Four teenagers go on a camping trip near a small town in the Pacific Northwest. Only one survives, and the survivor is catatonic. The local police seem to have a stake in not solving the crime. The parents of the teens hire private investigator John Jeffers to find out what happened to their children.
Jeffers is an aging alcoholic, divorced twice, living for his job. When he arrives in Coastal Green, the small Oregon town at the trailhead of a foreboding wilderness, he finds unfriendly, uncooperative locals.
At a bar, Jeffers encounters a traveling salesman who entertains him with tales of the local monster. “Skullbelly” roams the forest, eating children that misbehave.
You’d think from the précis that Ronald Malfi’s Skullbelly (Delirium Press, 2011) is a “creature feature,” and you’d be right. But this fine novella goes well beyond the gowl-and-popcorn romp you might expect. Malfi’s prose is artful without being intrusive. The protagonist is brilliantly drawn. I liked Jeffers a lot. The antagonist—the setting—drives the unrelenting tension. Coastal Green is creepy and disturbing, the forest malevolent.
And then there’s the ending. How do you deliver thrills without disrupting the suspension of disbelief so necessary to horror?
Genre fiction carries expectations. The great writers know those expectations, and twist them to their purpose. Ronald Malfi knows his genre, and plays against genre for effect. Some readers might be disappointed, but I found the ending disturbing, frightening and original. The last few pages stuck with me for days. As a writer, I understand what he did. As a reader, I was astounded. (Five stars out of five)