If I was asked to select one word to describe Ronald Malfi, I’d choose “versatile.” In the short time I’ve been following Ron’s work, he’s successfully written stories across multiple genres and themes, including horror, psychological thriller, and true crime. In my opinion, Ron’s greatest asset as a writer is his ability to create believable characters that resonate with readers, then expertly sending them into nerve-wracking situations to see how they handle the pressure. The resulting tales are consistently original and entertaining.
Therefore, it came as no surprise that the story Ron sent us was something special.
Horror Drive-In invites you to head over to the main stage and check out March’s feature presentation, “The Dinner Party”. Grab a spot that’s front-and-center, kick back, and enjoy the show. Oh…and be sure to hang around afterwards as we chat with Ron about the numerous projects he’s working on.
Two men in long black trench coats follow you into the supermarket. Aside from the coats, they wear wide-brimmed fedoras and mirrored sunglasses. They each have hockey stick sideburns that jet toward the corners of their mouths and black leather gloves on their hands. You don’t know how long they’ve been following you or where they picked you up, but you are suddenly, fully, completely aware of them. Your heart sinks.
The baby is strapped to your chest in a wrap sling yet you hug him tighter, covering his small white head with one hand. It is a warm, soft ball, and you can feel his pulse thudding vaguely in his temples as he sleeps. Your hand is bigger than his whole head. That is good. You don’t want the men in the trench coats to see him. Or you.
You lose them somewhere down the canned goods aisle. You know this because you can no longer hear their dry palm-slap footfalls, can no longer feel those mirrored sunglasses sizing you up behind your back. Absently, you continue to fill the grocery cart but you’re not really paying attention now.
You think, I have made a mistake.
“Ma’am?” He is a teenager—brown-skinned, pimply, bespectacled—and he smiles with oversized teeth while he bags your groceries. His nametag says BYRON. “Help bring these to your car, ma’am?”
You shake your head. You can manage on your own.
Thinking, When did I become a “ma’am”?
Thinking, Byron. Bad name.
The woman ringing you up at the register smiles broadly and looks instantly like something out of a fairytale about distrustful cats. “What a little darling,” she purrs. “Boy or girl?”
“Boy,” you say.
Instinctively, you hug him tighter to your breast. Again, you’re thinking of the men in the coats. “Three months.”
The woman’s smile widens. Inwardly, you cringe. “What’s the sweetie’s name?”
You tell her.
“That,” says the woman, “is a beautiful name.”
Before leaving, you glance around one last time for the men in the black coats. They are no longer there. Suddenly you are overcome by embarrassment, by the shame of paranoia. You nearly laugh, you are so relieved. Because you were wrong. Because no one was there to begin with.
I have made a mistake.
You strap the baby in his car seat in the back of the van. He wakes only briefly to work his mouth around soundless cries, his gray eyes blinking like castanets. You slide the door shut and dig through your purse for your car keys. But you can’t find them. Panic slides a cold barb around your heart. Ridiculous conspiracy theories threaten to tear you apart. You rush to the door and tug on it, expecting it to be locked, horrible images of asphyxiation and blinking colorless eyes shuttling through your mind, but it slides open with a groan.
Gray eyes peep out at you. Pink fists jut through Oshkosh sleeves. There are giraffes on the sleeves, pandas on the plush insert of the car seat. You smile and think, It’s a jungle in there, kiddo. You say, “Hey there.” Say, “Hey there, big boy.” Say, “Who’s mommy’s big boy?”
Thinking, This is the funniest thing in the world. Michael would be laughing his head off right now. Michael would be calling me his paranoid pretty and would be laughing his head off. Nice one, girl.
And there they are, in your hand: the car keys.
Back home, you breastfeed while the TV sits on mute. Michael said to expect them around seven, and it’s still early, but you’re not the greatest cook in the world and this is a big dinner. Promotion at work. Michael works hard. His boss, his boss’s wife. Michael promised to bring a bottle of wine. A nice wine. You don’t know the difference between nice wines and not nice wines except to watch the faces of those who drink the wine, but you’re not worried about Michael and his wine. You are thinking of his boss and his boss’s wife—their names. You wrote them down on the back of an envelope but now you can’t remember where you put it.
The baby finishes suckling and begins to whine. You pick him up, dress him over one shoulder, thump his back with an open hand. You go into the kitchen, eyes darting about the countertop. The groceries are still splayed out, the grocery bags on the floor. No envelope. No names.
The baby burps. It’s like a ghost vacating his tiny body. You kiss his head, holding him close to you. You are suddenly so close to tears you’re frightened. The envelope, the fucking envelope—
Is on the refrigerator. Strawberry magnet.
“There we go,” you whisper into your baby’s ear. “See that? There we go. No sweat.”
Tony and Eliza Sanderson. Great block letters, all capitals, in felt marker. You wrote it last night in the bathroom after Michael told you. Because you didn’t want to forget. This is important to Michael, this dinner.
It’s now three o’clock and you put the baby down for his nap. He goes willingly, already asleep before you set him in his crib. Cartoon lions with bushy brown manes caper on the spread and there is a mobile above the crib with colorful felt airplanes hanging from it. The room smells of baby powder, Desitin, ammoniac wet-wipes. In the crib, those pink fists uncurl, the baby snores his tiny snores, and you’re already fretting about dinner.
You’ve done this before, though you’re not the greatest cook. You prep the roast, adorn it with spices and cloves, set it in the pan, preheat the oven. You decide to do scalloped potatoes but, fuck it all, they come out looking like grimaces and you can’t stand to look at them. So you smash them up in a ceramic dish and, voilà, they’re mashed potatoes. You use your mother’s recipe for green bean casserole, following the instructions like someone assembling a rocket, reading every line three or four times because you’re terrified of getting it wrong. Twenty-nine minutes.
Behind you, the oven buzzes. Opens. Food goes in. You’re sweating, but feeling good. Things are cooking now, ha ha.
Thinking, Tony and Eliza, Tony and Eliza, Tony and Eliza, Tony and Eliza…
Outside, a shape passes before one of the kitchen windows.
You freeze, your first thought, Those men from the grocery store. Your second thought: The baby!
You rush to the baby’s room but he has not been disturbed. The shades are drawn over the nursery windows so you can’t see out…but some instinct inside you tells you they are out there, walking around the house, trying to find a way in.
Suddenly, you wonder if you locked the front door.
Racing to the foyer, you make enough noise to wake the dead. You even utter a weak groan when you strike the front door and find that it’s locked. It’s been locked all along. Sweating, you listen, one ear against the door, but cannot hear anything. If there are men in trench coats circumnavigating the house, they are very good at remaining very good.
Or I made a mistake, you think.
You bring your hands up to rub the sweat out of your eyes, but when you look down, you are terrified to see fine silver hairs sprouting from your palms, so much it looks like you are grasping balls of very fine wire.
But there is nothing there. Your hands are fine. A trick of the light, a trick of the eye. Michael’s paranoid pretty, indeed.
Something smells. It’s bad.
In the kitchen, something burns.
“Goddamn it.” You rush in and it’s the potatoes. Stupidly, you left a piece of paper towel stuck to the bottom of the ceramic dish. It burns as you fan pillars of smoke away from the mouth of the oven.
At the sink, you wash your hands, examining them for fine silver hairs, but you are okay. You are not a monster.
You cook. Check baby. Check windows for swarthy figures. You’re able to do this calmly and simply now because you think of it as a routine. You think, Lather, wash, repeat, and try to keep from giggling. You think, Tony and Eliza, and you make a little song out of it in your head to the tune of “Frankie and Johnny.”
The food is cooking now. Really cooking. With Michael’s wine, it promises to be a fine evening. You set the table and actually feel good about how it looks. Outside, the stoop has darkened as the sun sinks below the distant trees. You go into the bathroom and begin to take a shower…but midway through the process—
(lather wash repeat)
—you panic about leaving the baby in his crib with those strange men outside. Naked, wet, soapy, you grab the baby from the crib, wrap him in his blue moose blanket and set him on the bathroom rug. You shower with the shower curtain open so you can keep an eye on him, keeping the water cold so the steam won’t make it difficult for him to breathe. He has tiny lungs.
“There,” you say in his ear when you are done. “Mommy’s all done. She’s going to dress now. Dress and look pretty.”
And you feel his heartbeat echoing in his tiny skull.
In the bedroom, a man stands just beyond the window looking in. It is dark out now but you can see him clearly. He’s dressed all in black, his white ghost-face seeming to hover in the air just beyond the windowpane.
“No,” you say, holding the baby against your wet nakedness. “What do you want?”
The figure says nothing. Does not move.
“Leave us alone.”
The figure does not leave you alone.
It takes all your strength but you manage to cross the bedroom to the window and pull the curtain closed. You can almost hear the stranger’s heartbeat on the other side of the glass. Still clutching the baby to your body, you go to the nightstand and pick up the phone. You dial 911, listen to the rings. But when a woman’s voice answers, you hang up. Because you’re overreacting. Because, okay, maybe you’re jealous of Michael a little too and jealous of his taste in wine and his promotion and his Tony and Eliza, and 911 is your sabotage to the dinner party. But that’s not true, either. Not really. Jealousy is just what you told the doctor. Because you had to tell him something.
You dress, put your makeup on, examine yourself in the mirror. Your breasts have gotten so big…but so have your hips. Your skin looks…grayer, somehow. You think of old photos of Jewish corpses stacked like cured meats. Could just be the lousy bathroom lighting. Briefly, you contemplate changing out all the light bulbs but don’t think you’d have enough time before Michael comes home with your guests.
Still wrapped in his blue moose blanket, you set the baby back in the crib and smooth the fine hairs off his forehead. Soft, warm ball. Chest rises with respiration…and you are suddenly overwhelmed by your love for this little creature, this amalgam of you and Michael, of the successful attorney and the paranoid pretty.
“Oh,” you whisper over the baby, eyes wide.
Stricken, you rush into the kitchen fearing the worst…but the food looks fine and it’s almost done. It’s just the smell—it seems to curdle in your nose and turn into solid waste in your lungs. You rush to the kitchen sink and gag into the basin. A foamy snake spirals out of your throat. After catching your breath, you run the water and wait as your hot, prickling skin goes back to normal.
When Michael comes home, you are sitting in the living room in the dark, sick to your stomach. The doorknob jiggles and you can hear people talking on the stoop, and the first thing you think of is the man with the ghost-face looking in your bedroom window.
“Hi, hon,” Michael says. He’s beaming, looking handsome in a camelhair suit and a shimmering red tie. He clutches a bottle of what you assume is nice wine. “Oh, you look beautiful.”
You greet him with a kiss on his cheek as his boss and boss’s wife file into the house. They are much younger and handsomer than you pictured them, Tony and Eliza, like a couple straight out of a glamour magazine. You think of horrible light bulbs and sallow, graying skin and are suddenly intimidated by these beautiful people.
“Tony and Eliza brought the wine,” Michael says, carrying the bottle over to the wine bar at the far end of the room. “Dark in here.” He flicks on a light switch as he goes. “Fix you folks a drink?”
The Sandersons agree that a glass of wine would be nice. Tony shakes your hand and Eliza smiles and looks suddenly hideous. How did you think this woman was beautiful only moments ago?
“Food smells wonderful,” Eliza says. Her teeth are like the dented grille of a truck.
“It does,” Tony says. He has silver hair at his temples and you quickly hide your hands behind your back in case that silver hair is contagious.
Michael returns with a glass of wine for Tony and Eliza. “You guys make yourselves at home,” Michael tells them, motioning toward the loveseat. To you, Michael says, “Where’s my little munchkin?”
“In the crib,” you say.
“I’ll wake him and introduce you,” Michael says to the Sandersons.
“Oh,” says Eliza Sanderson, “I’ve been dying to see him.” And when Michael leaves, Eliza turns to you and says, “Is there anything I can help with, dear?”
You say no.
“You look wonderful,” says Eliza. “That’s a gorgeous dress.” She winks, this aging medusa. “I can’t believe you’ve just had a baby.”
Tony just smiles and enjoys his wine.
Your stomach curdles. The smells from the kitchen are making you sick again. You think, I made a mistake. Think, Byron. Bad name.
Maybe there are men outside, maybe there aren’t. Maybe you are jealous of Michael, just like you told the doctor, or maybe that’s not true, either. You don’t know. You wish Michael had never turned on the light switch and that you knew what wine was nice wine and that it didn’t take you twenty-nine minutes to read the six lines on the casserole recipe because you had to make sure you got it right, got it right, got it right.
This is new to you. All of it. Three months new.
Michael comes up behind you but doesn’t come down into the living room. You don’t look at him; you feel him at your back like mirrored sunglasses. Eliza Sanderson cocks her head at a strange angle and stares past you, up at Michael. Tony Sanderson looks as well, and the expression on his face convinces you he smells how awful the food is, too.
You turn. Michael stands there with a quizzical look on his face—a mixture of confusion and bemusement, like someone who knows a joke has been told though he’s missed the punch line. He stands there with the blue moose blanket in one hand and what can only be an uncooked pot roast in the other, and says, “Is this…hon? Some kind of…uh, hon?”
“I made a mistake,” you say.
You sit on the couch and smile politely at the Sandersons. In the kitchen, the oven’s buzzer goes off.
Horror Drive-In: Thanks for joining us at the Drive-In, Ron. We’re happy to have you here.
Ronald Malfi: Thanks for the interview, Andrew.
HD-I: First off, congratulations on the release of your latest novel, SNOW. I enjoyed the story and the unique, creepy twists you employed.
Was this your take on the zombie subgenre? While I don’t believe the word “zombie” was ever used in SNOW, that’s what came to mind as I read it.
RM: To be honest, I didn't realize that this could be perceived as a "zombie" novel until halfway through writing it. Of course, without giving too much away, there are some similarities between my antagonists and how zombies are portrayed, but I'd really set out to create an entirely different and original creature with this book.
HD-I: I think you succeeded. Even though "zombie" popped into my head, you created such a unique way of doing it that I think readers will be pleasantly surprised.
Moving on to SNOW's protagonist, Todd Curry, I noticed a similarity between him and John Mavio from SHAMROCK ALLEY. While Todd and John ultimately end up being heroes, they’re also portrayed as being flawed and somewhat broken. Are you consciously leading your characters toward redemption, or am I reading too much into it?
RM: Oh, most definitely--I think all characters must be flawed to sustain believability. My protagonists are typically haunted characters, struggling not only to overcome whatever situation I've cast them to deal with in the present novel, but also with the secrets and regrets of their pasts. I'm intrigued by characters constantly in flux, in psychological anguish. Our good guys will have bad traits; moreover, our bad guys are not one hundred percent bad, either. A serial killer may also help an old woman across the street. This is what people do, and this is what makes characters interesting. Whether or not they achieve that redemption is another matter, of course.
It's funny you bring up John Mavio's character from SHAMROCK ALLEY--after I'd completed the novel, I was concerned I'd portrayed him as too perfect, and that even his weaknesses were admirable because they revolved around his dedication to his job and family.
HD-I: SNOW is your first release with Leisure Books. What was it like to sign that deal and be a part of their stable of great authors?
RM: I was extremely excited. I'd been a fan of Leisure's authors for years, since I was a kid, and I'd submitted partials to their editor for several years before I finally got a deal. I submitted the first few chapters and a synopsis for SNOW to the editor and immediately went to work on the rest of the book. By the time I heard back that they wanted to see the full manuscript, I shipped it right off to them. A few months later, I followed the manuscript to SNOW with a ghost story I'd written called FLOATING STAIRCASE, which will be published in October, as part of a three-book deal with Leisure/Dorchester. Most exciting has been the size of Leisure's audience--I'm certainly reaching readers I never have before.
HD-I: Can you tell us a little about FLOATING STAIRCASE?
RM: FLOATING STAIRCASE is a meta-fictional take on the traditional ghost story. You know the drill: handsome young couple moves into a new house and discovers its dark secrets. I was hungry to tackle the subtle nuances of a ghost story yet wanted to lend to it some originality, a different take than what you'd expect. It's probably my most favorite work to date, and the best example of the type of literature I enjoy writing. I was thrilled when Leisure picked it up, and I think that fans of SNOW will be blown away by FLOATING STAIRCASE.
HD-I: You’ve also signed a deal with Medallion Press, who released SHAMROCK ALLEY last year. The book revolves around a true story regarding your father. For those who haven’t heard it, can you recount the story from your perspective as a child (not knowing what he really did) and how you eventually learned the truth?
RM: SHAMROCK ALLEY was released in hardcover through Medallion last September, and it's a bit different than the other books I've written in that it is based on a true story, a case my father worked when he was a young Secret Service agent. Back in the mid-1970s, my dad went undercover to crack a counterfeit money operation that was running wild in Manhattan. He got in with a group of Irish street thugs in Hell's Kitchen known as the Westies who were passing the phony bills, and while he was working with them he learned that they were also moving guns, drugs, and were responsible for nearly half the unsolved homicides in New York City. When I was a child, I didn't know what my father did for a living, but as I got older I began to put some of the pieces together. Eventually I knew he was a Secret Service agent, but I had no idea the depth of what he'd done, and how close he came to death, until I sat down with him to write this book. It's truly an amazing story, and the reviews for the book were generally positive, so I guess I did a fair job recounting it. It was recently optioned for film, so it may just reach an even wider audience some day.
HD-I: I think it might have been here at Horror Drive-In that you mentioned you thought your dad was a candyman when you were a kid. I chuckled as I read that anecdote ("Why doesn't my dad ever bring me any candy?!"), but as a child it had to be hard having him gone so much.
RM: Ha ha, yes, it's true! My mom told me my dad sold candy for a living, when I was really young, and I used to wonder why he never brought any home. Poor guy was out there getting shot at and I'm fretting over Tootsie Pops. But yeah, he was gone for clips at a time when I was growing up, although I never really remember him necessarily being absent. Also, my mom was the greatest, and I never felt un-parented. We did move around a lot when I was young, bouncing from school to school, which was tough.
HD-I: Back to the possibility of a movie...SHAMROCK ALLEY seems like it's perfect for the big screen. It's got a DONNIE BRASCO feel to it. Is it too early in the process to have any details yet? Also, if you could pick the actor, who'd play John Mavio?
RM: Well, it's a bit early to say anything definitively, but the producers pitched it to Warner Bros for a television series and are also taking it around to some studios for a theatrical film. It's still in the stages where I'm keeping my fingers crossed and hoping for the best. As for actors...hmm, I'll have to give it some thought. Any suggestions?
HD-I: Ah hell, I'm terrible at those kinds of things. I might think Leo Dicaprio would be good in a certain movie, and Hollywood would probably hire Will Ferrell or something.
Medallion Press will be releasing another of your novels later this year. Can you give us some scoop on it?
RM: Yeah, for those readers who didn't get enough of the bitter cold in SNOW and are dying for more will dig THE ASCENT, which will be out in hardcover this September. It's about a group of mountain climbers tackling what is purported to be a haunted mountain ridge in Nepal. What starts out as a journey steeped in adventure and folklore quickly turns into a struggle for survival. Unlike SNOW, the supernatural elements, while present, are slight, but I think fans will really dig this book. I'm very excited about it.
HD-I: Mark and I were both “wowed” by your short story this month. Do you have much time for short story writing these days? Also, is there any chance we’ll see a collection down the road?
RM: First off, thank you. I'm perpetually disappointed in most of my short stories overall; it's such a precise art form with very little forgiveness of verbosity, and I find very short stories difficult to write. That said, readers seem to really like some of my shorter work and I'm always asked if I'll ever compile the stories into a collection. As of now, I've got no plans to do so, though it isn't necessarily off the table. Personally, I feel my short fiction is sprays like buckshot--all the stories are quite different from each other--and I don't really have an idea how to cohesively include them into one solid collection. Perhaps an editor smarter than myself could lend some advice on that front.
HD-I: And now, for a bit of a departure, I noticed you’re wearing a Yankees hat in your author photo. You a baseball fan?
RM: Well, let's say I'm more of a New York fan...as in the city, not necessarily the baseball team. But yeah, I like the Yankees.
HD-I: A few years back my wife and I were in Manhattan for a week. I won't lie...as a small-town guy who lives in a town of 750 people, I was nervous going into it. But man, we had a blast! The city has everything.
I don't suppose you could call up the Steinbrenners and ask them to ease up off my Twins this year? Seems like every time we scratch-and-claw our way into the playoffs, the Yankees promptly kick our asses and show us the door.
RM: Well shoot, that's cuz the Yanks are better!
HD-I: And with that, I want to thank you for the interview, Ron. We appreciate it. Any last words before you take off?
RM: Just want to thank you guys for the interview, and thanks to everyone who’s supported me and my work!
SELECT RONALD MALFI BIBLIOGRAPHY:
The Space Between
2000, USA, PublishAmerica, trade paperback
OUT OF PRINT
The Fall of Never
2004, USA, Raw Dog Screaming Press, trade paperback
2005, USA, Raw Dog Screaming Press and Fictionwise, electronic format
2006, USA, Raw Dog Screaming Press, hardcover
2011, Germany, Otherworld Verlag, hardcover
The Nature of Monsters
2006, USA, 5 Story Walkup, trade paperback
2007, USA, Raw Dog Screaming Press, hardcover
2008, USA, Delirium Books, 150-copy limited edition hardcover
2008, USA, Delirium Books, trade paperback
2009, USA, Medallion Press, hardcover
2010, USA, Delirium Books, Digital Edition
2010, USA, Leisure Books, mass market paperback
The Ascent (forthcoming, Sept. 2010)
2010, USA, Medallion Press, hardcover
Floating Staircase (forthcoming, October 2010)
2010, USA, Leisure Books, mass market paperback