by Ronald Malfi
Following the success of his latest novel, Travis Glasgow and his wife Jodie buy their first house in the seemingly idyllic western Maryland town of Westlake. At first, everything is picture perfect—from the beautiful lake behind the house to the rebirth of the friendship between Travis and his brother, Adam, who lives nearby. Travis also begins to overcome the darkness of his childhood and the guilt he’s harbored since his younger brother’s death—a tragic drowning veiled in mystery that has plagued Travis since he was 13. Soon, though, the new house begins to lose its allure. Strange noises wake Travis at night, and his dreams are plagued by ghosts. Barely glimpsed shapes flit through the darkened hallways, but strangest of all is the bizarre set of wooden stairs that rises cryptically out of the lake behind the house. Travis becomes drawn to the structure, but the more he investigates, the more he uncovers the house’s violent and tragic past, and the more he learns that some secrets cannot be buried forever.
A serviceable novel of suspenseful horror-mystery with a side order of complicated sibling relationships. Maybe calling it "serviceable" is a little harsh, but it never wowed me, and there were things about it that rubbed me the wrong way. (More on that in the next section.) Malfi treads a fine line between occasional moments of gross-out horror and a more literary approach to horror-- and on the whole, he does a decent job (though there were times when it felt self-consciously literary). Despite a smattering of goosebumps, I found Floating Staircase less "scary" than thought-provoking, but though I feel it's missing an indefinable something, this novel is still recommendable for readers on the prowl for slightly more literary modern crime mysteries with vaguely haunted houses.
Specifics (with SPOILERS):
-- "It has been said that nature does not know extinction. In effect, it knows only change: nothing ever truly disappears, for there is always something-- some part, some particle, some formidable semblance-- left behind. You can boil water into vapor, but it hasn't disappeared. Curiosity killed the cat, but condensation brought it back. Therefore, such logic should enlighten us to the understanding that if something should happen to develop-- should arrive, should become thus, should suddenly appear-- then it has always been. Forms evolve and devolve but things always are."
-- "Age brings with it a certain Kryptonite that drains our faith like vampires." Maybe... But some of the people I've known with the strongest, most unshakable faith have been elderly. Maybe it depends on the quality of the faith, to begin with... Or maybe it's harder to hold onto faith in this modern day. But that's just an excuse. It's always been a struggle for some. ...I do think it's fair to say that if you don't surround yourself with the faithful, it can be more difficult to keep the faith-- and sometimes it feels like there are fewer of the faithful around...
-- I could've done without the cursing. I know, I know. It's supposed to be realistic-- reflective of the way Real People talk in the modern world. Thing is, the real people I talk to don't toss around casual curses. (Guess I'm just lucky, that way...) A curse or two at an angry or tense moment, sure, but so many authors go way beyond that. It's the casualness of it that I find obnoxious.
-- Some of the attempts at humor... One in particular-- Travis' "witty" response when Jodie asks why his pajama pants are soaking wet-- was just disgusting. Then there are his writing notebooks, "currently overflowing with drawings of cartoon animals humping each other in a vast assortment of acrobatic positions". The sign of a true genius? (Tell me again why Jodie even likes Travis. The guy has an immense talent for annoying the crap out of me. The phrase "not if he were the last man on earth" comes to mind. Srsly, guys. I'd pick David Dentman over this distasteful sensitive-souled potty-humor aficionado.)
-- This is yet another novel with quite a bit of cigarette smoking-- and it was published in 2010, so there's no "it was the 50s/60s/70s; things were different then" excuse. I probably shouldn't be surprised, but I can't help noticing it-- like the inevitable "gotsta have me some alcohol on a very regular basis" thing, but even more so, since cigarettes are so widely shunned, these days.
-- Fitting right in with the juvenile humor and too-frequent f-bombs was the narrator's fascination with some (a couple of?) his own private body parts and how they react to the cold. I made a note of it the third time he mentioned them. It really added to the quality of my reading experience.
-- More middle-school humor! "...a fellow with the unfortunate name of Harry Peters..." That's the kind of writing that lets the reader know that this author is good.
-- "'Who wants to talk about cancer?' 'Not me.'" No, and I don't want to read about it, either, yet for some reason the author (or his characters) kept bringing it up-- far too often for my preferences. I'm tempted to dock the book a star for that alone.
-- Do you get the impression that the author might not like cops? Maybe not, but the police chief is a very unsympathetic character, and most of his officers (with the exception of Travis' brother) come across as dumb jocks. (...Not to say that there aren't some cops who are just overgrown jocks lacking in subtlety and intelligence, but I hope most of them aren't.)
-- When Travis discovers Elijah's body, hidden in a crawl space between walls, the medical examiner concludes that "unseasonably cold weather had practically preserved it, keeping the body from stinking up the whole house". Convenient, but wasn't his accident in the summertime? I'd think there'd have been some smell. Surely Maryland's summers aren't that cool.
-- I'm not sure why, but we get a very detailed description of the sandwich Travis makes for Adam, near the end of the book. "Then I lathered mayonnaise on the underside of the bread." ...You mean "slathered", right? I know, this is the nit-pickiest of nit-picks, but it's bad enough that you want me to envision mayonnaise-- and now you're making me picture "lathered up", bubbly mayo. Ugh, so queasy... Hold the mayo, man!!
-- "The idea of that child crawling through the darkness of the crawl space to die, like a wounded animal, was too much for me to comprehend. For some reason, the idea that he had been murdered was easier to swallow." ...Really? Because for me, even though it's awful to imagine, I'd much rather think that had happened than that he'd suffered the sheer terror and ultimate betrayal of being murdered at the hand of his own mother or uncle-- someone he trusted.
-- "Since the day Elijah's body had been extricated from the wall, Jodie had refused to return to the house, not even for a minute. I couldn't blame her." ...But... Jodie had long known the story of Elijah supposedly drowning in the lake... She knew about his creepy bedroom in the basement... Knew her husband had an unhealthy obsession with Elijah... And all that was ok. She was fine living and sleeping there. Then they thought that Elijah must've been murdered-- potentially in their house-- by his own mother or uncle. And she had that weird ghostly experience in the house at about the same time. Eh, no biggie. Let's go to bed, honey! But once she finds out that Elijah wasn't murdered, but had died of natural causes after an accident, she refuses to set foot in the house again. I mean, sure, it's a shock to learn that there's been a boy's body hidden away in your house the whole time you've lived there. (A bit disturbing, in fact.) But isn't that still not as bad as believing he was probably murdered in your house by his own family?! ...I guess you have to accept that Jodie didn't really believe she'd heard a ghost until the body was found, because that's the only way that makes any kind of sense to me.
-- The last bit of the book, about Kyle... I don't know that I completely get what the author was going for, there. Just like that odd part where Jodie dreams she looks into the mirror and sees Travis' reflection staring back at her. What am I missing?