The Dark Side Of Fiction: An Interview With Ronald Malfi

Sean Kitching speaks to American author, Ronald Malfi, about his unique identity in the crowded field of dark fiction

Ronald Malfi is an author clearly enamoured of the magic of books and their inherent potential to alter reality. In the novella ‘The Skin of Her Teeth’ a cursed novel drives people to their deaths. In ‘This Book Belongs to Olo’, a lonely child has absolute control over an unusual and deadly pop-up book. Whether you are a fan of the old guard of horror, or more inclined towards the relatively new wave of authors establishing themselves as contemporary masters of the genre (the likes of Adam Nevill, Mariana Enriquez, Michael Cisco or Alma Katsu), there’s a good chance that if you’ve not already heard of him, Malfi could become your next favourite author. Winning praise from fans, critics and fellow authors alike, Malfi’s work is considered “Art House” horror for its highly visual, hugely suspenseful prose and stories that are character-based and knowingly playful with their subversion of genre tropes.

Although he’s far from the first author to walk the fine line between allowing the possibility of supernatural agency and such events being limited to a character’s own imagination, novels such as Come With Me explore that border with enough boldness and unexpected swerves of direction to make such a stance seem entirely his own invention.

Adam Nevill, who some readers may recall I have written about several times for tQ, had this to say, when I asked him about Malfi’s 2021 novel Come With Me: “Malfi is a fastidious, precise writer who really thought that book through. I’m astonished at his output as the book felt like years of work.” Come With Me, the true-crime style story of Aaron Decker’s search for his missing wife, is so compelling that it demands to be read in one or two sittings, despite its almost 400-page length.

Black Mouth (2022) is easily as captivating, with a finely-tuned narrative that balances possibly supernatural events with the harsh realities of life in a broken down town seen through the eyes of a man struggling with alcoholism. Despite the publisher’s naming of Stephen King on the front of that book, it is far from being the reiteration of King’s It that reference implies. Malfi’s two novella collections, Ghostwritten (2022), and most recently, They Lurk (2023), are equally worthy of praise, playing like thematically-satisfying mini-movies in the mind’s eye. That several of Malfi’s books have been optioned for televisual or cinematic renderings is hardly surprising, given their tightly plotted and detailed visual aspect. Although there is yet to be an adaptation that makes it all the way to the final product, it’s surely only a matter of time before his work finds its way onto small and big screens alike.

With They Lurk out earlier this year, a new novel scheduled for June 2024 and an album from the alt-rock band he fronts, Veer, also newly released, Malfi is a busy man but takes time out to speak to tQ, via video-link, from his home in Maryland USA.

I get the impression that you’ve been writing most of your life, what were your early influences?

I bought an old typewriter at a yard sale when I was like eleven years old and started writing short stories on that. I read a lot when I was younger and I just found Stephen King around that time. I think Eyes of the Dragon was the first book of his I read. Then I just started reading everything I could get my hands on. I started writing all the time and by the time I graduated from college, I had two trunks full of short stories and about six or so novel manuscripts written. I tried to shop them around and ended up selling my first book about a year after college. So, I’ve been doing this for 24 years now.

Was it always going to be horror?

Not everything was. Everything had a bent towards the dark side of fiction. Not everything had a supernatural bent to it. I kind of jokingly say they all started off as love stories but they actually kind of do. It’s all about people in relationships and I find myself focused on the characters first and the story kind of develops around them. I am not a plot-driven writer. I find that to be very clunky. I don’t outline or anything. I just let these characters do what they do.

What is your writing process? You wrote something at the end of the new collection, about not wanting to overwrite.

It’s hard to say how many times I rewrite a particular piece, because I tend to edit as I go. Every time I open up that file and start writing, chances are I’m reworking the chapters that came before. So that first chapter’s going to get rewritten to some degree, almost every day of a three-month writing schedule. I never write from page one, all the way to the end, and then edit. It’s a continuous process.

The first thing that strikes me about your writing is that it’s very filmic. How did you arrive at this point, and are there influences from movies feeding into that?

I’ve heard that a lot and I see it myself when I write. I’m a visual writer. I tend to just naturally know how to set a scene, to know what works and what doesn’t. A lot of writers will say, for instance, a character walks into a classroom and then describe a classroom with desks and windows and a chalk board or whatever. Well, we already know those things exist in that context. For me, that’s a little pedantic doing it that way. If I’m going to say, they walked into a classroom, I’m going to say “there’s a half-eaten apple on the floor”. Because that’s the one thing that your mind doesn’t automatically go to, but it sets the stage visually. I don’t feel the need to paint the parts of the picture that the reader’s already bringing to the book.

I don’t normally like short stories very much. I like the sense of immersion in a world and I like starting one place and ending somewhere else with some kind of resolution. But I found that your novellas work really well. Some of them remind me of The Twilight Zone. Were you a fan of that show?

Oh, absolutely. I’ve watched every episode. It’s funny, the bigger or longer the novel, the more I’m into it. I’m not generally a short story reader, for the most part. And as a writer, honestly, I find them a little tough to write. When I write them, they either come off a little too ambiguous or they’re too pat, because the economy of words just keeps it so precise that it’s a little hard to negotiate around. In a novel, I’ve got a lot of room to move and I feel like I can get away with a lot more. You can see the zippers on the costumes and all the strings behind the scenes in a novel and still kind of look the other way. It’s a lot harder to do that in a short story. Novellas – people say it’s the best medium for horror fiction. They’re not too long. They get in and do what they’re supposed to do and then you’re done with them. I’m starting to believe that.

In They Lurk, I really liked ‘Fierce’ particularly. And ‘The Stranger’ and ‘After the Fade’.

Those four novellas were written at different times, for different publications. There wasn’t a collection in mind when I first wrote them. They came over a period of a few years. But, when I was putting this collection together, and picking and choosing the novellas I wanted in it, the commonality between all of those is that the ending could really be the beginning. They all serve as prologues for a bigger story. And I liked the idea of showing you the tip of the iceberg and then letting the reader fill in the bigger part, once that story is over.

‘Fierce’ also did something that I really like in horror. The moment when the ‘civilised’ protagonist is put under duress by their assailant, and there’s that moment when they turn and fight back with a ferocity that surpasses that of their tormentor. It reminds us that we’re not that civilised really. We haven’t come that far out of the caves we used to inhabit. And that we can fight back. It’s a moment of power but also a source of regret.

The whole point of that novella is that it’s a mother and daughter survival story. The present-day story with the car accident and her being stranded, runs parallel to a back story about a camping trip that has a horrific angle to it. Even the parallel of what is stalking them during that camping trip runs parallel to the current day story. I love it when there’s that sort of cyclical nature in fiction. What goes around comes around and everything is nicely tied up with a certain symmetry. When I first thought of the idea for ‘Fierce’, the theme didn’t occur to me until I started writing it. That’s usually how it happens. Those first few days of writing something – or if I’m writing a novel, like the first month or so – I’m writing it just to see where it goes. The concept or theme or multiple themes doesn’t really click in until I’m like halfway into something. The story is the story. It’s what you see at face value. The theme is the heart of what’s pumping behind there and that doesn’t come clear to me until midway through. Or if you listen to some of my critics, it never comes clear!

If I was going to suggest a book of yours to someone who doesn’t know your work, it would be Come With Me. There seems to be another level that you’ve hit with that one.

I felt like I was on my game when I was writing it. When I finished it, I felt like I’d accomplished something with that book. I’ve written sixteen or so novels. It’s very hard to start a novel and finish it and end up in a place where it’s so close to what your original concept was. You’re already bastardising it the second you write that first sentence. But certain books, like Come With Me, or Little Girls, or December Park, those were the closest, the final version on paper, to what I had in my head. Come With Me, I could feel that I was in that zone when I was writing it. I think it’s a very accessible book for people trying to get into my stuff. I play around with the narrative a little bit. It’s not as straightforward as a more mainstream kind of novel, but it gives a little taste of everything I do.

You’ll sometimes put a little touch of something possibly supernatural in there but you leave it open as to whether it really is what it appears to be.

Come With Me was optioned for a TV series at one point and that sort of metaphysical angle was tough for studio folks to wrap their heads around. I kind of inadvertently, and now purposefully, have carved myself out a niche where my books tend to walk that ambiguous line. The supernatural elements to my stories are subjective. Some are more heavy-handed than others, but I’ll let the reader determine what they feel about them. I do that for two reasons. One is, I’ve found that the more I write, and the care that I put into my characters and my prose itself, I don’t want to cheapen it by a lot of jump scares and bogeyman just for the sake of it. I want to keep the story organic and faithful to the characters and what I’m trying to say and if that doesn’t require copious amounts of blood and a monster that’s eating people, then I’m not putting that in there just because I write in that particular genre. The other thing is, as a writer, I find myself constantly trying to challenge myself with what I’m doing. I always try to reinvent my narrative style in my books and I find that ambiguous line walking is very tough to do well and I challenge myself over and over again to do it. It’s stressful, because I don’t necessarily know if I’m hitting it the right way as I’m writing these things… but they seem to come together.

How do you manage to navigate what has already been done before in the genre? You are working in a field where so many of these images have been so well-trodden.

I think it’s a balance of familiarity and originality and I believe that’s sort of the hallmark to any type of artistic endeavour, whether it’s books, music, film. You know, something too off the wall is only going to resonate with a small amount of people. You’ve got to have that balance of familiarity – what your audience thinks they’re getting – and then that unique vein that runs through it that makes them think, ‘oh, I thought this was what I’m getting, but really it’s this, but I can relate to it and it’s carried me through, almost by disguise, because it’s really something else’. I like to think of my stuff as people wearing monster costumes. We recognise the monster costumes, we recognise the look, but there’s something else on the inside.

Come With Me aside, have many of your other stories been optioned?

Almost all of them have been optioned at some point. Some of them go further down the pipeline than others. I think out of all of them, Bone White was the furthest along. That was picked up by Fox 21 Studios. Then Disney bought it and together they brought it to Amazon. It was going to be an Amazon original series and it was going to all move ahead, until Covid hit. There’s a couple of things going on right now. I’ve got somebody writing a script of another book. So, you keep enough irons in the fire and see what happens. I look at it like you’re playing the lottery, really, with that stuff. It’s such a gamble – even if you get past the initial hurdles.

But I’ve dealt with enough screenwriters who’ve adapted my stuff where they’ll come to me and they’ll say ‘I’m thinking about changing this’, or ‘maybe I’ll move this around’ and there’s some small, particular thing they’re looking to do. And sometimes there’s these bigger, global ideas for the story. And shy of going completely off the rails and telling a different story altogether, I tell them: ‘the book is written, that’s done, that’s my project, this is yours. Feel free to move things around or change things to best fit the medium that you’re working in’. And I get very excited to read their scripts. I’ve read a ton of pilot scripts from stuff of mine and I get excited to see how they interpret the work and move with it. Particularly with Bone White.

What about authors who have influenced you?

Probably my favourite horror writer was Peter Straub. When I first started reading horror, I was reading a lot of Stephen King and I found the joy and the fun in reading and then writing. That’s what he showed me. With Peter Straub, I found the freedom as a writer and an artist to go above and beyond just the surface level of telling a story. There’s such richness and depth to his books, that wowed me and really made me want to push the boundaries of how to tell a story from a narrative standpoint. With Come With Me, I wrote that first chapter a bunch of times, from a bunch of different points of view, just to find that narrative voice. I couldn’t really grasp it and figure out what worked, until I realised: this is him narrating to his wife who is already dead, this is a first person to second person narrative. And that’s what made the book jump for me.

What are you working on at the minute?

I just turned in my next novel, that’s due in June of next year. It’s called Small Town Horror and I like to think of it sort of as a distant companion piece to Black Mouth. If you take a book like that, where you’ve got a group of innocent children who are manipulated into doing something terrible and they’re dealing with the repercussions of that, I took the ‘photo negative’ of that idea and thought, ‘what if the group of children weren’t so innocent?’ And I ran with that and there’s some parallels to those stories. They’re kind of like companion pieces for each other and just when you think one is dark, the other one gets darker.

Are there any horror novels that you’d like to recommend?

I was recommending some of those old Phil Rickman novels to somebody recently. His books are all like 700 pages. The Chalice, Candlelight and Curfew are the three big ones. Here’s a guy doing his own thing. They’re very dense, character-driven horror novels. They’re fantastic. I guess you could call them folk horror. A lot of mythology in there. A lot of Wiccan stuff. Very atmospheric work. I just read a great Greg Gifune novel that’s coming out soon. He’s very atmospheric, also gritty, you can smell a bit of noir wafting into his stories. My time to sit down and read for enjoyment is so minimal now, because I’m either working on something and I don’t have time, or I’ve got a stack of books that I’m supposed to read and do a blurb on.

Well, you are living the dream. You realise that, right? I mean, you’re fronting a band, you have an album out, and your writing is doing well.

Is that what this is? Sometimes it feels more like a nightmare. I guess it’s mostly a dream, with bouts of screaming awake.

Ronald Malfi’s They Lurk is out now via Titan Books.

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