By Ronald Damien Malfi

Reviewed by Tim Lieder

In the Shadow of Ann Radcliff

The Fall of Never should not work. The back cover blurb might as well say "Ronald Damien Malfi writes the standard gothic novel." Ann Radcliff's gothic standard (epitomized in her book The Mysteries of Udolpho) has been kicking around so long that Jane Austen parodied it. Sing along if you know the tune: a young girl must go to a spooky house inhabited by a spooky family. She hears strange noises and she knows that something's not right. She must unravel the mystery or face the dire consequences.

We remember the rare classics of the genre like The Haunting of Hill House, but forget the millions of mass market paperbacks with young girls either running into or out of big isolated houses. Ronald Damien Malfi's variations don't entirely warrant applause. Kelly Rich or Kellow (Rich is a married name) is actually going home to her own family. She should know what's happening, but she can't remember anything. Most disturbances indicate that she's partially responsible for the doom that hangs over the house.

However, it works because Malfi understands something that 90% of horror writers miss. You have to care about the characters as people before you care about them as people in jeopardy. Ultimately, Malfi's emotional investment distinguishes The Fall of Never from the garbage. In Kelly, he presents a complete character by turns angry, supportive, frightened, strong, detached and guilt-ridden. Many times, she is downright unlikable and Malfi is confident enough to allow her faults without losing her perspective. Malfi's decision to stay with a subplot about Kelly's friends back in New York--including her emotionally and wounded cameraman Josh--would normally split focus and doom a gothic novel. A gothic novel relies on isolation as much as it relies on strange noises in the woods. Yet, the New York subplot never distracts or drags. Josh with his recent bullet wounds and loyalty becomes the moral center of the novel. Gothic novels don't need moral centers, but it's nice to read about one person without an agenda beyond loyalty.

This is not a perfect book. It leaves the reader hanging for too long about the mystery and then rushes to a slightly disappointing revelation. I wondered why the parents were talking like snotty teenagers. Malfi sets up a love triangle and then rids himself of it in a very mercenary fashion. Furthermore, the nature of the mystery hints at bigger questions like why am I here? Who am I? What is personality? How much control does anyone have over their own thoughts? Unfortunately the trajectory of the novel forces these questions to the back burner whilst Kelly confronts her past. Reading an otherwise exciting confrontation in the last third of the book, I just wanted more.

However, this is Ronald Damien Malfi's first novel and I look forward to seeing what he produces in the future. He has two novels due out in 2006 and one story in the April 2006 anthology Badass Horror, but these are only the initial stirrings; until he writes his Brothers Karamazov, The Fall of Never will serve as both an entertaining read and an introduction to this very talented and entertaining writer.

The Fall of Never by Ronald Damien Malfi. Pb, 352pp, $17.95 or £10.31. Published by Raw Dog Screaming Press.

Available here from Amazon UK

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