BLACK MOUTH by Ronald Malfi (BOOK REVIEW)
“In the summer of my eleventh year, a monster came to Black Mouth. It came in the night, slinking below the sightline of normal folks, destined to arrive at the threshold of my youth. Perhaps it sought me out the way a bloodhound tracks a scent. Or perhaps it was sheer happenstance, a flip of a coin, a flutter of distant butterfly wings.”
Black Mouth by Ronald Malfi is the third book I’ve read by this author, who has fast become one of my favourite modern horror writers, along with Stephen King and Joe Hill. In fact when I first began reading this book I experienced strong IT by Stephen King vibes, yet it isn’t long until Malfi turns the story into something quite different. This is a dark and gritty tale of magic and monsters, of childhood trauma and laying old evils to rest.
Our story begins with a suicide. Jamie Warren, who after leaving rehab, receives a phone call from the police informing him that his mother has killed herself and that his disabled brother, Dennis, is in their care. Reluctantly Jamie gets in his car and begins to journey back to Sutton’s Quay, West Virginia—his childhood home. On the outskirts of Sutton’s Quay lies a place with a dark history known as Black Mouth, where nearby a traumatic event occurred which has haunted Jamie his entire life. And he is not the only one. Mia Tomasina has led a troubled life after being orphaned and left in the care of her uncle, now a filmmaker she has finally begun to leave her past behind, that is until the day she visits the carnival. Whilst strolling through the carnival she glimpses a man, a nightmarish demon, who to her dread she recognises from her childhood in Black Mouth. When Clay Willis receives photos of this man from his old friend Mia, he discovers that history is repeating itself and he too must return to where it all began. As fate reunites these three estranged friends, it is up to them to hunt down the man, or monster, who ruined their lives and uncover who he is once and for all.
As you may tell, from the very beginning Malfi wastes no time dropping his readers into a narrative filled with mystery and suspense. We are immediately captivated, questioning who the man is and what exactly happened in Black Mouth. Throughout Malfi alternates his chapters between the characters’ childhood and the present timeline, where they are well into their adulthood. I have to say, my most favourite scenes were the ones set in the past. Little by little we learn of the summer in which Jamie, at eleven years old, meets a homeless man in his barn and offers him kindness. He then meets this same man, along with Mia and Clay, in the woods behind the carnival in their hometown. In the following weeks the man proceeds to befriend them, to show and teach them magic tricks, and what kid would not be enticed by magic, even if taught by a stranger? It isn’t long until they start to call him the Magician and become his apprentices, hanging onto his every word, even when he tells them to do something malicious. I loved the way the novel slowly built upon the creepy atmosphere, the way the events dramatically escalated and how we put pieces together but were still shrouded in mystery. Was the magic real or just an illusion? I feel Malfi is a master of ambiguity, of always keeping us guessing.
In the present timeline we see the magnitude of the effects trauma has left upon Jamie, Dennis, Mia and Clay. The majority of the novel is told through Jamie’s first person perspective as he recounts the significant events of not only his life, but that of his brother and friends. Jamie and Dennis both grew up with an alcoholic abusive father, a mother who fell into the same addiction, and now as an adult so does Jamie. I found his character quite unlikeable in the present timeline, although he had good reasons for his behaviour, his selfishness, his lack of trying to be better and his continuous self-pity made me feel very little sympathy for him. Most of all his disassociation and lack of empathy towards Dennis, who clearly had a learning disability, really angered me. Dennis had suffered just as much, yet Jamie only saw his own suffering. He was never cruel nor harmful towards Dennis, but he certainly had very little patience with him. However, I realise that Malfi is depicting the realities of being an alcoholic and for that portrayal I feel he got the psychology and personality traits spot on.
My favourite characters were Mia and later on as we delve into his life more, Clay. Growing up in Black Mouth was not easy for either of them, Mia lost both her parents in a tragic accident and Clay was relentlessly bullied not only for being of colour but also because of his skin condition, vitiligo. However they both seemed to fare better in their adulthood and didn’t succumb to the darkness of their ordeals. I very much liked Mia’s kindness towards Dennis, her determination to face the monster from their past, her protective nature. Clay, after leaving Sutton’s Quay, spent most of his life helping disadvantaged children, he was well suited to the role of a social worker and I loved seeing how he connected to the children, how he won over their trust. The friendship between these four characters brought some warmth and tenderness to an otherwise bleak novel.
This is the darkest novel I have read from this author, and I would suggest looking up the content warnings should you need to. Black Mouth itself has a dark history and whether the place harboured ghosts and oozed evil was something I enjoyed exploring. I particularly found that the narrative took a disturbing turn when Wayne Stull appeared, and this is a character I will say very little about as it’s better to experience the wild ride towards the ending knowing very little, questioning what is real. I will say though that I very much enjoyed Malfi creating a sense of otherworldliness which juxtaposed with the real life horrors.
“Maybe no houses are born bad, either. Maybe they’re just convenient receptacles for everything we put in them – a box that houses our dreams, hopes, fears, torments, happiness, laughter, grief. They’re what we make of them and what we need them to be. Maybe to grant them the power to become anything more is a mistake.”
Haunting, atmospheric and twisty, Black Mouth is the perfect read for the spooky season.
ARC provided by Sarah at Titan Books. Thank you for the copy!
Black Mouth is out now.