Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, A Review

 

 Bird BoxBird Box by Josh Malerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Why did I care about Malorie so much?

That question’s haunted me ever since I put Bird Box down.

I’ve read many post-apocalyptic novels. Some of them had characters I loved and rooted for. Some had characters I despised but through whom I experienced vicariously the darkest sides of human nature. And the worlds they struggled through to survive, though they blur now, were compelling then. Sure, the Flu-ravaged world of The Stand kept me up late into the night; The Road saw me pulling for Father and Son to survive frigid hellscapes en route to the sea.

Malorie, though…

I’m not one for hyperbole or sentimentality, but Malorie had flesh in all 250-something pages–skin in the game, as they say.

Her heart’s desires, her sole-purpose of protecting Boy and Girl, and getting them to a vague sanctuary posited and promised them by a voicemail. Rick. A voicemail from a man named Rick urged her to strive out into a world of horrors, down twenty miles of a Michigan river, so that after four years void of hope, Malorie and Boy and Girl could find some: hope. Written in present-tense, in a tight third-person point-of-view, I felt this urgency–Malorie’s–on every single line.

Maybe I loved her because of the depths she went to in order to protect Boy and Girl, one her child, one not.

You see, in the world Malerman’s created, survivors must go outside blindfolded. Some unknown form of creature, when seen, cause the person to go mad, killing themselves and/or others. It happened to many millions, including Malorie’s parents and sister. During her pregnancy, one of her more cynical housemates offers a solution. Take some chemicals, he says, and blind the newborns as soon as they exit the birth canal. That way, they’ll never be at risk of seeing the creatures to begin with.

Malorie refused.

The majority of the gore that results from one seeing these creatures is conducted off stage, implied (the death of Malorie’s parents, for example), or glossed over with narrative summary via the media discussing the horrors out there. Bird Box is wonderful and claustrophobic in that way–the point of view is so limited that your imagination is required to engage the broader implications. However, Malerman gives us one scene of true horror that involves a child. A dead one. A scene done with quiet mastery. And, not in Malorie’s point of view, serves as a counterpoint to what Malorie’s relationship with Boy and Girl is.

The boy in his Sunday’s best, propped against the headboard in his room, dead from starvation, the rot from his corpse permeating the house.

That image delivered in two sentences by Malerman, walloped an entire universe of heartache for me. Just picture the terror the boy would’ve felt after his parents died. There he is, scared of the boogeyman outside, and waiting for someone to provide him food and guidance. Neither would come. This was one of the most powerful moments I’ve come across in recent fiction.

Malerman providing a concrete example of a child suffering and dying in this world, located mid-book, gives context and gravitas to all of the struggles we’ve seen Malorie undergo to care for and raise Boy and Girl. She raised them well enough to survive to the age of four. Her training them to wake with their eyes closed, or to having almost superhuman powers of hearing, become elevated from cool to read about, to visceral maternal love.

Through thoughts and actions of hers, we learn that Malorie would do anything for these two children. What tugged at my heartstrings for the duration of the novel, though, is Malorie’s terse dialogue–by which we sense that she is keeping the children at arm’s length, in case any members of this survival trio die, the anguish wouldn’t overwhelm her.

Death seems inevitable. What are the odds that a young child, well-trained as Boy and Girl are, won’t take off their blindfolds, or curious to finally see the sun hanging in the sky, peer out a window?

Malorie barks at them.

“Boy, listen!”

“Girl, don’t talk. Listen.”

“What do the two of you hear? Listen!”

“LISTEN.”

The word listen comes to symbolize an external survival mechanism for Malorie. She needs Boy and Girl in many ways. Using their trained sense of hearing for survival on the river happens to be the most immediate. Barking orders at them, keeping them on their toes, is her way of keeping the terror she feels from coursing through their small minds. In short, her gruffness is sublime.

Every page of Bird Box feels immediate, each of Malorie’s two complimentary storylines speeding onward in present tense.

So why do I love Malorie so much?

Because she embodies the wild all-encompassing love of mothers in the trenches–the human mother bear ripping someone to shreds to protect her cubs. Again, I never considered myself a sentimentalist. However, I think Josh Malerman did something in Bird Box that I’ve seen few writers able to accomplish. Frankly, I’ve seen few brave enough to try and risk failing.

He took the concept of unconditional love, more or less a weakened cliche of an idea, and gave it emotional truth. I love Malorie because she embodies, in sharp contrast to the darkness and blindness around her, the brightest and clearest example of the pinnacles of human nature.

Love. Unconditional love.

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Spring Reading 2018: 7 Must-Read Horror Releases To Scare Those Winter Cobwebs Away

Spring is coming. The sun already lingers in the sky. Its warmth shines on our pale winter flesh. But as fans of horror literature, there’s no reason to totally say farewell to the cold darkness. Luckily, publishers in the horror genre have some excellent new chills to serve up for Spring 2018, from a diverse group of writers. Here are seven of the hottest Spring releases.

The Hunger – Alma Katsu (March 6)

The Hunger by Alma Katsu Cover

Everyone knows the harrowing story of the Donner Party. The ill-fated outfit of pioneers who journeyed westward only to end up cannibalizing one another while snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas. Alma Katsu chronicles their story, with vivid renderings of America’s natural beauty in sharp contrast to her unflinching portrayal of the dark outer rims of human nature. Be sure to pre-order this brilliant re-telling of an American (true) horror story with a supernatural twist.

84K – Claire North (May 22)

84k by Claire North cover

Being dubbed as a perfect read for fans of The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go, this dystopian thriller revolves around a society where Wu Tang Clan’s acronym C.R.E.A.M (Cash Rules Everything Around Me) has been fully realized. North’s brilliant premise has nothing to do with rap groups, but does explore a dark world where nothing is too precious for a price tag. For example, monetary fines for paying your way out of murder charges.

Head On: A Novel of The Near Future – John Scalzi (April 17)

Head on: A Novel of The Near Future by John Scalzi Cover

USA Today says that Scalzi has the “scientific creativity of Michael Crichton” and the “police procedural chops of Stephen J. Canell.” Perhaps commenting on America’s bloodlust, the novel centers around the Colosseum-like entertainment of the sport Hilketa. Players are robotic “threeps” (think Westworld hosts), so the sport that calls for wielding swords and hammers in order to retrieve your opponent’s head, delivers the gore to the fans, while causing no actual death. Until a famous athlete is actually murdered…

Unbury Carol: A Novel – Josh Malerman (April 10)

Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman Cover

In advance praise for this novel, horror big-wig Stephen Graham Jones said, “Unbury Carol is a Poe story set in the weird West we all carry inside us, and it not only hits the ground running, it digs into that ground, too. About six wonderful feet.” In this twisted take on Sleeping Beauty, the protagonist Carol Evers has died many times. She falls into comas indistinguishable from death. Two people know her secret: the money-grubbing husband who married her for her fortune, and the notorious outlaw James Moxie.

The Feed: A Novel – Nick Clark Windo (March 13)

The Feed by Nick Clark Windo Cover

Kirkus Reviews: “Think The Road intricately wrapped around Station Eleven with a dash of Oryx and Crake…Windo pushes all the right buttons in this post-apocalyptic mashup.” This debut novel explores what it means to be human and to be connected in our digital age. The Feed, a digital conglomerate, is our worst nightmare about social media’s pervasiveness in our lives–in real-time, every person’s emotions, thoughts, interactions, along with breaking events from around the world can be accessed. Society becomes dependent on it, and then… It all crashes, leaving people in a dog-eat-dog Mad Max fever dream.

Blood Standard – Laird Barron (May 29)

Blood Standard by Laird Barron Cover

This is being marketed more as a crime thriller than strict horror. But, let’s be honest: Laird (dare I say Lord?) Barron, horror fiction’s wunderkind, is going to weave a disturbing, macabre tale regardless of what genre his publishers call it. Here, an Alaskan mob enforcer exiled to upstate New York crawls through a seedy underworld in search of a missing girl. The Locus and Bram Stoker Award nominee, and three-time Shirley Jackson winner, delivers with this gritty venture into new noir.

The Outsider – Stephen King (May 22)

The Outsider by Stephen King Cover

What’s a horror list without the King? It looks like one the all-time greats in the horror genre took a short enough break from talking politics on Twitter, to write another nearly 600-page tome. This horror/murder mystery involves suspect Terry Maitlan, beloved small-town Little League Coach, English teacher, and father of two girls–a man possibly harboring a dark secret. Early buzz says Stephen King is back in fighting form for this one.

There you go. These seven titles should keep your freshly Spring-cleaned bookshelves and Kindles stocked. Pre-order them now, and you might save a few bucks.