reviews
January 13, 2010

In the Valley of the Kings

JAMA. 2010;303(2):178. doi:10.1001/jama.2009.2006

Not all stories are created equal—even when penned by the same author. As proof, consider the uneven quality of the 8 tales comprising In the Valley of the Kings. This collection of stories by a writer-turned-physician changes gears so often that the dust jacket should come with a warning label: “may cause vertigo.” One story soars. The next feels unfinished and devoid of a plot. A few simply slog along.

The opening tale is brilliant. A previously healthy 5-year-old girl is seen in the emergency department of a county hospital. Her medical problem appears straightforward enough. She has some type of rash. But wait. It is not exactly a rash—more like a dappling of bruises. Wrong again. On closer inspection, the markings on her hands and face are arranged in a pattern that forms a word. Cue the theme music from The Twilight Zone. The child dies. Multiple members of the hospital staff become infected with the mysterious illness. Those infected initially experience an alteration of mood, then weird cutaneous markings followed by uncontrollable laughter and finally death. The illness becomes epidemic. The contagion remains uncertain. There is no cure for the plague. This haunting story gives credence to the notion that words can kill.