Last summer, Ronald Malfi’s Come With Me blew me away and ended up being my favourite read of 2021. Now, the under-appreciated author is back with another scary story, which he calls Black Mouth. It’s set to release near the end of July, but I’ve had a chance to get my grubby little hands on, and read through, an early ‘bound proof’ or ‘Advanced Reader’s Copy.’ As such, I can now share why the next effort from one of horror’s best storytellers is worth your time, money and attention.
Black Mouth begins as a thirty-something man named Jamie Warren deals with past trauma, personal demons and alcoholism by spending time in a surreal inpatient detox program. While there, our main character finds himself hallucinating things from his past, and maybe even one peculiar patient whom nobody else seems to notice. However, this book isn’t about a haunted institution. No, there’s a lot more to it than that.
As he’s finishing his time in detox and transitioning into the Alcoholics Anonymous program, Jamie receives a disturbing message from his rural West Virginian hometown. His mother has passed away, and his brother — who’s mentally challenged and unable to look after himself — has been found walking along a sun stricken road in the middle of nowhere, wearing just his underwear. With nobody else to depend on, it’s Jamie’s responsibility to go home and collect his brother, Dennis, and deal with his mother’s affairs. It’s just that Jamie hasn’t been back to their dilapidated farm house on the outskirts of the supposedly haunted Black Mouth mines in quite some time, and he doesn’t have much interest in it at all. In fact, just the thought of it makes him want to drink.
Returning to Black Mouth brings bad memories back to the surface, and things get worse for Jamie when an old friend named Mia shows up at his family’s dilapidated old house. She’s there to talk about the past, and one thing in particular: a strange man that she, Jamie, Dennis and their friend Clay used to spend time with in the woods near the mines’ openings. Someone they referred to as The Magician.
As you’ve likely guessed, Black Mouth by Ronald Malfi goes back and forth between the present day and those days in 1998. As it does, it alternates perspectives and feeds the reader breadcrumbs of information about what exactly happened back then, and what is going on in the present. You see, the Magician was a fascinating but frightening man, who wore an eye patch over an incredibly odd and scary ruined eye, taught the kids incredible magic tricks, but also tried to get them to do awful things while promising his apprentices a trip to the all powerful well. If they made said trip, they’d apparently come back with incredible powers.
It seems that the Magician is back and up to no good again. Mia captured a picture of the strange and surreal man while in Kentucky for an event, and their friend Clay — a black man whose vitiligo plays a large part in this book — has heard of dark events in a rural part of the state.
If this story synopsis reminds you of Stephen King’s iconic novel, IT, that’s more than understandable. Black Mouth is certainly reminiscent of that epic, and definitely takes inspiration from it, but despite being similar it is not a clone. Perhaps it is an homage, though only the author can say.
That said, if you liked IT you should like this new release and its story about four kids who meet their past again in adulthood. There’s a lot of depth to be found in the characters of Mia, Clay, Dennis and Jamie, almost all of whom have their own chapters. This book also handles some really dark, serious and challenging subjects, like child abuse, alcoholism/addiction, animal abuse, mental handicaps and death, quite well. In fact, I applaud the author for writing a book about alcoholism that doesn’t demonize the afflicted, and also includes numbers for those who need help in its final pages.
Black Mouth does drag some, though, and it isn’t as tight as Come With Me was. Still, it’s a well above average read. While it’s only the second book by Ronald Malfi that I’ve read, it’s another very good one, and I can’t wait to check out the others. They’ve been on my radar for years, but I haven’t gotten to them yet.
If you’re looking for a good, unsettling, smart and well-written horror novel, Black Mouth should certainly be on your short list. This is doubly true if you enjoyed Stephen King’s IT.
This review is based on an advanced reader’s copy which we were provided with.
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