Just in case you don’t read the whole review, let me say this – fucking WOW. One of my favourite 2014 reads, and just as tense, disturbing and terrifying as I could hope a horror novel to be.
Bird Box is divided into two timelines. In one, Malorie lives in a house with two four-year old children, known only as Boy and Girl. She hasn’t seen or heard another living person for years. There are blankets covering the windows. None of them ever leave the house without a blindfold. The children have never seen the sky or left the property. Since their birth Malorie has trained them to listen, to survive blind. Because today, after four years of preparation and indecision, Malorie and the children will leave the house forever and travel blind down the river, to a sanctuary that might not even exist anymore.
In the other timeline, the beginning of this apocalypse coincides with Malorie’s realisation that she’s pregnant. At first she dismisses the news stories of grisly murders and suicides as just another media uproar, but the reports only intensify, and they start coming closer and closer to home. No one knows exactly what’s happening, but after several months a theory develops – there are creatures out there, and one glance at them causes people to attack anyone nearby before killing themselves.
The world falls apart, and eventually Malorie gets desperate enough to respond to an ad about a nearby home offering safety to anyone willing to make the journey there. At the house, she finds a small group of people surviving through cooperation and careful security measures. They have tinned food, a well for fresh water, and a river behind the house that supplies the neighbourhood with electricity. Not only does Malorie find her material needs temporarily sorted, but she finds strength and inspiration in her housemate Tom, a kind, friendly man with the focus and commitment needed to keep their group alive.
But you know, you know, it’s all going to go to shit. Because four years down the line, Malorie is alone in the house with two small children who she can’t even bring herself to name. She’s arranged the furniture and picture frames to cover up the horrific stains she couldn’t clean and cannot bear to look at. Things were once ok in that house, but no matter how careful the housemates are, they will eventually run out of food, and they cannot avoid the creatures outside forever. The creatures never attack people, but they don’t have to. One look at them and you turn into a murderous, suicidal psychopath.
The obvious assumption is that the housemates will get cabin fever and turn on each other. It’s a cliche that I don’t mind too much, but I’m glad this story explores a different route. Naturally, there are tensions and fights, but for the most part the housemates keep it together. So you wait to see where it all goes wrong, and it’s pretty nerve-wracking.
Malerman uses simple scare tactics like this, and I found it deeply, disturbingly effective. For sighted people, the loss of such a basic faculty is extremely debilitating. It’s also very easy to imagine and relate to, and I think that’s part of what makes this book so creepy. Just close your eyes and imagine that there’s an intruder in the house, or that every sound you hear outside is something that could kill you. You can understand the stress and difficulty of a blindfolded character entering a house and spending hours feeling around to make sure that it’s empty, bumping into the dead bodies of previous occupants, covering and closing the windows so that they eventually feel safe enough to open their eyes. And knowing that, even then, they might have missed the thing that will kill them.
You also know that, because the creatures are almost completely silent, they could be watching at any time, walking right beside the person fetching water from well or making the treacherous trip to a neighbouring house for supplies. Some of the scariest moments in the novel come when characters realise that there is something right there with them.
It’s a testament to the terror of hidden monsters. Too often I find horror books and movies disappointing once the monster is revealed and/or the killer’s reasoning is explained. Part of the problem, I think, is that horror is very subjective and what one person finds frightening another person finds unconvincing.
Bird Box however, explores the idea of monsters as utterly incomprehensible. The theory is that “[t]hey’re like infinity […]. Something too complex for us to comprehend” (43). To look at them is to go mad and destroy yourself, because your mind simply cannot handle what it’s seen. Thus, Malerman eschews the whole problem of the reveal, and focuses purely on the devastating fact of the creatures’ existence. We can’t see them, we don’t know what they are or why they’re here, and we don’t need to because they’re already so frightening.
That said, the novel can be extremely graphic. Malerman’s writing style is simple and clear, focusing on brute realities. When people die, they die horribly. As with the monsters and the blindness, this is handled very well. The gore never feels gratuitous or excessive, but it’s always as shocking and tragic as it should be.
The threat of violent death is ever-present, but not because any of the characters are bumbling idiots, thank god. This plot doesn’t need anyone to be absurdly stupid to function. Another thing I like is that the children are highly capable characters with an active role to play. Usually they’d be liabilities, especially at only four years old, and the main character would be faced with the challenge of having to protect these beloved but useless people. Boy and Girl, however, have been so rigorously trained that they’re far better suited to this post-apocalyptic world than Malorie is. Boy’s hearing and memory is so acute that he can listen to Malorie walking around the house and then list forty to fifty locations she went to and sounds she made. So even though they’ve never seen anything outside the house, Malorie needs the children as much as they need her.
Similarly, she needs her housemates in the earlier narrative. Survival depends on their continued cooperation, but she also comes to care for these people who took her in even though she was carrying a baby they would have to deliver and feed. And, as the reader, I cared about them too. Admittedly, some are a bit flat because they’re just there to make up the numbers. but they’re decent people and I was worried about what would surely happen to them.
It’s a tense read – the certainty of disaster inside the house, the uncertainty of the journey down the river. At a key point in Malorie’s journey, she will be forced to open her eyes to take the right route. It’ll be the first time in four years that she sees the outside world, and if she sees a creature she will kill her children and herself. Most of the time there’s just danger without disaster, but when disaster strikes, it’s harrowing. And throughout, there’s the blind terror of creatures no one can let themselves see. I have some criticisms – like the flat characters – but they’re mostly nitpicky or at least didn’t spoil the book for me. This story was exactly the kind of experience I want from horror novels, but almost never get. It’s really got to me, but in a good way. It left me lying nervously awake in the middle of the night, replaying the scariest moments, thinking “Fuck, that was so good.“
I have no idea why I like to do this to myself, but if you suffer the same paradox, then you should go read Bird Box.