Charles Wilson has left home in rural Pennsylvania for the most important sales call of his career when he realizes on the way to the airport that he has forgotten his cell phone; his lifeline to the business world with over a thousand contacts stored in its memory banks, Wilson’s cell phone has radically transformed him as a businessman and has changed the way that he conducts business since before such a device had entered his rather simple life and now he can’t live without it. In fact, “nowadays if he was without his cell phone for even as little as an hour, Wilson felt completely cut off from the rest of the world, a world that provided him with a substantial income.”
Charles decides that since he has most of his contacts stored upon his laptop the best thing to do would be to have his wife overnight the phone to his hotel and in the interim he would look to purchase a “burn phone” – street vernacular for a pre-paid cellular phone. Unfortunately, luck does not seem to be on Wilson’s side as all of the kiosks are closed at the airport and when he arrives at his hotel it is too late to make such a purchase. Charles is frustrated and berates himself for his foolishness when he is directed down a dark street (an alley, really) that runs along the side of the hotel by a strange man sitting in the lobby … perhaps the fates will favor him after all and he will find what he is looking for?
And so begins Charles Wilson’s hellish journey, and thus begins “Burn Phone”, a novel of Lovecraftian horror and cosmic menace by Thomas M. Malafarina.
Wilson walks to the end of the alley in a sudden downpour and spots a sign in the window of the only open shop advertising pre-paid cell phones and warily enters against his better judgment, the need to possess a phone overpowering him. He is unnerved immediately by the claustrophobic, labyrinthine aisles packed with all manner of exotic and lurid bric-a-brac and sculptural pieces and, hanging upon walls that seem to disappear into darkness just at the periphery of his vision, the tapestries and paintings containing “bizarre works (that) seem to depict scenes of unspeakable bloody violence, flailing, dismemberment, sexual orgies and other such forms of debauchery.” Though he is also taken aback by the overwhelming, cloying odor of decay and putrescence beyond the mold and mildew one would expect in such a curious place, Charles makes his way to the back counter where a strange, skeletal proprietor waits for him, smiling, motionless as if he was one of the statues or characters in the paintings come to life. He hands Wilson an odd looking phone “blood red, with a row of gaudy sequins encircling the outside edge of the body. It appeared to contain only numeric keys from one to nine and a simple viewing screen. Upon closer examination, Wilson saw that the numeric buttons were oversized chrome keys shaped like skulls ….”
The price for the phone is one death – that of the proprietor. When Charles refuses, horrified and indignant, he is reminded of the harsh business deals he has spearheaded that have caused the suicides of four men … what’s wrong with actually getting a little blood on his hands now? I will not ruin the consummation of the deal as it is written but suffice to say that it is shocking and delivered with a matter-of-fact panache that is both entertaining and refreshing – Thomas Malafarina can certainly write thrilling grotesqueries.
Shaken and horrified by his experience inside of the shop, Wilson stumbles back out into the alley and the rain and staggers back to the hotel. Along the way he is held up by a very large man who emerges from the shadows and whom Charles later suspects to be the gentleman in the hotel lobby who sent him down the alley. Charles confidently tries to talk his way out of the very dangerous, potentially life threatening situation but the frighteningly articulate “mugger” will have none of Wilson’s smooth, verbal parries and effectively strips him of the only weapon that he has ever had: his skill at wielding words. It is a chilling exchange between the two and Malafarina does a remarkable job in making one empathize and worry over Charles’ helplessness in the situation. Charles grows angry at his sudden, unexpected powerlessness and it is here that we get a peek behind the curtain of the ruthless, predatory nature of the man who caused four men to take their own lives: “He understood in the deepest and darkest recesses of his soul that if he got the upper hand on this criminal, he would not hesitate to slice the man from stem to stern; happily watching his entrails fall from his body and slither down the sewer drain like so much refuse.” With no other recourse he surreptitiously begins to press 9-1-1 on the “burn phone”; the call for cavalry does not arrive in the form of police, however, but rather in the arms of human/reptilian hybrid tentacles that flop through a sudden, violent tear in the fabric of the night behind Charles’ attacker. With maws that move through flesh as if it were gelatin, the mugger is quickly flayed alive and pulled screaming back into the cosmic abyss. From there on out, Charles obviously realizes that things will never be the same for him and he also knows in the depths of his heart that he will get whatever he feels is coming to him (like closing the biggest sale of his career) and god help – or the gods help – whoever gets in his way … for he now possessed a weapon more powerful than words.
Aside from being a compelling horror novel, “Burn Phone” is a morality play about how technology has leveled the playing field for the underdog and the not-so-privileged with tools such as cell phones that give access to attaining that which was once heretofore denied, thereby allowing one to rise up and take what one feels is rightfully yours … in the created realities of your own world, that is. It reinforces the idea that “just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should” and it demonstrates the incremental steps that can lead to the absolute corruption and decay of the human soul, though through Charles Wilson we know that nothing can take root and grow unless it has been planted in fertile (in this case poisoned) soil. There are also global implications, too, in that we must guard ourselves from using the hatred and the anger building frustrated in our own societal lives (without the means for release), the uncontrollable fury born from feelings of being powerless, through the tools – the weapons – at our disposal. In fact there is a sequence during the second act of the novel where Charles is given an “orientation” as to the form that the phone has taken throughout history and it had always, invariably been a weapon.
In the character of Charles Wilson, Malafarina has created the consummate Lovecraftian hero – a doomed, tortured soul wracked with mental anguish and ripe for the picking from the evils of the universe. While an only child with few friends, Wilson possessed an overactive imagination that was prone to grotesque and severe visions, recreating scenes from the lurid, hyper-colorful and exaggerated violence of the horror novels and comics that he collected. As an adult, Charles is a man that imagines the worst and is paranoid about everything – he is constantly losing himself in grand delusional diversions debating the logic/illogic of the situations he finds himself in and muttering to himself or fretting with concerns and worries so bizarre and out of touch with reality that at times you begin to wonder for his sanity. When Wilson enters the strange shop at the end of that dark alley it’s as if we have entered a portal and been allowed to tour his own dark twisted psyche; he is perfect for the phone because he is delusional and can therefore easily rationalize his horrid behavior and selfish acts to himself as doing that which is best for society, his wife and home, and for his business.
As far as the overall construction of the book, I would like to have read more information given through action – which Malafarina excels at – rather than through block upon narrative block of explanatory paragraphs and the constant inner debates and self-flagellations of Charles, though in some places this does work to keep us wrapped up within his warped, rambling, over-analytical mind and it does pay off in the end. Make no mistake: “Burn Phone” is a book that will reward your patience with a rich, terror-filled cornucopia of monsters and demons and a psychologically horrifying climax.
Thomas Malafarina has a visual artist’s eye for detail and exuberance for the minutiae of his deceptively simple scenes. He writes with the same flourish for violence and tableaus of flesh as Clive Barker and yet he shares the same cosmic vision and torment of inner and outer space of H. P. Lovecraft, all the while working the clichés and conventions of the genre bravely and unabashedly. All in all, “Burn Phone” is one hell of a rollicking horror house ride.
This is Malafarina’s third release in four months – a veritable summertime publishing juggernaut – from Sunbury Press: he has previously published a novel “Ninety-Nine Souls” and a collection of short stories “Thirteen Nasty Endings” and also has a collection of “strange and bizarre” cartoons slated for release in the near future.
“Burn Phone” by Thomas M. Malafarina ~ www.tommalafarina.com/Author.html ~ ISBN 978-1934597095 ~ 214 pages Trade Paper ~ Suggested Retail $16.95 ~ © 2010 Sunbury Press, Camp Hill, PA ~