"Skullbelly" Book Review
Written by Steve Pattee
Published by Delirium Books
Written by Ronald Malfi
2011, 135 pages, Fiction
Released September 2011
One of the great things about short stories and novellas is that they are a fantastic way to be introduced to an author without investing a lot of time in the book (unless you are a slow reader). If you are like me, it's hard to put down a book you don't like if you have made it more than halfway through. There's that feeling of "Hey, I got this far. It might get better." It usually doesn't. Plus, in my experience, if the short story or novella is enjoyable, many times that's a good indication that the author's full-length works will be as well. It just seems more impressive when a writer can pull you into a story and have you care about characters in such a short period of time.
Ronald Malfi is yet another author who's been on my radar for quite some time now and, until Skullbelly, I had not had the pleasure of reading any of his work. Shame on me. Skullbelly has an excruciatingly generic plot: A group friends from Seattle head to Coastal Green, Oregon, for some camping. While all four head into the woods, only one comes out and he's bloody, near catatonic, and unable—or unwilling—to tell what happened to the others. The parents of all four hire private detective John Jeffers to investigate what happened since they are seemingly getting the runaround from the Coastal Green police. So Jeffers heads to the small town to see what he can dig up.
Fortunately, the plot is the only thing generic in this novella. In Skullbelly, Malfi crafts a story that pulls you immediately in starting with the first paragraph and grips you tightly, not releasing until the last page. His descriptive prose of the town is beautiful; a sense of dread subtly permeates throughout from the distrusting police officers to the strange noises Jeffers hears in the near-abandoned motel room where he stayed. There are parts in the pages that are generally unsettling, and I wasn't even reading it in the middle of the night in an empty house. That's powerful.
While making something grand out of such a plot is impressive in itself, Malfi's minimalist approach to a protagonist is stand-out, too. Without giving too much away (which is quite easy to do since the more I write about it, the easier something important could slip), Skullbelly is similar to my favorite type of horror movie—the one that relies on your imagination to fill in the blanks rather than show you exactly what you should fear. The titular character is described in the book, so you have a basis to go on, but the execution of Skullbelly's first reveal is more terrifying because Malfi decided to play it subtle instead of in-your-face.
The ending of the novella is somewhat of a disappointment because it's a weak point to an overall very strong piece. It's not so much that it's predictable, because it is to a degree, but the fact that it's so...blah...is a little frustrating. It just feels like Malfi didn't quite know how to end it and took an easy way out. Don't get me wrong, the ending is appropriate enough, but I just expected more after having experienced such a terrific adventure that led up to it.
Needless to say, I still highly recommend Skullbelly. I speculate that my problem with the ending is me being overly nitpicky because I enjoyed the majority of it so much. Either that or I just wanted more from the story, since this could easily be a longer piece of work. I suspect it's a little of both.
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