josh malerman has become the go-to dude for sensory horror.
if they ever let monkeys* become book reviewers (why so UNFAIR, world?), this is how it would go:
his (awesome) debut novel, Bird Box, featured an ambiguous “something” that swept the globe; a presence that drove anyone who looked at it mad: homicidal, suicidal, utterly destroyed. it was wonderfully intense, as characters were threatened by a force they could neither name nor even visualize, spending their lives in a protective elective blindness; not-looking at what might or might not be right there on their periphery, lurking behind them, creeping up the stairs… all of which made for a delicious tension for the reader; the horror of the unseen and unknowable foe.
this one is about a mysterious sound emanating from a desert in africa, one so intense that it neutralizes weapons and causes immediate visceral responses in the human body: vomiting, immobility, pain, and, when too close to the source of the sound, delivers an impact that’ll break every bone in the body. however, instead of characters avoiding a mysterious destructive force, here we have people who are sent specifically to locate the sound.
philip tonka is a man who experienced all of the above trauma, and somehow lived through it. he has been in a coma for six months, and has just awakened in a secret military hospital in iowa, recovering from his injuries at a remarkable rate, and being grilled by officers and doctors about his experiences, memories of which are fragmented and confusing.
i should mention, since the synopsis does not, that this is a historical novel, taking place in 1957. otherwise, you may have the same bewildering moment of dislocation i had when philip mentions something that happened when he returned from world war II, leaving me wondering how old this damn character was, and how an elderly man could have survived the breaking of every bone in his body. but no – he is only thirty-one, although it’s still pretty remarkable to survive these massive sound-inflicted injuries.
philip did indeed serve in WWII, but not in active combat – he was in the military band, where he made the friends with whom he would go on to form the successful detroit-based rock band the danes. and now, twelve years after their service, the four members of the danes are approached by military intelligence telling them to soldier up and head into the desert to investigate this sound, a mission that has already been attempted twice, unsuccessfully, with the reasoning that those with a musical background will be better-equipped to handle the specific challenges of acoustics and echoes that an auditory threat presents.
they patriotically accept, the offer made more tempting by the promise of $100,000 each.
from that point on, the narrative is a jumble of past and present, real and surreal, as two stories unfold: the band and their military escorts head into the desert and are unprepared for what they find, and the aftermath of philip’s broken mind and body trying to remember what went down from his hospital bed, while the sympathetic nurse ellen is the only friendly face in a barrage of interrogations and injections by sadistic doctors and military personnel.
there are a lot of questions: the military wants to know what happened, how to get to the sound, if it can be weaponized, and philip wants to know what happened to himself and what became of the other danes. the reader, of course, wants to know all of this and more. and while many answers will be given – some of which answers just lead to further questions, some of the details remain unclear.
i’m still unsure how i feel about this book. in Bird Box, there was much left ambiguous at the end, and there the lingering mystery-shiver was wholly satisfying. with this one, some of the answers that are given take too much of the mystery away while others led to too many unanswered follow-up questions of “but, why?” & etc.
the writing definitely kept me interested and turning those pages, especially once everything started chugging and i began to get the same kind of vibe i got from Dark Matter, but i never really got that AHA! moment that makes a twisty-structured book like this *work.*
additional minor quibbles: despite this book being almost entirely from philip’s perspective, he isn’t particularly well-defined. he’s the dude who does the stuff and who has the stuff happen to him more than a character. also, the romance aspect is jammed in without a whole lot of narrative foreplay, so it doesn’t feel like a natural progression of events.
but all that aside – the journey itself is a creepy good time, even if the payoff is a bit muddled. it’s thoughtful overall, and it’s an unusual situation, which goes a long way towards my own personal readerly enjoyment, and i’m always willing to concede “it’s me, not you” when it comes to any confusion i might have with a book.
so – it’s definitely worth a read, for everything that happens between the naively optimistic, “How much trouble can one sound be?” to the chilling warning of “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
*with apologies to rigorous taxonomists
so, for those of you who were asking – right now it’s a solid 3-3.5. i need to do another pass before i cement that rating. not as much creepy fun (for me) as Bird Box, but definitely worth reading.
full review and probably more
star cat-waffling to come…