Mucho Malfi – Ronald Malfi’s FLOATING STAIRCASE and SKULLBELLY

A few months back, I picked up a copy of Ronald Malfi’s novel Passenger, with no real expectations, and was very pleasantly surprised by the suspenseful tale I found within. I’ve been planning to try more Malfi ever since then, and two recent titles gave me that opportunity — the novel Floating Staircase from Thunderstorm Books and the novella Skullbelly from Delirium Books.

Floating Staircase tells the story of horror novelist Travis Glasgow, who’s recently moved with his wife Jodie to a small town in Maryland, to a house just down the street from his older brother, Adam. But not just any house, as Travis soon discovers. He gradually pieces together his new home’s backstory, starting with a creepy, hidden bedroom in the basement and culminating in the discovery that the house’s previous family included a boy, Elijah, who apparently drowned in the lake behind the house, although his body was never found.

Travis’ curiosity about Elijah rapidly spirals into an all-out obsession, spurred in part by similarities between Elijah’s death and that of Travis’ younger brother Kyle, who was killed in a diving accident at age 13. It becomes apparent that Kyle’s death has affected Travis far more deeply than he’s ever been able to admit, a fact made abundantly clear when brother Adam points out that all of Travis’ novels feature a character who drowns or almost drowns, or an apparition rising from a lake, a revelation that leads Travis to further realize that the titles of his four books — The Ocean Serene, Silent River, Drowning Pool, and Water View — also reflect a certain preoccupation with water.

A series of strange sights and sounds, including repeated occurrences of wet footprints, serve to fuel Travis’ fixation and lead the reader to question whether there’s something supernatural afoot or Travis is a classically unreliable narrator. Observations from Malfi such as the following serve to further add to the mystery:

“…nature does not know extinction. In effect, it knows only change: nothing ever truly disappears, for there is always something—some part, some particle, some formidable semblance— left behind.”
My biggest concern while reading this fine novel was whether there was really enough plot to support the book’s 330-page length. To Malfi’s credit, he easily meets that challenge, delivering a taut thriller with strong character development and nary a bit of padding.And if Floating Staircase is taut, then Skullbelly
is downright skintight, weighing in at a lean, mean 135 pages. Seattle-based private investigator John Jeffers has been hired to determine what happened to three teenagers who disappeared while on a camping trip in Oregon, and why only a single surviving member of the party, Tommy Downing, came staggering out of the woods, wounded and catatonic. Jeffers finds that the local police investigation was perfunctory at best, and perhaps purposely superficial.

Jeffers’ detective work leads to an encounter with a local artist, who relates the legend of the eponymous creature:

 

“They say it looks sort of like a man, if you don’t look too closely at it, only bigger than a man. It’s hair- less, too, and with skin like rubber. It’s got large claws on its hands and a dagger-like spike on each foot, which it uses to pierce the thick trunks of the redwoods so it can climb. Legend says it lives among the redwoods and eats bad children who don’t listen to their parents… it had this large, bulbous belly, and when it would eat a lot of children and get real fat, the skin of its belly would pull so taut that it would become transparent and you could see the partially-digested bodies of the children in there, sizzlin’ in its stomach acids.”
A subsequent trip to the edge of the dark, unforgiving forest where the kids disappeared results in a close encounter with…something unseen, leaving Jeffers a bit shaken and not quite so skeptical about local folklore.Jeffers is an offbeat protagonist, a 52-year-old loner and jazz aficionado; a former cop who was forced to leave the force after being wounded in a shooting. He’s cynical, self-deprecating, and occasionally bemused about where life has led him — in short, he seems like a real person, not just another fictional PI.

If there’s fault to be found with Skullbelly, it’s that the ending is a bit abrupt, and the whole thing feels like the first section of a longer work, not a complete story in and of itself. I’d like to read the longer version of the story if one should ever come to pass, but in the meantime Skullbelly is a fast, intriguing read.

Going Southard

I reviewed Nate Southard’s He Went Through a while ago, and my very favorable impressions of that chapbook led me to search out more Southard, which brings me to two recent titles — Scavengers and This Little Light of Mine.

Let’s start with Scavengers, one of the first wave of titles from the zombie-focused Print Is Dead, an imprint of Creeping Hemlock Press. Scavengers is an expansion of a graphic novel, A Trip to Rundberg, which Southard earlier scripted. In his Acknowledgments, Southard states “The first two drafts of this novel were written in just over a week.” It wouldn’t be fair to say that the pace at which the book was written is evident in the finished product, but it is fair to say, I think, that expanding the story to novel length may be stretching it a bit beyond the plot’s comfortable limits.

Scavengers starts out seeming like your standard-issue “survival in a post-zombie-apocalypse world” story, with the only question being who, if anyone, will survive. The plot focuses on the plight of the small midwestern town of Millwood, which is a relatively safe outpost, but one that’s rapidly running out of food. Faced with the prospect of slow starvation, the town elects to send a scavenger party of five — three of whom are selected via lottery — to a supermarket in the neighboring town of Rundberg, which is believed to be overrun by zombies. Not surprisingly, the ragtag group is ill-prepared for the ghoulish gauntlet that awaits them.

Featured foremost among the quintet are Blake Ellis, an honorable young man forced to leave behind the woman he’s come to love, and Chris Stevenson, who, to be blunt, is an asshole of world-class proportions. In fact, it’s borderline unbelievable just what a jerk Stevenson is, even in light of what we eventually learn about his past. His behavior, and the other characters’ reactions, at times grows tedious, as there are only so many times that one can read variations on passages like the following:

“[Blake] breathed deep and swallowed the urge to jerk an elbow into the bridge of Stevenson’s nose. The smug prick was really beginning to work his last nerve.”

I feel ya, Blake, I feel ya. Similarly, the characters’ numerous narrow escapes from the hordes of zombies roaming Rundberg start to feel a bit repetitive, with the scenes becoming less tense and almost tiresome.

I’m afraid I’m sounding a bit too harsh, though — it’s not as if Scavengers doesn’t have some redeeming features. For example, the first two-thirds of the story, before the repetition creeps in, features some strong drama and ever-ratcheting tension. And it’s worth noting that, even though flashbacks can often detract from the pace of an action-oriented story like this one, Southard does a great job keeping his backward glances brief, making them informative without being unwelcome interruptions. Finally, there’s a chillingly inventive death scene crafted for one of the characters, and a grimly downbeat ending shortly after that — an upbeat ending would have seemed more than a little incongruous, so kudos to Southard for embracing his dark side.

All in all, Scavengers was a bit of a mixed bag for me, but zombie zealots will likely find much to appreciate.

Much more impressive is Southard’s This Little Light of Mine, a novella from Burning Effigy Press that benefits from wicked pacing sans padding, and features a refreshingly different type of menace. Set entirely in the claustrophobic confines of a parking garage that collapses in the opening scene, the plot focuses on two survivors trapped in the ruins of the garage. Protagonist Brandon is determinedly optimistic and intent on escaping and seeing his wife again, while insurance executive Clair is a bitch on her best days (Southard seems to have a penchant for deploying highly unlikable characters); not surprisingly, the overwhelming fear and stress of the situation brings out her worst.

Literally cloaked in darkness, choked by dust and ringed by rubble, Brandon and Clair struggle to stay calm and keep hope alive. Buried in the underground garage, there’s of course no cell phone signal available, but Brandon finds a hide-a-key on one of the nearby cars, and using the car’s radio is able to tune in a signal from what seems to be the only radio station on the air.

The radio announcer describes nationwide earthquakes and mass devastation, and then Southard twists the knife a little further by having the announcer add:

“Looks like the peanut gallery has decided to join in on the fun, guys and gals,” the man said. “Got reports from all over the damn place now. Ghouls and goblins or whatever coming out of the ground. Just ignore the bullshit, folks. Take care of yourselves and each other. I’ll stay on until they shut me down.”

There’s initially a third, unconscious victim trapped in the garage — Joe, a friend of Clair’s — but as they try to sleep at the end of their first day in the garage, Brandon shuts off the car’s headlights in order to save the battery…and later awakes to the sound of Clair’s screams and the sight of Joe’s eviscerated corpse. It seems the stories of creatures coming out of the underground are not just stories, and that Brandon and Clair’s predicament has gotten even worse.

Weighing in at 52 shuddering, skittering pages, This Little Light of Mine is a riveting read.

Mortality Monopoly — Joel Lane’s collection DO NOT PASS GO

UK author Joel Lane has produced some extremely impressive work in the last few years, most notably his novella The Witnesses Are Gone, which I reviewed for Cemetery Dance, and his collection The Terrible Changes. Lane’s new chapbook mini-collection, Do Not Pass Go (Nine Arches Press) is interesting because it collects urban crime fiction, as opposed to the surreal and haunting nature of the works I mention above.

The five stories in Do Not Pass Go include four reprints dating from approximately 2002-2007, and one original tale, and they’re all shot through with darkness — it’s no accident that the titles of three of the stories feature the words, “black,” “blue,” and “blues.” Speaking of titles, let’s start with the wonderfully-named “This Night Last Woman,” wherein a regular at a pub’s karaoke night meets a woman he hasn’t seen before and goes home with her, with the expected results…up to a point. When the man later finds that he was seemingly the one one among a string of the woman’s dates to *not* be victimized, he can’t rest until he knows why he was spared…and the reason she gives him is enough to send him straight to the pub, for a very long time.

“Black Dog” draws its title from a heap of asphalt that “looked like a huge  sleeping dog”, and which turns out to be a tarry blanket over the body of a murdered woman who was beaten and then suffocated beneath the paving material. There are more twists and turns to be found in this tale than in the others, and they’re nicely torqued. “Blue Mirror” and “No More the Blues,” meanwhile, are strongly focused on music — one on a failing band and the other on a hard-core fan — and while they both feature well-wrought atmospheres, they strike me as the two slightest tales in the booklet.

Conversely, the last (and most recently-written) story, “Rituals,” is probably the best, detailing the repercussions when a gang looking to use an abandoned building as the venue for a beat-down winds up stumbling on a gay porn filmset in flagrante delicto, and protagonist Finlay accidentally shoots and kills one of the actors.

Sadness, remorse, regret, lost chances and missed opportunities… these are the overriding emotions to be found in Do Not Pass Go. It’s probably a good thing that this is a mini-collection, because a book-length gathering of tales such as these might be enough to spur suicide…but I mean that in a good way. This is truly modern noir, with a distinctly British feel.

Loud and Proud — Michael McBride’s collection Quiet, Keeps to Himself

I purchased a story from Michael McBride for Cemetery Dance, I wrote a very positive review of his novel Remains, and I’ve enjoyed several other works of his, most notably Bloodletting. So it’s probably no great surprise to learn that I found much to like in his collection Quiet, Keeps to Himself, from Thunderstorm Books.

mcbride collection

The book gathers eight stories, including three novellas, two ultra-short pieces, and three works of “intermediate” length. The first of the novellas, “Xibalba,” appears for the first time here, and it’s a dynamite page-turner focusing, as many of McBride’s works do, on a scientific expedition. The group is investigating a phenomenon known as “blue holes” — a geologic formation caused by long-term erosion and resulting in underwater caves or sinkholes, named for the dramatic contrast between the dark blue, deep waters of their depths and the lighter blue of the shallows around them. The expedition is composed of an interesting cast of characters, with a simmering back-ground romance, is situated in a suitably remote jungle area on the Yucatan Peninsula, and begins to get very creepy when a scuba diver exploring the cave system starts seeing furtive movements in the shadows from the corner of his eye. From there, the plot rapidly accelerates into full-on terror territory.

“The Calm Before the Swarm” is another original novella, and it’s a grim view of terrorists developing a deadly mutant wasp species. Narrated from the perspective of a doctor at the Center for Disease Control, the tale is impressively dark, utterly bleak, and to McBride’s credit he makes the threat seem chillingly plausible. The third novella, “Zero,” was previously published in a stand-alone limited edition by Necessary Evil Publications, and it’s another horrific tale with a strong science-fiction overtones, focusing on Brian Niemand, a recent graduate who’s initially thrilled to garner a coveted spot on a bioengineering research team, but later gets caught in the middle of a darkly twisted misuse of the technology.

McBride’s story from Cemetery Dance, “It Rips,” is included here, and it’s a taut little exercise in ratcheting tension, even if it provides far more questions than answers. As the author says in his story notes: “I’m still not quite sure what it really is, but I had a blast writing all around it.” “Postpartum” and “The Generosity of Strangers” are likewise very strong stories; on the other hand, I seldom have an appreciation for flash fiction, and the two examples included here do nothing to change that general impression. But those two micro-works are the only disappointments I found in these pages.

The collection comes complete with an introduction by Gene O’Neill, informative story notes from McBride, and typically excellent artwork by Steve Gilberts, all of which serve to make this an even more attractive package. Definitely recommended.