In our entertainment-laden society, it is hard to create something scary. We live in the time of the seven (!) Saw movies, which coined the phrase “torture porn.” We’ve seen the evolution of Stephen King both in his novels and the screen, topiary bushes in the shapes of animals rushing towards us each time we leave them unwatched, clowns waiting to snatch us and carry us down gutters into their lairs, bubbles thrust down upon towns from the sky. We’ve known sweet women possessed and more stern but kind exorcists than we can count, guys keeping the faith even when their church has cast them out for their beliefs. And we’ve known haunted houses. Oh, the haunted houses we’ve known.
But Josh Malerman brings us, with Bird Box, the sort of hysterical fear Edgar Allen Poe builds to an almost unbearable height in his short story The Tell-Tale Heart. The air in this book is so thick with anxiety you can cut it with a knife, you can dive into it like it’s a pool. You could almost see the anxiety, if you could just open your eyes.
Because you must keep them closed: in Bird Box, people catch a glimpse of something which drives them mad. They start killing each other, killing themselves. Those unaffected start covering their windows, not leaving their homes. The unaffected choose to act as if they were blind, using brooms or canes to find their way when they must venture out. As time progresses, only those who blindfold themselves outside, to prevent seeing whatever sort of awful thing outside is poisoning humanity, survive.
This is a book of people stumbling in the dark, feeling for things they aren’t sure are there. This is a book in which the moment you decide to take off your blindfold and open your eyes could be your last sane moment on earth. This is a book that heavily relies on mood, one voice calling out slowly to another voice. “Are you still out there…?” “Yes, I’m still here.” “…Are you okay?”
In one of its most memorably terrifying scenes, getting water from a well (what should be a short distance from the safety of home) turns into a sensory delirium, all panic and doubt, as footsteps are heard or imagined, objects felt or brushed over, queries distorted by distance and fear. A short walk turns into an agonizing plunge through the unknown. Bird Box is very scary, indeed.
As those countless Saw films illustrate, brutality is a simple formula, blunt and easy to replicate. Much more difficult to execute is suspense. Suspense happens in all the moments we’ve trained ourselves to ignore, as we rush from one action film to the next, as we save reading only for our daily commutes. Malerman creates, with Bird Box, a world in which each statement, each movement or pause, is dripping with a delicious suspense that demands your full attention. Bird Box deserves a dark house and a warm cup of tea, it deserves your full attention as you pause and think, with each character: “Is this the moment to open your eyes, despite all that may be out there, waiting?”