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.”
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.
“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.”
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.