After the murder of his wife a grieving husband discovers she had a secret life
I have been a big fan of Ronald Malfi for several years and he has fast become one of those authors I look forward to bringing out new fiction. His novels offer an exquisite blend of traditional supernatural horror, often with convincing elements of thriller blended into them, backed up by realistic and well-drawn characters. Considering Malfi has been writing since 2000 and has published seventeen novels over that period, several novellas, and a single author collection he deserves to be more widely known beyond the horror community. His work should be adorning the shelves of mainstream bookshops with the bigger names of the genre and I hope Titan get 100% behind his first release for them. His seventeenth and latest full novel, Come With Me, is probably more thriller than horror and considering it is a relatively mainstream read has the potential to be picked up the wider non-horror reading audience, in the same manner Behind Her Eyes (2017) propelled Sarah Pinborough into the big leagues. My wife never reads horror, but is a huge thriller fan, and I believe this novel would be right up her street.
If you have never tried Malfi Come With Me is an excellent entry point, it might not be his more terrifying or intense, but is a highly compelling thriller with encroaching horror elements and if you judge fiction such as Silence of the Lambs to be horror, then this is in the same ballpark. Since 2015 this author has been on an outstanding run of form with Little Girls (2015) an ambiguous and psychological haunted house story, The Night Parade (2016) an apocalyptic tale about a disease called ‘wanderer’s Folly’ and the terrifying Bone White (2017) which will put you off ever wanting to travel to Alaska. His short fiction is also first rate and his collection We Should Have Felt Well Enough Alone (2017) is littered with absolute gems. 2020 also saw the rerelease of the superb novella Mr Cables which had a genuinely outstanding and very original hook: bestselling horror author Wilson Paventeau is at a book signing when a woman in the queue presents him with a book to sign called ‘Mr Cables’, Wilson is surprised as he has never written a book of this name. My message is a simple one: if you have never read Ron Malfi, rectify that immediately, and there is much to choose from. This author has the complete literary toolkit: outstanding short stories, novellas and novels, the Holy Trinity of horror fiction.
I really enjoyed Come With Me, and sped through 400-pages over three evenings, however, it is a tricky book to review without providing unwanted spoilers. It is populated with some very clever plot twists and I do not want to reveal any more than what the blurb spills. The novel opens shortly after Aaron Decker’s wife, Allison, is murdered in a shopping centre jewellery shop. The shooter had targeted his ex-girlfriend, who worked in the establishment, and Allison was collateral damage. These opening sequences were powerfully written, as Aaron waits to have it confirmed that his wife was one of those who lost their lives. On a personal level, we are a fly on the wall, as Aaron reflects back on the final occasion, he saw his wife alive, wondering whether things might have been different if he had accompanied her to the shopping centre. ‘What if?’ lurks in the background of Aaron’s subconscious for much of the story.
Loss is undoubtedly one of the major themes of Come With Me and the fact that Aaron is not particularly open with his feelings and struggles with the outpouring of sympathies and media interest which he receives makes things worse. Interestingly, the novel is written with a first-person narrative and so the reader is fully aware of how Aaron is feeling, even if he is incapable of sharing this with his friends and Allison’s ex-colleagues. We, the reader, piggy-back on his pain and feel like intruders encroaching on his private moments with his wife. This narrative is a major strength of the novel, as most of the time it is written as if Aaron is talking to his wife, and at times you might be forgiven for forgetting the woman is dead. However, this is deliberate and very fine writing and through it we are able to dig deeper into the fractured psyche of Aaron.
Come With Me has a great hook: Aaron finds a receipt, amongst Allison’s belongings, for a two-night stay in a motel when from when he was out of town some months earlier. Thinking the worst, and struggling to cope, he suspects his wife was having an affair, however, the plot is much more intricate than that with Malfi developing proceedings deliciously slowly as Aaron begins to investigate Allison. Lurking in the background is the question, did he really know his wife? And from that moment on the plot bobs and weaves in and out of thriller territory as the mild-mannered Aaron finds himself way (way) outside his comfort zone.
As Aaron’s is the only voice we are presented with, for Come With Me to succeed it had to be both convincing and sympathetic, ultimately this is another great strength of the story. For a job, Aaron translates Japanese novels into English and it as far away from a hero as you can imagine. However, this narrative takes a quiet spoken academic far from his quiet world onto a path, almost a quest which becomes an obsession, to follow in the footsteps of his dead wife. And it is a fascinating journey, taking in corrupt cops, sleazy motels, revenge, alcoholism and all manner of lowlifes which inhabit the small towns of America. The picture Malfi paints of these forgotten locations, at times it felt like reading a read novel, was second to none and it was little wonder that many of the inhabitants are keen to move on to pastures new.
Aaron is haunted by both the memory and secrets of his dead wife, with the latter leading him to question what kind of marriage him they truly had? Their relationship beats at the heart of the novel and even though Allison is dead for the entirety of Come With Me, but she dominates the book from the shadows of lonely hotel rooms and the grainy video footage he uncovers along the way. One could argue not all the questions are answered adequately and although this is an excellent thriller it was slightly one-paced and, although realistic, lacked the big climax it deserved. Having said that, make sure you stay focussed for an outstanding last couple of pages sucker-punch.
Ronald Malfi is a genuine big dog of the horror genre and Come With Me maintains his excellent recent form with the first of two books to be published by Titan who, in recent times, have been releasing outstanding fiction, so Ron has found a very good home. Also, five of Malfi’s older and out-of-print novels, Cradle Cake, December Park, Snow, The Ascent and The Floating Staircase were recently republished by Open Road Media in January. This author has an outstanding back-catalogue and once Come With Me reels you in there are plenty of other great novels to dip into next time out.
A masterful, heart-palpitating novel of small-town horror and psychological dread from a Bram Stoker nominee.
Aaron Decker's life changes one December morning when his wife Allison is killed. Haunted by her absence and her ghost Aaron goes through her belongings, where he finds a receipt for a motel room in another part of the country. Piloted by grief and an increasing sense of curiosity, Aaron embarks on a journey to discover what Allison had been doing in the weeks prior to her death.
Yet Aaron is unprepared to discover the dark secrets Allison kept, the death and horror that make up the tapestry of her hidden life. And with each dark secret revealed, Aaron becomes more and more consumed by his obsession to learn the terrifying truth about the woman who had been his wife, even if it puts his own life at risk.
what makes the strength of Hard For Hope to Flourish is its variety, with all three novellas perfectly chosen to complement one another. If the other entries in the Night Bites series are this good then it deserves to be a big success.
I’ve always been fond of novellas, and some of my favourite horror anthologists (such as Ellen Datlow and Stephen Jones) appeal to me partly because they aren’t afraid to include longer material in their short story collections. However, many novella writers struggle to place their work in conventional anthologies of short fiction. Crone Girls’ Midnight Bites series offers a solution to this problem: each number in the series is a trio of novellas that the editor Rachel A. Brune couldn’t find space for elsewhere but still found it “hard to say no to” (according to her interview at Horror Tree).
With Midnight Bites 2: Hard For Hope To Flourish it’s apparently the turn of “literary horror”. I’m really not sure what is meant by the term, though as far as I can tell it just means horror writing that doesn’t suck. Sometimes it is also used to refer to traditional horror in the mould of M R James, Arthur Machen and so on, but none of the stories here owe much to pre-war authors. This is all very modern writing and there’s certainly no pastiche material in sight.
Melanie Bell’s “The Cliffman” is a dreamy rite-of-passage fantasy with a pretty seaside setting. It’s told in a semi-realist style that leans towards the fairy tale or folk legend (with characters referred to as “the mother”, “the younger sister” etc. and featuring elemental deities who present humans with archetypal challenges). This isn’t normally my sort of thing, and I found the sing-song prose at times a bit self-consciously fey for my taste, but it’s a superior example of this kind of fiction and crucially, there is enough psychological veracity and “nowness” here to make the characters more than mere placeholders for eco-feminist ideas. Bell has also created original and striking deities – no easy task – breaking away from the tired old tradition of representing the sea as something uniquely feminine. If you do like picturesque nouveau folklore then you should absolutely love this.
“Paranoia: The Disappearance of Mr. Boasi Joram Nyaoma” by Nyamweya Maxwell offers a stark contrast to the Bell novella in a number of ways. Maxwell is having no truck with that absence of character names, for a start, and is careful to ensure we know the first name, middle name and surname of just about everybody involved. This gives the opening passages a slightly quaint, comical feel, though if you find that irksome, just wait a bit, because things get serious pretty quick. The luckless hero’s mind has become a battleground for unseen forces, which initially manifest as schizophrenic voices in his head but eventually take a more tangible and horrific form. Maxwell sticks pretty closely to the template made popular by any number of social-decay-and-mind-control stories from the 80s and 90s (see Thomas Tessier’s ‘The Dreams of Dr. Ladybank’ for a memorable example), but the Nairobi setting and characters are refreshing, at least to the Western reader, and Maxwell is unrelenting when it comes to bringing the terrors of mental violation and urban blight to life. The whole thing crackles with tension and a sick anxiety that doesn’t let up, and reminded me how much I used to enjoy those old stories. Let’s hope for a revival of this currently neglected strain of horror.
Things wind up with ‘The Whispering Marsh’ by Thomas Ouphe. This is the longest novella here, taking up half the book, and it starts off conventionally enough: an estuary day out turns hellish for a young family when Dad is seized by the dark forces lurking in the local marsh. Fast-forward a couple of decades, and the surviving family members, now all adults, are still trying to process what happened. Daughter Jenna agrees to be interviewed as part of a cold-case documentary investigating the mystery, and in due course all hell breaks loose.
Marshland is historically very fertile ground for supernatural fiction, and this particular marsh is on the Wirral peninsula, which has been identified by Adam Scovell as an unusually weird place, partly due to the “ethereal liminality” of its location, pulled between the poles of Chester, Liverpool and rural Wales. Ouphe does of course make use of this, with parts of the novella obviously aiming for a similar effect to famous waterland stories like ‘Three Miles Up’ by Elizabeth Jane Howard or ‘The Hide’ by Liz Williams. However, what he does best is characters, and the family dynamics (as expressed in a series of terse but enthralling conversations) are what give the novella its bite and keep the reader hooked, with beleaguered but resourceful son-in-law Ranil being an especially likeable character. There’s also plenty of action to go with the dialogue – it soon becomes obvious that the marsh isn’t going to be content with just the one victim – and things barrel along nicely with some interesting use of drone technology. I would’ve preferred an ending with slightly less explanation, but Ouphe is a very competent angler in the lake of darkness and ‘The Whispering Marsh’ is an enjoyable read that justifies its length and will, I think, have the broadest appeal of all the stories in this anthology.
Of course, other readers will have other favourites, but what makes the strength of Hard For Hope to Flourish is its variety, with all three novellas perfectly chosen to complement one another. If the other entries in the Night Bites series are this good then it deserves to be a big success.
Two sisters follow separate, dangerous paths in search of beauty, magic, and escape from the deadening nature of the prosaic world.
A voice in his head leads Mr. Boasi Joram Nyaoma into a world worse than madness and the slow death of hope.
Tired of the tabloid speculation their father’s disappearance feeds, Amelia finds herself inexorably drawn to the marshland where, over twenty years ago, something called him to his death.
Settle in for three literary tales of quiet horror—stories to chill the blood as the night draws on and the shadows creep closer along the floor.
tell a compelling story about how awful it is, dismantle it, and slice you into a grid of quivering gelatin with her laser-like prose. Alderman’s not there yet but she has incredible potential. The Power is an electrifying, horrifying read.
One day, a peculiar thing happens: women can suddenly zap people. Literally. With electricity. The phenomenon seems to spread via physical contact: a jolt from one woman will awaken the ability in another. Research is carried out. Scientists find a previously overlooked organ of sorts in women’s chests. Called the skein, this structure is capable of generating electricity in much the same way electric eels do. Suddenly weaponized, women set about changing everything, but these changes occur with a dreadful, almost tidal inevitability.
Because the book is told inside of a narrative frame -- it is structured as a manuscript written in the future, reconstructing the historical events surrounding the emergence of women’s abilities -- there is no need for the various characters’ arcs to coincide neatly. The Avengers don’t need to assemble, in other words. Alderman does something much smarter here: giving the big picture of what might plausibly happen in this implausible turn of events rather than pulling the characters together in an MCU-like assemblage. After all, there’s no single bad guy to fight here: it’s a system; it’s the patriarchy. Convergence would have undermined the narrative, and Alderman has sensibly steered clear of that.
Things do go horribly wrong, of course, and Alderman’s navigation of the story’s moral grey areas is her real triumph. Some women are bent on revenge, both individual and wholesale. Power corrupts. Armies are assembled. Men fight back. Other men are raped, mutilated, and/or electrocuted. The overarching question here is whether they had it coming. Have centuries of oppression given women the moral high ground now that men are the weaker sex? What exactly is inevitable about the pleasures of unpunished violence, of power?
If I have a point of criticism, it would be the intersection of characterization and voice. The novel is told from several points of view: Allie, a young girl who kills her foster father during an attempt to molest her; Tunde, a young man from Nigeria who is one of the first to film women using their electric powers; Roxy, a British girl with an extraordinary level of power; Margot, an American mayor forced to conceal her abilities during the early days of the societal changes; Tatiana, the first lady of Moldova who (not much of a spoiler here) becomes that country’s president in a shocking turn of events. While everyone in this novel has a story, they can sometimes begin to sound and feel indistinguishable. Partly this is to do with Alderman’s own authorial voice. Although she is strong and articulate and in charge of her prose, she doesn’t sound American when she needs to and neither do her American characters and settings. This isn’t the issue in itself so much as an example of characters not quite feeling fleshed out and lived in, so to speak. (Clive Barker also struggles with this.) There are hints of a Buffy-like brattiness in the younger female characters. In a graphic-novel adaptation, there would be a lot of side-eye. But The Power wouldn’t have worked if she had tried telling it from one focalized perspective, one single character’s point of view. On the whole, I would say she took a narrative risk and it (more than) paid off.
The Power was and is one of those rare novels that represent a genuine cultural moment, a snapshot of the zeitgeist. Alderman was selected by Margaret Atwood for the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, a program that pairs early-career creatives with successful mentors, and this book arose out of that collaboration. Atwood is a writer of astonishing scope and precision: few others have her ability to show the big picture, tell a compelling story about how awful it is, dismantle it, and slice you into a grid of quivering gelatin with her laser-like prose. Alderman’s not there yet but she has incredible potential. The Power is an electrifying, horrifying read.
Review by Marshall Moore
'Electrifying' Margaret Atwood
'A big, page-turning, thought-provoking thriller' Guardian
All over the world women are discovering they have the power.
With a flick of the fingers they can inflict terrible pain - even death.
Suddenly, every man on the planet finds they've lost control.
The Day of the Girls has arrived - but where will it end?
'The Hunger Games crossed with The Handmaid's Tale' Cosmopolitan
'I loved it; it was visceral, provocative and curiously pertinent . . . The story has stayed with me since' Stylist, The Decade's 15 Best Books by Remarkable Women
'Superb. Insightful, thrilling, funny. Well-crafted, compelling, serious-minded' Daily Telegraph
'Fascinating, ingenious, rattles with a furious pace. Deserves to be read by every woman (and, for that matter, every man)' The Times
'Irresistible. Holds a mirror up to the here and now' Mail on Sunday
'Chilling, thrilling, a blast' Financial Times
Marshall Moore is an American author, publisher, and academic based in Cornwall, England. He is the author of four novels (Inhospitable, Bitter Orange, An Ideal for Living, and The Concrete Sky) and three short-fiction collections (A Garden Fed by Lightning, The Infernal Republic, and Black Shapes in a Darkened Room). With Xu Xi, he is the co-editor of the anthology The Queen of Statue Square: New Short Fiction from Hong Kong. His short stories have appeared in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Asia Literary Review, The Barcelona Review, and many other journals and anthologies. Recent work has appeared in the anthology Hong Kong Noir (Akashic, 2018) and the journals Menacing Hedge and Bewildering Tales. His next book is a co-edited (with Sam Meekings) book from Bloomsbury. The title is The Place and the Writer: International Intersections of Teacher Lore and Creative Writing Pedagogy. He holds a PhD in creative writing from Aberystwyth, and he teaches at Falmouth University. For more information, please visit www.marshallmoore.com.
Whether one approaches Women’s Weird 2 from a scholarly or historical perspective or simply as a fan of Weird Fiction, this collection is a worthwhile read.
A collection of weird fiction written entirely by women? Yes, please.
While the stories in this collection represent an amalgamation of sub-genres ranging from outright ghost stories to “what did he bring back from the jungle?” pulpy horror adventures, the common thread of weirdness ties them all together. Many of the stories also have elements of surreal or disturbing domesticity (note how many of the titles include houses, rooms, etc.), which may be attributed to the era and the commonality of the authors’ gender. While not all the main characters are women (“The Black Stone Statue,” for example, has an almost entirely male cast and feels like an outlier for the anthology), most of the stories offer up commentary on the roles of women within society—but this is done subtly. This anthology is not moralizing—just a well-curated collection of weird stories by talented women.
The stories in the anthology are presented in chronological order:
“Twin-Identity” by Edith Stewart Drewry (1891)
The collection starts strong with a female French detective story which evolves into an eerie twin-telepathy mystery – a delightful read that sets a good tone for the rest of the anthology.
“The Blue Room” by Lettice Galbraith (1897)
Possibly my least favorite of the collection, this story feels the most like a traditional run-of-the-mill Victorian ghost story. But at least it has plucky (and educated!) female characters.
“The Green Bowl” by Sarah Orne Jewett (1901)
For a story from the last century, this has a great feminist feel to it, with the main characters being two women travelling alone and having adventures. One woman is gifted a strange bowl that seems to grant (for better or for worse) fortune-telling abilities. This is like a time-capsule of Victorian ideals and fascination with psychic abilities.
“Dreamer” by Barbara Baynton (1902)
A delightfully atmospheric story set in Australia about a young woman struggling against the elements to get home to her mother. This one has just enough uncertainty whether anything supernatural actually occurs to really pique my interest.
“The Hall Bedroom” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1905)
This rather odd tale takes the form of journal entries from a resident and the owner of a boarding house. The boarder has bizarre sensory experiences in a particular room in the house, and it turns out that room has a sordid history.
“The House” by Katherine Mansfield (1912)
I found this story harder to follow than the others, but I was absolutely along for the ride. A woman takes shelter on a porch during a rainstorm and gets swept up in the psychic drama inside the house…I think?
“The Red Bungalow” by Bithia Mary Croker (1919)
Despite the uncomfortable colonial dynamics, “The Red Bungalow” might be my favorite story in this collection. The Gothic feel mixed with the old British colonial Indian setting was enchanting. A British army wife wants to live in a house the locals won’t touch, and it turns out their fear is well-founded. The story was dripping with dread and foreboding, leaving me waiting for the other shoe to drop the whole time.
“Outside the House” by Bessie Kyffin-Taylor (1920)
Another top-contender for favorite story. A disabled veteran travels to his fiancée’s family home for the first time, and discovers no one in the family is allowed outside in the gardens after dark—for creepy, inadequately explained reasons. He can’t help but push the boundaries, and pays the price for his curiosity. A delightfully gothic (and actually somewhat scary!) story.
“Florence Flannery” by Marjorie Bowen (1924)
An amusing story that just keeps twisting. A new wife is taken to her husband’s ancestral home, and finds her name carved in the ancient window. She begins to have bizarre memories, believing she is living out a curse from hundreds of years ago. Has she lived that long? And what’s up with the weird fish in the pond?
“Young Magic” by Helen Simpson (1925)
Another story where the supernatural elements are at least somewhat called into question. We start with a child with an over-active imagination who has an imaginary friend who may be real. The girl grows up to (probably?) have special powers.
“The House Party at Smoky Island” by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1935)
A kind of classic “wealthy guests gathered inside during a storm to tell ghost stories” kind of plot, including a couple whose wife is afraid her husband poisoned his first wife. A surprise visitor explains what REALLY happened, but the “gotcha” moment in this one feels a bit awkward.
“The Black Stone Statue” by Mary Elizabeth Counselman (1937)
This story seems like a bit of an outlier—it has a distinctly masculine feel, which I found quite interesting. Told as a confessional letter by a sculptor, the story details his meeting with a famous adventurer who picked up an amazing—but horrifying—item in the wilds: a seemingly other-worldly creature who turns everything it touches into a weird black stone.
“Roaring Tower” by Stella Gibbons (1937)
The collection is wrapped up with this delightful tale of a troublesome teenager sent to stay with a relative, and who discovers a ruin called the Roaring Tower which emits eerie sounds that may or may not be evidence of a creature from local myths. I love the uncertainty of what is happening in this story, and the dreamlike feel.
After reading the anthology’s well-crafted Introduction, I was prepared to step into a collection that felt a bit academic—a collection designed for critical analysis more than enjoyment—but I was pleasantly surprised. Reading the anthology didn’t feel like a school assignment – it was quite entertaining as a pleasure-read. While the collection portrays many Victorian framing conventions (ghost stories told around the fire, confessional letters or journals, etc.), the stories themselves are quite accessible to the modern audience—some might even be described as timeless. I also appreciated the range of authors the editor selected for the anthology; from lesser-known authors to household names like Lucy Maud Montgomery (of Anne of Green Gables fame) and Stella Gibbons (of Cold Comfort Farm fame). The authors were also gathered from a wider geographic range than the original Women’s Weird collection—from the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, etc.—and spanned almost 50 years of work.
Whether one approaches Women’s Weird 2 from a scholarly or historical perspective or simply as a fan of Weird Fiction, this collection is a worthwhile read.
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