‘Bird Box’ Named Horror Novel Of The Year

iStockphoto / imagospot
iStockphoto / imagospot

Also: Finalist For A Bram Stoker Award

You write because you love reading, and you write horror because you believe in the monsters, you believe in the imagination, you believe in the dark. I BELIEVE IN THE DARK.

Josh Malerman
Josh Malerman

Josh Malerman has won This Is Horror’s Novel of the Year award blindfolded. Don’t take it from me, read the book.

The author’s Bird Box was named the winner on Tuesday (February 24). We covered the release of Malerman’s book here at Thought Catalog because it was one of freshest, most intelligent debuts of 2014. The book also offers one of the strongest, most sophisticated female protagonists you’ll find in a lot of reading — one whom Malerman told me “wants to smash her fist through the wall.”

The book was well-received but never seemed to get the kind of publishing-house support it needed to move into the channels of real attention it deserved. Its release timing didn’t make it a trade-show title, something that could have been reconsidered. And there were managerial changes at its Stateside HarperCollins imprint, Ecco Books. At the London Book Fair, the novel — from HarperCollins Voyager in the UK — was standing on a shelf at the company’s sleek, big pavilion at Earls Court. But it wasn’t one of the titles the publisher’s folks had chosen to play up.

By comparison, this is one of the books that did not get the kind of attention that Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven got both in the States from Random House’s Alfred A. Knopf and in the UK from Macmillan’s Picador.

Malerman has not spoken to me about these observations. They come from my own perspective on the industry. My opinion — not to put words in anyone’s mouth — is that Bird Box is one of the books we hear about that did not get the backing from its Big Five publisher that could have made it a “big book.” Any publisher makes the best calls possible at the time, of course, about which books are to be pushed and which not. And hindsight wears no blindfolds — it’s easier now, perhaps, to see the book’s potential. But I think Bird Box fell prey to some miscalculations, judgment calls that somehow determined that it was not to be given a major, sustained roll out. The kind of attention it now is getting may indicate that things might have been done differently.

Indeed, Bird Box has just been listed on the final ballot for the Horror Writers Association, a finalist in the Bram Stoker Awards. The winners will be announced May 9 in Atlanta at the World Horror Convention. Malerman is within striking distance of an award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel.

Earlier this month, the paperback edition of the book was released with a strangely Dial M for Murder-ish cover. Yes, a phone figures in the story, but  the original cover from designer Suet Yee Chong is far closer to the otherworldly, fearful quality of the plot. This isn’t a dripping-blood kind of horror tale. But I’m glad to see the next stage of the book’s life and especially to see readers finding and praising the book with its Serling-steady control and deeply unsettling worldview.

The original cover of the the hardback release of Josh Malerman's Bird Box.
The original cover of the the hardback release of Josh Malerman’s “Bird Box.”

Going on in his award acceptance message, Malerman reminds me of comments he made when I did a live interview with him in Los Angeles at the Writer’s Digest Conference there last summer. He writes about finding one’s way into writing in the big, wide genre called “horror” through small, incremental stages of self-discovery.

As related here before, his was an exceptionally long march to publication: Malerman wrote book after book — 17 books — across more than a decade, before allowing anything to be seen. He knows every step of the route:

Maybe you start with poems, unrelated chunks, paragraphs. This may lead to short, freaky stories. Then you’re finally writing books and (holy cow) now you’re publishing books. And then you receive a notice that your book, your scary book, has won the best novel prize from a great website, a purity in the field. Nobody does it better than “This is Horror” and so not only is this a glorious chain of events for me, it’s also a magnificent HONOR. Thank you, This is Horror, and may I always maintain my end of the bargain, that when a reader reads a book of mine they will think, ‘THIS is horror.’

Having spent several hours this year in interviews and conference settings trying to convince Malerman that his debut is more literary than horror — to no avail, the guy simply is not having it — I’ve come to the conclusion that “horror” lies in the mind of the reader. Or writer.

Malerman had birds flying free in the room with him as he wrote Bird Box. For me, that’s horror enough. Finches. But still. And yet, when I read his book — as Ebury’s Rebecca Smart tweeted from London, with “heart racing” — I get something more primordial and psychologically menacing than what I think of as horror. I sense a force of danger, others will think monsters. That’s all fine.

The new paperback edition cover of Josh Malerman's "Bird Box."
The new paperback edition cover of Josh Malerman’s “Bird Box.”

#MusicForWriters readers might like to know that Malerman is a committed writer-to-music and collects horror film soundtracks to use as he works. He knows his Hollywood hatchet scores, never mind that he’s also the front man for a band called The High Strung. (And you have to bring up the irony of that ensemble’s name, he won’t.)

Based in the Detroit area, Malerman is one of agent Kristin Nelson’s most promising talents, and Bird Box, yes, has a film option that’s working its way through the Beverly Hills with exactly the speed that tends to make those events horrors that even I can recognize as such.

Malerman’s win is on a page at ThisIsHorror.co.uk, with winners and runners-up in this year’s awards. The name of the site, This Is Horror, works on the serious side in the same way that cozy mystery writer Elizabeth S. Craig’s wonderful site title works in humor: Mystery Writing Is Murder.

I decided that as long as the talented Mr. Malerman is going to continue hangin’ with the horrified no matter how much I try to put the fear of literary into him that I’d learn a little about This Is Horror, the outfit conferring the award. After all, if this is the kind of thing these folks call “horror,” maybe I need to revise my expectations.

 ‘Read On Numerous Levels’

The first phase of the This Is Horror Awards is public nominations. This stage ran for two weeks this year although we’re changing the public nominations window for 2015. Readers email in nominations for each of the award categories. The nominations are counted and comprise the longlist from which the shortlist is formed. Senior Staff at This Is Horror determine the shortlist taking into account the longlist, taking into consideration both the quality of the nominations and how many votes each title has.

Michael Wilson
Michael Wilson

This Is Horror’s Michael Wilson, explaining to me the selection process for the annual awards Malerman has just won. The good news is the grassroots nature of these prizes. The initial nominations come from the readership. Then:

The public then vote for the winner of the shortlist. This is how the winners are determined.

Wilson is owner of ThisIsHorror.co.uk, editor-in-chief of the site’s  This Is Horror Publishing wing (yes, they publish, as Thought Catalog does), and co-host of a This Is Horror podcast series.

While ThisIsHorror.co.uk is based in the UK, Wilson is currently in Japan and tells me that the site’s following in the States is roughly the size of the UK crowd.

“We’ve also a significant percentage of readers in Australia,” he says. “Of the eight books we’ve published three have been by American authors. Of the last five guests we had on the podcast three were American. ”

Wilson is part of a growing group of talented publishing workers we might call the FDDs, or “former digital directors.” While the evidence is too anecdotal to announce as a trend, we’re tending to see well-positioned digital leadership in publishing houses depart those jobs, sometimes with some disappointment about the commitment to digital adoption and advances they found on the inside.

Not in Wilson’s case, however. His interest in travel, especially in Asia, made continuing his position with Rebellion Publishing in the UK impractical. His background in digital marketing now informs how he handles ThisIsHorror.co.uk, as a professional site with reviews, features, interviews, and columns all on you-know-what genre. Columnists, Wilson says, are industry people, including authors and editors, contributors including Shaun Hutson, Gary McMahon, Simon Bestwick, Lisa L Hannett and V.H. Leslie.

The publishing arm’s “first publication,” Wilson says, “was Joe & Me by David Moody, a limited edition chapbook released in June 2012.

“Following on from this, we released limited chapbooks from Simon Bestwick and Gary McMahon, Conrad Williams, Joseph D’Lacey, Pat Cadigan and Stephen Graham Jones. In September, we released our first mass market paperback, Water For Drowning by Ray Cluley, and next month we’re releasing The Visible Filth by Nathan Ballingrud.”

There are also live author events staged under This Is Horror’s auspices, and Wilson’s cohort in the weekly podcast series is Dan Howarth.

“I like to think we expose our readers to just how diverse horror writing can be….Bird Box winning Novel of the Year isn’t an anomaly, it’s an endorsement of the horror genre and its strength in 2015.”
Michael Wilson, This Is Horror

One of my key questions for Wilson is whether This Is Horror is for readers — is this an “enthusiasts’ vertical,” in other words, in industry terms? Or is it for writers? Wilson:

This Is Horror is aimed at fans of horror, both readers and writers. Initially it was geared towards readers but recently we’ve developed our resources and expertise to help writers. The podcast in particular delves deep into the craft and mechanics of writing. Through the podcast and writing specific articles we provided tools and advice for writers of any genre.

Wilson points out that many sites based in the horror idiom are film-oriented, whereas This Is Horror is focused on the literature. He names several other sites at my request that he’d consider somewhat similarly positioned: Lit Reactor, our good colleague Chuck Wendig’s TerribleMinds site, and Nightmare Magazine.

I ask Wilson about his goals for This Is Horror, and he tells me the intent is “to provide information to horror fans. To help readers make informed decisions as to which books and films they should buy, and to provide an insight into the lives of the creators behind the art. We provide horror writers with practical tips and takeaways to improve their writing through our podcast and articles.”

Landing On ‘Bird Box’

Maybe I’ve just never gotten over my Roger Corman interview of many years ago, but I’m still curious, I tell Wilson, about the excellent choice of the This Is Horror community in naming the Malerman book.

Not to ruin Bird Box for you, there’s not one plastic monster in it. Nobody gets dragged out of a bedroom real fast by their feet on the floor and then the door slams. No evil-looking hand with nails that need clipping reaches out of a static-y television set.

No hokum. No camp. This book starts serious and gets only more so. Bird Box is a study in global terror, a no-explanation freefall that Hitch should have lived to put up on the screen. The danger is real, it can see you, and you dare not see it. It’s a powerful first release that shows the maturity of the long, long process Malerman underwent in learning his voice.

I ask Wilson if this is an unusual choice for the This Is Horror top award. Wilson:

I don’t think Bird Box is an unusual title to pick up the This Is Horror Novel of the Year. A thoroughly deserving one that shows the quality of good writing you’ll find within genre today.

At This Is Horror we’ve always taken a very broad definition of ‘horror’ and I like to think we expose our readers to just how diverse horror writing can be. A lot of writers published in The New Yorker, Paris Review and Tin House have dabbled with dark fiction. A. M. Homes and Alice Munro spring to mind.

There are so many authors writing multi-faceted horror which can be read on numerous levels, Stephen Graham Jones, Fred Venturini, Nathan Ballingrud and Paul Tremblay are all doing great things right now. Bird Box winning Novel of the Year isn’t an anomaly, it’s an endorsement of the horror genre and its strength in 2015.

In one of his interviews with me, Malerman called Bird Box his “magnificent example of experimental horror,” written in 26 days without chapter breaks, quotation marks, indentations, nothing. While cleaned up from that original dive-bomb condition, the book still reads with the drive of a rush down a very long staircase. Blindfolded.

“It was like a singular nightmare,” says Malerman. An award-winning one. TC mark

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