Georgina Bruce on Ronald Malfi’s new novel
One of the nastiest things that happens in Ronald Malfi’s wonderfully horrible novel Black Mouth (Titan Books, 2022) happens to a dog. It’s a particularly nasty thing because the dog, with its big teeth and happy tail, turns out to be the only truly innocent character in the whole story, and certainly one of the few for whom the designation ‘monster’ would be difficult to justify. What the dog does have in common with the novel’s human characters is that its innocence is soon destroyed. For this is a story full of corruptions and betrayals, stamped on the characters in the form of scars, disfigurements, disabilities, mutilations, addictions and diseases.
Jamie Warren is fired from his factory job because of an accident involving a ladle full of molten metal. It turns out Jamie’s drunk at the time of the accident, and it soon becomes apparent that this is because Jamie’s drunk pretty much all of the time. His employer threatens him with the sack unless he enters a rehab facility. Jamie’s subsequent alcohol withdrawal, already pretty brutal, is exacerbated by terrifying visions and hallucinations. But he struggles on and eventually gets sober, leaving rehab just in time to receive a call from a police officer who tells him that his mother has committed suicide, and that his mentally disabled brother, Dennis, has been found wandering the highway in his underpants. Jamie’s newfound sobriety immediately crumbles, as does his ability to distinguish fantasy from reality. He’s terrified of going home to Black Mouth, where ‘dark things’ are waiting for him, ‘things with cold hands and long memories.’
Jamie is a shambles of a person, an alcoholic like both his parents, a man who has lost his moral compass. He’s abandoned his disabled brother for many years, ignored his friends and been unable to hold down a job or a relationship. Yet Dennis greets him with an open heart. ‘Jamie Warren is home,’ he repeats – words which sting Jamie’s conscience and fill him with fear for both of them. Home is the last place Jamie wants to be, and the last thing he’s capable of providing for his brother. When his two childhood friends turn up, also drawn back to Black Mouth by the unresolved questions of their shared history, Jamie can hardly withstand the shame of his failures. But his friends are also corrupted, and monstrous in their own ways. Together they seek a confrontation with the man who abused them as children, and are forced to confront the terrible things that they themselves have done.
Malfi’s writing is visceral and full of interest, with plenty of surprising imagery and a sustained creepy atmosphere throughout. The plot is a little convoluted, but Malfi has a good instinct for knowing where to direct the reader’s attention, which makes for a fast and suspenseful read. The story taking place in the present is interspersed with increasingly long flashbacks, gradually unfolding the novel’s secrets. For Jamie, these secrets begin with a strange happening on a (literally) dark and stormy night, and an entity which ‘arrived in the way monsters sometimes do: as a creature in need.’
The difficulty of distinguishing between monsters and creatures in need is one of the key themes of the novel, and one which Malfi carefully, exhaustively, explores. Nearly all the characters – heroes and villains alike – bear physical deformities, scars and disfigurements that make them monstrous to themselves and others. They are ugly on the outside, and Malfi uses their appearance to expose the ugliness of those who flinch away and those who attack them. But these characters are ugly on the inside too: flawed, corrupted and traumatised.
No one is wholly innocent: not even the children are pure. In this novel, children are simultaneously naive victims and monstrous perpetrators. There is no clear boundary that lies between good and evil, only a kind of pervasive moral blur that corrupts every individual, and brings everyone’s character into question. When Malfi describes one of Jamie’s visions – ‘a thing, manlike, detached itself from the darkness…’ – it’s hard to know if this thing is a literal monster, or simply a dissociated part of Jamie’s own self. The characters themselves struggle with this distinction, especially Jamie, whose hold on reality is rarely secure. Malfi seems to be saying that what makes us monstrous is nothing but subtle degrees of difference, ways of seeing things, and decisions we didn’t know we were making. We’re all monsters, given the right circumstances.
The circumstances are also subject to a fair amount of ambiguity. Jamie’s childhood is spent in a desolate, wild place, where valued freedoms are obtained through parental neglect, and close friendships forged from shared victimhood. Black Mouth itself is a haunted, liminal place. It’s literally unstable, the ground about to subside at any moment into the abandoned mining tunnels below. But it’s psychically liminal too, a place where ghosts and humans coincide, where chthonic entities inhabit fairground attractions. Jamie’s childhood house is perched at the edge of Black Mouth, slowly caving in below the lush, tangled chasm of forest. Malfi describes the house as ‘like a blood clot: something snared in the artery of space and time,’ a description which echoes against Shirley Jackson’s ‘insane’ Hill House. Yet, Malfi writes, ‘maybe no houses are born bad.’ This brilliant line encapsulates the grim weirdness of this novel, and its central question: if we are monsters, how did we get to be that way? The answers to that question are not straightforward, but they do make for an entertaining and gruesome read. ∎
Georgina Bruce is a writer.
Her ‘deliciously evocative’ debut novella Honeybones is available from TTA Press; the ‘astonishing, totally absorbing’ This House of Wounds, her debut short story collection, can be purchased from Undertow Publications; and she also has a story in Out of the Darkness (edited by Dan Coxon) from Unsung Stories.
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