I’m back!! A lot has happened in my life. A lot has happened in the world. Storytelling in all of its forms is important; paying attention to what is happening is essential. But I *think* I am correct in saying that, if you are becoming paralyzed in the struggle, it’s okay to spend a little time hiding in a book. So often, the word “escapist” is used as a term of derision among readers. While I certainly think books should challenge us, should expand our viewpoint, should exercise our thinking, make us smarter and more thoughtful and more engaged, I also don’t think we should discount the ability of books to transport us, to envelope us completely in a world that isn’t our own. I also don’t think books fit neatly into binary categories of, say, “escapist” and “paradigm-confronting.” I think many books–the best books, probably–do some or all of these things at once.
So, having established that I don’t use “escapist” as a bad word, let me tell you this: I don’t remember the last time I started a book and was compelled to finish it before the day was over. It has been a LONG time. But I escaped into Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, consuming it in one fitful, feverish day, carrying around my little eBook from room to room. I was spending a lazy day at my boyfriend’s place, and he kept laughing at me as I actually gasped, or sat up, or muttered “no, no, no” under my breath during particularly tense scenes, until eventually he had to experience it for himself. He downloaded it that night, and he was finished with it by the next afternoon.
Bird Box is a horror novel that takes place after an inexplicable catastrophe dominates, and destroys, our world. Early reports come in of people suddenly struck with a violent frenzy, killing themselves and sometimes others. It spreads quickly, and what early skeptics dismiss as a hoax quickly becomes looming, terrifying reality. The unifying link, first whispered in rumors before becoming incredulous news reports, is that everyone who acts out does so after they’ve seen…something. No one knows what it is, because once you learn, of course, the secret dies with you, but as the death toll rises, one idea takes hold until it has become the new reality: there are creatures, outside. Creatures that are growing in number. Creatures that don’t seem to hurt you unless you look at them. For the story’s protagonist Mallory, trying to protect her two children, this means years in a boarded-up house. Years of walking blindfolded to the well for water, teaching her children how to hear well enough to move through the world without sight, training them to awaken without opening their eyes. But now, Mallory knows the time has come to try to give them more than this. She and her children must make a journey out into the wilderness, amidst the creatures. Mallory has no idea what they’ll encounter out there; she can only hope that they can fight, resist, and survive what they can’t see.
My favorite horror movies have always been ones based not in gore and shock, but in deep, unsettling suspense. I am pleased when I don’t see the monster for a long time, when I have to fill in the blanks with my own mounting horror. This book has taken that concept to its most logical extreme, and I completely loved it. In this aim, Malerman has created a novel that strikes me almost as an extension of the American gothic tradition. The horror of gothic novels is rooted in the unknown. In Europe, this came in the form of the crumbling ruins and dark passages of castles long abandoned, mysterious to those that encountered their remains. In America, there were no abandoned castles: the unknown waited in the woods. Today, as the wilderness rapidly shrinks and it seems impossible to imagine a stretch of land too large that doesn’t contain a gas station, the “unknown” is shrinking along with it. In this novel, Malerman has returned it to us, robbing us of the certainty of surveillance: the idea that nothing is out of reach of our cell phone cameras, that nothing bad could happen under our watch…a certainty that, it would seem, could use some destabilizing.
Above all, though, Bird Box is a great, frightening story, with a strong protagonist in Mallory. The theme and tone of this book actually remind me of the film The Babadook, particularly in the ways that the emotional horror of the events are given as much weight as the literal horror (not that there isn’t plenty of that, in both stories). Mallory is a bit like the mother character in that film, as well, struggling through her own horror in the aim of protecting her childhood, wondering whether her motherhood can shield them all or has actually become its own monstrous presence in their lives. She is fiercely compelling, and you want her to make it to the end, no matter how impossible it seems.
This book terrified me, enraptured me, enthralled me. I haven’t read that many horror novels, but somehow, it was exactly the kind of story I needed to be pulled into. As I was sitting straight up and gasping, I was outside of myself. The book left me plenty to ponder afterwards, but in the moment, I was experiencing something more visceral. Something heart-pounding. And I think I needed that, too.
Stay brave out there, friends. And ignore the tagline; keep your eyes open.