This review contains spoilers for all of Josh Malerman’s works.
What more could anyone expect from the man who already dreamed up madness-inducing physical representations of infinity (Bird Box), a featureless form of love, obsession and virginity (A House at the Bottom of Lake) and feuding directors who redefined the boundaries of paranoia (Ghastle and Yule)?
The answer is: everything. The potent originality that makes Malerman such an important voice continues to thrive in Black Mad Wheel, in which he presents an idea that rivals his very best: what if a sound could do more than just be heard – what if it could debilitate, cripple, disarm, raise the dead, or even change the course of history?
Malerman is my favourite author for good reason; his works open the mind to the kind of nightmare notions that in turn give life to the most powerful mysteries. The kind of mysteries that keep you theorising around the clock.
And the kind of notions that make you feel like Malerman might have written something just for you – addressed topics that you thought only you obsessed about; the effort to comprehend infinity, the way in which underwater horror is more terrifying than any other kind, or the idea that a song might have limitless potential.
Much of what Malerman does boils down to that infamous Shakespeare quote: ‘There are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ The idea that the capability of mankind’s knowledge has limits and the exploration of what happens when we peer over the edge of that precipice.
Four musicians are sent to hunt down the source of a sound that the military have recorded but have failed to locate – a sound that has disarmed nuclear weapons and which makes the listener sick upon hearing it. It’s an audio enigma that the U.S. government naturally deems a threat, to the point where it has given up on sending in soldiers and has now reverted to sending in “experts on sound” instead – a group of musicians called The Danes.
Philip Tonka – The Danes’ pianist and a man who believes in following his own version of destiny that he calls “The Path” – is the novel’s focus. We alternate between the present, in which Philip is recovering in hospital (after the sound has broken every bone in his body) under the care of a kindly nurse who falls for him (Ellen), and the past, in which Philip and the rest of The Danes (along with a few other crucial men) set out on their mission to locate the source of the elusive sound.
Their destination is the Namib desert, Africa – the etymological origin for which is ’empty’. But like the dense Douglas fir forests of Twin Peaks or the unexplored abysses of our oceans, the desert is another place where anything could be hiding just on the peripheral of human discovery.
While it might seem like everything should lay open and visible on flat expanses and rolling dunes, it’s what lies beneath the sand that’s the basis of this mystery. One character correctly observes: “a place so empty, so exposed, must keep secrets.” And by the story’s climax, we follow Philip as he retreats into an underground labyrinth of corridors, journeying towards the heart of the sound.
Make no mistake, this is different to Malerman’s prior books, even if the familiar horror themes remain. The language is sparse; short, sharp and biting. Philip’s experiences when the sound occurs are sometimes akin to a psychedelic haze – a barrage of ghosts, vomit and that all important figure: the man in red who masquerades in goat’s horns and hooves.
Yet as the novel reaches its endgame, we learn that this man is not the creator of the sound, but only someone who has learned to harness it. Following that reveal, only some answers are provided, while the grandest mystery of all – in true Malerman style – is somewhat left unanswered.
It is implied that the sound might be the source of creation, which is a beautiful notion, but its true origins are left unknown. It’s a careful trick that Malerman has perfected – giving just enough answers but not all of them. It’s a balance that both satisfies the reader and leaves them room to interpret their own conclusions.
Not everything works perfectly. The opening chapters are a little difficult to warm to. Dr Szands is a little too “out there” – a little too crazed and disgusting, causing him to feel more like a caricature of a villain than a man. Equally, some of the military higher-ups come across as a little too grotesque in their ways. It feels like a instance where less might have been more, if these characters had been normalised a little.
Other than that it’s a searingly brilliant and inventive ride – something all the more impressive when you remember that it’s only Malerman’s second full novel. It tackles everything from the grandest ideas and observations (“The End of Bright Colours”, ending mankind’s cycle of war, etc. – much of which comes from a character named Greer) to the smallest heartfelt connections (found in the low-key but endearing love that forms between Philip and Ellen).
Bird Box remains Malerman’s most outstanding achievement, but you’ll come away from Black Mad Wheel feeling like it’s a more expert work. Malerman has stepped up his craft, while managing to retain his groundbreaking ingenuity in the process.
At one point it is observed: ‘Tracing his fingertips across the paper, Philip can almost feel the violence of that moment in time.’ This is a nice summation of how you feel, coming away from this experience. Malerman’s ideas and execution are so commanding that they almost do just that – reverberate off the page. Remodifying not your physical chemistry but your expectations of what is now possible within modern horror literature, a genre which Malerman is – in my view – chieftain of.
Black Mad Wheel is out now in the U.S. and will be released on 27th July 2017 in the U.K.
Image credits: Josh Malerman, HarperCollins