Monday, August 22, 2016
Book 62: Holy cow. Just... holy cow.
Bird Box is a post-apocalyptic story, I guess, but I think of it more as a horror story. It takes place at the start of a strange set of occurrences as people around the country begin going mad, attacking and violently killing each other or themselves. At the same time, Mallory, the main character, learns that she has accidentally gotten pregnant. Living with her sister, Shannon, Mallory only slowly starts to pay attention to the news reports Shannon keeps talking about -- a trucker gone crazy in Russia, then some more incidents around the world, until word spreads that there is some kind of creature, or creatures walking around, and that if you see them you go mad and kill yourself.
If that setup sounds a lot like The Happening, yeah, I thought so, too, and for a moment at the outset of the book I was worried it would end up terrible like that movie, but this book is what The Happening was supposed to be. It is genuinely frightening in a dozen different ways on level after level, as Mallory tries to cope with a world in which people have to blindfold themselves to go outside, block all the windows, and never open their eyes if they are unsure who (or what) is around them. There are enough truly frightening moments in this book to make any horror fan happy, and they range from the unsettling to the wildly terrifying. (Chapter 41, as I said, is so brilliant, it actually gave me goosebumps and made me feel a bit nervous.)
The book unfolds in the back-and-forth style that's pretty common in horror novels these days. But unlike books like, say, It, in which a flashback (or flash-forward) ruins any suspense, here the way the story develops the method actually increases the tension and fear, because it allows little things from the present to help you suddenly realize that something bad is going to happen in the flashback.
Bird Box also benefits from the fact that there is a lot the story doesn't come right out and tell you; like the best horror stories it lets your own subconscious scare you a lot of the time. I honestly couldn't wait to get back to the book and keep listening to it, and on the final night I was glad that Mr F wanted an extra-long ride because it meant I could wrap up the final chapters all in one ride -- one deeply unsettling and terrifying ride, as it turned out.
It's easily one of the best books I've read all year, and is definitely in the top 5 of horror novels I've read in my life (The other four: The Stand, A Good And Happy Child, Slade House, The Passage.).
I can't really say much else about it that wouldn't spoil the entire book. The author (it's his first book, apparently he's in a band and just sort of wrote this book) comes up with interesting characters who manage to feel like complete people without a jillion pages of backstory. He's got clever ways of showing just how hard and awful life in such a world would be, as well as demonstrating how people would react differently to it. (Consider that one character at one point drives a car to go retrieve some items, but first paints all the windows black, driving in an abandoned world at 5 miles an hour, totally blind.)
To follow up on the this is like The Happening thing: When I first started thinking that, it came close to spoiling the book for me, and I later wondered why. It doesn't wreck a book if it features vampires -- like The Passage -- or demons (A Good And Happy Child) -- so why would it wreck it if it features a mysterious force or thing causing people to kill themselves? I decided that while some things have become more or less everyone's property, like vampires, some things are unique to an author, like killer clowns or those weird twins in Slade House. Using something everyone's used doesn't feel like stealing, while using something that seems unique does, a bit. Luckily (a) The Happening was so terrible that even if this did directly rip it off it would be worth it, because this book is so good, and (b) this ends up being nothing like The Happening really, on any level, really: any similarities go out the window pretty quickly and within about a chapter I had forgotten any misgivings I might have had.
I can't recommend this book enough. I wish I could go read it again all over, experiencing it for the first time. Every book should be this good.