In my recent review of Josh Malerman’s horror novel, Bird Box, I mentioned that it was as though he pressed the reset button on the horror genre in a manner of speaking. While I won’t rehash the plot details (for that you can read my review), the basic premise is that people find themselves in a world where going outside will kill them because there are creatures who, once seen, cause humans to go berserk and off others but usually go to such a point of craziness that the only option becomes offing themselves.
Blindness is the only solution–blindfolds, patching up any windows or other things that reveal the outside world to the interior of a house, or should you be so “lucky”, suffering from the affliction of blindness (in some cases, the option to blind oneself is presented as a recourse).
This piece isn’t going to be a historical comparison piece about how the glut of offerings in the horror genre exploded in the 1980s when the genre had a boom and several micro movements within it such as Splatterpunk. Nor is this piece intended to be a contributor to the tiresome and never-ending debate of “extreme horror” vs. “quiet horror” and trying to get everyone to come to a consensus as to which is deemed the more “legitimate” form of horror. All this rather than accepting that horror readers have different tastes.
The reason that Bird Box works so well is that it presents the humans in this book with an enemy that they know is there, but they don’t know when it will strike. It’s an enemy they can’t see, yet they’ve experienced firsthand the damage that the enemy has done and has the potential to do to them, as well, if they get caught. It’s an enemy against which there’s no known cure, no solution as to how to stop them, get rid of them, kill them, or send them back to wherever it is that they came from.
Even worse, it’s suggested that this is an enemy that may not be able to control the fact that it has such an adverse reaction in the creatures who make the mistake of looking at it. There’s a similar principle behind the concept of the Panopticon that Michel Foucault talked about. Prison guards and wardens stood at the top of a tower from which they could see everything that the prisoners were doing, but the prisoners themselves, even though they knew they were being watched, could never confirm this for sure.
But the knowledge that they were being watched, the threat that they could be punished, not knowing when and by whom, was disturbing enough to prevent them from acting out, so to speak.
It’s one thing if you can see the enemy you have to kill, but it’s entirely another to have the knowledge that they’re always out there, but never knowing when for sure. When Malorie first arrives at a safehouse and finds a group of people there, after they let her into the house, they slam the door shut and feel all around her to make sure that nothing came in with her. This is their protocol to make sure a creature didn’t accidentally sneak in with someone who they decided to let in. This is the way they have to live in order to survive. They have no choice. They can’t afford to take any risks as being wrong would cost them all their lives.
If you go back far enough to the roots of fear, probably one of the first things man was afraid of was the dark. Heck, whole songs have been written about it. Movies. TV shows. Books. The fear of darkness is evolutionary and primal. Children are often afraid of the dark. The Bible talks about how wise it is to fear the darkness, because no good can come from it. The solution, it preaches, is to embrace the light.
How many works of horror feature monsters who don’t like the light, claiming that it burns them, because they thrive in the darkness, not wanting to be seen? Part of the fear of darkness is the inability to see, which introduces the fear of the unknown. Human nature thrives on being able to know something for sure, to confirm that what we’re touching when we’re stumbling in the dark hallway to get back upstairs, for example, is what we think it is. Adding sounds that we don’t recognize enhances the sense of more unknown elements. The more a human being is deprived of that knowledge, that confirmation that everything is okay, the more heightened their sense of fear is.
Think about why people used to be so afraid in medieval times of legends about werewolves and vampires. Of course, you could argue that people were also far more gullible back then and didn’t have anywhere near the amount of knowledge the average person has now, but the fear of the dark and unknown were all too real back then when superstitions were king.
Have you ever tried listening to those old radio shows from the 20s and 30s, sometimes called Golden Age of Radio, that used to be an endless source of entertainment for people who loved their thrills and chills before the advent of film and television? Have you ever tried listening to an old horror radio show in the dark, with the lights out?
Although a lot of radio shows relied on camp and over-acting, the effect of listening to an old radio show that was directed and produced well, and listening to it in the dark, is startling. It evokes the fear of the unknown and ignites our psychological “fight or flight” response, often prompting us to go with the “flight” mechanism, or wanting to get the hell out of dodge.
Bird Box is the kind of book that reminds us just how easy it is for our imaginations to take over in the absence of light, and when you don’t have the option of turning on the lights, so to speak. In other words, Bird Box isn’t just another generic ripoff of the same variation of something we’ve seen a million times before. Bird Box thankfully doesn’t feel anything like the same blockbuster we see over and over again in theaters starring the most popular action star of the day that audiences flock to with the hopes of a good scare.
Bird Box doesn’t give humans the “yeah, we’ve figured out what the monsters are and what hurts them, so now we just have to hunt and kill them all before they finish us up” plot. In fact, in one of the cheekiest and most delightful moments in the horror genre, Louis de Pointe du Lac, Anne Rice’s protagonist from Interview with the Vampire, corrects the journalist to whom he’s dictating his life story, telling him that actually he loves the light and he’s quite fond of it, unlike some of the monsters of a bygone era that came before him. So, the variation that monsters don’t mind the light at all has also been done, and done well, by some authors, some, of course, better than others.
But it’s refreshing to see a novel in which humanity doesn’t have all the answers, in which there is no safety plan, there is no Plan A (there’s not even a Plan C or D), and it’s up to who is the most determined to fight and survive and to make the bold step to go outside. Bird Box forces the reader to face the same fear as the characters in the book, wondering not only if they will survive, and wondering if the mystery of what these creatures are will be unravelled (not to mention, finding out why they have this effect on living beings and if they can control it or if it’s out of their control).
It also forces the reader to try to figure things out while being left in the dark. It makes the reader think but keeps us on our toes, never quite knowing which direction the book will go in. It resists the conventions of a usual plot structure and, as such, prevents the reader from making witty quips or guesses as to how it will all end, or if they do, this is one book that ensures the reader will be dead wrong.
And for that, I salute Mr. Malerman for such a finely crafted, quality, horror novel that has taken the genre back to its roots. He has explored old territory, previously seemingly forgotten, like it was buried ages ago and only recently uncovered in an archaeological dig. I praise the author for showing us that something that made us afraid since the beginning of time is still bone-chilling when executed well.