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“BIRD BOX” (Book Review)

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I don’t know what they’re putting in the water in Detroit, but something really strange is going down in that town.

It’s like some weird time-release hallucinogen is suddenly sluicing a rarified form of dreamlike paranoia and despair deep into its artistic community, provoking work that’s distinctively both subtle and jarring, simultaneously lulling and fucking with us, dragging us slowly but surely to a haunted place we’ve never seen before but instantly recognize in our souls. All in the constant grip of near-unbearable suspense.

The motion picture case in point would, of course, be IT FOLLOWS, which took a simple brilliant idea and wove a meticulous nightmare from it. Audiences have been wildly divided – largely and unfortunately due to the mega-hype around this little indie sleeper-that-could – but for those of us who love it (and yes, I am one), it managed to get deep under the skin, tingle nerve endings rarely touched, and make us go, “WOW! I never saw THAT one before!”

Which brings me to Josh Malerman’s truly stunning debut novel BIRD BOX (now in paperback from Ecco, a division of Harper Collins). Like IT FOLLOWS, it takes one simple-but-astounding idea to astonishing depths. Only Malerman spells it all out in the first 11 pages, pulling a literary trick I’ve never seen done like this before. Then never ever lets up, from first line to last, in what I can only call a tour de force.

In the opening chapter, a young woman named Malorie is standing in the kitchen of a house in which every window is utterly sealed, so that no one can possibly see in or out. She has been there for four and a half years. Old bloodstains are everywhere: in the carpet, on the walls. Remnants of a tragedy. An implied massacre.

Upstairs are two children, called Girl and Boy, sleeping in chicken-wire cages covered with fabric. They have blindfolds on their eyes. They have never seen the outside world. But she has trained them, ruthlessly, to hear incredibly well.

Because there are creatures out there – extra-dimensional, supernatural, we don’t know what – but if we see them, we will go insane. We will kill whoever’s near us. And then we will kill ourselves.

bird-box-by-josh-malerman

Seeing them has killed off pretty much the whole human race, in spurts of hyper-violent madness. But there’s a fog today. And Malorie has decided that this is the day they will follow the guidance of the only other person she suspects might still be alive, rowing blindfolded down a river called hope to possible salvation.

From there, we flash back and forth between past and present, tracking their journey and catching up with their past. The past is cunningly parsed, one clue after another, as the back-narrative heartbreakingly unfolds. Wonderful characters are presented. Most of whom will die.

The present is insanely claustrophobic, and meticulously detailed, but utterly devoid of sight. And Malerman’s impressionistic prose – so smart, so human, so simultaneously vivid and riddled with doubt in the face of the incomprehensible – delivers on so many levels it’s almost ridiculous.

Bottom line: I FUCKING LOVE THIS BOOK. Could not be more excited to turn you on to it, and don’t wanna say another thing, because surprise is at the heart of delight. I already feel like I gave away too much. But if this doesn’t lure you in, I have utterly failed at my task.

The word “Hitchcockian” shows up on the cover; and in its meticulously sneaky cunning, I totally agree. But this is a thoroughly modern novel. Honestly not a throwback to anything I can conjure from genre memory. Strangely, it has more in common with the off-the-charts brilliance of author Kathe Koja (another Detroit denizen, 30 years ahead of the curve, now staging immersive theater in addition to her literary genius) than with most of what calls itself “horror” these days. And yet it delivers, in scene after scene, layering on the hurt. Making us care more and more for both the lost and the living, with a staggering matter-of-factness that feels just like real life. Only worse.

Josh Malerman is also a musician and filmmaker. Which is to say, he’s a Renaissance mutant, seemingly bursting at the seams with unbridled imagination and restless talent. Rumor has it that he’s got an enormous trunk full of novels already written, all of which he loves and cares about as much as this.

Count me amongst the people who wanna know a) what ELSE he’s got waiting, and b) whatever this fucking guy comes up with next.

And whatever they’re swigging in Detroit right now? GIMME ANOTHER SWIG OF THAT!

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About the author
John Skipp
John Skipp is a New York Times bestselling author/editor/filmmaker, zombie godfather, compulsive collaborator, musical pornographer, black-humored optimist and all-around Renaissance mutant. His early novels from the 1980s and 90s pioneered the graphic, subversive, high-energy form known as splatterpunk. His anthology Book of the Dead was the beginning of modern post-Romero zombie literature. His work ranges from hardcore horror to whacked-out Bizarro to scathing social satire, all brought together with his trademark cinematic pace and intimate, unflinching, unmistakable voice. From young agitator to hilarious elder statesman, Skipp remains one of genre fiction's most colorful characters. Visit him at Facebook, or on Twitter @YerPalSkipp
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