Written by: James Keen
“You can run away, but darkness has quick feet and large wings, and it will follow you…”-Ronald Malfi, Cradle Lake.
At one point in Ronald Malfi’s new novel a principle character is teaching an English Literature class centered around William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ and it can be argued that the inclusion of Blake’s text here is not one that is alluded to by mere accident or to add gravitas to the character’s chosen career path. The text in question deals with comparing and contrasting the perspectives of childhood offset by the corrupting accumulation of knowledge as one grows as an adult. Malfi’s narrative subtly echoes these ideas all the while imbuing his tale with increasingly ominous and horrific elements.
‘Cradle Lake’ has two main characters here, one is the thirty-something English professor Alan Hammerstun, a native New Yorker, -“a child of Manhattan”- who has inherited a house from his barely remembered and recently deceased Uncle Philip. The house in question is in need of attention, as evidenced by this observation upon arrival -”the whole structure looked like a giant frown sinking into the ground” Along with his young wife, Heather – a quiet, depressed soul- they quickly up sticks and relocate to the North Carolina home whose mountainous environs are described as being “like a Bob Ross painting set to a Louis Armstrong soundtrack”. This is ‘Groom County’ and its name develops a notable and unnerving significance as the text develops. The other major character here is of the elemental variety, the titular Lake or ‘Ataga’Hi’ itself. It’s a body of water with an ancient and portentous history that lies close to the Hammerstun’s property.
After a familiar setup that readers of horror fiction will be all too familiar with, Malfi sets about giving his main character ‘Alan’ an intriguing literary texture, delineating his upbringing and his family background. Alan Hammerstun has more than a few unique character quirks that certainly go some way to drawing empathy from the reader for the character. The neighbours Alan and his wife encounter are rather sketchily outlined with one exception, the former professional baseball player Hank Gerski, described as having a “big head like a pumpkin with sideburns”; he’s a family man with a limp and an increasingly protective, almost fatherly attitude to Alan as the sinister events of the narrative unfolds.
As Malfi proceeds to ratchet up the tension through the use of a series of disquieting and terrifying episodes, the novel takes on the quality of a particularly vivid nightmare which is underlined by instances where characters make decisions that strain credibility and compulsions are followed without first rationalizing the possible outcome. This is a narrative that begins slowly in terms of pace but by the half way mark can be likened to the feeling of being on-board a passenger train whose momentum does not allow for easy disembarkment. Malfi piles on the horror set-pieces in such an unnervingly assured fashion that it distracts the reader from questions of plot logic and repeatedly confounds expectations regarding its outcome.
Over the past few years Ronald Malfi has spoiled aficionados of the horror genre with such gems as ‘Snow’, ‘The Narrows’ and ‘Floating Staircase’ which are all inordinately fascinating examples of the author taking hold of the horror genre’s staples, rigorously shaking them up and re-tooling them in refreshing and reinvigorating ways. In this particular instance though Malfi has taken an idea that is so startlingly redolent of one particular novel that is so revered in the horror genre’s relatively recent canon that it quite often results in jarring literary comparisons that has the unwelcome effect of reader-disconnect with the text.
This is, very often, a haunting and disturbing read. In places genuinely terrifying, it’s also a book concerned with themes of hope, redemption and how your past can poison your present. Alan Hammerstun’s almost child-like aspirations to “fix” his predicament is by turns, heart-breaking and admirable; a character imbued with an innocence that is gloriously defiant (and willfully ignorant) of his own experience.