When an evil once thought vanquished rears its ugly head again, a group of childhood friends reunite to confront it, hoping to put an end to it — and to some raging personal demons of their own — once and for all.
That’s the premise of Ronald Malfi’s new novel Black Mouth, and if you think it sounds familiar, you’re right. Serious Stephen King vibes permeate this book, from the obvious parallels to IT to the overtones of “The Man in the Black Suit” that color the Magician character. However, while Malfi is treading familiar ground here, he’s carving his own path, and it’s a journey well worth taking with him.
Years ago, Jamie, his brother Dennis, and their friends Clay and Mia spent a summer learning magic. Their teacher was a homeless man in a ragged tuxedo who started with simple card tricks and progressed to more ominous illusions…only, they may not have been illusions at all. The man begins to make some terrible demands of the children, and their time together culminates in tragedy.
Years later, Mia photographs a man she believes is the Magician who caused so much trauma for her and her friends. This coincides with the death of Jamie and Dennis’s mother, an event that brings Jamie home for the first time in years. Soon Clay joins them and together they dig into a series of murders that may or may not be the work of this spectre from their past.
The greatest strength of Black Mouth is Malfi’s character work. His depictions of Jamie, Mia and Clay, and the way their childhood trauma has impacted their adult lives, is believable and true. His portrayal of Dennis, an intellectually challenged, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle-obsessed man-child, could have easily slid into caricature and clichè; instead, Malfi gives us someone who is both delicate and strong, far beyond the mere plot device he might have become in less capable hands. The Magician is mysterious and menacing, and Wayne Lee Stull is downright terrifying.
Malfi also excels in his settings, from the blackened maw and deep caverns that make up the area known as Black Mouth to the bright, grimy, gaudy carnival midways.
Black Mouth is hefty but worth whatever investment of time it requires of its readers. Unsettling and, at times, genuinely frightening, it’s the best horror novel I’ve read in quite some time. Highly recommended.