Bird Box by Josh Malerman is ninety-five percent of the best horror novel in five years. The concept is chilling and the execution is nearly flawless. This book made me anxious and uncomfortable, which is odd enough considering I’m a grizzled horror bastard. But then it creeped the shit out of me, which is rare as dolphin eggs. I finished it in one breathless sitting because I just couldn’t stop. It’s so well crafted I felt like I was suffering the characters’ plight right along with them.
And what a plight. The world’s population has been shredded by violence and the survivors take shelter wherever they can. Said shelter had better have its windows boarded up tight though, and not because critters are going to come crashing through. No one has ever seen the cause of this apocalypse because seeing it is the cause.
Malorie and her group know there aren’t monsters roaming around eating people. They know there’s no virus turning folks into undead freaks, either. But something is out there. Any human who lays eyes on it gets a blistering case of the crazy murder fever. After enthusiastically slaughtering anyone close by, they commit gruesome suicide. The only way to ensure survival is to stop looking at stuff. But what stuff?
Whatever it is isn’t physically dangerous. Malorie and her cohorts aren’t confined to their house. They can go out back and draw water from the well, they can search nearby homes for supplies, they can scour the town for other survivors. They just have to do it fucking blindfolded. It seems perfectly safe to wander outside their refuge so long as they stumble along like Stevie Wonder. Since a glimpse of whatever the hell it is will turn anyone into a murder/suicide machine, the only defense is to be sightless.
Malorie’s two four-year-old kids understand this defense very well. They were born after the mysterious disaster and, despite frequent trips outdoors, have never seen a tree, the sky, or the birds they hear chirping. The entirety of their visual lives has occurred within the blacked-out house their mother wanders like a prison. Her abject hopelessness threatens to throw its shadow over the children, dragging them into a hell that is, so far, beyond them.
Until Malorie hears a rumor about salvation. A new life may be only twenty short miles away, down the river that flows in their backyard. She’ll have to go blindfolded. With two children, also blindfolded, who have never seen a boat or a river.
Bird Box is told in two storylines, jumping back and forth between Malorie and her post-apocalyptic group and Malorie and her children on the river. The tension in the former storyline is tight. With supplies running low and theories on what causes the madness running high, all relationships are shaky. The resultant alliances, coups, and secret machinations are enough to drive a reader over the edge.
But it’s the latter storyline that really jerks the stress up to eleven. Malorie and her children can hear things as they paddle down the river. But, no matter what they hear, they can’t remove their blindfolds. They could be brushing right up against the things that drive people to kill strangers, loved ones, and themselves, and they’d never know.
This book is flippin’ sweet. The horror it presented jumped right down my throat. It was oppressive, dark, insidious, and, above all, real. The loss of sight is a primal, atavistic fear. Despite the fact that I was reading this thing with my damn eyeballs, I felt as blind as Malorie and her kids, with things drawing down on me from all sides.
Unfortunately, Malerman writes dialogue like maybe he was raised speaking sign language. Every time a character talked it was a turd in my tapioca. This novel relies on atmosphere and gently rising terror to move the story forward. It shoots right along like a macabre missile but every spoken line jerked me out of the flow. This is a spooky-ass machine and the dialogue only served to grind its gears gum up the works.
Also, the ending was balls. After the relentless pace it set, the total shock and awesome it leveled on me, I expected a truly nuclear payload at the end. Instead, it whimpered to a conclusion in the last few pages. It wasn’t bad, mind you. It just didn’t live up to the rest of the book.
Don’t let these two niggling details stop you from grabbing it. In a world that embraces overbearing, formulaic, shock-value horror, Bird Box is an intelligent, subtle entry that speaks right to your spine. Everyone who loves horror should probably be forced to read this and I’ll be right there jabbing you along with a stick. Get your ass to this book.