Horror · Reviews

GHOSTWRITTEN, by Ronald Malfi

My exploration of Ronald Malfi’s works continues with this collection of four short stories that are loosely linked to each other through the mention of an element present in the previous one and also through the common denominator of books, since all four of them revolve around a book in some way.

THE SKIN OF HER TEETH focuses on the frantic attempts of book agent Gloria to bring to completion a movie script adapted from a successful novel. Not having heard any news from the writer, McElroy, she decides to visit him in his remote retreat and here she finds the man well beyond the verge of madness because he’s convinced that the original book possesses an evil will of its own and does not want any of its narrative details to be changed.  With the deadline looming ever closer, Gloria decides to take the matter into her own hands, only to discover that probably McElroy was not crazy at all….

Cursed books are nothing new in fiction, but The Skin of her Teeth (the fictional book that gives this story its title) is something quite different, and the way it manages to assert its own will is both creepy and intriguing, although I have to admit that I was even more appalled by Gloria’s attitude toward any obstacle on her path and the way she manipulates people with little or no though about their feelings, particularly where her life partner is concerned.

For me the true horror in this story did not come from the “things that go bump in the night”, although there is a good measure of that in here, but rather from the callous way in which Gloria goes about in life practically steamrolling over other people – and here I have to admit that I would not have minded seeing her getting her just deserts….

THE DARK BROTHERS’ LAST RIDE was a weird, almost psychedelic experience: it tells the story of Danny and Tommy Drake, petty criminals who are hired to deliver a rare, precious book to a mysterious client in a remote location, following a precise – if circuitous – itinerary. The warning they receive about not opening the briefcase containing the book, ever, does not agree with Tommy, the more volatile of the two, so that when he finally gives in to the temptation things start going from bad to worse for the two of them, transforming the trip into something of a journey to hell.

Where the strange, freaky places visited and events witnessed by the two brothers are the “meat” of this story, its backbone is represented by the exploration of Danny and Tommy’s personalities and of their shared past, which also includes a drug-crazed, abusive father who still looms like a specter just out of the corner of the eye.  The relationship between them is not an easy one, what with Tommy always being on a short fuse and often compromising their “jobs”, and with Danny who does care for his wayward brother but still feels like his weight is dragging him down.  There is a poignant quality in this relationship that at times feels more important than the actual task at hand and the oh-so-outlandish discoveries the brothers make on the journey.

THIS BOOK BELONGS TO OLO focuses on the creepiest kid I even encountered on my bookish travels: Bartholomew (“Olo”) Tiptree is a 10-year old child clearly suffering from the neglect of his super-busy parents and left to fend for himself in the vastnes of Helix House.  When he approaches other kids at a nearby park inviting them to his birthday party, we understand immediately that something is terribly wrong with Olo and with the strange “book” he put together himself.  It’s therefore surprising to see a good number of these children accepting the invitation, and the atmosphere becomes all the more disturbing thanks to the strange mannequins adorning Olo’s lawn and the news about the recent disappearance of his at-home teacher.  What happens during the birthday party, however, takes on the shades of a veritable nightmare.

I must confess I struggled with my feelings about Olo’s character because if on one side I could sympathize for his loneliness and the detached way his parents interacted with him, on the other his actions are those of a consummated psychopath who turned his loneliness into a form of self-centered absorption that left me thoroughly chilled – not to mention claustrophobic: read the story and you will understand why…

THE STORY does not focus on an actual book like its predecessors, but rather on the concept of storytelling – although in a unique way. Taking inspiration from the famous “choose your adventure” games it takes main character Grady into a spiral of disorientation and madness as his life seems to unravel before his very eyes.  An unexpected call informs Grady that his friend Taryn took her own life: trying to understand what happened to her to bring her to such an extreme act, Grady discovers her involvement into The Story, a sort of real-life game where the players’ choices impact the reality of their existence; determined to understand what happened during Taryn’s last days, Grady enters the game as well (or rather, the Story finds him…) with unpredictable results.

It’s impossible to say more about this story without incurring in spoilers, but it’s one of the mind mind-bending tales I happened to read, one where you end up questioning the fabric of reality and the worth of personal choices – provided that such a thing exists… 😉

Another demonstration of Ronald Malfi’s creative skills, this collection is an incredible journey through the fantastic and the scary, blended with some intriguing human elements. To be sure, not the last of my forays into this author’s production.

My Rating:


16 thoughts on “GHOSTWRITTEN, by Ronald Malfi

  1. Wonderful review. I’ve been meaning to get to this, and you’ve reminded me I have a copy (somewhere!) I would also love to read Malfi’s entire backlist someday😁

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review. And certainly eye-opening for me as I totally agree with your assessment of Gloria and can’t believe I didn’t spot it when reading. She really is a bit of a bitch now I think on it.

    The book I enjoyed least in this was the one with Olo. It took me about two weeks to muddle through that one alone

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Olo is a truly terrifying character, his evil more frightening because of his young age which should be equated with innocence. Even worse than his behavior, though, is the claustrophobia that comes from reading what happens to his victims….

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Glad you enjoyed. My favorite stories were the first and the last. The last line of The Story actually gave me chills. Ronald Malfi is one of the few authors I’ve found who can write short fiction that actually appeals to me 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And that’s high praise indeed, given your dislike for short stories! 🙂
      The Story is the most frightening of the four shorts in this collection because of the nightmarish quality of the “reality” it portrays, or rather of the slows disappearance of the border between the various realities…


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