Here’s Lookin’ at You, Kid. The Bird Box—a review

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The Bird Box

*** spoilers***

 

The Bird Box, a novel by Josh Malerman

Cover of Josh Malerman’s novel, The Bird Box (from Wikipedia)

Through years of reading horror novels, some images have lingered in the fight-or- flight part of my brain, especially the flight part. When Stoker’s Count Dracula crawled like an insect up the steep castle wall, the vampire bug image scored high on my scare-o-meter.The thing that Danny Torrance saw in the forbidden room  of The Shining‘s Overlook Hotel creeped me out bigly.  In King’s Salem’s Lot, another Danny (Glick), a vampire boy, floated outside his classmate’s window in the dead of night. After reading that one, I kept the curtains closed after sundown for quite awhile.

It’s all about perspective though.  I discovered scarier kids than vampire Danny when I taught middle school.

In my own book, The Demon Rift, there is plenty of horror and gore, but little in it would make a reader keep the lights on. I focused on characters in a high stakes conflict. My characters were in the dark, but readers knew more.

In The Bird Box, both characters and readers are in the dark—literally. 

The plot is simple: In a post-apocalyptic world, a young woman named Malorie struggles to save herself and her two small children by attempting a perilous river journey. Because seeing anything outdoors is to invite madness and certain death, she and her children wear blindfolds as they make their way.

Five years earlier, almost all of humanity committed suicide. The reason?  It began when random people saw something. Whatever it was, seeing it meant instant madness and using whatever means of self–destruction was handy. There were no police sketches of these lethal visitors and no selfies with aliens. Instead, there were deadly snapchats. You snapped and then destroyed yourselfWhat was random, spread quickly. Now, few people are left.  Unlike the thing that haunted Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, these creatures don’t walk alone; they’re downright social.

Malerman renders the beginning of the invasion in broad strokes. The vagueness of the threat, the inexplicable nature of it, makes short work of the bewildered human race. Leave the house without a blindfold and something’s likely to greet you. Hear a noise outside? Don’t pull the curtains to sneak a peak; they consider uncovered windows an invitation. The consequences of seeing these creatures are not limited to humans; animals often suffer the same fate, though some are less vulnerable. Birds demonstrate the strongest resistance.  Behind the house, near the well, Malorie keeps a cage full of birds.  Their agitation can signal trouble.

During the torturous river trip, Malorie depends on her children’s acute hearing, as blindfolded, she struggles to stay alert. Watching from the riverbanks, dangerous  animals stalk them. And something on the river is following their little boat.

Thoughts dance in and out of her mind as she rows, revealing fragments of her shattered life.  

She remembers leaving the house behind and thinks of her younger sister, an early victim of the invaders. We learn that casual sex caused Malorie’s unplanned pregnancy. She recalls the people who took her in and  saved her life by allowing her to stay with them. We’re told little about her rescuers. Age, physical characteristics and a barely sketched history introduce them all. None are really defined by who they were before the disaster.

More important, is who these people became when the unthinkable happened and necessity made heroes of ordinary people.

On occasion, the narrative shifts to the struggle of the others who had lived with her in the house. Their blindfolds secured, members of the group felt their way using broomsticks as they searched for supplies in deserted buildings. Looking for canned goods, their groping hands often found the soft decay of bodies. Still, the group didn’t return until they found what was needed to survive. Day to day existence was bravery of a different sort. Gripping the handle of a water bucket, house resident Felix was terrified by sounds he could not identify as he inched along the path to the well.

Both scenes highlight the will and courage of Malorie’s rescuers. Both scenes are slow-moving nightmares.

In Chapter Seven, Tom, the resident Malorie trusted and relied on, tells her of an attempt by one of the group to learn more about the invaders. After detailing the precautions they took, he describes the horror of the resulting suicide. Tom struggles to define the unseen entities and their destruction of humanity. “It’s a consensus now. Something living is doing this to us. , . . Whatever they are—our minds can’t understand them. They’re like infinity . . . too complex for us . . .our minds have ceilings . . .”   Or to quote A Few Good Men and Jack Nicolson “You {we} can’t handle the truth!”

The hidden madness of one of the group results in the sabotage of their defenses and the death of all save Malorie and her children.

At last, we learn the shattering details of the day she gave birth, an event that showcases Malorie’s strength as a character.

She becomes a survivor whose uncompromising control of her four-year old children is her only hope of saving them. Dingy walls, stained with trauma, encompass the bleak world of her children.  Pieces of picture frames form makeshift trails that guide them when, blindfolded, they venture out to fill buckets with well water. Thinking of her children’s future, Malorie despairs.

When someone making random calls connects with the house’s landline and leaves a message, she learns that there’s a small but thriving community twenty miles away by river. The river is close, less than a quarter mile from the house. If they can make the trip, she and her children are welcome to join. Malorie remembers a rowboat she had stumbled upon years earlier.

In Chapter Nine, as she rows, she “struggles to put a name to the invaders. . . . they are not creatures . . . a garden slug is a creature.  Demon. Devil. Rogue. Maybe they are all these things . . . Do they know what they do?”  Echoing Tom, she concludes: “They are more than monsters, they are infinity.”  In one chilling scene, her son tells her that he can hear something walking on the river. Soon, it’s in the rowboat with her and it’s waiting for a slip of the blindfold.

 Malorie knows she must remove her blindfold in order choose the right fork of the river and save her children.

Like many children, I feared the dark, often pulling the covers over my head. As I read The Bird Box, I recalled those fears–the times when I shivered beneath the blankets while something in the dark waited patiently.

 Malerman never pulls the covers down; we never see the ghoulie that stalks Malorie and her children. The monster in The Bird Box remains a mystery, to be stored in the dark closet of memory, along with other things that go bump in the night. Faceless monsters are the scariest ones–worse than ghosts, even worse than floating, crawling vampires.

Maybe I’ll get a parakeet. Better safe than sorry, at least that’s what my cats tell me.

 

Note: In September of 2017, a Netflix film version of The Bird Box, starring Sandra Bullock as Malorie, will begin production. (per Deadline/Hollywood, Mike Fleming, July 19, 2017–deadline.com) Deadline/Hollywood The Bird Box

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Skull Island: A Review

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Grumble in the Jungle

Spoilers!!!

Skull Island is a new twist on King Kong.

I’ll just say it: If I were Kong, I’d sue for defamation of character. Written by screenwriters, Dan Gilroy (Night Crawler, The Bourne Legacy) and Max Borenstein (2014’s Godzilla), it is the second film by director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer). This new Kong is not the 1930’s beast beguiled by beauty or the misfit ape competing with Jeff Bridges for Dwan (Jessica Lange), nor is he the monster intrigued by Naomi Watts’ soft shoe. On Skull Island, Kong, who walks upright like Chuck Norris, is Clint Eastwood’s get-off-my-lawn curmudgeon of Grand Torino.

Cover image Skull Island

IMDB Skull Island image

When old enough, I often stayed up late to watch the 1933 version on Saturday nights.

Despite the wooden acting, the surreal jungle and Kong’s terrifying entrance always pulled me in. The sexual undercurrents of Kong’s attachment to Dwan is all I remember of the eighties version. I found Peter Jackson’s effort moderately entertaining, especially the Jurassic Park dinos. I enjoyed it more on DVD; the huge bugs weren’t nearly as gross.

On Skull Island, it isn’t Kong who loses his freedom; there’s no tragic fall. Instead, humanity might fall.

Waiting within the earth are monsters that can wipe us out. It begins with a WWII dogfight. Planes weave and dive above a sandy shore. When two crash, pilots, an American and a Japanese, struggle out of the wreckage. As they fight, something huge rises on the other side of a cliff; it’s Kong.

The scene fades into 1973. The Viet Nam War is ending.

Monster hunters Randa and Brooks (John Goodman and Corey Hawkins) plan a trip to a mysterious island. Randa believes that someday, monsters will emerge from the earth and kill us all if we’re not ready. And oh, yes—they’ll need a military escort.

In Viet Nam, Lt. Colonel Preston (Samuel L. Jackson), who hates to lose, prepares to leave.

A mission to a dangerous island could take the sting out of defeat. Along with tracking specialist Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photographer, Weaver (Brie Larson), Preston and his men board a ship and sail to the island. Nearing the island’s mysterious clouds, the explorers pile into helicopters to scout. More helicopters will meet them later.

Ala Apocalypse Now, ‘70’s music blasting, helicopters drop bombs. Testing the depth of the island, they discover Randa’s “monster.” It’s Kong who reacts with a “who left the screen door open” glower. Unprovoked, Preston attacks and bullets fly. Kong bats the choppers away like giant flies. When they all crash, soldiers die. Preston vows revenge. He and his surviving men will pursue Kong on foot.

Conrad’s group (Weaver, researchers, etc.) looks for the rendezvous site, wandering through arid terrain that pales in comparison to the dreamy jungle of the original or the bug infested nightmare of Jackson’s movie. The American pilot (John C. Reilly) of the opening scene, a chatty eccentric, appears and introduces them to the locals, a National Geographic tribe of mutes who taught him how to avoid the island beasties.

Don’t mess with Kong, he warns; Kong fights the monsters. It’s all a misunderstanding, you see. Like Walt, the old man in Grand Torino, Kong defends the neighborhood by removing the undesirables.

While Preston seeks revenge, Conrad’s group, including the pilot, scramble for safety. Flesh-eating wildlife dine on several before the rest are rescued. Preston’s plans do not go well, especially for Preston. Kong lives to grumble another day.

Despite its A-list actors, I was glad to leave Skull Island. I didn’t care who got eaten.

And the monsters? I’ve read several reviews of this movie. Many describe them as innovative and scary. Maybe it’s just me; I couldn’t connect to the story enough to be scared. I missed the sticky hot jungle. I wanted dinosaurs, not a weird buffalo, giant daddy-long-legs or skeletal things that looked like dead possums. I wanted a huge wall hiding terrible things.

There was one thing I liked. I’ve always wondered where Kong came from, meaning: did he have a family?

Was there a Mrs. Kong, a Kong clan? Skull Island takes us to the Kong family plot. Kong, we’re told, is the last one. Is this the last of Kong? I hope not. If not, lose the daddy-long-legs and bring back T-Rex or even Godilla. Bring back the stop-motion charm of Faye Wray’s lovesick ape. Most of all bring back the mystery; bring back the wonder.