Books

Black Mouth (Ronald Malfi) – Book Review

The blurb for Titan Books’ newest release, Black Mouth, says that it’s ‘perfect for fans of Stephen King‘s IT‘, and this might be one of the most accurate book comparisons I’ve ever seen, as Black Mouth gave me a ton of Stephen King vibes whilst reading it.

Black Mouth tells the story of four childhood friends: Mia, Clay, Jamie, and Jamie’s brother Dennis. The story begins in the modern day, with Jamie as a man in his mid thirties who’s just been through ninety days of rehab and is working through his first week of Alcoholics Anonymous. Jamie has been using drink to work through his pain and his demons, but finally feels like perhaps he can put much of that behind him and get on with his life. However, that new start is interrupted when he gets a phone call from the police back in his home town of Suttons Quay. It turns out that his mother has lost her life to suicide, and his younger brother Dennis, who is mentally disabled, was found walking down the highway in his underwear in a daze.

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Jamie returns home to help his brother, but the pressure of returning to the place that haunted his dreams for many years pushes him to start drinking again. At the same time, their childhood friend Mia arrives with a photograph of a man she wants them both to look at. It seems like Mia has found a figure from their childhoods, a man called the Magician, who helped to ruin their lives, and believes that they can finally track him down. When it turns out that the man may have had a hand in a series of recent child murders, Clay joins them, and together the four of them set out to put their lifelong demons to rest, and to stop more atrocities from being committed.

Very shortly into Black Mouth it becomes clear why the book is compared to IT. The book is split into multiple narratives. The main one is Jamie in the present. Jamie is our lead character and the one through which we get to experience the book in a first person perspective. We also spend some time with Mia and Clay, as they get to split off and do their own things. But we also jump backwards in time and begin to learn what happened to these four kids in the ’90s. As the story unfolds in the present we get more flashbacks to the past, more pieces of the puzzle, and we occasionally see the two almost bleeding into each other. The structure instantly reminds me of IT, but it isn’t as weighed down as the King book, and moves with a much better pace.

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Black Mouth is a chunky book, but it’s not overly long; it doesn’t feel the need to wallow in nostalgia for the past, nor does it go off on long tangents that add little to the story. It does spend time every now and then giving us more information on the characters’ lives, their histories, and how they’ve been shaped into the people we see here, and whilst this does feel like the style King uses it also feels so much more efficient. I never minded spending a few paragraphs learning more about these people because I knew it was going to be interesting and not a handful of pages that meant nothing. So yes, the book is like IT, but I also thought that it was honestly a lot better too.

The book manages to walk a very fine line, where you’re never sure whether or not there’s anything odd happening. Is the Magician, the figure from their childhood that they’re hunting now as adults, more than he appears? Can he actually perform real magic, or was it all tricks? Did Jamie see his face change into that of a monster, or was it a trick in the dark, and Jamie’s fears doing it? The book wants you to wonder about that, to question whether or not you can trust the memories of a child. Even in the present, when Jamie is haunted by the spirits of the past you begin to question if perhaps they’re part of his drunken delusions. The book kept me guessing whether or not we were going to get a big reveal that there were real monsters, or if it would all have been fake, and that ambiguity made it much more interesting than if we’d have been given answers straight away.

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The book doesn’t just rely on the mystery to keep you interested though, and the main four characters make for engaging leads. Whilst we spend the most time with Jamie he’s probably the least likeable of the four, and his struggles with his addiction make up a big part of his story here. He makes some mistakes, acts questionably at times, but for the most part you can tell his heart is in the right place. Mia makes for a strong female presence, and has a no-nonsense attitude that I enjoyed.

Clay is the more complex of the four, and it was wonderful to spend time with him in his chapters. A Black man who’s grow up with vitiligo, he has a unique outlook on life, and he has a passion for helping kids that stems from his own experiences. Out of the four of them I’d most like to spend more time with Clay, and would love to see the author write more for him. And then there’s Dennis, who is just the sweetest guy. Dennis is disabled, and is very child-like. He loves the Ninja Turtles, cares deeply for his brother, and is kind and caring to everyone he meets. Dennis is the heart of the group, the one that the others all love, and are loved by, unconditionally, and I’d fight anyone who dared harm Dennis.

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There are some warnings that should be given for Black Mouth, as the book deals with some heavy issues. Addiction and alcoholism are a big part of it, as is child death, murder, physical abuse, mental abuse, child abuse, and suicide. Despite this, it never feels too dark, too depressing to prevent you from reading on. But please be aware before picking it up, the book does deal with some tough topics.

Overall I had a lot of enjoyment reading Black Mouth. I think it was a great mystery story with some horror elements that kept you guessing what was real and was was fabricated, with a superb central cast of characters that you come to care a lot about. It’s a book that I’m definitely going to recommend to people, and one that I’m certainly going to be picking up again at some point. And going back to that original quote, I’d say it’s not just for fans of IT, I’d say it’s better than IT.

Black Mouth is out now from Titan Books.

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