Bird Box by Josh Malerman horror book reviewsBird Box by Josh Malerman horror book reviewsBird Box by Josh Malerman 

Bird Box, published in 2014, was Josh Malerman’s first novel. Malerman came out of the music scene, breaking into fiction with this moody story of psychological horror. A woman and two four-year-olds take a journey down river, blindfolded, in a world where what you see can literally kill you.

In the opening sentences, Malorie decides that today’s the day. The big house is dark, every window and door covered. Even a trip out to the well, several feet from the back door, is done blindfolded. Today Malorie will take the two children, who she calls Boy and Girl, to the river. She’s been waiting to do this for four years.

The first chapter lingers on the strangeness of this world. As she prepares the children, Malorie contemplates how she’s raised them, asking herself the question that is one of the book’s themes: Was she a bad mother? Using flashbacks to five years earlier, Bird Box slowly reveals the “Russian Incident” and the wave of murderous and suicidal madness it set off. People began seeing something that drove them mad—fatally mad. At first, the incidents are isolated and few, but they increase, and society breaks. Radio and television goes down; no one answers their phone, houses are abandoned or filled with people dead by their own hand or the hand of loved ones. Malorie has just discovered she is pregnant, and her sister is going to help her, until her sister kills herself. Alone, Malorie makes a perilous, terrifying drive to a nearby town. Here, she finds a group of people who are prepared to hunker down and outlast whatever this catastrophe is. In a darkened house with a basement full of canned food and a group of helpful people, Malorie hopes she and her baby can survive.

Bird Box moves between the two storylines. In the present tense, the descriptions of things by sound or touch are excellent. Malerman slowly, perfectly builds a crawling sense of paranoia. The things—if they are things—that cause the madness may be anywhere. They may be right next to you right now. Your blindfold can’t even let you see out the bottom, in case there is something by your feet. Malorie doesn’t know what they look like or what they are, but she believes they are there. The risk intensifies when some humans don’t kill themselves or others right away. Instead, they act as missionaries or carriers, wanting to tear down window coverings or blindfolds and share the wonder they’ve seen as they’ve looked at the creatures. And they want to let them in.

The present tense story has plenty of risks. Nearly five years without humans has changed the dynamic of other animal behavior, and Malorie is threatened twice by beasts she cannot see. Along the way, she wonders seriously about how she has raised the children. We wonder too. She used cruelty from their first months to teach them not to look at things; she directs them by fear, and she hasn’t given them names. Now, she is dependent on them to guide her, because she has taught them to use their hearing, and they are better equipped for this world than she is. In the first half of the book, I began to wonder if the children were just telling her what she wanted to hear to placate her, but as the story progressed, I realized they really were adapted to this world.

In the flashbacks, the group grows more isolated, in spite of their leader, Tom, desperately making telephone calls (on that quaint thing called a “landline”) leaving messages inviting others to join them. This causes a rift between him and Don, another housemate, who is worried the food won’t last. While Don, the pessimist, is in the minority, he is persistent, sowing doubt in the group. Then another survivor shows up, setting the stage for the group’s ultimate conflict.

The scenes of foraging or escaping the beings while blindfolded are harrowing, the best part of the book in both the past and present tense stories. Malorie’s deeper fear, that she is a “bad mother,” resonated for me and I’m not even a mother. I had several questions about the logic of the worldbuilding. In the house, whenever they open the door (blindfolded) they use brooms to sweep around the incoming person to make sure nobody—or no thing—is sneaking in with them, but why do we assume the creatures are corporeal? (The book makes it clear they are.) Much is made of a dwindling food supply—how did Malorie survive and feed two children for four years? Even deserted grocery stores run out of food. These are all serious questions, but they didn’t occur to me while I was reading, only after.

What did distract me was Malerman’s use of repetition, particularly in dialogue. Internally, when repeated lines are part of Malorie’s racing mind, it was plausible. In the overlong climax of the backstory, the constant repetition of lines jarred me, and dulled the suspense. This is a shame because the most terrifying scene takes place there, and I nearly lost track of it as the same lines repeated with no change in rhythm or emphasis.

Still, I didn’t want to put Bird Box down. At the very end, I decided Malorie was a good mother. The things she did prepared her children to live in a restrictive, terror-filled world, and that’s the deepest horror of all.

Published in May 2014. Something is out there . . . Something terrifying that must not be seen. One glimpse and a person is driven to deadly violence. No one knows what it is or where it came from. Five years after it began, a handful of scattered survivors remain, including Malorie and her two young children. Living in an abandoned house near the river, she has dreamed of fleeing to a place where they might be safe. Now, that the boy and girl are four, it is time to go. But the journey ahead will be terrifying: twenty miles downriver in a rowboat—blindfolded—with nothing to rely on but her wits and the children’s trained ears. One wrong choice and they will die. And something is following them. But is it man, animal, or monster? Engulfed in darkness, surrounded by sounds both familiar and frightening, Malorie embarks on a harrowing odyssey—a trip that takes her into an unseen world and back into the past, to the companions who once saved her. Under the guidance of the stalwart Tom, a motely group of strangers banded together against the unseen terror, creating order from the chaos. But when supplies ran low, they were forced to venture outside—and confront the ultimate question: in a world gone mad, who can really be trusted? Interweaving past and present, Malerman’s breathtaking debut is a horrific and gripping snapshot of a world unraveled that will have you racing to the final page.


  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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