Black Mouth by Ronald Malfi

Review by Brennan LaFaro

Last year, Ronald Malfi released Come with Me to critical acclaim, and deservedly so. It was a poignant mystery that tugged at the heartstrings. A tough act to follow, but Black Mouth is more than up to the task. While it would be unfair to classify it as magician horror, the question of what constitutes real magic versus what is simply a trick runs through the veins of this story.

There are so many comp titles that work with Black Mouth. The way the narrative jumps back and forth between a group of adults and their childhood counterparts may remind some readers of King’s It. The combination of coming-of-age with a sense of wonder brings to mind King’s Revival. The escape from a cursed town has notes of Todd Keisling’s Devil’s Creek. And I could go on, but I won’t, because this novel is all Malfi.

Black Mouth does what the best horror fiction, the best fiction if you like, is supposed to do. Malfi rounds up some familiar ideas and cobbles them into something that feels comfortable, yet fresh and exciting. Opening up this novel feels like picking up one of those classic 1980s doorstops, easy to lose yourself in the opening pages, yet it never drags, making you feel like you’ve visited this town before and you’ve met these characters.

The cast is relatively small and the stronger for it. Jamie’s relationship with his brother, Dennis, is unforgettable and the beating heart of the story. The strength of this reunion develops throughout the runtime and sells the book’s final act. Clay and Mia are some of the most well-developed supporting characters I recall reading in some time, and as such, the stakes never feel contrived and the reader’s empathy is Malfi’s to mold and exploit.

Ronald Malfi’s macabre coming-of-age tale involving magic, the supernatural, and the strange small town that sucks you back in fires on all cylinders. A 400 page book that most readers will devour in the course of a weekend, then put down with satisfaction, while also still mentally living in that world. Black Mouth is an unmissable addition to 2022’s horror offerings.

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