Friday, 5 December 2014

Zombie apocalypses? Passé. Nuclear holocausts? Demodé. Alien invasions? Another French word that verbalizes the act of rolling your eyes with an elegant, disdainful shrug.

Nowadays, if you really want to make a splash in the nigh-unstoppable apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction boom (and if you aren't Mike Carey), you've got to get creative. Try something a little different to stand out from the crowd of desolate civilizations and survival horror. We've had global insomnia, lethal children voices, and sentient parasites, so clearly it's time to think out of the box.

The bird box.

(Hahaha I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, maybe I'll regret that later, but for now I shall enjoy your groans of disgust)

At first, it's just mildly interesting news. I don't mean to be callous, but people have been killing themselves for ages, so if there's a little uptick in the statistics, it's awful and sad, but you're not gonna drop that sandwich you're eating. You might chew a little more slowly as you sadly contemplate the meaning of life, but you're still gonna take another bite.

Except the number keeps rising exponentially all across the world. It's revealed that every single one of these victims saw something before they went mad and committed gruesome suicide -- but nobody knows what it is that they saw. Everyone who has seen it is already dead, usually in a very horrible and messy way. Blood here, there, everywhere, etc.

On the eve of this mysterious apocalypse, Malorie discovers she's pregnant. Because apparently Josh Malerman thinks it's not bad enough that you can't open your eyes without seeing something that strikes you with the maddening urge to lethally disembowel yourself, you also have to be responsible for another useless, noisy human being that can't even feed itself (I may have just described my mother getting up in the morning??? Love you, Mom!).

So as the world shuts down in fear and people begin dying left and right, Malerie, thus burdened, finds her way to a safe house where other survivors have gathered. They try to eke out a living without ever seeing the outside world. Then shit goes down, and I don't just mean it follows the earth's gravitational pull, I mean it violently pummels into the ground and bursts out on the opposite side of the planet in a riotous explosion of guts and dinosaur fossils.


Bird Box is composed of one part mounting dread, two parts unbearable tension, three parts claustrophobic stress, and I might have lost track of the mathematical percentage of the rest of it because I'm naturally very talented at being bad at math. In my defense, after some point it all sort of dissolved into a screaming "no nO omg NO NONONONO" until I collapsed from exhaustion. 

It's like Malerman deliberately set out to ruin my tried and tested method of being a scared little shit at night. Closing my eyes used to be the best defense because I could pretend nothing else was in my room with me, but in this book there's ALWAYS something there. They're always there. Watching. Waiting for you to open your eyes. 


And yet! I may now be stranded without a workable coping method for creepy things that go bump in the night, but I'm still gonna be shoving this into people's faces and yodeling for them to read it.

Because Bird Box is a pretty great--if pants-wettingly terrifying--experience. Malerman takes full advantage of the concept that what you imagine in your head is much more frightening than what you can actually see. The book never reveals what it is that's so terrible the very sight of it drives people insane, but knowing that it's there, watching silently and ominously as you blindly stumble about like a newborn idiot, inspires an even deeper kind of fear.

It's fascinating to see how the survivors have adapted to a world they cannot look at. None of them have seen the outside world in months, so they have to resort to using dogs to navigate the streets like blind people (visually impaired?) and installing a bird box by the door to warn them of any danger. As the group takes in new survivors, the dynamics change in new and unsettling ways, leading one to question where the true danger lies--out in the open where the mysterious monsters roam free? Or is it inside the house, where the tenuous trust that binds a group together begins to fray?

In the beginning, Malorie, pregnant and alone, is portrayed as someone who could only depend on other people to survive, watching as other people took risks and took charge. Her character undergoes a remarkable series of changes under the most extraordinary circumstances--the birthing scene is particularly hair-raising, and entirely worth the price of admission (it was at this particular point where I put the book down and took to Twitter, where I spiraled between "BIRD BOX IS SO GREAT WHAT A THRILL" and "THIS BOOK IS WREAKING HAVOC ON MY ANXIETY LEVELS SEND HELP"). Malorie's treatment of her children as she trains them not to open their eyes and forces them to develop almost superhuman hearing, is harsh but admirable. She's done being a victim, and she's going to make sure her children can survive in this terrifying new world.

The narrative descends into the minds of its characters, putting you right in the world's most claustrophobic driver's seat and instilling you with a crippling dose of paranoia. This almost telepathic point of view excellently sets the uncomfortably cramped atmosphere and kind of makes you want to  put it down every now and then to compose yourself. I tensed up so many times when I was reading this book I'm surprised my head didn't permanently vanish into my shoulders. 

Want to witness the steady degradation of the survivors' mental states as they turn on each other in paranoid mistrust? Interested in joining Malorie and her children as they venture out into the world, blind and defenseless? Prefer to vacillate between the terror of darkness behind closed eyes or the terror that awaits you when you open them? 

Whichever you choose, Bird Box has it all in the form of one incredible and intensely harrowing ride.


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