March 26, 2008

Book review: "Via Dolorosa," by Ronald Malfi

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Via Dolorosa
By Ronald Malfi
Raw Dog Screaming Press / ISBN: 978-1-933293-21-9

So before anything else, a confession: that before the opening of CCLaP last year, I was only a casual fan of the horror genre at best, occasionally picking up a book by Stephen King or Clive Barker or HP Lovecraft but otherwise naturally gravitating more towards hard-science-fiction in my own life, whenever I was in the mood for genre-specific work. But that all changed when I became a book reviewer; more specifically, when I changed my day job into being a full-time champion of basement presses and self-published authors, and made a deal with the public that I would review pretty much any book that a writer sends me directly. (By the way, I will review pretty much any book that a writer sends me directly; please just drop me a line at [cclapcenter at] to obtain a mailing address.) That in turn has unsurprisingly enough brought a lot of basement presses and self-published authors out of the woodwork and to my attention; and you know what they say, that when it comes to this subject, you're automatically starting to look at a lot of genre writers and a host of specialty niche publishers, including not only horror and science-fiction but romance, mystery, military thrillers and more. And of all the genres just mentioned, science-fiction is the only one that naturally appealed to me before I was a daily book reviewer, meaning that I've been learning a lot about all these new genres as well as reading a lot of books within these genres for the first time.

Via Dolorosa, by Ronald Malfi

For example, one of the first basement authors to contact me after CCLaP opened was Californian "weird" writer Jeremy Shipp, whose Chomskyesque black comedy and 2008 Stoker nominee Vacation I reviewed here earlier this year; that led to me hearing from yet another author on the roll-call of fascinating basement horror publisher Raw Dog Screaming Press, a gentlemen around my age named Ronald Malfi, asking if I would mind reading through and reviewing his latest book, yet another experimental genre exercise called Via Dolorosa. And so then reading these two books, as well as doing research about Raw Dog itself, has made me realize something about the entire horror genre as it exists in 2008, something I would've never realized without these authors contacting me; that there are in fact a whole lot more interesting things going on in horror these days than non-fans of the genre might think at first, certainly a lot more than simply Cujo and Pinhead and C'thulu and the other icons we go to when the term is usually mentioned. That's not to say that there aren't problems with such books, because there are certainly problems with Via Dolorosa that deserve to be pointed out, some genre-related and some expressly Malfi's fault; just that there are a lot more interesting things going on within such genre projects at such obscure presses than a lot of us realize, lending yet more credence to the oft-repeated argument that the most exciting things going on in the arts these days are to be found in genre projects, not with so-called "mainstream" literary works.

For example, I think many of us who only casually follow horror have a general expectation of such projects being bombastic; that their main appeal lays with the GHOSTS! and the CADAVERS! that have COME TO LIFE! and are GOBBLING UP HUMANS! while the HEAVY-METAL SOUNDTRACK blasts away! But what if you were to write a quiet, minimalist, deceptively realistic horror story, one centered around a subject that lends itself well in the first place to artistic trickery and a dreamlike narrative? That's what Malfi attempts to do here with Dolorosa, after all, setting the story at a quirky crumbling resort hotel on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, among a youngish beautiful couple who are celebrating their honeymoon, the husband obviously a wounded Iraq War veteran and who just happens to be there for professional reasons too, in charge of painting a representational mural in the lobby because the grief-stricken dad of one of his fallen comrades happens to work there, and happened to secure the job for him through backroom channels as a favor for a wounded vet.

It's very obvious that Malfi wants us to languish in all of this for awhile, to simply wallow in the atmosphere and heavy characterization of it all; and that's why hardly anything "happens" in the traditional plot-sense throughout almost the entire first half of the novel, with Malfi instead concentrating on establishing a slow, Southern-Gothic-like pace to the entire proceedings. It's what leads us, for example, to only very slowly discovering the unmitigated disaster that actually happened in Iraq while our hero Nick was there, via a series of dreamlike flashbacks that reveal just a tiny bit more each time; the rest of the time is spent, frankly, watching Nick and his new wife have a strange on-again, off-again relationship, as well as witnessing the two of them pick up a strange new resort friend named Isabella, a mysterious dark-skinned beauty who serves two different functions in the husband and wife's individual private lives.

Ah, but as the story continues in its unhurried way, we start seeing more and more the cracks at the edges of the sanity that is holding this surreal atmosphere together; how the mural that Nick has been hired to paint, for example, starts more and more becoming an Iraq-inspired Hironymous-Bosch-style testament to pain and misery, with Nick not even noticing until the staff of the hotel start quietly suggesting that he should just be paid and shown the door and the resort cut its losses. Or how Isabella starts acting more and more strangely around Nick with each passing evening, eventually acquiring a gun and constantly prodding him to violence while the two are liquored up on one of their regular nights out at the island's jazz clubs. It is then and only then that we even start getting a hint of why this novel might be called a "horror" one, and why a basement press known for horror like Raw Dog would want to publish it in the first place; and that's an interesting thing, I think, a minimalist and atmospheric genre thriller, where the entire point is to be deliberately slow and to concentrate on the kinds of things that most genre thrillers don't.

But like I mentioned, there are problems with this manuscript as well, problems not overwhelming in nature but too big to be ignored; and some of these problems, frankly, are inherent in the very tricks that Malfi uses to great effect too. For example, there is definitely a certain point for everyone I think with this book where you simply start shouting, "Okay, it's raining! You're moody! Things are weird! Will you just f--king get on with it, already?!" and that this point comes at different places in the manuscript depending on who you are. I also think, for example, that Malfi was influenced by the trippy 1990 Adrian Lyne Vietnam-vet horror movie Jacob's Ladder, but failed to match the exquisite and complex weirdness that Lyne managed to capture in that particular project, and also failed to make Iraq seem like anything else but a third-rate Vietnam television drama with sand substituted for jungle. And yes, I think that Malfi is guilty here of something I've complained about before from white male authors, the thing that the Onion AV Club in their infinitely smartass wisdom refer to as the "Magic Negro;" of having that one deliberately weirdo black character who always acts in a delicious magical-realism kinda way, using horrific "magical rural black guy" vernacular and voice that so obviously comes from a nerdy white guy, as cringingly embarrassing as watching your uncle get drunk at a wedding reception and suddenly decide that he too knows how to rap. ("I'm your uncle DAN and I'm here to SAY, that things are ILL DOPE on Mary's wedding DAY!") Seriously, white guys, enough with the Magic-Negro vernacular already.

But all these things I think are minor problems only, things that will naturally go away with each continued year of Malfi's career as a novelist; much more interesting, I think, are the new directions in genre-writing that Malfi goes with this manuscript, and the fact that there are publishers out there like Raw Dog ready to take chances on such literature, to sign such books and spend a certain amount of money on each one, and really try to be a public advocate for these types of envelope-pushing projects. In a world where reading novels for pleasure is becoming a daily activity for less and less people, I think such books as Via Dolorosa to be particularly important, in that they imagine old genres in new and exciting ways, even as most such projects also contain the kinds of problems that will justify a person turning their nose at them, if a person is determined to turn their nose and is just looking for an excuse to do so. If you're generous with Malfi, if you're willing to let him slide on a few mistakes, you'll find a startlingly original novel here in Dolorosa, one that I in particular am very glad I took the time to read, even knowing that some people will laugh at me for saying so. I will always take the slightly flawed work of a sincere artist in partnership with a struggling basement company over the more polished work of a team of corporate charlatans; as I mentioned, that's the entire reason I opened CCLaP, and I hope that the creative professionals I recommend here reflect that overall mission.

Out of 10:
Story: 7.2
Characters: 8.2
Style: 9.2
Overall: 8.2, or 9.2 for fans of atmospheric horror stories

Read even more about Via Dolorosa: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:47 AM, March 26, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |