I grew interested in Bird Box back in 2014 when I saw the cover in a bookstore. It was eerie, dark, and had an interesting layout that caught my attention. The fact that it was labeled a first novel was even more enticing. I’m a horror fan, grabbing everything I can get my hands on in film, television, and books, so this was an interesting pickup for me. I finally broke down and bought the book, burning through it in a couple of sittings. What Josh Malerman (lead singer of the band The High Strung) accomplished was a thrilling concept that was executed strongly enough to keep me glued to the pages. It was very much a first novel, raw and quick, that invoked the thought that this guy might just be someone to keep an eye on.
At the forefront of the writer’s strengths is his willingness to stick to a premise. Horror fiction is wrought with stories that, while entertaining, break their own rules and this in turn breaks the immersion. The film It Follows is a good example and was released the same year as Malerman’s book. The world-building involved in Bird Box showed someone who put a lot of dedication into crafting his ideas into a reality that I could lose myself in. Each page is wonderfully gripping, with loving consideration of violence from the characters and just enough ambiguity in what he’s doing with his monsters to foster fear without full reveal. It turns out that, in Malerman’s world, the things you can’t look at and only get to listen to are the shadows that should scare you the most.
The book garnered a lot of attention with genre fans and made him a known name in horror, his book making its way into discussions and recommendations, even college classes. Shortly thereafter he announced he was working on a second book and that had me checking Amazon fairly regularly, waiting to see what he would release. His next appearance was in the short story Lost Signals, which I admit I have yet to read (I’ve heard great things!) and seeing it on shelves left me chomping at the bit for a full novel.
Now, at last, we’ve gotten his sophomore effort. And it is one hell of a read.
The leading fear in Black Mad Wheel tackles another of the senses – hearing. This seems to be a growing trend with the author, though whether or not it sticks around beyond this is a possibility I’m excited to explore. And it’s sound we have to fear, the story leading us into a great unknown that may, in fact, be the oldest mystery in this world.
Philip Tonka, a former military man, leads the tale as he leads his band. The Danes, a fictional band out of Detroit, are recruited to investigate a sound in an African desert, a sound that induces vomiting and intense agony in anyone who hears it, with the group being accompanied by a historian, a photographer, and a legendary war veteran. As they walk into the desert they are confronted with hoof tracks, a bipedal creature leading them on a mad chase into the desert as the drummer is whisked away in the initial drop. The photographer, historian, and war vet are interesting enough but it is the band itself that gets to shine here. Malerman is a lead singer, and knows how to write an interaction between musicians that feels real and unadulterated. The story is set in the 1950’s and the post-WWII nuclear scares and strongly felt in the minds and speech of each individual and this fear plays into the scares of the sound in the desert, each person terrified that it is nuclear despite the fact that it has rendered guns and even a warhead neutered. All of this is rotating, chapter by chapter, with another story. From the very first page we see that Philip has already found what he sought, his body almost literally shattered as he recovers in an army hospital, his body full of broken bones. And the recovery is going well, but there is something very “off” about it. The man is recovering far too quickly for it to be anything resembling normal, his injuries something that should have left him dead in the first place. One of his nurses, a woman named Ellen, suspects something and begins to help him delve into the mystery of his recovery and searches to find out just what happened in Africa.
I won’t delve any further into the plot for fear of spoiling a wonderful read for you, but as the story plays out it works rather interestingly. The constant flashing back and forth between eras, separated by 6 months or so, is actually quite gripping. At no point in the story, till the very end, do we get any inkling of what is going on but small clues peppered throughout the plot build a sense of dread as the team finds what it is looking for. It is one of a couple of daring techniques that could have fallen flat but instead adds to the finale in a way that leaves you confused, frustrated, elated, and disturbed.
No one can talk about this book without mentioning the style of prose. Present-tense writing is one of the hardest things to pull off and so many writers ignore it, choosing to stick to the standard past-tense out of a sense of comfort (not that writing that way is a lot easier, just a little). I’ve seen it fail recently, with efforts from Chuck Wendig falling flat and even older novels like Charle’s Baxter’s Feast of Love just not working for me. There are wonderful reasons to experiment with the style. It can add to your characterization, it simplifies your range of tenses and can instill a sense of immediacy, and your reader can experience things as they happen instead of hearing about them after the fact. All of these things, however can cause the story to falter if not executed masterfully. You can lose all sense of tension, get lost in tangents that add nothing to the story, and muddy the waters of word-usage. Malerman falls prey to none of these issues, however, and the story is all the stronger for it.
Experimenting in style should not take away from the other wonderful elements of the writing. Some of the sentences are so beautifully crafted that you have to stop and take a moment, reading it over again to make sure it was real. Some of it is absolutely stunning.
- “I discovered Creation,” the man says. “Buried in a juggernaut’s sandbox. Or who knows, maybe it’s just the wind passing over the teeth in the skull of the world’s first man.”
- On the way, he half dreams of the sound traveling over black hills, through black woods, on black paths, the Path, Philip’s own, charred black, with no boundaries, no demarcation, no signs either, telling people to stay out, stay away, you had it good in Detroit, the Darlings of Detroit, the Danes, you had it good, and this won’t end well, this won’t end.
Despite the wordiness and absolute load of commas in that second example, we get a gripping sense of the character’s mind even though we aren’t privy to the whole of it at the moment. We get, though the text, the feeling of each individual and that is a powerful thing in a book like this.
With all this praise I still have nitpicks. I never fully bought into the relationship in the book, the romantic aspects feeling a bit tacked-on but serviceable to tie the characters together. It isn’t a huge issue and never breaks the immersion, but it could have used a bit more polish. Philip also takes center stage, leaving some of the other characters wanting. It’s his story all the way, but the others were interesting enough on the surface that I found myself wanting more of them, wanting to get to know them, and what drove them to join the journey in the first place. You get a bit of that, but for the most part we focus on Philip and to a lesser degree Ellen. And that works, it just made me want the others a bit more rounded out.
Overall this is a fantastic read that I could not put down. Like with Bird Box, the pacing, layout, and execution of the story are handled so well that the book remains gripping and combined with a ridiculously well-thought-out premise it only took me a couple of days to get through this 300 page book. It’s a quick read, but fans of his first book and of the genre will not be disappointed. Fans of present-tense prose will be elated.
Me? I’m just thrilled with it. The only true negative is that now I have to kick back, put my feet up, and impatiently wait for Josh Malerman’s next novel. And I’m already getting twitchy.