Book Review: Black Mouth by Ronald Malfi
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Titan Books | Tantor Audio (July 26, 2022)
Length: 400 pages | 12 hrs 13 min
Admittedly I was a little nervous coming to Black Mouth, as I absolutely adored Come With Me by Ronald Malfi last year. After all, there’s always the real possibility that a beloved author’s next book won’t live up to expectations, but whew, I can assure you this was definitely not the case here. In the end, I think I enjoyed Black Mouth just as much, if not even more.
The story follows Jamie Warren, who for nearly twenty years has been haunted by a darkness from his past. In the time since, he’s been struggling with alcohol addiction and trying to hold down a steady job, but at last, he is forced to stop running, brought back to his hometown of Sutton’s Quay, Virginia following the news of his mother’s suicide. With her gone, Jamie now becomes the primary caretaker for his disabled younger brother Dennis, whom police had found wandering the streets alone.
Back in Sutton’s Quay, Jamie also reconnects with his childhood friends Mia and Clay. The three of them have a lot of history, having gone through the same traumatic experience that had driven Jamie away. As children, Jamie, Dennis, Mia, and Clay used to play in the woods near the town’s old abandoned mine near the Warren farm, where they encountered a vagrant who befriended them and entertained with magic tricks. But as the Magician’s interactions with them became increasingly stranger and more disturbing, he eventually manipulated the impressionable children to commit a terrible act, and to this day Jamie has not been able to forgive himself.
Now though, another murder has made the news, that of a young girl stabbed to death by a friend. The details surrounding the case immediately catch Jamie’s attention, as the circumstances sound eerily similar to what he and his friends went through two decades earlier. But surely, after all these years, the Magician must be gone? And yet, when Mia shows them all a photo that she came across which was only taken a few days ago, the identity of the man in it is unmistakable. The Magician appears to have returned, as impossible as it seems, and he is still targeting young victims.
This story is told through various viewpoints, but Jamie is our most present and first-person narrator. The past is woven into the present as he brings us back to that terrible summer in flashback chapters detailing how he and Dennis and his friends first met the Magician. The structure of Black Mouth is very reminiscent of works by Stephen King, as many reviewers have noted, where the plot follows a group of characters reconnecting as adults after shared trauma involving a childhood monster. And for all the Magician looked, acted, and spoke like a man, he was indeed a monster—a predator seeking out vulnerable children with innocent minds to bend and twist to his purposes. If you’re an avid horror fiction fan who prefers the element of creeping dread over more overt devices, I think you’re gong to enjoy this novel very much. At times the tensions got to be almost unbearable, watching our four young protagonists become beguiled by the Magician’s spell knowing you were helpless to stop it from happening.
In the present timeline, the suspense was just as taut and frightful. The questions surrounding the case of a young girl killing her friend are suggestive of the infamous 2014 case where two 12-year-olds lured their friend into the woods and stabbed her 19 times in an attempt to appease the urban legend known as the Slender Man, and in fact the story in Black Mouth also makes mention to this case and draws many parallels to the scenario with the Magician. There are strong, very obvious supernatural vibes in Black Mouth, but at the same time they are also subtle enough that non-paranormal readers won’t be left floundering. Malfi balances the resolution with earthly explanations as well as a more metaphysical aspect that might be a little tough to grasp, especially near the end when Jamie faces his demons both literally and figuratively, but for the most part all the threads came together beautifully in a way that felt satisfying.
Some might find the pacing slow, but I think for the kind of story Black Mouth wants to be, it was just perfect. I knew from reading Come With Me that Malfi is the kind of writer who enjoys drawing out the suspense, but also knows when to stop just shy of making the reader start to lose interest. There’s always something happening on the page, whether it’s character development or building up the setting, even during the quieter moments. Good things come to those who wait, and never is this more true than in this gem of a novel which captures the finer points of what makes an excellent and complex tale of horror.