The Night Parade
Written by Ronald Malfi
Released on July 26, 2016
Published by Kensington
The essence of horror fiction, the thing that makes it truly scary, is a strong, inescapable sense of dread. Even in the most extreme splatterpunk, it’s more about the shock of unapologetic brutality than it is about terror. That’s because it’s next to impossible to convey a jump scare with the written word. So it’s necessary to build tension slowly, to draw the reader in and wind them up like a spring, until that sense of disquiet finally washes over them in a flood of creeping terror. Possibly no author working today knows that secret better than Ronald Malfi, bestselling author of Little Girls and December Park, and he’s in top form with his latest and, in my mind, greatest novel, The Night Parade.
The Night Parade opens with David and Eleanor Arlen on the run in a beat up Oldsmobile. The world has gone to hell, a good portion of the population given over to the Wanderer’s Folly, a disease that has swept around the globe at an alarming rate. The Folly essentially causes people to go insane and eventually die, usually in the most gruesome of ways, events that Ronald Malfi describes in startling technicolor. Believing her to be the key to a cure, the CDC is after Ellie. But David has already lost his wife to their experiments and he’s not about to let the same happen to his daughter. Ellie is a very special girl, compassionate, insightful, and wise beyond her years, but as you’ll see, she’s also exceptional in other, less than normal ways and, in the long run, it’s her that the story is really all about.
Ronald Malfi is an author of uncommon talent and ability, his prose sharp, precise, and poetic, and he writes with an extraordinary sense of mood that wavers somewhere on the line between hope and doom, always keeping his reader on the proverbial edge of their seat. He’s got an almost uncanny grasp of what it takes to build extreme unease, and he does so here with the alacrity of a master artisan. But, like all of his work, The Night Parade is an extremely human story, centered on his characters and their plights, and he spends a good portion of this almost four hundred page tome building the foundation that helps to make his characters real and sympathetic. With frequent forays into the past, you’ll get to know Ellie and David well, and don’t be too surprised if you find yourself madly in love with them, Ellie in particular. She’s one of the most fully formed, well developed child characters I’ve seen in years, reminding me on multiple occasions of the titular character in Robert R. McCammon’s iconic novel, Swan Song.
There are so many layers to this story that it’s hard to know what to write about and what to leave out. For one thing, the backstory and the horrific things that happen to the Folly’s victims is mortifying, with some of the most gruesome and twisted aspects of the story occurring in the flashbacks as people either succumb to the disease or to the mortal terror it induces in them. Some are driven to insanity by the fear of the plague rather than by the illness itself. Then there’s the present day story, which moves on at a steady, somber pace, gradually building suspense like steam in a pressure cooker until you find yourself feeling as if you’ll burst at any second if you don’t find out what happens next. Malfi is a master of the slow burn and the story crackles with tension, holding the reader hostage from beginning to end.
The Night Parade is an extraordinarily dark tale, David and Ellie’s plight at times seeming exceedingly hopeless and more dire with every passing sentence. But it’s also permeated throughout with little sparks of light at the end of the tunnel, these fueled largely by Ellie’s loving empathy and her charm as a lead character. Ronald Malfi handles the development of all his characters with an artist’s touch, building multi-dimensional, memorable characters that jump off the page, fully formed and as realistic and believable as they can be in a work of fiction. And part of what makes his cast so plausible is his mastery of setting. He paints his scenery with the eye and confidence of a true master, and sets his people down in places and situations that not only help to flesh out an already full bodied story, but also serve to propel it forward toward an unexpected, poignantly heartbreaking finale that will take your breath away.
By now, it’s probably obvious to you that I’m a fan of Malfi’s work, and it’s likely blatantly evident that I loved The Night Parade. With the lovable cast, a pervading sense of dread, and one of the best apocalyptic plots I’ve encountered since King’s The Stand, it’s one of my favorite books of 2016 and will likely hold that distinction all the way through to the end of the year. Whether you’re a longtime fan or a newcomer to Ronald Malfi’s brand of horror, you should treat yourself to this beautiful and ultimately terrifying story that shows us the incredible lengths a father will go to in an effort to protect his daughter.