Josh Malerman’s Bird Box presents a new take on unseen terror
Nearly every new, even vaguely disturbing novel published these days carries on its jacket or in the associated promotional material comparisons with Stephen King. Creative proximity to King, himself usually described as a “master of terror”, is seen in PR circles as the ultimate sci-fi/horror imprimatur.
King gets two mentions in the promotional blurb for Bird Box, the debut novel by Josh Malerman. Peter Straub gets one too, but he is no master.
Aficionados of King, however, do not really see him as a horror writer. His vivid portrayals of the collision between small-town America and the unexpected are brilliantly executed. His novels offer more than cheap scares. The Dark Tower series, for instance, his multi-part odyssey set in two worlds, is primarily about the moral courage of highly fallible characters in the face of adversity.
Malerman’s novel for its part is also about disruption of the conventions of everyday life by the distinctly unconventional. As with King, the story depicts ordinary, even quite banal characters, coping with a disintegrating society and frayed reality. As with King’s output, it is a mistake to pin the horror genre label on Bird Box.
The story centres on a 20-mile journey downriver in a rowing boat piloted by a young woman and her two young children – the neutrally named Boy and Girl – in pursuit of a safe haven in post-apocalypse Detroit.
All three are blindfolded. To say why would reveal too much about the plot, but the main characters have to shuffle through their daily lives, using all the senses except sight.
Malorie, the young woman in question, conceives in pre-dystopian America and gives birth in a society composed of unseen dangers, madness, river bank-dwelling wolves and growing human paranoia. Her failure to name her charges is an attempt to avoid becoming too vested in those she believes probably won’t survive.
One of the book’s cleverest tricks is its insistence that the characters must close rather than open their eyes when faced with immediate danger. Blindfolds can only be removed in sealed locations, behind locked doors or in places where blankets cover windows.
Hearing replaces sight as the primary sense, closely followed by touch. Expeditions outside the house are convoluted affairs, using markers on the ground for navigation, constantly listening, but knowing that any sound that indicates danger cannot be investigated by removing the blindfold.
In this way, relationships become stultifying or overly needy. Community folds in on itself creating the conditions for mistrust and the slow erosion of civility. The narrative of the boat trip runs in flashback tandem with events leading up to the departure – themselves tracing the gradual unknitting of a small housebound community trapped by what is thought to be lurking outside.
Malerman is the frontman for The High Strung, the Detroit-based band behind the albums Live at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Moxie Bravo. The lyricist’s economy and understatement with language, essential to songwriting, serves to amplify the bleakness of the predicament faced by the book’s characters. He does not waste words, perhaps because there is less to wax lyrical about in a world deprived of visual stimuli.
Bird Box is first a study of people, deprived of the clutter and cacophony of 21st-century inputs, having to live face to face in a confined space. Savagery, when it comes, is visited upon people by other people.
Malerman invites the reader to consider the suffocating boredom, disorientation and dislocation of life lived without superficial distractions, where isolation, even from one’s own senses, reshapes reality.
“We’re waiting for news in a world where there is no longer any news,” comments one character. The world has lost momentum and the housebound must strike out again. There is no news to listen to (the last DJ shoots himself on air) nor watch, so they must make their own. It is only Malorie however who makes a run for the river.
Bird Box, its rights already secured, will inevitably make it to the big screen. I look forward to it but the film will only be faithful to the book if it ends with the same disquieting lack of resolution.
Being blindfolded has a metaphorical as well as a literal meaning, after all. The book offers the reader no definitive clue as to what is really going on except that people can be every bit as frightening as monsters.
Martin Newland is the executive director of publishing at Abu Dhabi Media and a regular contributor to The National.