LitStack Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman
Release Date: May 13, 2014
Bird Box. Shortlisted for the first ever James Herbert Award for Horror Writing. On the preliminary ballot for the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. Starred reviews from both Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly. If I’m going to read a horror novel, it’s good to know it’s gotten some pretty hefty endorsements under its belt.
And goodness – it’s a fast read. I read it in one afternoon! Yes, I tend to be a fast reader, and I’ve read books in a single day in the past, but this was just the span of a few hours, and I wasn’t even aware of how fast I was devouring the text. You know something is fluid and gripping when that happens.
Bird Box takes place in a formerly affluent suburb of Detroit, in the here and now. But this world is very different than the one we now know; changed in a terrifying way.
The first few reports come in from around St. Petersburg, Russia; reports of completely “normal”, everyday people suddenly turning on others in a murderous rage and then killing themselves in savage, hideous ways. No one knows why – why the attacks, why the suicides, why these people. Most believe it to be a random manifestation of some kind of mental illness, exploited and sensationalized by a rabidly morbid internet. But the reports continue, and the sudden, lethal attacks/suicides spread out, migrate, multiply. There is no cause that can be found; the only similarities in the attacks – other than violent, sudden death – is that in the vast majority of reported incidences the attacker cries out about seeing something, something that seems to drive them to homicidal rage or despair in the space of only a few seconds.
Within months, the attacks have escalated to a terrifying degree. People are afraid to go outside, afraid of what they might see, afraid of being affected or attacked. They cover their windows with blankets and mattresses, or board them up so no one can see out, cannot even be tempted to look out. They lock their doors at all times. If they do go outdoors, they wear blindfolds. Businesses close, commerce halts, society as we know it ceases to be. There is only fear. Fear and death.
It’s pretty grim.
Bird Box opens almost five years after the attacks start. Malorie and her two children – both four years old – have survived so far in a sealed up house that has been their home since before the children (known only as “Boy” and “Girl”) were born. But even though it’s the only home the children have ever known, it’s not a happy place.
Now, in the kitchen, Malorie breathes deep before blowing the candle out. She looks around the small room, noting the rusted utensils and cracked dishes. The cardboard box used as a garbage can. The chairs, some held together by twine. The walls are dirty. Dirt from the feet and hands of the children. But older stains, too. The bottom of the walls in the hall is discolored, profound purples that have dulled to brown over time. These are blood. The carpet in the living room is discolored, too, no matter how hard Malorie scrubs. There are no chemicals in the house to help clean it. Long ago, Malorie filled the buckets with water from the well and, using a suit coat, worked on removing the stains from all over the house. But they refused to go away. Even those that proved less persistent remained, a shadow perhaps of their original size, but still horribly visible. A box of candles hides a blotch in the foyer. The couch in the living room sits at an awkward angle, moved there to shield two blemishes that look like wolf heads to Malorie. On the second floor, by the attic stairs, a pile of musty coats conceals purple scratches, embedded deep into the foot of the wall. Ten feet away is the blackest stain in the house. She does not use the far end of the home’s second floor because she cannot bring herself to cross it.
Despite our fear of learning the answer, we can’t help but wonder what happened in that house, and how Malorie and the children survived. We will learn – but that’s only half the terror. The other half is in what is to come.
The novel alternates between flashbacks that bring us to the “present” day when meet Malorie, and the harrowing journey that the small family makes in an attempt to find a way out of despair and squalor towards – hopefully – safety. This flashback/moving forward is an incredibly effective narrative device, as the gaps in the story are filled in even as their resolution is left behind. By the time we realize just what Malorie and her children are up against, the dangers they must face multiply and even the barest of comfort they may have had is gambled against a promise made back before so much was lost.
Both parts of the tale are equally harrowing, related in simple language by one whose life has been rendered into the simplest of necessities; there are no great philosophical or scientific discussions in Bird Box, but neither is there an abundance of “woe is me” wailing (except for a few instances of Malorie wondering if she’s a bad mother, which is appropriate and touching) or crumbling-of-civilization debauchery and chicanery – the characters in this book are too busy trying to stay alive and sane for any of that. Life has been boiled down to its essence, and so often it’s gritty and dirty, and the undertone of fear is always, always present. Even the few times when there is a glimmer of success, the understanding is that it will have only a fleeting effect. Yet for some, giving up is still not an option.
Virtually none of them, however, make it to the final page. Heck, only three have made it to the first page, and two of them have never even seen the sky.
By keeping the story so simple, and by focusing solely on Malorie and the few people she encounters, by zeroing in on the isolation of a threat that manifests through sight, author Malerman scopes the story down to a totally engrossing tale. Had he defaulted to a larger view of the disaster, we may have gotten caught up in questioning what was happening: why no group or organization was able to make headway into the disaster, what was causing the violence – creatures? aliens? demons?, are blindfolds really the best we can come up with in the face of sightless existence? Instead, we only get survival, and that story is incredibly effective.
Unfortunately, though, even with being able to sidestep some issues, there are a times when the narrative falls short of what can be accepted as plausible or even in cases possible, and also unfortunately, this happens at the story’s most dramatic moments. While it’s understandable for an author to want to ratchet up the terror at these times, there still has to be a foundation of believability to tether us to normalcy. We can accept outlandishness in the aspects that have visited horror on the world, but to have the outlandishness manifest itself in situations which are part of the “norm” (such as navigating an unfamiliar river in an unfamiliar boat while blindfolded, or encountering hostile wildlife in unfamiliar surroundings while blindfolded, having no precursor knowledge of electronics but being able to find and identify all the components needed for a working indoor/outdoor sound/security system while exploring an unfamiliar bowling alley – while blindfolded) undermines the entire story. (And don’t get me started on the night the children were born.)
Still Bird Box is an entertaining, chilling and well written read for the most part. If you can overlook credibility-busting passages for the sake of shivers, well, even better. It certainly got me thinking about what the world would be like if even the simple act of pulling back a curtain and checking out the sky would be tantamount to a death sentence, and how ugly and narrow our lives would become if we could never again experience what it would be like to be outside. For that, it was a very successful read, and one worthy of accolades. Let’s just hope Mr. Malerman’s next book is just as evocative, but with a better grasp of what’s real, so the deviation from it can be even more effective.