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BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman

BIRD BOX - Josh Malerman BIRD BOX

Josh Malerman

Harper Voyager (harpervoyagerbooks.co.uk)

£14.99

Malorie hasn’t seen outside the house where she lives with her two four-year-old children since six months before they were born. There are creatures outside, creatures who, if you look at them, will drive you into a murderous rage that will ultimately end in your own suicide. Following the death of her sister, Malorie follows a newspaper advertisement and finds herself in a house outside Detroit with a handful of strangers whose only plan is to survive. Four years later, Malorie is on her own with the children and makes a decision that will put their lives at risk. She is going to take them outside in an attempt to get them to a safer place. They must travel around twenty miles on the river and, if they are to survive, they must do so blindfolded, relying only on the children’s highly-trained sense of hearing to guide them and keep them safe.

As Josh Malerman’s debut novel, Bird Box, opens we find ourselves in a version of our own world where something is not quite as it should be. We are introduced immediately to Malorie, as she makes the decision to pack up her children, and make a break for the river. There is a palpable sense of paranoia coming in waves off this young woman and we soon learn that in this empty house, all of the doors are locked, and all of the windows are covered in heavy drapes. Most shocking, perhaps, is the chicken-wire and black cheesecloth constructions that allow her to lock her children – Boy and Girl – in their beds at night, to prevent them from inadvertently looking outside. This fact, more than anything else that comes before or after, brings home the full extent of the danger these people face.

As Malorie leaves the house – she and the two children blindfolded – we watch, in flashbacks, as the world changes, from the initial “Russia Report”, to the rapid spread across the globe, which coincides with Malorie’s discovery that she is pregnant. Alternating chapters take us from Malorie’s flight along the river, to her arrival, almost five years earlier, at the house, the duration of her pregnancy, and the events that ultimately leave her alone, raising two children to the best of her ability under the circumstances. Rather than focusing on the breakdown of society, Malerman focuses on the microcosmic world of the inhabitants of the house: the mistrust of new people, and the initial tense welcome that Malorie receives when her saviours discover that she is pregnant, and the implications this is likely to have in a world where a scarcity of food is the least of their problems; the factions that form within the house when trouble breaks out; and the overriding fact that these people have a desire to survive, despite what is going on beyond the safety of their front door.

Malerman’s purpose in telling the tale is less in frightening the reader – although he succeeds admirably in this – but in examining how fear affects people, and how parenthood changes the game completely. This is Malorie’s story, and is an examination of the lengths to which she will go to protect her children. Everything she does, she does on blind faith, from stepping beyond the well – the furthest point she has gone from the house in four years – because Tom has told her that the river lies in that direction, to the trip along the river itself – the purpose of which we learn late in the novel, and the uncertainty of what lies at the end of her journey is at once shocking, yet entirely understandable: anything must be better than the situation in which she currently finds herself. It’s an age-old story of how far we will go to improve the lot of our children, and increase their chances of success or, in this case, survival.

At heart, this is an old-fashioned horror story, that has a lot in common (size not being on of those things) with Stephen King’s classic post-apocalypse novel, The Stand. The world as we know it has ended, but Malerman takes no time to examine the cause of this disaster. Bird Box is about people picking up the pieces, and trying to survive. What makes this world even more deadly than the post-Captain Trips-world of King’s 1978 novel is that there is no immunity: these people have survived partly out of pure luck, partly because they were smart enough to take note of what was happening and stop looking outside; but the threat lingers on, an ever-present danger that these people must continue to deal with in order to continue surviving. Because Malerman never breaks out of Malorie’s head, we have no idea what has actually caused this to happen. We hear the same theories that Malorie does and, in the intense birth scene, we catch a glimpse of something that verifies at least one of these theories, but we never actually see these “creatures” or understand their origins or objectives. This approach, like some of the best horror films where the threat rarely, if ever, appears directly on screen, makes this world all the more frightening for the reader. This works to Malerman’s advantage, particularly in Malorie’s journey along the river, where we are as blind as she is and are never quite sure if the noises she and her children are hearing are likely to be fatal or not, indigenous or alien.

Bird Box – the novel’s name comes from the ingenious alarm system that the housemates rig outside the front door to warn them of anyone approaching – takes an in-depth look at madness in its many forms, and the effects of isolation on the human mind. When we meet Malorie, she seems perfectly normal, but there are hints – the drive to move, the fact that her children don’t have names and answer to Boy and Girl, the paranoia – that she has been affected in ways that we, the reader, cannot possibly begin to imagine. Malerman’s masterstroke – a beautiful final touch – is the fact that there will not necessarily be a happily ever after. There is an element of ambiguity that the author leaves, quite rightly, open to the interpretation of the individual reader. I find myself thinking of those final few pages quite often, as I suspect many readers will when they reach the end of this extraordinary novel: sometimes I hope for the best; other times I can’t help but think the worst.

In a world where we’re no longer frightened of the supernatural in fiction, mostly through exposure to whatever faux-documentary film series is currently top of the crop, Josh Malerman takes us back to first principles to scare the bejeesus clean out of us. Intense and paranoid, Malerman’s approach to storytelling leaves us as much in the dark as the novel’s protagonists and draws us into this threatening, dangerous world that lies in a not-too-distant future. Beautifully constructed in a way that constantly keeps us asking questions, doubting absolutely everything we are told, Bird Box has an edge-of-the-seat element – that dark journey along the river – that keeps the reader turning pages at a furious rate. Literary horror constructed around a highly original kernel, Bird Box heralds the arrival of a stunning new talent. The cover of the book exhorts “Don’t open your eyes”. I can guarantee that, within the first few pages, you won’t want to close your eyes until you’ve seen this gripping story through to the end. This is a novel you definitely won’t want to miss.

THE CLUMSY GHOST by Alastair Jessiman et al

the-clumsy-ghost THE CLUMSY GHOST AND OTHER SPOOKY TALES

Alastair Jessiman, Anna Britten, David Blake, Roy McMillan, Edward Ferrie, Margaret Ferrie, David Angus

Read by Sean Barrett, Harry Somerville, Anne-Marie Piazza, Roy McMillan, Thomas Eyre

Naxos Audiobooks (www.naxosaudiobooks.com)

£10.00

(Available as a CD audiobook or digital download)

I have, for a long time, been a fan of horror, cutting my teeth back in the ‘80s on anthologies edited together especially for younger readers by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, and the novels of Christopher Pike. From there, I graduated to the novels of Stephen King and the rest, as they say, is history. I still have a fondness for those old novels and anthologies and like to revisit them when I have the chance. I was offered a copy of Naxos Audiobooks’ The Clumsy Ghost and Other Spooky Tales for review and jumped at the offer, seeing a chance to relive those parts of my childhood that cemented in place my love for reading.

The Clumsy Ghost is a collection of seven specially-commissioned short spooky tales written specifically for audio presentation, and to appeal to an audience of 8-13 year-olds. According to publisher Nicholas Soames, the plan was to recreate a genre of ghost stories that appealed to the whole family, in the vein of Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost or Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

What they have produced is something of a mixed bag; as with all anthologies, some entries are stronger than others. Some of the entries will appeal specifically to the younger members of the family, while others are aimed at the higher end of the 8-13 year-old range, and one or two appealing to the whole family group – mum and dad included. The title story is a comedic tale about a ghost who decides to haunt a local mansion whose owners have fallen upon hard times. The ghost, a clumsy man in life, discovers that he is no less clumsy in death, and ends up causing trouble for the family, rather than helping them. “Unable to Connect” puts a very modern spin on an old-fashioned tale. A teenage girl hears her mobile phone ringing, even though she has left it at home, and discovers shortly afterwards that her mother has died at around the same time.

The strongest stories in the collection are “The Weeping Tree” and “The Book of Imhotep”. Margaret Ferrie’s “The Weeping Tree” is good old-fashioned horror story, with one scene in particular that will send a shiver up the spine of even the most hardened reader of horror. “The Book of Imhotep” takes us back to Egypt and a battle of wits between a cocky young prince and a long-dead sorcerer.

Overall, the stories are good, if not always excellent. With some, it is clear that they have been written specifically for audio presentation, while others have been written with a more traditional slant, and would not be out of place between the covers of a physical book. These stories provide chills aplenty, but are not designed to give nightmares, and in that they should succeed admirably (admittedly, I’m 36 years old, so the intended audience may see things slightly differently).

The two-disc set provides around two and a half hours of family entertainment the old-fashioned way, with nary a television set in sight. The readers are consistently wonderful – Sean Barrett is the stand-out here – and all well-suited to the stories they read. Naxos are best-known for their wonderful recordings of some of the finest classical music out there, and they have managed to incorporate some of this into the production, so expect to hear music from Debussy, Elgar and Rimsky-Korsakov, amongst others. The Clumsy Ghost and Other Spooky Tales  should be essential Hallowe’en or Christmas listening for families who like to spend time reading together, and should provide children with an introduction to the much wider world of horror fiction.

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