I love finding an author that you know when you turn to the first page and start reading, you are in good hands. Is there anything better?
Malfi is like that. From the moment I began his short story collection We Should Have Left Well Enough Alone I knew I had stumbled on something special. (And “stumbled on” really is not the right phrase, as Sadie of @mother.horror has been championing Malfi’s books for ages. I’m just a bit slow on the uptake.)
It’s not just that he’s telling a good story, though he definitely is—more on that later. There is just something so real that resonates through his work, something that makes you lose yourself within the pages when you start reading. Isn’t that why we all read? We want to forget about the background noise and just dissolve into another story for a while, one where things might be falling to pieces, but where there might be a logic, a key, something we can try to figure out before heading back to the mundane reality of our own existence.
That’s why I read, why I’ve always found solace in books. And there is something special about a book that cuts through everything like that, that puts you fully in the story.
As far as the narrative itself, there is definitely something to coming-of-age-in-small-town tales. I have a lot of love for the types of stories that depict ragtag groups of latchkey kids going about on their own and solving some kind of mystery that is far above their pay grade. There is a certain mystique to stories depicting kids in general—I think we all miss those days. And children are in a unique position for horror: they believe easily in the boogyman. Their belief makes them a vulnerable target, but it also makes them able to see clearly enough to fight back.
December Park is about the missing children of Harting Farms in the early 1990s and the mysterious figure of the Piper, whom everyone believes to be a serial killer picking off kids, though only one body has turned up. Angelo and his friends are determined to figure out what’s going on by using what they know about the town, its secret places and shortcuts, and any information they can dig up on their neighbors. Everyone is a suspect.
But this book is about so much more than the investigation. It is about the boys and their personal lives, their aspirations for the future, what they share with each other and their families and what they keep secret. It is about the divide between being a child and being an adult, how they see differently, the trust that is lost, and all the forgetting that you do along the way to adulthood. It is about small towns and the way that horrific crimes impact the people who live there. It is about trauma and how events affect people differently. It is about perception and memory.
Though the investigation into the Piper is the main plot thread, I found myself almost more interested in the characters and their lives, which I think is the key to good writing that most authors ignore. So many mystery/thriller books just seemed shoved through a tube where the plot has to go from A to B to C without letting the story develop naturally.
And I really felt a kinship with the boys—their late-night bike rides, their walkie-talkies, how they caused some mischief and chaos, how they stood up to bullies, how they alternately supported and ragged on each other. Getting to know them and watching them grow throughout the narrative is one of the highlights.
When it gets down to the horror—you won’t be disappointed. I wouldn’t consider this book heavy on action, but it has perfect narrative flow, letting tension ebb and flow and ratcheting up the suspense when necessary. By the last 200 pages, I couldn’t be torn away and had to finish. Malfi has a great descriptive voice and you can see each scene—in all the gruesome detail you could ever hope for.
This is such a phenomenal book. I can’t recommend it more highly. On my shelf, it sits beside other great horror coming-of-age stories like King’s It, McCammon’s Boy’s Life, and Simmons’s Summer of Night. I can’t wait to read more of Malfi’s work.
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.