Once again participating in RIPX (Readers Imbibing in Peril) had reminded me that I love horror. Quite a lot. That I didn’t become a Stephen King junkie at age 13, a coincidence. I inhaled R.L. Stein and Christopher Pike’s brands of teen horror, and while the rest of the known teen universe moved on to Mr. King, I read The Eyes of the Dragon, shrugged, and returned to Edgar Allan Poe.
Stephen King: excellent storyteller, sloppy writer.
Josh Malerman: sparse with the prose and the characterization, good with the fear.
Five stars on Goodreads; that is how much I enjoyed Josh Malerman’s 2014 debut Bird Box. But you should take those five stars with a grain of salt. Bird Box is thrillingly horrifying—it very adeptly capitalizes on the fear of the unknown—and I enjoyed every single second I spent reading it. It was the fabled “romp.” (Can we stop saying books are a “romp”? There is nothing rompy about laying in a chair ingesting words.) However, the farther I get from the heady experience of Bird Box‘s gasps and chills, the more problems I discover. You’d better get the whole salt shaker.
The horror was delicious. Of goose bumps and gasps.
Bird Box excels in the horror department and has a weird and cool SFFinal concept at its base. Incidents begin to flood the news, reports of gruesome murders followed by suicides, and the incidents are being caused by something the people have seen. As reports increase, people begin to cover their windows with blankets, stock up on canned goods, and stop leaving the house. (A different marketing campaign could have sold this as post-apocalyptic.) Turns out there are creatures on Earth who are so incomprehensible to the human brain that seeing one drives you mad. Malorie, who has just found out that fucking one-night stand last month left her pregnant, answers an ad in the paper for a house where survivors are gathering to hide out behind their blankets.
It is not safe to open your eyes outside. Malorie’s new housemates retrieve water from the well wearing blindfolds, as do the few brave enough to go on scavenging missions. A walk around the block takes days. How to find the next house? How to find the way back? How to keep your eyes closed when the only way you know how to know and to understand is to look?
Malerman keeps us in the dark (harhar) about these creatures, and I was so glad he did. Horror is most effective when its details are left to our imaginations. Details have ruined many a scare in books and movies alike. Keep it out of sight. Keep us guessing about that sound in the attic, that gust of air across our necks. Our individual imaginations are the best horror writers of all, and Malerman exploits every scary bump in the dark that has ever sent you to cower beneath a blanket.
But Malerman’s dependence on blindness as a source of horror has the potential to be horrifyingly ableist. Particularly if it rides off into blindness-as-metaphor land (example: Blindness by Jose Saramago), equating blindness with ignorance and vision with knowledge. Bird Box avoids this pitfall spectacularly. Thank you thank you thank you Josh Malerman, I was not in the mood to write another fucking essay about this.
Blindness in Bird Box is not a metaphor, and the condition itself is only scary insofar as it prevents the acquisition of knowledge. Bird Box‘s main protagonists, all sighted, have never learned to interact with the world without their eyes, and it is not an easy transition. Malorie’s children, however, who can see but have been raised to function well blindfolded, only become scared when they do not recognize a sound. The message is clear: for those accustomed to blindness, it is not a hinderance, and fear roots in a lack of knowledge, not in blindness itself.
In fact, it is the blind who are ideally adapted to survive and thrive in this world, and that is exactly what they do. Still, I wonder if a blind reader would enjoy Bird Box.
Who are these people? Of the presence and absence of characterization.
For all the time that Malerman spends building up the fear quotient and the atmosphere, the characters remain as sparse as the functional prose. I never felt like I knew these people, and for a reader who loves the psychological in-your-head thrill of a Shirley Jackson novel, that is quite a drawback indeed. Despite meeting her family and watching her cope with the new situation, I didn’t even feel like I knew Malorie, and she’s the main character.
Which brings me to the book’s most dubious potential flaw. Bird Box takes place in Detroit. If you have never been to Detroit then here’s a statistic to help you picture it: Detroit’s population is 82 percent Black or African-American. (This statistic is from wikipedia, which purports to have it from the U.S. Census Bureau.) Bird Box mentions about 15 characters. And most, if not all of them, are white.
Considering that Bird Box‘s main characters (eight housemates) are a group of people randomly thrown together by a newspaper ad, the odds are that the majority of them, this being DETROIT, would be people of color, Black, African-American. Despite the presence of supernatural-sounding creatures, Bird Box is set in our world. Did I miss a few key adjectives or is Malerman whitewashing? I went back to the text to find out.
Malorie: “her black hair hangs down to her shoulders…her blue eyes look grey in the pale light” (18)
Shannon (Malorie’s sister): “Shannon’s blonde hair betrays their mother’s Finnish roots. Malorie looks more like her father: strong, deep-set eyes and the smooth fair skin of a northerner” (20).
Ok, so Malorie, Shannon, and her parents are all white. Also: “the smooth fair skin of a northerner”? What? Because no people of color live in the north? Moving on to the housemates…
Tom: “Tom has blondish brown hair…His blue eyes flare with intelligence… Unshaven, his stubble is almost red” (54). “His sandy blond hair is messy above his fair face. The suggestion of freckles gives him color” (56).
Jules: “Jules’ short dark hair looks dirty. Like he’s been working outside” (55).
Don: “He too has dark hair. A little longer” (55).
Felix: “His big nose and bushy brown hair make him look almost cartoonish” (55).
Cheryl: “Her brown hair hides some of her face” (56).
Olympia: “…a very pretty, pale, dark-haired woman” (90).
Gary: “a brown beard…His brown hair, combed over to the side, is unruly” (218).
Duncan, Kirk (Gary’s brother), and Frank: Who the fuck knows.
Conclusions: Tom is white. Olympia is white. I would guess that Gary is white, because comb over, which would probably make Kirk white. Jules, Don, and Cheryl could be any race, as could Duncan and Frank (Gary’s ex-housemates). Felix’s sparse description is most likely that of a Black man, making it problematic that he is described as “cartoonish.” Victor is a border collie, George long dead and never visually described; neither are the looks of Malorie and Olympia’s two children. (Their absent fathers are also never described, so there’s an opening there.) Rick, Constance, and several others who we meet at the end of the book? Never visually described.
That’s six confirmed white characters (Malorie, Shannon, their parents, Tom, Olympia), and a hell of a lot of vague or absent description. Does that let Malerman off the hook for whitewashing? I don’t know. White characters are explicitly described as such, and the rest are left as visually blank as their personalities. Did Malerman want to leave room for readers to imagine these people however the fuck they want? (In which case, why explicitly mention the white characters?) Did he want to avoid visual description to keep us focused on the sound of our fear? (Again, then why explicitly mention white characters?) Or was he avoiding having to deal with the realities of race at all? That’s where I’d put my money.
Cramming it into a nutshell.
Conclusions: Iffy handling of race. Potential whitewashing. Absentee characterization. First-rate goose-bumped horror. Recommended heartily, with very specific reservations. Six out of seven I don’t know how the fuck to rate its.
Where I got it: Purchased, Frankfurt Book Fair