Bird Box (2014) by Josh Malerman Review
There is something out there. No one knows what it is, but one glimpse of it immediately drives a person to deadly violence and suicide. It all started in Russia, then moved to Alaska, then soon became rampant across the entire globe. The novel follows Malorie, a single mother with two children, who ventures out into the open, blindfolded with her kids while paddling a boat down a river in order to find safety from the unseen threat.
Bird Box, in all honesty, is one of the smartest horror novels I’ve ever read. It establishes the situation, and in no time, gets the story going with deliberate and dreadful suspense. The best aspect of this novel is how it reminds the reader that the unseen is much more terrifying than the seen. Likewise, there is something uniquely unsettling about being robbed of answers, of being given neither a clear nor definitive explanation of whatever gruesome creature is hiding within the shadows.
It’s why films with subtle horror like It Follows work so much for me; it’s better to leave the audience in the dark rather than spell everything out during the last few scenes. That is what makes something ultimately scary. Although Stephen King is one of my favorite writers, I’m sometimes let down by some of his stories because none of them seem to have any sense of restraint. There must always be a backstory, a history, a “how-to” manual that explains why and how the supernatural works at the end. There might be a great sense of build-up, but the unraveling at the end limits the creativity of the reader to imagine the possibilities of what might and what actually can happen. The moment the antagonist is revealed full face, there is a dramatic loss of fear. Once it is shown, this malevolent type of force can be explained and categorized. The reader’s minds will be able to grasp the idea of this evil force and, in turn, realize that it’s not as bad as he/she might think.
Bird Box, in comparison, managed to scare me in a way that other horror novels can’t since characters never get full answers on what is destroying the world and what is causing the suicides. Everything is left hanging. In addition, there is so much tension in the story. I am usually picky with choppy sentences, but it works so much here. Malerman is excellent at creating and maintaining this atmosphere of dreadful uncertainty without revealing too much to the reader. Everything is so unpredictable and engrossing.
The characters are also well fleshed out. They aren’t just bodies waiting to be killed one by one. These characters have life. They have their past, their families and their friends and this nature gives the reader at least someone to root for throughout the entire novel. Malorie, for instance, is a terrific protagonist. She manages to be powerful and vulnerable all at once, someone who is realistically frightened but who also has the capability to produce smart decisions despite her fear. This is a tricky aspect because characters who are scared may be paralyzed and act out of pure instinct before thinking first. In this one, the context and the way it was written purely justifies her actions. She has enough self-awareness and strength to make her a likable lead. I did find her feelings for Tom to feel somewhat out-of-place, but that didn’t derail me from the complexity of her character.
Having that said, Bird Box is a rare horror novel, delighting itself with a lack of answers and the subtle terror of a thing unseen. The novel places a blindfold over the reader and, just like Malorie, paddles through the river of the unknown, dancing with the possibilities of the supernatural horror that may or may not be true. It has been a long time since I have come across something as refreshing as this in the horror genre, and this novel proves that less is more.
Read March 2017