For the most part, the authors featured in these columns have impacted my development and growth as a writer primarily through their work. Ronald Malfi impacted me as a person, first, before I delved into his work. Looking at his career path, getting to know him as a person first has impacted me just as much as his work has.
My first exposure to Ron’s work came through Snow, his first — and, sadly, only — novel through Leisure Fiction before its unfortunate demise. It was an enjoyable enough read. Entertaining, fast-paced, with a unique take on zombies (ironically, if you tell Ron this, he’ll say it never even occurred to him that his monsters in Snow were zombie-like), and I appreciated how his two main characters did not end up in a Hollywood-style romance at the end. The novel also balanced the ending with some relief, as some of the protagonists survive…but they didn’t win. The evil has simply moved on to other hunting grounds.
Even so, as much fun as the novel was, I didn’t really have the urge to start reading more of Ron Malfi’s work until I met him at Horrorfind 2011 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In several different conversations throughout the weekend, Ron and I covered many different topics — writing, the publishing industry, self-publishing, and more. Admittedly, I came away a little starstruck, but even more than that: Ron’s approachability, and how easily he engaged newbies like myself, really stood out to me.
Over the next few years, I snapped up as much of Ron’s work as I possibly could, and enjoyed several other conversations with him at succeeding Horrorfinds, until that convention unfortunately folded. I’ve been able to see him several times since, (most recently at Scares That Care 2018) and my thoughts about Ron as a person and a writer has only solidified. For Ron Malfi, one of the most important things, at the end of the day, is the writing. The words on the page.
And that’s it.
See, here’s what I discovered after my first several years getting my feet “wet” in the horror genre. It’s kinda like high school, in a way (but of course, so is any other genre, the workplace, your church, or anywhere else human beings gather in large groups). There’s infighting, spats between authors or groups of authors, cliques, exclusion, rumors, feuds, and generally a lot of drama.
(To be fair, there’s also close-knit community, life-time friendships, support nets, partnerships, and familial connections made up not of blood, but of ink.)
From the moment I met him, Ron didn’t seem to get involved in lots of drama. For him, there wasn’t a “preferred” group of people he wanted to hang out with at conventions, and he was willing to talk with anyone about writing or publishing. Online, he didn’t involve himself in genre scuffles much, or pick sides. The only thing that mattered to Ron, at the end of the day, was the writing.
His career stands as an excellent model of this. His first novel, The Space Between (which I have not yet read; it’s hard to get a hold of) was self-published in 2000 through IUniverse. In the years following, if you track Ron’s career, you see him moving slowly upward through small press publishers, small press specialty limited edition publishers, eventually to Leisure, Medallion Books and Samhain Books, and ultimately a three-book deal with Kensington, which he just finished. At the end of the day, it seems as if, to Ron, the work itself has been the most important thing, and that, as much as his writing, has impacted how I pursue my writing.
It’s the work that matters. Everything else is just noise.
Ron’s greatest strengths are his prose and how his characters and their conflicts take center stage in his work. On his Wikipedia page, it states that in an interview, Ron once said that most of his fiction “deals with the concept of lost or confused identity.”
This has become a guiding light for me whenever I write, or when I start thinking about a story. I want to understand the character’s pain. Who are they, really? Who do they want to be? How are they lost? What have they lost? How are they going to try and regain what they’ve lost? Is it even possible for them to do so? Once I’ve found this emotional angle, once I feel for my characters, I know I’ve found my route into the story. I’ve developed this in my writing largely because of Ron’s work.
This concept of lost or confused identity is central to Passenger, one of the very next novels I read after Snow. Passenger is an amazing story. While Snow is a typical, somewhat standard (though extremely enjoyable) novel, Passenger is a surreal, nearly hallucinatory story about a man with no memory trying to uncover his past. When we finally understand why his past has been hidden from him, the emotional denouement is devastating. It’s a story which packs far more of a punch than a standard, paint-by-numbers horror tale.
Floating Staircase was the novel that cemented me as a Ronald Malfi fan for good. On the surface, it’s a standard ghost story — a writer haunted by the death of his brother moves into a house which is haunted. However, what lifts this story above its expected trappings is, as always, Malfi’s fine prose, but also his characterization of Travis Glasgow, and his attempts to come to grips with his brother’s death. This novel’s ending is unexpectedly cathartic in how it deals with accepting grief and moving on, and the concept of what happens after death.
The Narrows takes the concept of “vampire” and twists it into something new, even more creatively than Snow‘s take on “zombies.” December Park is, as usual, Malfi’s original turn at the classic coming-of-age tale, and the characters are somehow tried-and-true coming-of-age staples, yet not colored by the rose-tinted glasses of sentiment.
The Night Parade offers a startlingly fresh approach to a post-apocalyptic world ravished by an epidemic. The epidemic itself is a thankful departure from the standard viruses which turns people into flesh-eating zombies. It also features a surprisingly spiritual, cathartic ending. Little Girls, on the other hand, is a wrenching horror novel about uncovering lies and truths, another haunting ghost story…with an ending that, essentially (SPOILER) takes you over a bottomless abyss and drops you, right when you think everything is going to turn out fine.
Bone White is, in many ways, my favorite Malfi novel, because it combines a taut, suspenseful atmosphere with a thought-provoking examination of the nature of good and evil. It faces head-on the terrifying possibility of real supernatural evil seeking to ruin and destroy us, and the terrible acts which must be taken to keep said evil at bay.
In some ways, Cradle Lake and The Ascent both represent the best of what Ron Malfi has to offer. Cradle Lake tells the emotionally harrowing tale of a couple haunted by two miscarriages. Alan Hammerstun inherits a house in the mountains, and it seems like the perfect place for them to escape their pain and start over. In a wonderful twist of Stephen King’s Pet Semetary, Alan discovers his new home comes with a blessing that’s really a dreadful curse in disguise.
Once again, in this instance, what could’ve easily been a cheap knockoff of a Stephen King novel in lesser hands becomes an engrossing, and, at times, emotionally draining read because of the work Malfi put into fleshing out Alan and his wife Heather as they struggle through her increasing depression, and his desperation (obsession) for everything to work out in their new home.
The Ascent, finally, is what I like to think of as the quintessential Ronald Malfi story. Consumed with grief after his wife’s death, Tim Overleigh tries to lose himself in the world of extreme sports. After a near death experience he decides to throw all caution and good sense to the wind, and joins a team of explorers bent on climbing The Godesh Ridge in Nepal, searching for what is considered a fantasy by some, and a deep mystical experience by others. What Tim finds at the end of his journey — after a harrowing climb filled with sacrifice, betrayal, and fatalities — is something indescribable, something otherworldly…but in the end, it’s the mundane evil of men which threatens Tim’s life.
I consider this to be the quintessential Ronald Malfi story, simply because of it’s refusal to belong to any one genre. Is it an adventure/thriller novel about a harrowing climb up what is essentially an arctic mountain?
Is it an emotionally wrenching drama about a tortured widower not only coming to terms with his grief over the passing of his wife, but also the reality that his marriage wasn’t all he thought it was?
Is it a spiritual, supernatural thriller about the mystical energies and mysteries which await us all on the other side?
Is it a thriller/mystery about a man with a vendetta; a man who lays a carefully concealed, layered plot to exact his revenge?
Is it an insightful character study into a grief-ridden man as he strives to overcome is alcoholism and grief, as he struggles to find a way to live again?
This is why I firmly believe that Ronald Malfi stands, along with the focus of a previous installment, Mary Sangiovanni, at the forefront of the horror genre, leading the way for the younger generation of writers and readers. His work patently defies genre conventions, intentionally twisting them and tweaking them, yet at the same time his craft is honed and polished, and his tone his never ironic or mocking of the genre. He writes engrossing, entertaining stories based on engrossing, fully-fleshed out characters. You’d do well to start stocking your shelves with Ron’s books today.
Ronald Malfi’s books:
- The Fall of Never
- The Nature of Monsters
- Via Dolorosa
- Shamrock Alley
- The Ascent
- Cradle Lake
- Floating Staircase
- The Narrows
- December Park
- Little Girls
- The Night Parade
- Bone White
Kevin Lucia is the Reviews Editor for Cemetery Dance. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, and his most recent short story collection, Things You Need, was released September, 2018. He’s currently working on his first novel. For free monthly fiction, book reviews, YouTube commentaries, and three free ebooks, visit www.kevinlucia.blogspot.com and sign up for his monthly email newsletter.