the Little Red Reviewer

Bird Box, by Josh Malerman

Posted on: June 3, 2014

2014-06-01 19.37.17Bird Box, by Josh Malerman

published March 2014

where I got it: purchased new















For the purposes of a quick survey, I want you to make believe that like me, you are deathly afraid of spiders. Yes, even the itty bitty ones. Yes, I know they are more afraid of me than I am of them. Yes, I know they don’t have teeth. Just make believe, ok?

Which is scarier: seeing a small-ish totally squishable spider in your bathtub, or knowing there is a spider in the bathtub, but not knowing how big it is? It could be teensy tiny and killable or it could be an articulated legged, egg carrying, huge as fuck brown recluse? (Jesus Christ, just typing that sentence has me scared fucking shitless)

The second one, right?

We all know how to fight things we can see. Fight zombies with shotguns, fight aliens baddies with superheroes or flamethrowers, fight diseases with medicine, find someone who isn’t arachnophobic to take care of the spiders. But what about an enemy you can’t see? The unknown is far scarier than the known. Once we know something, we can categorize it, understand it, and learn how to defend against it if it really does mean us harm. It being unknown makes all of that impossible. It’s also the devil’s food for your imagination.

In Josh Malerman’s debut novel Bird Box, something is ravaging humanity. Not a disease per se, but something that makes people kill themselves, often taking other loved ones or even random people with them. These are not serial killers or sociopaths, these are not revenge or attention seekers. These are old ladies who commit suicide in the middle of the street, children who sit the bathtub and slit their wrists, happy people, healthy people. No one seems to know what’s causing it, they just know it is getting worse, and it is everywhere. All anyone knows is that it is something you see. Something gets into your eyes, and from that moment on your life can be measured in minutes. Easily one of the most intense books I have ever had the pleasure of reading, if Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, The Weeping Angels from Doctor Who and The Walking Dead had a threesome horror story love child, Bird Box would creep the shit outta that baby.

As the terror progresses across the planet, people are advised to cover the doors and windows of their home with cardboard, thick blankets, paint, anything opaque. People are told not to go outside, and if they must, to wear a blindfold. Grocery stores are quickly emptied, newscasters start living at their television stations, and it’s not long before there’s no internet, and no tv signal, soon even the radio goes. Not for lack of power, but for lack of living bodies to record tv shows, investigate news stories, and run radio shows. Remind me to buy extra non-perishables next time I go to the grocery store.

The plot jumps back and forth in time, between a very pregnant Malorie living with her housemates, and four years later when Malorie and her children are bravely leaving the house, hoping to find safety elsewhere. In the “earlier” story, Malorie finds herself living with a half dozen other adults in the home that will be her voluntary prison for the next four years. None of these people will ever see a sunset again, they will never look upon the full moon, or watch autumn leaves fall to the ground. They will never go outside with a blindfold, they never see anything but the walls of this house and the faces of their housemates. I want you to sit back for a minute and let that sink in.

In the “later” storyline, she is taking her children from this safehouse, putting them in a boat, and rowing up the river. She is blindfolded this entire time. Her children are blindfolded this entire time. Have you ever navigated your backyard blindfolded? She knows that eventually, at a certain point up the river, she will have to open her eyes. For the first time four years, she will be outside, with her eyes open, and this could kill her, it could kill her children. And let me tell you about her children, these children of the apocalypse. They have never been outside without a blindfold. They have never seen the sun, or a tree, or a car, or played in a sprinkler. From birth they have been trained to understand the world through sound. What does a bird sound like? What does walking on grass vs walking on concrete sound like? They have only ever seen the inside of the safehouse, or the inside of a blindfold. Malorie has raised these children as best she can, on breastmilk and canned green beans, on games that revolve around “Close your eyes and tell me what Mommy is doing”. To these children, this is completely normal, these are fun games that all kids play. These children have never spoken to another person, they do not know that “Girl” and “Boy” are unusual names for children.

To add to the impending sense of dread, Malerman wrote Bird Box in present tense. Past tense implies a safety net, a separation between when the story happened, and the telling of the story, like someone had some time to get their thoughts in order before telling you what happened. No so with present tense. There is no separation between the happening of the story and the reading of the story. Malorie doesn’t have time to get her thoughts in order. Everything in Bird Box is happening right now, and there is no separation, and there is nothing you can do to stop it, and there is no guarantee any of these people survive to get their thoughts in order at a later date to tell me what happened. You will feel Malorie’s dread with her. As it happens to her, it will happen to you.

The most delicate thing about telling a horror story of this nature is the big reveal. What if the author flubs the landing and the reader isn’t afraid of whatever the big monster is? (a perfect example of this is the survey I opened the review with.) How do you make sure your big reveal is one that every single reader, no matter their life experience, will be absolutely terrified of? Other reviewers have said this, and I completely agree, that Malerman’s genius lies in getting the reader’s imagination to work against them. With everyone in the book being terrified of what’s on the other side of the wall, of what might waiting for them in the backyard, of what the fucking sound outside was, it’s next to impossible for that fear not to get transferred to the reader. What your imagination does with that is up to you. And I promise you, your imagination will do something horrible with it.

About halfway through the novel, I realized there was not one, but two big reveals Malerman was teasing me with. Two horrible things, and I didn’t know which I was more afraid of. There is of course, the obvious one of what is making people kill themselves. When Malorie or one of her housemates is taking a blindfolded walk to the backyard water well, for all they know, something awful is staring at them through the woods. Something awful could be standing on the back porch waiting for them, about to tap them on the shoulder, about to peel their blindfold away. And then there is the unknown of those four years in-between the two story lines. There is a very stark negative space between a pregnant Malorie in a house full of rather healthy adults, and then four years later when it is just her and her children. In those four years, what happened? Where did everyone go? One of these reveals you will get to see in living color, up close and personal.

While Bird Box is certainly a more than effective horror novel, it is Malerman’s debut and has some issues I’m going to nitpick. The opening chapters with Malorie and her sister Shannon would have benefited from more world building, and everyone we meet could benefit from deeper characterization. Malorie is certainly the main character, but she’s got plenty of housemates, and additional people show up from time to time. Most of these secondary characters blended together for me, and very few of them are ever fleshed out much. In a way, the housemates are just scenery, just furniture, something concrete for the big reveals to land on. When I think about it that way, I don’t mind the light characterization as much.  The reveals, which are a main character unto themselves, get plenty of fleshing out.


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17 Responses to "Bird Box, by Josh Malerman"

This sounds super creepy (can I choose spider in someone else’s bathtub?). I have to admit, the more interested I am, the more I start to skim, because the less I want to know: I start skimming for details that would either confirm my interest in dissuade me. This one is kind of on the fence, for me – the premise sounds really cool, and I can half ignore less world building if the story is exciting, but the characterization I might struggle with.

I tried not to give spoilers, I think most of the specifics I give happen near the beginning of the novel. Get the book out of the library, if you like it, buy it later? it’s quite the page turner, i didn’t realize the characterization was on the skimpy side under after I’d finished the whole book.

This sounds amazing.

it was really, insanely good!

Wait, it’s creepier than the basement scene in The Road? Creepier than the weeping angels? And The Walking Dead? Hmm. Also, I’m terrified of spiders so obviously I need to buy this book. It’s been a while since I read a good horror story!

imagine walking into that basement wearing a blindfold. because, yeah. thankfully there are no spiders in the book.

Re: your opening question about the eight legged things. How do you know it’s in the bathtub if you haven’t seen it, which means you HAVE seen it, which means you already know what size it is, which means the not knowing part is moot. If someone else told you it’s there, let that person take care of it, or assume the thing has already gone down the drain and it on the way to the water treatment facility (or wherever).

My wife is also scared of spiders, so in my home I’m the spider removal guy, humanely catching them (in a wet paper towel) and taking them outside for release into their natural, bad-bug-eating environment.

As for the book, it does sound creepy, probably beyond my level of want-to-read-it.

i know it’s in the bathtub because my husband, a.k.a.: spider removal guy, has said “Andrea, don’t come in here”. and then i hear him scream something like “oh god, oh god, we’re all gonna die!”.

I catch all manner of 6 legged things humanely. We’ve gotten some really cool looking beetles and moths. those cutey pies go outside to live to play another day.

Sounds like what he saw was Venunsis tubisera P. (Predatory Venusian Piranha Worms). And if you have THOSE in your bathtub, put the house on the market, quick.

put it on the market before or after burning it to the ground?

Oh god, spiders. I can’t stand them. When Mike says “Don’t turn around” or “Close your eyes” I know it means that there’s some form of scary insect (either a spider or a centipede, not something cute like a ladybug or moth) that must be removed before I scream.

I live in hell (The Swampy South) and the insects here are monstrous. This past weekend I battled several Clown Spiders (Google that when you are feeling strong enough.) I do not humanely remove them. I wail on these suckers with all the effort a decade of kung fu has brought me. And then I smack ‘em again for good measure.

From your review it seems like this novel works hard to make the reader’s imagination do most of the scaring. I like that. Seems like good horror should tap into the reader’s fears not just script out some gory scene, right?

I will NOT be googleing that. like, EVER. and YES to kung fu on those suckers!

” novel works hard to make the reader’s imagination do most of the scaring.”
that is exactly. and it’s done so well!

I was keeping my eye on this one with a view to buying. Will have to do so. Love the sound of it.
Lynn :D

you are going to LOVE IT.

OOH love the cover and your post here makes me want to take a closer look at this one.

the dust jacket on the hardcover is really neat, it’s hard to tell from my photo, but the “O” is a cut out to underneath. I like it when book cover designers do stuff like that, to give covers some dimension.

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