"We Should Have Left Well Enough Alone" Book Review
Written by Steve Pattee
Published by JournalStone
Written by Ronald Malfi
2017, 379 pages, Fiction
Released on November 2nd, 2017
Last year, Ronald Malfi's The Night Parade made my list of favorites for 2016. This year, his Bone White has all but solidified its place on my favorites of 2017. My first introduction to Ronald Malfi's work was his novella, Skullbelly, an atmospheric romp that relies more on your imagination than most and outside of a problematic ending (which I bring up for a reason), it's solid entertainment. After having stellar works in both the novel and novella form, it was only a matter of time before Malfi dropped his first collection of short stories, We Should Have Left Well Enough Alone.
I like a lot of things about Malfi's work, from character development to the way he delivers atmosphere, but after reading We Should Have Left Well Enough Alone, I found another thing to like; his versatility. In this collection you get a little bit of everything, from a woman suffering from paranoia in the book's opening story, "The Dinner Party", to a normal vacation that turns rather ugly and brutal in "The Jumping Sharks of Dyer Island" to a rather sweet ending with the final tale, "There is Always Boston". I really hate saying this only because it's so clichéd in reviews, but there really is something for everyone here.
Naturally, I want to talk about my favorites, and there are plenty. With every collection, you will like some stories better than others (or even like some and not others), but it's rare where most – if not all – tales deliver like they do here. Still, though, there are standouts like "The House on Cottage Lane". The piece follows a young boy named Brian who is somewhat forced by his parents to befriend the "weirdos" that his next door neighbors are always fostering. When he and his friends take the latest child, Oliver, out for trick or treating one fateful Halloween, they do what jerk kids do and nothing is ever the same. Oddly, this isn't one of my favorites because of how scary it is (it does get creepy, but never really scary), but how heartbreaking it is. Malfi is a wordsmith in general, but when it comes to his characters, they are damn near tangible. What's even more impressive is even though the kids in the story do a rotten thing, you don't hate them. They are kids being kids, and Malfi expertly guides you into having compassion for all involved.
"Knocking" is one of the more unsettling stories of the collection. Harold and Tara move from Washington D.C. to a bungalow in London. Things are perfect until they start hearing a mysterious knocking coming from inside the house. Harold's investigation of the noise, what he finds, and what inevitably happens, will keep you up if you start thinking about it late at night.
Another tale that shows Malfi's skill at characters is "The Good Father". The story follows a father dealing with life after his wife left him and their children. Because it's a short story and I refuse to ruin anything (something especially easy to do in these types of situations), let's just say things aren't always what they seem.
That's where Malfi really, truly shines in this collection, "things aren't always what they seem" theme. Heck, as I'm writing this, it's dawned on me what a truly apt title We Should Have Left Well Enough Alone is because upon reflection, most if not all of the characters wouldn't have been in the mess they were in (if applicable) if they had not been screwing around. While the stories don't necessarily have twist endings, there are quite a few, "Damn!" moments.
I complained in my review of Skullbelly that the ending was weak in an otherwise strong story. It's important to bring that up because Malfi crushes the endings in this collection. So much so, I was reminded of Richard Matheson's work and how he (Matheson) has you reeling more often than not. It's like that here. Even when I figured out the ending on one story (I won't tell you which), by the time I got there and saw that I was correct, it didn't matter. The way Malfi handled it is better than I expected, even if the end result is the same.
With We Should Have Left Well Enough Alone, Ronald Malfi has shown that he can succeed with any length of story, from large to small. If you have never read his work (shame on you), this is an exceptional introduction.