Gabino Iglesias Reviews Small Town Horror by Ronald Malfi – Locus Online


Small Town Horror, Ronald Malfi (Titan Books 978-1-80336-565-7, $27.99, 400pp, hc) June 2024.

It’s hard to find fresh, unique ghost stories. It’s probably even harder to find original narra­tives – horror, mystery, crime, whatever – in which someone is forced to go back to their home­town to face their past. In Small Town Horror, author Ronald Malfi manages to do both. At once a spooky tale about a haunting with a tragic begin­ning and a story about a group of friends reunited after many years in their hometown because they must tackle a situation that could affect them all, this novel plays with tropes while simultaneously sounding new and showcasing Malfi’s stellar prose.

Andrew Larimer grew up near the ocean in the small town of Kingsport. He spent his youth hang­ing out with his friends, doing things like sneaking beers here and there and setting off fireworks for his birthday. But that was the past. Andrew is now a lawyer in a New York law firm and he has a wife who’s pregnant with their first child. The future looks bright, but there is a darkness from his past that violently interrupts Andrew’s new life. A phone call from an old friend late one night makes Andrew return to his hometown, where he, unbeknownst to his wife, still owns the house in which he grew up.

For Andrew, returning home is not something he’d planned on doing. He wanted nothing to do with his old house and has spent years trying to forget the awful night in which a prank changed everything for him and his friends. Coming home also means missing work and lying to his wife. Still, he goes, because the secret that binds him to his childhood friends is as powerful as it is dangerous. Andrew has a lot to lose, but so do his friends: Dale is in real estate and struggling with his financial future as well as with drama at home; Tig is a single mom working in a bar that almost burned to the ground; Eric is now the town’s deputy sheriff; and Meach has been fighting addiction and alcoholism for years, and is now always rambling about strange things that happen at night and a curse that is out to end them all. Together again and with their cur­rent lives on the line, Andrew and his friends will have to confront what happened twenty years and finds new ways to keep it hidden. Unfortunately, the past isn’t dead; it’s haunting them.

Small Town Horror works on two levels. The first is a story about friends whose lives changed after a horrible event. They were young and stupid and didn’t know how to react to an emergency, and that ended up with a body and a destroyed family of outsiders who didn’t know who to blame. Life went on for everyone, but the grief and guilt from that night never truly abandoned any of them. This story is dark and ugly in many ways, but Malfi’s prose and superb character development make it shine.

Along with that story is another one: A horror narrative about a vengeful ghost whose anger has turned him into a force to be reckoned with. This one is also a story about creepy sounds, something hiding in the brackish waters of a flooded basement, specters showing up at night, and ghostly voices whispering dark things into the ears of the living. Malfi knows that the most powerful element of a haunting is the sense that it’s an inescapable thing that might not be always present, but the idea of it is, and that is precisely what gives it its power. In Small Town Horror, the past is always present, and that means that the darkest things from twenty years ago are as alive as they were two decades ago.

Ronald Malfi is a talented storyteller known for the quality of his writing and the way he brings an element of elegance to the genre, and Small Town Horror – relentlessly creepy, unapologetically dark, and surprisingly heartfelt – might just be his best novel yet.

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, professor, and book reviewer living in Austin TX. He is the author of Zero Saints and Coyote Songs and the editor of Both Sides. His work has been nominated to the Bram Stoker and Locus Awards and won the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel in 2019. His short stories have appeared in a plethora of anthologies and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and CrimeReads. His work has been published in five languages, optioned for film, and praised by authors as diverse as Roxane Gay, David Joy, Jerry Stahl, and Meg Gardiner. His reviews appear regularly in places like NPR, Publishers Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, Criminal Element, Mystery Tribune, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other print and online venues. He’s been a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards twice and has judged the PANK Big Book Contest, the Splatterpunk Awards, and the Newfound Prose Prize. He teaches creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University’s online MFA program. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

This review and more like it in the April 2024 issue of Locus.

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