If H.P Lovecraft were to write the “The Dead Zone”, this would be it … but not so fast.
“Eye Contact” is Thomas M. Malafarina’s third novel published by Sunbury Press – “99 Souls” and “Burn Phone” were both released in 2010 along with a short story collection “13 Nasty Endings” – and it is his most ambitious book to date. It is an absorbing, terrifying story of the personal nature of reality and a poignant, nerve-wracking exploration into whom or what is our most defining voice amidst the suspension of all sensory input. It reminded me in plan (but not in execution – more on that later) of the non-linear Aronofsky film “The Fountain”, wherein recurring visual motifs and similitude of action grounded us amidst the jump cuts of time, space and character though in “Eye Contact” we also have the singular “voice” of protagonist David Matson as a through line and the husband and wife team of David and Gina Matson maintain their present day relationship as well.
The premise is a simple one: David Matson is returning home from playing a mid-winter gig with his band The Coal Mountain Blues Benders in the wake of an ice storm at a remote bar in Schuylkill County, PA, when he swerves to avoid a deer, hits a patch of ice, bursts through a guard rail and plummets thirty feet down into a ravine. The accident thrusts him into a deep coma and the resulting brain injury gives him the ability to see hideous, corrupt human corpses moving in our world as monsters. He must avoid “eye contact” with these evil creatures (murderers, rapists and suicides – life takers and haters of humanity) lest he allow a rift in the dimensional fabric and allow them to cross and rejoin our reality. The publisher advertises the story this way on the back cover:
“There is a thin line between reality and illusion, between sanity and insanity, between life and death. Through no fault of his own, David Matson is thrust into a world of darkness, of illusion, of hallucinations and never-ending nightmares; a world from which he longs to awaken but cannot. Join him in his interminable struggle to return to reality and see what horrors fate has in store for him.”
The entire first act of the novel is set in the traumatized, deep sleeping mind of David immediately following the accident as he lays damaged and infiltrated by life support machinery in his hospital bed – and what a wondrous and intricate opening set piece it is; we experience the claustrophobic ebb and flow of the dark tide of David’s consciousness as his voice – his self – fades out of and dissolves back into being like film scenes cut together and running through a silent projector with no lamp … and all the while he hears his wife Gina calling to him from somewhere off in space, “David? Can you hear me, David?” It is a horror-filled, 50 page sequence cut from a bastardized version of “The Phantom Toll Booth” in which we learn of David’s new ability – his new “gift” of sight – and in which we become party on his journey to resurface.
The second act, the bulk of the book, involves David being hunted in the hospital by a homicidal nurse who was suspected in the mass murder of elderly patients and who was immolated with her victims on the ward in which he lays (there is one particularly scary scene involving a harrowing wait for an elevator that will have you squirming in your seat) and a suicide living in the woods at the edge of the grounds who had abducted, raped and killed several teenage girls and who has spotted him through the window of his room (with another edge of your seat scene involving an elderly gift shop clerk taking forever to find the price on a pair of sunglasses) – to reveal anything more would be to pull back the curtain on the show and spoil the payoff of the book for you: in the third act, David “awakens”. His final departure from the hospital is eerily disconcerting and will leave you filled with dread (and wanting more).
And “wanting more” I did: I must say that I couldn’t help but feel there was a bigger novel lurking here … though a thoroughly engaging and fascinating read, “Eye Contact” was a bit choppy and contained some inner logic lapses (returning to the “execution” point I made earlier), apart from those missing threads that were part and parcel of the story, that signaled to me that perhaps this was either too big a project for Tom at the moment (for whatever reason) or that he had simply chosen to let the tail of this particular tiger go. In my mind, the book as written could be the first act to something grand and wondrous, and that is a testament to the quality and development of Malafarina’s writing and storytelling in such a few short years.
Tom Malafarina is our present day H. P Lovecraft writing with a sense of place that is Stephen King. He writes narratives with a detachment and examination of human behavior that can be disconcerting and perhaps off-putting at first encounter but which are ultimately rewarding (with patience) – he designs philosophically laden visual set pieces and then thoroughly dissects the minutia of the scene as if man were just another sentient being in a violent and insatiable cosmos (and a clumsy one at that) to be studied and dissected, just another chapter in an ancient taxonomy. This style works especially well in “Eye Contact” in that the only tools of exploration protagonist David Matson has are the ruminations of his thoughts dissecting what he perceives to be seen and felt and smelled through his mind’s eye. Yes, Malafarina’s monsters can, at times, approach the cartoonish dimensions of an EC Comic (or King’s own “Creepshow”) but that can be written off for the moment as the enthusiasm and pleasure of a maturing writer clearly in love with working in the horror field and having a rollicking good time. Hell, even Lovecraft had early forays and collaborations that were not nearly as successful as his later fully formed and masterful work.
“Eye Contact” comes highly recommended as yet another waypoint on the road in the making of a major talent in the horror field.
Sunbury Press ~ ISBN #9781934597378 ~ Softcover / perfect binding / 204 pages ~ $14.95 (free USA shipping) ~ www.sunburypress.com/eyecontact.html
Eye Contact – Author Thomas M. Malafarina