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By Ron Malfi
Whenever I think of alt-horror writer Ron Malfi, for some reason I always think as well of cinematographer Frederick Elmes, who most famously was the director of photography for David Lynch's biggest films; because like Elmes, Malfi has an almost magical ability to set a very specific kind of atmospheric mood, both gauzy in nature and in sharp focus, achieving almost an angelic halo effect over all the characters he creates and stories he tells. I've reviewed three of his books in the past -- 2007's Via Dolorosa, 2008's Passenger and 2009's true-crime diversion Shamrock Alley -- and now just this month finds the release of his latest, an interestingly self-referential return to horror basics entitled Floating Staircase. And indeed, just as the 'alt-horror' moniker has always sat awkwardly on Malfi's shoulders, it might be most appropriate to get rid of the 'alt' altogether for this straight-ahead tale of possible ghosts and bumps in the night, because in many ways this is about the most traditional type of horror to be found, what could almost be called a deliberate leap backwards over the maturation of the genre in the early 20th century, to instead touch base with the primal goals of the first proto-horror writers of the Victorian Age.
After all, Malfi even sets the book in a very Victorian locale -- the far rural outskirts of New England's Baltimore area -- which under his descriptive hands becomes very similar in tone to Washington Irving's Sleepy Hollow, or the stark rural Massachusetts of Nathaniel Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables; and the tale's set-up is decidedly old-skool as well, the story of an unsteady couple freshly back from a sabbatical to London, whose in-laws have found a magnificent fixer-upper of a house in the deep woods not too far from where they live, a situation that the couple was exactly looking for after coming to miss this rural area where they grew up. And indeed, the reason I call this self-referential is that the male of this relationship is a long-suffering alt-horror author himself, who goes by Travis but who publishes his books under the nom-de-plume "Alexander Sharpe," and whose atmospheric novels all in one way or another reference the childhood drowning of his brother which he considers his fault, which needless to say has made his other brother and sister-in-law hesitant to mention that the previous owners of their new house sold it precisely because of a similar accident involving their own son.
Ah, but you can't keep a restless spirit down, which is what quickly turns this book kind of into a haunted-house tale and kinda a haunted-woods one, as Travis discovers not only a series of unexplained voices and events in his home but in fact a whole series of bizarre secret spaces as well, including an entire hidden room in the basement which seems to combine the decor of a nursery and a dungeon, even as on his property he discovers an unsettling staircase to nowhere floating in the middle of a lake, not to mention a whole group of townfolk who in good horror fashion act a lot stranger and more mean-spirited than you would expect from a bunch of random neighbors. Will there be a rational explanation for it all by the end? Will there be a supernatural explanation for it all by the end? Or is Travis having another of his well-documented nervous breakdowns, actually planting incriminating evidence while in blackout fugues as a way to punish himself over his lingering childhood guilt?
This is one of the things that I really love about all of Malfi's horror work, is that he keeps you guessing at the answer all the way to the final chapter, while stringing along the argument for each option so that they all remain strong possibilities, even while doing this in an evocative yet minimalist personal style that's a refreshing change over the disastrously over-the-top prose of so many others in his genre. it's a light touch he has over his tales, which is always what makes them such delights even when loaded up with genre tropes as they sometimes are, with like I said a sort of gossamer sheen to them as if spirits themselves, making the reading experience always airy yet spooky, a welcome alternative to the overbearing obviousness that comes with so many mainstream horror writers and their pounding tomes about blood-covered devil-worshipping serial killers. He's long been a writer who horror fans should absolutely be reading if they never have, and the back-to-basics Floating Staircase is no exception, a novel even fit for mere casual fans like me but that I suspect will be an even bigger hit with existing genre enthusiasts.
Out of 10: 8.8, or 9.8 for horror fans
(Floating Staircase is currently available as a limited-edition signed hardcover over at Horror Mall. The trade paperback edition comes out this summer.)