The best books unfold like movies for the mind, with readers compelled to visualize the events in living color, as they unfold in black and white on the page. The horror debut novel Bird Box is a conundrum: a novel that directs readers to visualize being unable to visualize anything. Set partially in a post-apocalyptic future where just looking around at the world could be fatal, it puts readers in the place of characters who have to operate blind in a world full of threats—including some malign new ones. It’s fundamentally impossible for the protagonists to know exactly what’s menacing them and why, and first-time author (and The High Strung frontman) Josh Malerman suggests that this uncertainty, and the constant temptation to counter it, might be the most frightening thing of all.
The book opens with a woman named Malorie living alone in a decrepit house with two 4-year-old children, called simply Boy and Girl. After four years without looking outside, Malorie is preparing to get into a rowboat and take the children away on a journey they’ll all have to make blindfolded. Malerman is coy about where they’re going, or why suddenly now; given the state of the world as Malorie understands it, the trip seems like guaranteed death. As the questions pile up, the novel flashes back to an era before the present crisis, with Malorie recovering from a brief love affair that left her pregnant, as the first reports start coming in of an insanity pandemic that causes victims to abruptly commit startlingly graphic, creative murder-suicides. All anyone knows is that the afflicted each saw something that destroyed their minds—and no one can say what, since no one survives contact. Holing up, covering all the windows, and donning blindfolds before going outside seem to be the only protection.
As society breaks down, Malorie seeks shelter with strangers; some welcome another survivor, while others consider Malorie’s pregnancy a guaranteed burden. As the two stories separately progress, the question naturally becomes how one timeline led to the other, and how Malorie ended up alone—though her weary survey of old bloodstains throughout the house provides an early clue.
Malerman veers back and forth between the slightly too lyrical, elegiac style of a high-blown literary novel, and the blunt prose of a propulsive horror story. He similarly crowds his book with minutia, while not focusing on some of the details that matter, like the ones that would differentiate all the characters packed into the survivors’ house with Malorie. The erratic tone and focus can be distracting, and so can the unsubtle attempt to drum up tension by hiding Malorie’s intentions. It’s appropriate, but still frustrating, that the novel never fully pins down what caused the insanity pandemic, or why—though given that the book channels the portentous dread and weighty inevitability of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, it’s probably just as well that it avoids a laughable, deflating Happening-style explanation. Instead, Bird Box feels a little more beholden to the doomed plodding of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, with its nameless catastrophe in the past, its nameless children representing the world’s lack of future, and their guardian’s lack of hope.
Malerman excels at building tension with his eerie descriptions of blindfolded characters groping their way through a world of the dead, aware that something inhuman and beyond comprehension might be observing them, or possibly standing right in front of them. Malorie’s trek down the river is frightening, but even more unsettling is the constant awareness of the characters’ helplessness in both timelines, and the possible price of any attempt to alleviate it: Every time they hear a strange noise, encounter an unnervingly unfamiliar object, or feel what might be a gentle touch from an unseen, alien creature, they’re tempted to lift their blindfolds and settle their fears—possibly at the cost of their sanity, and then their lives. Malerman overreaches a bit in his debut, which could use as much attention to the cast as to the mood, but the mood is chillingly effective. Reading it feels like accepting a dare to walk into a strange place, eyes closed, with no idea who, or what, might be reaching out to make contact.