Two new horror novels make sense of our current dystopian reality

Bill Sheehan

THE WASHINGTON POST – The ongoing renaissance in horror fiction moves steadily forward. While veteran novelists like Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell and Joe R Lansdale consistently produce significant work, promising young writers with unique perspectives continue to appear. Two of the more notable relative newcomers, Josh Malerman and Paul Tremblay, have recently published novels that are personal, deeply unsettling and peculiarly suited to our current historical moment.

Malerman came to prominence with 2014’s Bird Box, which imagined a world overrun by “creatures” that inspire homicidal violence in anyone who catches sight of them. The ensuing narrative alternated between a psychologically acute portrait of life under total lockdown and a harrowing account of a blindfolded journey downriver toward a possible sanctuary. (A film adaptation, produced by Netflix in 2018, gave rise to a bizarre but mercifully short-lived phenomenon: The Bird Box Challenge, which encouraged similar feats of blindfolded navigation. This “challenge” no doubt made that year’s Darwin Awards a good bit more competitive.)

Malorie, Malerman’s latest novel, is a direct sequel to Bird Box. The title character is the woman who, accompanied by her two small children, undertook that blindfolded voyage. As the new narrative begins, the sanctuary she discovered has been breached, and she and the children must once again navigate a world devoid of safe places. When an itinerant “postman” brings news of a surviving community that might include her own parents, Malorie sets out on another impossible journey, one that begins on foot and ends on a “blind train” moving through a landscape filled with endless obstacles, lethal creatures and assorted human hazards. That journey forms the centrepiece of the novel.

As he did in Bird Box, Malerman focusses on the limitations and psychological pressures of lives distorted by the constant threat of a violent end. A fiercely protective mother and obsessively cautious survivor, Malorie, along with her children, has been forced into an unnaturally narrow life, a life deprived of the most fundamental pleasures. Malorie’s children, now teenagers, find those limitations increasingly difficult to endure. Malerman balances the novel’s various elements – family drama, road novel, supernatural thriller – with skill and genuine compassion for his characters and their blighted lives. And if the final chapters, which are filled with reunions, reconciliations and sudden revelations, seem slightly rushed, that is a small flaw in an otherwise remarkable journey through an utterly compelling fictional world.

Paul Tremblay began his career writing mysteries (The Little Sleep), then transitioned to horror with 2015’s A Head Full of Ghosts, which won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel. His latest novel, Survivor Song, is another likely contender. Like Lawrence Wright’s recent The End of October, it is timely in ways that its author could hardly have foreseen.

Survivor Song tells the story of a viral epidemic that sweeps across Massachusetts, devastating the region. The virus is a hyper-virulent strain of rabies with no reliable vaccine. Unlike traditional strains, this one reaches its full lethal potential in little more than an hour and has a fatality rate of 100 per cent. By the time the novel opens, the virus has already spread throughout the local population. A quarantine has been established, but cases continue to rise, and medical facilities are soon overrun. Against a backdrop of escalating chaos, Tremblay quickly homes in on two characters – one a victim, the other a caregiver – whose stories reflect the sheer human cost of an unchecked epidemic.

Natalie, a pregnant housewife, is just days away from giving birth when an infected stranger breaks into her home and kills her husband, biting Natalie and infecting her in turn. Ramola is a paediatric doctor and Natalie’s oldest friend. The bulk of the narrative, which takes place over the course of a few hours, concerns Ramola’s attempts to drive her friend through a world filled with turmoil, obstacles and unexpected hazards toward a place of safety – and potential assistance – that may not exist. It is another harrowing journey, during which we experience the crisis from the alternating viewpoints of Natalie and Ramola. Along the way, the pair encounter bureaucratic roadblocks, virus victims both human and animal, and a heavily armed militia convinced that the virus is the result of a deep state conspiracy. In what amounts to a bonus for Tremblay’s fans, they also meet up with two zombie-obsessed teenagers – Josh and Luis – who played significant roles in Tremblay’s 2016 novel, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. Their story, which comes to a memorable end in the new book, is one of the novel’s most moving – and unexpected – grace notes.

Much of Tremblay’s previous fiction has been marked by a deliberate ambiguity regarding horrific or supernatural elements, but that is not the case here. The horrors of Survivor Song are presented clearly, directly and to visceral effect. Although the novel’s seeming prescience is largely accidental, it reflects a distinct – and distinctly political – point of view. Tremblay’s world is one in which help and medical resources are “stretched to the breaking point,” exacerbated by “a myopic, sluggish bureaucracy” and a president “woefully unprepared to make the rational, science-based decisions necessary.” So, art and life continue to mirror one another. And horror fiction, as practiced by Malerman, Tremblay and a good many others, continues to serve as a bleak but appropriate vehicle for conveying the dangers and distortions of our increasingly incomprehensible age.