It’s a great time for tales of humanity coming to a horrible end (and for those who love to read about it). Between plagues, societal implosions, alien incursions and self-inflicted technological destruction—well, let’s just say it’s enough to make the dichotomy proposed in Robert Frost’s 1920 poem, “Fire and Ice,” seem downright quaint in comparison.
Sure, the nuclear-powered holocaust narrative, which blossomed along with the mushroom clouds at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and reigned supreme for decades, count as “fire,” and many of the asteroid hits and global warming scenarios can be slotted on the side of “ice,” but they have been joined, if not supplanted over the last decade by a more metaphorical (and thus outlandish) account of end times: the zombie apocalypse. In an effort to keep the zombie tale fresh, there have been plenty of tweaks in type (faster, smarter, etc.), cause (fungus, sleeplessness, etc.) and focus (forget the zombies, it’s the surviving humans who are the monsters!). As a result, the actual core horror of the zombie tale—that combination of the unknown mixed with a mounting hopelessness—has been lost. With Bird Box, Josh Malerman returns the reader to that thrilling dread of yesteryear by keeping his narrative simple and refusing to allow the “other” in his tale to become known.
With the exception of two brief chapters, Bird Box cleaves to the perspective of Malorie. In alternating chapters, her present and recent past unfold. In the present, she’s a harsh, taciturn parent to two four-year-olds, Boy and Girl, whom she has trained since birth to rely on their hearing to an almost supernatural degree. Along with her children, Malorie has hidden in a house, never venturing outside without a blindfold, until now, when she’s decided to make a long-postponed journey to a possible refuge. The chapters of her past gradually reveal how her present situation came to be, how something changed (or arrived) and started to drive whomever sees it violently mad. Even a glimpse does the trick. In these chapters, a pregnant Malorie finds refuge in a house of survivors as they struggle to cope with a decidedly dire new world order.
Malerman’s prose is compelling, but what helps make Bird Box memorable is the sheer, uncompromising menace of the unseen threat throughout. How do you come to terms with—let alone combat—a danger you don’t dare perceive? Malerman short-circuits a coping mechanism so basic the reader can’t help but share in the resulting discombobulation of the characters. And in the process, he imbues this particular tale of survival with something so many of its contemporaries lack—a lingering sense of horror that, no matter how hard one tries, refuses to be fully seen.