Ronald Malfi’s new novella collection reveals what lurks in the dark
If you are an avid reader of horror, you may have come across the name Ronald Malfi. A member of the rock band VEER, and best-selling writer, Malfi is no stranger to writing about haunting, supernatural spectres and the macabre. His previous works Bone White (2017), Come With Me (2021) and Black Mouth (2022) have been highly praised pieces of horror and thriller fiction within the community. You may have also seen his novella collections, including the highly acclaimed We Should Have Left Well Enough Alone (2017) and Ghostwritten (2022).
Our first foray into the world of Ronald Malfi is the 2023 novella collection They Lurk. Containing five novellas, each short story explores the theme of something deadly lurking around the corner or in the shadows. They Lurk consists of four previously published works, which were originally published with the small press, Darkfuse, between 2009-12 and a new original novella.
The collection begins by pulling us into an unsolved mystery with the short story, Skullbelly, originally published in 2011. Three months have passed since 4 teenagers took a camping trip to the small town of Coastal Green. Only one survived and he’s in a coma.
The local police don’t seem to have any answers. So, the parents of the teenager reach out to John Jeffers, a down-on-his-luck private investigator, to look into the disappearances.
This felt like a good beginning to a book (any thriller or horror novel). The mystery is there, and it attempts to hook you in, but it stops when things are just getting interesting. Leaving you with the feeling that things are a little unfinished. While the investigation and mystery are well set up, letting you know more about our central character and quickly moving into the people of Coastal Green, things quickly fizzle out, leaving you wondering if the story felt rushed to an ending or if we were meant to come to our own conclusion.
The second story in the collection, The Separation, originally published in 2011, takes us to Germany. Charlie is going through a difficult divorce. He has slipped into depression and has been acting very strange. As a last resort, his managers Jerry and Demetris reach out to Charlie’s friend Marcus, a psychiatrist living in London. Told from Marcus’s point of view, we follow the character as he travels to Germany to help his friend. However, when Charlie’s behaviour becomes more and more deranged, Marcus believes that there is something more happening with Charlie.
This is a terrific novella. It creates a good mystery and follows the characters desperately trying to help their friend. Like the characters, we believe we are watching a broken man’s descent into madness, and we are slowly waiting for the penny to drop. While the story is a slow burn, it’s short enough that the pacing isn’t an issue, and it has an ending that pays off and feels very satisfying.
In the next story, The Stranger, originally published in 2009, we follow David and Rhonda as they stop at a motel after travelling cross-country together. While David is slowly realising that leaving his wife for his latest girlfriend might not have been a good idea, his moment of self-reflection ends when he discovers a stranger sitting in their car. What ensues will change the lives of David, Rhonda and even other motel patrons.
It is a simple story about a group of people having a weird encounter. David is a very unlikable character, who seems to be dealing with the consequences of his latest actions. One thing to say about this novella is that it doesn’t take a long time to get into the meat of the story.
One moment you are reading about how unhappy David is about his life choices and the next he is shouting at the stranger in his car, and then all hell breaks loose. This, unfortunately, didn’t hit as hard as it should have. It was more of a spectacle than anything of substance. We are watching the characters reacting to events as they unfold and in the end, it just stops on its own.
The favourite in the collection, After the Fade was originally published in 2012 (a fitting year for what happens in the story). It follows musician Tom Holland, who thought breaking up with his girlfriend Lauren would be the hardest thing he would have to live through that day. However, when a woman drops down dead in the middle of the bar, he and the other patrons soon find that there are much scarier things waiting for them in the dark.
After The Fade is a fantastic short story with a brilliant payoff. The story of a few people being trapped in a bar while an unknown horror consumes the world around them isn’t something new. And you wouldn’t be wrong to compare this novella to Stephen King’s The Mist. But it is the ending where things shine. We would be happy to see this novella expanded upon and extended into a full novel. If you read any novella in this collection After the Fade is highly recommended.
The final novella in They Lurk is the newest and the longest. Fierce, follows Connie and her mother Elaine who are caught in a car accident with a truck while driving home. Already shaken from the crash, things take a horrific turn when Elaine is attacked by the truck driver before turning his attention to Connie.
She is able to quickly escape but when Connie returns to the site of the crash, she finds their car and her mother gone. Trying to find help, she comes across a remote house, and it belongs to the truck driver. Now Connie must venture into a house of horrors in order to save her mom.
Fierce is a great story about finding strength in horrific circumstances. The main plot of the story is intertwined with flashbacks of Connie and her mother trying to survive a deadly encounter during a camping trip. While the story doesn’t live up to the excellence that is ‘After the Fade’, it is still a great entry and feels the most complete of the five, telling two tales of struggle and survival by two different women.
Our first step into the work of Ronald Malfi was a mixed bag. While some stories didn’t hit as hard as others, it still made for a good introduction to the author. When he’s good, he is exceptional. So, if you’re a horror fan looking for a collection to dig into this spooky season, They Lurk is definitely worth picking up.
Verdict - 8/10