These days, what was once a sub-genre is practically a genre in itself, and a lucrative one at that. Some literary darlings have succumbed to their agent’s wishes and carved out their own apocalyptic tales, while on the other end of the spectrum, starry-eyed writers continue to self-publish their end-of-the-worlds and rush them out on-demand; most of the time with cover art reminiscent of Photoshop 101 circa 1992 – clip art catastrophes. So with the proliferation of the doomsday in today’s literature, my wonder at whether the world ends with a bang, or a mere whimper, has lessened – almost to the point of me hitting the proverbial snooze button again and again. Question is, could anybody write a book that busts the mold, put me in a place where I didn’t think ‘oh wait, this is like so & so’s book’, or say to myself, ‘wow, this here aftermath rings quite familiar’.
‘Bird Box’ by Josh Malerman was a book that did otherwise. Actually, it turned me on my ass. It’s a stellar, haunting debut, sparingly told and without unnecessary flourish in style and characterization. Instead, the apocalypse here is redefined with subtlety and suggestion. Far from the ‘epic horror’ of a 1000-page roach-killer with a huge ensemble cast (‘The Stand’, ‘Swan Song’), and avoiding the pyrotechnics and balls-out hysteria of the last day, ‘Bird Box’ instead relies on the sensations of sound, memory and touch. Malerman slow-builds the tension and keeps the action restrained, so in the end, it resonates like horror should – germinating and then slowly creeping under the skin. Taking a cue from a far different apocalyptic novel, ‘The Day of the Triffids’ (John Wyndham), blindness cripples the main characters in this Michigan suburban setting, but in this case, it is self-inflicted and preventative. Blindfolds are worn. Windows are covered with black sheets. The outside world is forbidden. A walk through your neighborhood could take days. A noise at nighttime could be a feral animal, or a neighbor seeking safety. Make sure that door is double-locked and if something comes a-knocking, hold your breath and don’t make a sound.
The evil here is the unseen – this is not horror fiction where the evil steps right up to you and repeatedly slaps you in the face. Far from it. ‘Creatures’ from an unknown dimension have infiltrated our own. And with one look, madness and suicide are the inevitable outcome. Or is it something else altogether? Something manufactured by human hands and therefore human error? With so many questions forming in the reader’s mind, author Josh Malerman holds back the reigns and diligently tosses in some suggestions of the surrounding dangers without showing/telling too much (one sequence along a river is played out in a long, gut-wrenching tease – the end result, a cold piercing stab to the spine – most brilliant). In a world blacked-out, Malerman stays true to the thematic world he’s created – the world has always been blind and now there’s no turning back.
A strange hybrid that evokes the widescreen damage of John Wyndham’s ‘The Day of the Triffids’ mixed with the claustrophobic confines of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Sundial’. Some may be eager to describe it as Cormac McCarthy doing Lovecraft. Either way, top-notch, top-shelf horror literature. More proof that horror is headed in the right direction.