The moment between deciding to open your eyes and then actually doing it is as scary a thing as there is in the new world.
The most effective horror eschews explanation for atmosphere and dread, using its tropes to expose the paranoia that thrums inside the brittle bones against which civilized society clings. Josh Malermann’s debut novel, Bird Box, is an auspicious, self-contained, lyrical exploration of this, a horror novel with sprinkles of speculative science fiction that never alters its soulful DNA in favor of cheap thrills and scares, though both slither readily under the surface and breach at all the right moments.
Malorie, mother of two, is marooned inside a house in Detroit. Wires run throughout the first and second floors, connected to amplifiers to detect outside noise. Inside, all the windows are smothered under blankets—nothing of the outside allowed in, even light. Evidence of damage, struggle, bloodshed, linger in the walls and carpet. Outside of gathering water and a few desperate supply runs—all while blindfolded—she hasn’t been out of the house in five years. The two children, both four and simply referred to as Boy and Girl, have never seen the sky or the sun or even trees. Having decided her time there has come to an end, Malorie and the children must paddle twenty miles down a river to a new sanctuary is hinted to exist, but she must do it blindfolded. Because something lurks in the world—something monstrous and unexplainable that has decimated the population. Something that once glimpsed, renders the viewer mad, homicidal, and ultimately suicidal.
An eerie, compelling premise for certain, and one that is carried through Bird Box in a juxtaposed structure between the “present” of Malorie’s blind, downriver odyssey, and the “past” events from when the “creatures” first appear, to the development of the household’s inhabitants. She first joins the group after having just lost her sister to the self-destructive infection of the creatures. Recalling a newspaper ad posted by a local homeowner declaring his house a refuge for anyone without a place to go, Malorie, freshly pregnant from a brief encounter before the outbreak, decides to brave the blind drive through a dying city littered with corpses in order to give herself and her unborn the best chance for survival.
“Whatever they are,” says Tom, the unofficial leader of the handful of survivors who’ve fortified themselves in his house, “our minds can’t understand them. They’re like infinity, it seems. Something too complex for us to comprehend.”
At first Malorie marvels at her fortune; the five inhabitants of this safe-house are friendly, brave, eager to find solutions and make the best of the situation. Routines and chores are delegated, and the microcosm moves as smoothly along as possible considering their plight. But very quickly a rift begins to widen between the idealist Tom, and Don, the more fatalist, cynical housemate. Don is the first and only member of the house who objects—and not without legitimate cause—to straining their limited food supplies and space by adding new bodies, especially with regards to the pregnant Malorie. He voices the unwise action of the younger Felix, who spends his day making random phone calls to see if others in the neighborhood are still alive.
When another neighbor, Olympia, shows up at their door a few months in—herself pregnant, and as far along as Malorie—Don is the first to insist on turning away yet another mouth(s) to feed.
“If anybody’s alive out there, they’re not surviving on manners, man,” he warns of allowing potential future survivors in.
Malorie senses the potential danger of Don from the outset, and we’re made privy to many of these memories during the present river scenes, but it’s to Malerman’s credit as a writer that it never feels like you’re leaving one segment for the next. Rather, the collective horror, tension, and insecurity he establishes early on pervades the book so that transitions in time and action are never jarring or feel artificial. The language is poetic in its simplicity, brutal when it needs to be, but otherwise consistently expressive. Whenever the housemates need to venture out blindfolded for well-water, the unease of whether or not some mysterious, alien entity with the power to drive one insane with a single glance may be lurking nearby—or right next to you—is eerily sensorial and unnerving.
The flaws of this first novel, while not crippling, are nonetheless evident. Malorie’s and Olympia’s pregnancies are conveniently close enough together—certainly for a pair of disparate people who ended up in the same place after an event of apocalyptic proportions has made travel next to impossible—that they go into labor within a few hours of each other and deliver virtually at the same time. The housemates, specifically the younger members of Felix, Jules, and Cheryl, are only roughly defined, serving more often as pawns to stack behind either Tom or Don in their ideological war. In addition, a chapter in which x-factor, Gary, the final arrival to the house with his mysterious suitcase, relays the events that led him to leave his old house for the new, reads more like an information dump than with the flowing ease of what preceded it.
But the said shortcomings aren’t insurmountable, and don’t ultimately detract from the novel’s power to enthrall. As the story creeps towards its separate, inevitable climaxes, issues of trust and unspeakable sacrifice are expressed and tested, from Don’s practical-yet-loathsome suggestion that the babies’ eyes be removed upon birth so they’ll not have to rely on them and survive, to Malorie’s near slavish raising of the children as sense-veals, training them to rely solely on their hearing so that they one day may act more as like seeing eye-dogs or coalmine canaries when they’ll inevitably have to leave the house and venture outside.
Whether or not Malorie’s final destination downriver yields the salvation she’s looking for, or turns out to be a another false utopia, is only vaguely implied. Like the end of Logan’s Run or Fahrenheit 451, it only seems like a better alternative to the status quo on the surface. But like the best science fiction or horror—or any literature for that matter—the reader is left to ponder newer, more compelling questions than the ones posed at the outset.
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