BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman (Ecco/HarperCollins 2014, 272 pages hardcover)
It’s been a while since I’ve written a book review, but I think I’ve been waiting to be consumed by something I couldn’t put down. BIRD BOX did that for me. With a creeping certainty, this debut novel by Josh Malerman (who is also the lead singer of the band The High Strung), presents an unfathomable situation that denies us the cherished sense of sight in a neat, horror wrapped package.
Malorie is afraid most of the time. Five years after the world literally goes mad from seeing unnamed creatures, she must find a safe house, give birth, raise and train two children to live without their sense of sight, and attempt to survive in this new environment, all while blindfolded against these things and the madness they bring. This story takes us from Malorie’s first fears as the world goes crazy around her, to the dull ache of inevitable doom that lurks beyond a locked door and covered windows.
What really stands out for me is Malerman’s use of language. I like writing that gets to the point and is descriptive without mincing words. He creates a survival based story with stark but far from basic prose, hitting hard with short, staccato sentences that imprints a clear image without the frills. His use of flashbacks reveals the story at a pace that leaves you wanting more, creating a sustainable suspense that carries right through to last page.
I was also impressed by his female protagonist. Most men who write from a female perspective can be called out by something that doesn’t ring true, like a silly turn of phrase or situations that a woman knows would never happen. This is especially true for male horror writers who use the realm to depict women in a one-dimensional way, for instance, immediately choosing hysteria for women once a crisis appears. Most of them also throw in gratuitous sex that follows the typical horror book formula: man + woman+ post-apocalyptic world/horror crisis=ridiculous sexual interlude. Malerman doesn’t do that here which is so refreshing. While a lot of horror fiction focuses on the almighty penis enduring in a post apocalyptic world, raping and pillaging as a new society is built, his is a quieter, more tense representation of such a world. Malorie is strong but shows her weaknesses without exploiting her sexuality. In fact, each character is preoccupied with the dangers at hand, not the next place where they can have at it in a bunker.
The voice he creates for Malorie is honest and very believable, from her skepticism to the blossoming of her maternal instinct and growing terror, to her reactions to other survivors she encounters. I admired how he skillfully builds the panic that Malorie feels as her situation worsens, keeping the reader alongside the character and the foreshadowing to a minimum.
BIRD BOX has been compared to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which is fitting, but I immediately thought of Kate Bush’s 1986 song Experiment IV about a sound that could kill. In both instances, the loss or corruption of these basic senses makes for a real sense of terror and dread. Comparisons aside, I think Malerman has made a place for himself in the horror genre, and I can’t wait for his next book.
My only criticism? That the story ends. I actually felt like shaking the book to see if more words would fall out. I would love to read a sequel, however I am praying to the literary gods that they don’t make a movie out of this book. Maybe I lack vision (no pun intended), but this story should live in the reader’s head instead of the big screen since it deals with internal struggles and unseen threats. If you enjoy survival horror fiction as much as I do, read this book. Malerman has given us horror that messes with your head, things we take for granted, our basic human nature and the will to survive.
*BIRD BOX has been nominated for the 2014 Kirkus Prize.