Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Bird BoxTitle: Bird Box
Author: Josh Malerman
Published: 13 May 2014
Publisher: Ecco
Source: own copy
Genre: horror, post-apocalyptic
Rating: 8/10

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.

Dark Inside by Jeyn Roberts

Title: Dark Inside
Author: Jeyn Roberts
Published: September 2011 by Macmillan Children’s Books
Genre:  YA, apocalyptic
Source: Kindle edition purchased for review
My Rating: 7/10

Massive earthquakes rock the globe, destroying cities and disabling all modern means of communication. But the earthquakes are just a beginning, a catalyst that triggers the collapse of human civilisation. A force rises from beneath the broken earth and awakens the darkness within human beings, turning some people into horribly violent killers who immediately begin hunting down everyone else.

Four teenagers – Mason, Aries, Clementine and Michael – escape being killed and transformed only to live on in a daily struggle to stay alive in an apocalyptic world, hunted by monsters. Dark Inside follows each of their stories, set in the USA and Canada, as they fight to cope with the horrors around them and push themselves to keep going. But is there any hope for the human race at all, or is it being wiped out to make way for a new society?

Dark Inside is a quick, entertaining and creepy read. I’d have called it ‘light’ because it’s as undemanding as a Hollywood blockbuster, but ‘light’ isn’t the right word for a novel with this much destruction, blood and violence. The earthquakes tear the world apart, and soon after human beings turned evil do the same to their families, friends and neighbours. One man names evil humans “Baggers” because they hunt down people as you would hunt or ‘bag’ deer.

And the Baggers are pretty scary. The fear and tension they create is the best thing about this novel. As an endless hoard with an insatiable desire to kill, they’re a lot like zombies, but they’re more dangerous because they still possess the mental capacity to communicate with each other, as well as trap and track their victims. Some Baggers retain all their intelligence, allowing them to pass for normal humans, recognisable only by their black-veined eyes. No one knows exactly why some people become Baggers and others don’t. It’s not an infection, but rather a psychological state that some are more likely to succumb to than others.

Of course, this makes everyone wary of other people. While it seems like everyone who was capable of turning did so immediately, no one can know for sure. For Michael, who ends up traveling with a group of survivors, “the fear always crept in. Was it just a matter of time? Would he wake up one night with one of his peers about to rip out his throat?”

Being with other people poses more than just the threat of being killed by them though. One of the major problems for the characters is that “[t]here’s no safety in numbers, just more and more people to try and keep an eye on. Bigger means more food was needed. It also meant louder.” A strange guy named Daniel warns Aries that “[g]roups are bad. People do stupid things when they’re together.” That’s a lesson we should all have learned from the movies – there’s always one uncooperative, cowardly, or overly brave idiot who does something stupid that gets people killed.

Nevertheless, it’s human nature to seek the company and comfort of others. Although the characters might have a better chance of surviving solo, it also means having to endure terrifying loneliness that makes life seem pointless anyway. I like that Dark Inside makes its characters deal with that paradox. Michael knows the dangers of groups, but being in one “made him feel wanted. He liked being a part of something. It was the type of person he was. Right in the centre of things, he was confident and strong.” Aries, who bands together with some friends from school, actually has to contend with an uncooperative and cowardly idiot, but she feels stronger as part of a group. Mason on the other hand, decides to stay alone, for his sake and others. Clementine has no choice but to continue solo, after everyone in her town either turns evil or gets slaughtered. I liked her story the most, partly because it seemed the hardest.

 Each of these four has their own way of trying to cope with the situations they find themselves in and a means of motivating themselves to keep going. Mason feels numb, but he tells himself that it’s better not to care, because then at least he can function instead of curling up on the floor and crying. He finds a photo of himself on a sunny beach with his mother, and decides to go back there. Michael is a natural leader and takes pride in being like his mom, who he hasn’t seen in a long time but was “always the one to take control in serious situations”. Even though he’s only 17 the adults around him look to him as their leader, and he imagines one day finding his dad and telling him how bravely his son acted. Clementine decides to find her brother Heath, who left home to go to university. To cope she talks to him in her head, telling him what she’s going through. Aries is driven to keep her small group alive and together.

 This sounds fairly upbeat, but the characters still have to endure a lot of terrible things, which sometimes leads them to do some horrible things themselves. However, they never do anything so bad that you can’t empathise with them quickly and easily, and the emotional aspects of their stories balance nicely with the violence and destruction. It can get a little tiring though. Mason came across as whiny sometimes, and he was my least favourite of the main characters. There are a series of chapters entitled “Nothing” narrated by a mystery figure who says vague and ominous things which tend to be either intriguing or melodramatic. On the whole this didn’t bug me much, but what did annoy me were some clichés that you typically find in mainstream disaster and horror movies. You know how those things always seem to happen in America? Well earthquakes and killings in Dark Inside are supposed to be global, but the novel barely mentions anything that happens outside America and Canada. In itself that’s not a bad thing, and it has a purpose for the plot, but it just feels a little old. At one point Michael actually says “Something was happening to the citizens of America and the rest of the world” (my emphasis), as if humanity could be described as Americans and a bunch of other people.

 Then there are some instances of cliché movie behaviour. Characters withhold important information, thereby putting others in danger and causing unnecessary melodrama. Someone says “we must go back for him”, initiating the classic (or overused?) daring rescue mission. There’s also an occasion where someone is totally daft and incurious, failing to ask very obvious and important questions, thereby dragging out the mystery and increasing the tension. But infuriating as these clichés are, they generally don’t stop people from watching or enjoying the movies that contain them, and they didn’t prevent Dark Inside from being an enjoyable read overall. I think it would make a really good movie too, especially for YA audiences.

 When the novel ends it leaves a lot of unanswered questions as to how all of this happened and what will come next. We are given some reasons why during the course of the novel, but there’s some confusion here – we’re told that the human race is too violent and is wiping itself out, but it’s also clear that the Baggers are creating a new society of which they will presumably be members. I suspect that the latter is why the publishers are marketing the novel as dystopian fiction when there’s no dystopian society to speak of; instead the novel is about the breakdown of human society altogether (I’d call it apocalyptic). But the novel’s ending is not so much an ending as a new beginning, and with all those questions dangling there will surely be a sequel, most likely one that we could safely call dystopian, a genre that seems to be very popular right now.

Dark Inside is worth checking out if you want a fast-paced, creepy read or if you like YA that isn’t afraid to be harsh. And if you want to know more or if you want a free copy, keep an eye on Violin in a Void. The author, Jeyn Roberts, is going on a blog tour from 22 September to 3 October, and she’ll be joining me for a Q&A on the novel on 2 October. Macmillan Children’s Books will also offering 2 copies to Violin in a Void readers on that day, and you know how much you love free books 🙂

Buy Dark Inside
Book Depository
Amazon (pre-order)
Amazon (Kindle edition, available now) 

Amazon.co.uk