Ginger Nuts of Horror
By Tony Jones
“Ronald Malfi is on top form in this scarily varied twenty story anthology
Ronald Malfi follows one of the standout horror novels of 2017 “Bone White” with a wildly eclectic collection of short stories which effortlessly blend supernatural horror, dark humour, madness, psycho killers, dark fiction with the downright weird. “We Should Have Left Well Enough Alone” features twenty stories penned between 2002 and 2015 and although I loved the majority of the entries, a couple left me scratching my head, generally though the breadth was remarkable. As I chose to read the twenty in page sequence I really had no way of predicting what was to come next such was the unpredictability of this box of treats. Malfi’s stories do not follow any particular short story rules, ghost story traditions or any recognisable formulae, so if you’re looking to pigeonhole this guy, don’t bother, he really does his own thing. But if you want an anthology to widen your eyes, keep you guessing, or provide a nasty chuckle then dive straight in. I’ve never read his short fiction before, but this collection clearly shows he is much more than a superb novelist of dark fiction, much of which I have read.
Reviewing all twenty will take forever so I’m going to focus on several of my personal favourites… “The Dinner Party” had an ending that was so horrible that I had to read it several times just in case I got it wrong. Actually, it still bothers me a bit. It had a twist ending so nasty the king of the surprise ending Roald Dahl would have been proud of it. A young and very neurotic mum gets stressed preparing a dinner for her husband and his business bosses, simultaneously she is paranoid she is being stalked, combined the tension is ratcheted up as she fusses over both dinner and the baby. You’re going to love it, even if you don’t, I guarantee you’ll never forget the ending.
Some of the most powerful stories, including “The Dinner Party” did not feature any supernatural occurrences and “Painstation” was a real sleazy little crackerjack which really did not need it. Loser Keanan is obsessed with a work colleague, Casey Magigan, who he benignly stalks eventually into a club with a rather foul purpose he does not expect. Initially you think he has stumbled into some kind of sadomasochism den only for things to take a much darker turn for the worse. Although it was pretty horrible, it was also sickly funny as Keanan’s obsession hits full throttle as his desire increases. “Under the Tutelage of Mr. Trueheart” also lacked the supernatural, playing on the loneliness of a little boy manipulated by a rather unpleasant old man who has own dark agenda. These three were short stories of the highest quality which in many ways dealt with the weakness of the human condition through dark fiction.
“The Glad Street Angel” was another fine entry which also lacked any supernatural context, however you may read the story another way. A troubled young man is recovering after a stint in rehab after an unspecified loss left his entire family devastated. He tells everyone he is okay, but we the reader know this is far from the case in this terrifying study of loss and guilt.
The rather wonderful “Knocking” is perhaps the closest you’ll get to a traditional ghost story in the collection. I don’t know if Malfi has ever lived in London, but he seems to be aware of the poor level of housing in my fine city! A young couple rent a draughty house in London and the wife is certain she hears knocks and thumps from the closet, it begins to annoy her more and more to the extent she even suspects her husband of deliberately teasing her. By a certain point the husband really wishes he listened to her… Like many of the tales it has a superb ending with ambiguity of what is to come next.
“The House on Cottage Lane” is another unsettling tale of a Halloween dare that backfires. A young boy is forced to play with a succession of local foster kids by his well-meaning father and after being forced to take a kid he really doesn’t like trick or treating things go horribly wrong. “The Housewarming Party” finds Malfi in very playful mood when a couple new to the area throw a party which gets a bit out of hand and really looks like it will never end. Filled with mad imagery and the slow dread of something amiss this story is pretty irresistible as the party from hell, continues and continues and continues…. “Closing In” was another freaky addition which would have made a great “Twilight Zone” episode, and is a superb example of how to build a very vivid story around what sounds at first glance to be a pretty dumb idea. But when a hitman ends up staying in a hotel-room which begins to shrink all bets are off. Lovely entertaining stuff told over ten expertly crafted pages.
The above were my personal favourites, but there were many other very fine examples, including “Learned Children” an unsettling tale of a new teacher in a primary school where the kids had no respect for him, or learning in general, and what exactly did happen to his predecessor? “The Jumping Sharks of Dyer Island” was another twister which has an unpredictable ending, a married couple are on holiday, the wife flirts with a dancer who doubles up as a tourist guide who invites the couple shark-watching the next morning. Is the husband threatened or does he have his own agenda? It is told very drolly until the unpleasant ending kicks in.
“Pembroke Page” resembled the sort of old fashioned retro horror story popular in the 1970s and 1980s which Ramsey Campbell might have written, a collector of rare books stumbles upon a tome which appears to have supernatural power, but soon someone else comes looking for it and such is the power of obsession there is no way he is going to part with it. A father and his two children lament the disappearance of his wife (their mother) in “The Good Father”, but where did she go? And Malfi takes crazy right up to eleven in “All the Pretty Girls” in the unsavoury tale of a car which men develop an unhealthy obsession for, and even kill for.
So there really is a lot on offer in this all-encompassing collection, you’re going to enjoy taking a huge leap into the deep waters of dark fiction with a master storyteller leading you by the hand. I’m sure other readers many well pinpoint different stories as their favourites such is the overall quality which has a top notch balance of supernatural and non-supernatural tales. Not many horror novelists will have a strong enough back-catalogue of short fiction kicking around to produce a collection of stories to rival “We Should Have Left Well Enough Alone” but for Malfi it’s a walk in the park. Highly recommended, as is his 2017 novel “Bone White” which is one of the best novels published this year. I’ll be surprised if it does not appear on many ‘best of’ horror lists at the end of the year.