Written by: James Keen
“Before we begin, I want your word that much of what I show you tonight stays between us.” -Floating Staircase.
Genre fiction has always had a sneaky advantage over it’s literary brother, ‘general fiction’ – perhaps the more easily culturally assimilated and critically-lauded sibling – and that is its ability to deliver its message through the attractively sparkling prism of a heightened or altered reality. In the best of those books that concern themselves with the supernatural, the paranormal and the all-out weird, there’s a literary bedrock of subtext that speaks of basic human truths and commonalities. Ronald Malfi’s ‘Floating Staircase’ is a case in point, a consummate example of the ‘ghost story’ archetype given a rigorous and gratifying reorganization. A ghostly tale with a vibrant heart, an allegory with a clearly realized purpose and a novel that stubbornly refuses to leave the memory long after the tale is over.
Told from the perspective of Travis Glasgow, it’s a tale of a struggling author with a vexing past, who along with his wife, Jodie- the “aquiline featured and mocha-skinned” psychology student hankering to complete her doctoral dissertation – move to a house in the small town of Westlake near the Allegheny mountains. A house with an attractively reduced price-tag, a house with an enviable view and of course, unbeknownst to them, a house with a rich and troubling history. ‘111 Waterview Court’ seems to be the ideal home for them both, with Travis able to repair his tenuous relationship with his neighbour and brother, Adam (whose relationship heretofore had “always been better by telephone”), the promise of the end to a worrying period of writers block and Jodie able to continue her studies at the nearby University. An amenable if distressingly familiar setup, with its overtly recognizable literary foundations echoing those hundreds of other novels that deal with the supernatural and the grotesque. But it’s what the author does with this overworked paradigm that is truly revelatory and fiendishly inventive.
Energetically paced plot-wise, this is the epitome of the ‘page-turner’ and Malfi’s descriptive capacity is superlative. His ability to sketch out a scenario with economical verve is very much in evidence throughout, whether it be, for example, this episode relating to a hastily arranged house-party, “my brother’s house magically unfolded into a veritable cornucopia of chambray work shirts and forester’s boots, of Allegheny colloquialisms packaged in alpine-scented skin.”, a visit to a character’s dilapidated living room with its “mismatched furniture that hung around like strangers forced together in a waiting room” or, suitably enough for the genre’s requirements, the horrific, “he would walk into my bedroom, his head smashed and broken, his skin a blasphemous blue-green like the mold that grows on bread…” Suggestive and rarely resorting to cliché, it’s a text that reveals an author clearly aware of the common literary pitfalls with this kind of subject matter. It’s also a narrative meditation on guilt, loss and secrets, with these three elements constantly threatening to poison the narrator’s sensibilities, corroding his accomplishments.
If there’s an area within the novel that’s arguably susceptible to criticism it’s in the author’s over use of imagery, specifically of that relating to water. There are numerous water-related similes and references to such things as anchors, streams, foghorns, lakes etc., with one character sitting himself down in a chair “like a ship sinking into the ocean”. The references mount as the plot dashes along and while they are important and relevant regarding the narrators mindset, they are also, at times, distracting due to their repetition. At the risk of belabouring the point even the narrator’s last name is synonymous with a well-known seaport in south west Scotland.
Floating Staircase opens with a couple of quotations, one from the narrator’s pseudonym and the other from F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s the latter that holds the key to Malfi’s fundamental intent and underlines the duality of his narrative’s ambition. Following a colloquy by Travis’ nom de plume, it’s obvious very early on that you are embarking on a delicately constructed narrative journey orchestrated by an author not content with merely rehashing old standards just for the sake of it, but a writer seeking meaning through the process of reinvigorating those ideas.
Profoundly moving, terrifying and life-affirming, this is a glorious example of what the genre of horror fiction can accomplish in the right hands. As a codifying summation for this article, I’ll leave the reader with this quote from Malfi’s protagonist, “Honest writing, much like honest people, comes without wanting anything in return.”
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