Ronald Malfi, The Mourning House (Delirium Books)
Dr. Sam Hatch is a soul adrift. Since losing his wife and child a year before, he’s tried to outrace his pain, literally, with a series of taped-together cars and sometimes his thumb. Now a transient, he squats for a night in a “vacant shell of a house” in Maryland.
Here is where the past catches up with Hatch.
Ronald Malfi’s The Mourning House (published Dec. 18 by Delirium Books as an e-book and limited edition hardcover) is a short tale of grief, obsession and the fragility of physical and mental structure. It is also a haunted house story, if there is such a thing (I’ll explain in a moment).
Malfi, whose previous novels include the IPPY-award winners Floating Staircase and Shamrock Alley, adds to this great literary tradition, and The Mourning House is a thoroughly enjoyable tale that is more of a character study than a plot-driven thriller. It hooked me with the opening chapter and kept me burning through the pages to the end.
It also got me thinking about the lure of the haunted house. Why is it such an enduring trope? There are the familiar literary explanations: the house as manifestation of the self (“The Fall of the House of Usher”); the lingering energy (aka back story) of past inhabitants (The House of the Seven Gables); the narrative tale that leaves you wondering whether the characters are occupying the house or the other way around (The Shining).
But The Mourning House is part of a lesser-discussed subgenre: the malleable or ever-shifting house. This also happens to be my favorite kind of haunted house story.
I don’t subscribe to the supernatural. I’m not afraid of ghosts, and I’ve yet to fall victim to a family curse. But “The 5 1/2 Minute Hallway” in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is one of the most terrifying passages I’ve ever read. Here, new residents of an old house discover that the interior and exterior dimensions of a hallway are incongruent. There is a geometric dissonance that disturbs the occupants (and the reader).
Malfi taps into that feeling of dissonance. Hatch isn’t visited by apparitions in The Mourning House, and there’s nothing a poltergeist could do that would torment him as severely as his own memories. What is troubling is that items around the house have moved while he was out; his closet seems to be of variable dimensions; and a curious subfloor is revealed beneath his feet.
Each morning, Hatch awakes in, essentially, a new house, and that, my friends, is the crux of great horror fiction. It tickles that spot in our lizard brains that burns for shelter. It’s why the haunted house is a timeless premise—and why I argue that there is, ironically, no such thing.
At the core of every haunted house story is a protagonist troubled long before they ever set foot in the house. The house becomes a metaphor, a hallucination, a projection of mental disturbance. The nature of the haunting reflects the nature of one’s troubles. For Hatch, the ever-shifting house is symbolic of helplessness and fragility. He was a successful doctor with a happy marriage, but in an instant it was taken from him.
Our homes are extensions of ourselves. That’s why home invasions are more traumatic than street muggings. For Hatch, it’s only natural that his haunting plays on his vulnerability. At any moment, the place where he should feel safest could shift forever. And he is helpless to do anything about it.
Malfi handles this masterfully in The Mourning House. The beginning and ending are magnificent, as is the bulk of what comes between. For the most part, the novel is well-paced, the prose solid and the action compelling. Here and there, scenes feel rushed or we get an overload of description without the emotional interiority that anchors us to the story (see chapter two).
But there’s no sense nitpicking over these few moments. Malfi is an excellent storyteller and a demon of description. This is a great piece of writing, and I recommend it for any fan of quality horror fiction or anyone who may fit that description on your holiday shopping list.
For more information, visit the Delirium Books Web site.