BLACK MOUTH by Ronald Malfi
Titan Books p/b £8.99
Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson
Black Mouth is the site of a coal-mine collapse at Sutton’s Quay, West Virginia. Like many places where human tragedies have been played out, it possesses liminal qualities. This is the story of Mia Tomasina, Clay Willis and Jamie Warren, who grew up at Black Mouth but who found what happened to them as eleven-year-old children overshadowed their lives into adulthood.
Mia has become an avant-garde film-maker. Clay, a sufferer from vitiligo, is a social worker involved with a concern about missing children, whilst our narrator Jamie is trying to become sober but not succeeding. Malfi writes a good tale in which he explores the fine details of the human character. The reader can become a little horrified at the human frailties Malfi explores, but it is clear he views all evil as human in origin, whilst moral weakness starts with mental abuse as much as poor self-value opens the doors to addiction. In this regard, his style of horror is very reminiscent of Phil Rickman.
As children, these three come across in the woodland surrounding Black Mouth, an individual who describes himself as The Magician. He tries to manipulate them with the idea of achieving magical powers by finding The Well and returning with the necessary knowledge. He seeks to manipulate Jamie into murdering his Downs Syndrome younger brother, Dennis so that Dennis will bring back the magic from The Well. Jamie repels this attempt but is then provoked into setting fire to the woodland whilst The Magician escapes. Eventually, Jamie and Clay are sent to a detention centre as a young woman and her infant, who had been living close to Black Mouth, were burned to death in the ensuing inferno.
A couple of decades later, Mia stops at a fairground in Lexington to see a familiar face which she discretely photographs and forwards the picture to Clay. She stops by Jamie’s old home to find he has just returned there following the death of his mother and the strange behaviour of his vulnerable brother. The three set out to find The Magician again with Dennis in lumbering tow. Dennis is a beautiful creation and is very much the key to this story as he has the mentality of a shaman, a human creature of difference with an almost alien understanding.
Having now created the task and reconstructed the cast, Malfi sets the team to work. At this point, misdirection in the name of Wayne Lee Stull is brought into the scheme of things. He, too, is a creation of abuse and a socially crippling condition. He is drawn to be the repulsive imitator who seeks to emulate The Magician but lacks the capacity to manipulate children into killing one another. Instead, Stull has cut out the middle man to become a serial killer.
The denouement creeps up on the reader, and it is well in play before the reader realises what is going on. The conclusion follows on from Jamie entering the Black Mouth through a crack in the earth in pursuit of Dennis, who is still looking for The Well. An underground spring is a liminal construction familiar to many followers of mysticism, and it can be expected to produce remarkable outcomes!
Black Mouth is excellent value in both plot and presentation. It is well worth the money in these straightened times.