Bird Box (UK: Harper Voyager/ US: Ecco Press, 2014)
When characters in horror films hear a strange noise, the first thing they do is investigate, despite the audience shouting at them to run the other way. More provoking than going to see what caused the noise, however, is not being able to do so. In Josh Malerman’s novel, Bird Box, characters and the reader must react to sounds without being able to see. And therein lies the horror.
Like Night of the Living Dead, something has happened to the world, and no one knows why. The reports come in gradually at first, then like a flood: people are turning violent and committing suicide, taking anyone close enough with them. It is eventually surmised that these tragic victims have seen “something,” to cause their actions: creatures who suddenly walk among us. No one knows who or what they are, what they look like, or what they want because anyone who sees them loses their mind and dies.
This is the basic premise of the novel, which, closely follows the main character, Malorie in a non-linear narrative that jumps back to the past every chapter or so. When we first meet her in the present, she lives with her two children—named simply Girl and Boy—in a house that matches its occupants for signs of damage and trauma. All flashbacks take us back to Malorie in a state of pregnancy as she learns (or fails to learn) how to navigate this new world in which blindfolds and blanketed windows are all that protect her. In the past, she joins a group of people who had advertised their house as a safe space, but they become progressively cautious and resentful of newcomers farther into the narrative. In this and in many regards, Bird Box follows the conventional apocalypse narrative, particularly in its community dynamics. There is a leader, a skeptic, several followers, and a few untrustworthies. And two pregnant women and a dog. In the present, it is clear that Malorie is no longer with this group and is preparing to move her children to another group, a dangerous task without sight. We don’t learn why until deep into the novel.
I don’t often get scared while reading horror, but I found there were scenes in Bird Box that were deeply unsettling. The slowly-building tension created throughout the novel and the underlying sense of dread that never finds relief are masterful. What is really innovative about this novel is the use of sound to produce horror (something that avclub.com* documents in their review as well), and this is the real heart of the book. The world becomes a funhouse of sounds, from human, to animal, to completely unidentifiable… and then identifiable in the most unfortunate sense. This is something horror films do very well, the sound and music often creating fear and tension more than the visuals. But, I have not read a novel that achieves this in quite the same way, and Bird Box does. The text contains some of the goriest scenes I’ve read, but as a reader I didn’t see them, I heard them. Something about “the sound of ripping” rather than “it ripped” when it comes to gore is so much more visceral and tactile. And even the silence of calmer scenes seems to cause a noticeable ripple in the tension.
The slowest moments, however, are those devoted to Malorie’s thoughts and fears. Rather than add to the tension, her paranoia and self-pity cause the narrative to drag. The main character is not likable, which could be a problem for readers. When considering this novel from a Disability Studies perspective—it being a fascinating illustration of forcing those without disabilities to embrace them—her ableist attitudes may be, in some cases, understandable in the circumstances But, in others, they are downright distasteful. Despite this, the closeness of the narrative to Malorie—not quite first person POV, but close—pushes her out of the way during the most active parts of the plot and puts the reader in the scene. Malerman’s emphasis on action rather than character development closes the distance and removes the middleman. With this character in particular, I call this a strength. It allowed us to focus on her experience rather than her thoughts about it. In fact, it was only during a second read of the novel that her attitudes really registered for me; they simply don’t seem important in the context of what’s happening.
I will also warn that I was disappointed with the ending. Malerman successfully creates real reader investment in what happens next, and that build-up is difficult to satisfy. Without giving it away, I will warn that the novel ends abruptly, and I was left with a sense of dread. In some horror or Gothic novels, this works. I don’t think it works for Bird Box. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this novel. Its weaknesses only feel like weaknesses in the context of its great strengths. It introduces ways of conveying horror that are truly original.
* See review in AV Club here.
Josh Malerman’s third novel, Black Mad Wheel, comes out in May of this year. I already have it on my wishlist!
Laura Kremmel is a visiting assistant professor at Lehigh University. Her research embraces a love of Gothic and Romantic literature and the recent popularity of the medical humanities, particularly the history of medicine. She received an PhD in English from Lehigh in 2016 and an MLitt in Gothic Literature from Stirling University in 2010. Her interests include Gothic Literature (Romantic to Contemporary), Romantic Literature, Victorian Literature, Medical Humanities, History of Medicine, Disability Studies, Mental Health in literature, Composition/First-Year Writing, Visual Culture, Horror Film/TV, and Editing Practices. She has recently published an article on Gothic configurations of disability in European Romantic Review and is co-editor of The Handbook to Horror Literature (Palgrave, forthcoming). For more, see her website. Follow her on twitter (@LKremmel)