Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Narrows (Samhain), by Ronald Malfi

The town of Stillwater, Maryland is a tiny hamlet, surrounded by the Allegheny Mountains, where it gets dark much earlier than anywhere else. Stillwater also has endured a series of devastating floods  and after the most recent one, the early darkness brings company so nasty that even the last few hangers-on in the dying town are forced to question the wisdom of remaining.

This novel is a real page-turner and anyone who has spent time in the small forgotten towns of New England will find Stillwater familiar.  Malfi’s well-crafted prose will make the reader feel, along with the characters, that melancholy vacancy of the soul at the description of the closed shops on Main Street and the alcoholism and abuse that rides on the back of small town poverty.  Those who stay are there only because they have nowhere else to go.

That being said, there’s plenty going on in Stillwater, and none of it good.  Malfi deftly handles the building of suspense and the sense that things are going strange by beginning with town-wide nightmares.   From here he escalates to mutilated livestock, followed by missing children . . . missing children that perhaps the parents and Sheriff Ben Journell should be a little less interested in locating.  His character development is so spot-on that by the end of the book, you feel you know everyone well and what’s more, you actually care about them deeply.  I found myself muttering more than once, “Oh, I didn’t want him to die-- I liked him;”  but this is the best tool the writer has to make the reader dig in even more against whatever threatens his characters, and Malfi uses it well.

There is no grey area where the monster is concerned. It has no redeeming value.  It didn’t become that way because of abuse as a child.  We’re not supposed to understand it.  It is pure, unreasoning, unrelenting evil.  We’re supposed to hate it, and we do.  In this town that has so little, and it seems that the monster has shown up just in time to take what’s left.

The prose is visually stunning—not because the town is beautiful, because it isn’t—it’s Malfi’s words that are.  Such a clear picture is painted with these words that the reader sees the town clearly, warts and all, and knows his way around.  It’s as visually written as a movie script.

Though The Narrows is a dark book, at its center a single candle of hope shines through the desolation—perhaps not brightly, but at least it is lit. It’s the hope we all have within us, no matter how bad things become.  It is what the characters, and the reader, hold onto throughout.

My problems with this book are editorial rather than creative.  Some words are misused, some made up (“ammoniacal” when describing the scent of ammonia), using “busted” rather than “broken” in narrative,  not as a colloquialism), converting a noun to a verb (“avalanching”), and incorrect idiomatic expressions (“nose was running like a sieve” should be “nose was running like a faucet”  Sieves leak, they don’t run).  There were a couple of instances when descriptive passages were far too similarly written, so that when they were required for shock value, they were somewhat dampened because I’d read nearly the same passages forty pages ago.  Tighter editing would have caught and corrected all this. 

Editing problems aside, though, the characters will stay with you, and the town will haunt you in this most memorable book.  This was my first Ronald Malfi book, and it will not be my last. He weaves a tale like a Cloisters tapestry. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy.

Reviewed by Carson Buckingham

Carson Buckingham is a writer living in the great American Southwest and she reviews horror/paranormal suspense novels. Stop by to view her scriblins.

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