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

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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