Who needs monsters? Ferndale-based author Josh Malerman has been able to scare the wits out of his readers with four (going on five) books that excavate full horrific potential in not-so-fantastical fabrications. Here be believably-rendered dragons! Or maybe it’s just fantastical enough… We’ll never know what drove the characters of Bird Box to madness, but we understand the dreadful implications of adapting for survival’s sake to such a reality where capricious eyes are hazardous to your health. And in a rare case of a movie honoring its source material, the hit Netflix adaptation (starring Sandra Bullock) creatively kept the blindfolds on its viewers, so to speak.
So, then, taking a cue from the godmother of horror, Mary Shelley, Malmeran’s latest, Inspection (out March 19) appreciates that the scary part is not the lurking, growling monster, but instead exploring the real world ramifications resulting from such a seemingly fantastical proposition. “I’ve long thought of Inspection as the mad scientist’s tale. It’s definitely more Frankenstein than 1984.”
Malerman joins a collaborative launch party for Inspection at the Masonic Temple on Tuesday, March 19th, with a theatrical performance of voice-actors reading sections from the new novel (published by Del Rey/Penguin Random House).
His latest story imagines a world where 26 boys and 26 girls have been raised by parent-like administrators, separated by their sexes and assigned single-letter names to make up two mirroring alphabets; they’ve been institutionalized from their birth into two dorm-like towers in the deep, secluded forests of northern Michigan. These mad-scientist like principals are known as D.A.D. (overseeing the boys), and M.O.M. (overseeing the girls), devious enough to create a counterfeit attachment and trust with their experimental brood, but weary of ‘the delicate years’ of puberty. Thus, they are subjected to regular ‘Inspections.’ Any shred of awareness of the opposite sex sends an Alphabet Boy or a Letter Girl “to the Corner…” Never to return.
“It’s funny what a book looks like to the author when they start it,” Malerman recalls, “and how you never really shed that (starting) idea. While writing Bird Box, I rarely thought of it as a ‘post-apocalyptic’ story. I just looked at it as one small supernatural problem on one street in America. Obviously there’s more than that, but it’s good for me to see it in a simpler, focused light. The same thing happened with Inspection: I had no intention of adding to the dystopian cannon. It came to me more as a mad scientist’s terrible, misguided vision. And that was scary enough for me.”
As we read along, we meet one boy, J, and one girl, K, as they each independently come into a broader awareness of what it means to be “spoiled” by exposure to a thing called a “boy” or a “girl” or a “man” or a “woman.” If the implication of meeting your opposite means a not-so-uncertain death, how terrified would they be if (and when) they meet? “How monstrous would a woman appear to J? As he could only imagine her to be a variation of a boy… My goodness, they’d be downright vampyric to each other, just without the fangs!”
After the 2018 film’s success wound up launching the 2014 printed source material high up on the New York Times Bestseller list, think-piece editorials on Bird Box appeared on film sites reading into its deeper metaphorical meaning. That doesn’t mean that Malerman everovertly responds to or comments on real world events or issues. “I wrote Inspection before the #metoo movement, and before what’s become a seismic shift in how we regard gender. And here I’m sitting on a book that says a lot about how I see all of this and how all genders are not only equal, in the end, but also actually serve to enhance one another…to inspire one another. But it’s also becoming harder not to be aware of the world, as you write. How can you, as an artist, not feel the pinch of the modern world? Or pretend not to hear it? That’s not to say that my newest book must be political—but the writer must be aware of how much he or she is including of the modern world, otherwise you’re just pretending right now.”
Malerman is a lifelong fan of “scary books” and horror films; he started writing his signature thrillers right out of high school, stocking up dozens of ideas and manuscripts before getting a publishing deal in 2013. He admits that the “…real world’s making it harder for us supernatural-lovers to scare you with a made-up story. But, despite the tension in the world outside my office, somehow, I’m still able to ender the world of ‘horror,’ realistic or not. And I’m able to play in that world, like always.”
The Alphabet Boys and Letter Girls are reared in mostly identical boarding-house designs, where a faculty of adults known as “The Parenthood” oversee daily classes (and, of course, “Inspections.”) “I suppose the child in me hasn’t ever quite let go of the idea of the big scary parents. I’ve prided myself on a certain arrested development, something I think that’s integral to most horror authors.”
Recalling, in a way, Victor Frankenstein’s strife against the rebelling creature, D.A.D. and M.O.M. are similarly obsessed with controlling their creations, however futile or shortsighted that proves to be. It continues a trend of Malerman’s novels featuring somewhat morbid exaggerations of parental efforts. This is just fiction though, folks, as Malerman was raised by sweet, normal, nurturing parents. “But you’d think I was raised in a chicken-wire crib, under a blanket, the way I write parenthood in these books,” he says with a mystified chuckle.
And if there’s a secret to his success, he says it’s “focus.” The Bird Box success “didn’t mess with me… No matter what’s going on around me, I’ve always been able to give my absolute-all to each new book I’m working on. Sometimes I think I could be standing in the middle of a war, bombs exploding around me, civilization crumbling, and I’d be cognizant enough to rewrite a dispatch that was sent to my side. Like, ‘Yes sir, Sergeant, I’m on it…But…, did you think how the Commander could’ve worded it this way, instead?” With a stack of drafts in his office building up after the Bird Box movie, the only worry he had on his mind was: “which book ought to be next?” Answer? Inspection.
For those who have read Inspection, we’re taking things further with this uncut Q&A with the author.
I asked about a kind of zealotry. I, as a reader, started seeing, albeit a stretch, a parallel to our current political state. The Letter Girls as Democrats, the Alphabet Boys as Republicans, the “leaders” of the party being so orthodox and pure so as to say that even BEFRIENDING someone of another party these days would invite shame and outcasting. The towers are walling both factions in. There is a tunnel of hope, but it’s underground and obscured. Tell me about building this world and specifically the channeled-off emotions and thoughts of each character, each letter, each gender.
For starters, I absolutely love your reading of it. You just blew my mind. It’s funny to think of the Alphabet Boys as the republican side of things but I get what you mean: first off they appear to be the ones in the White House because we got their story first. Second, the Letter Girls seem to have more fun. They’re certainly more adventurous. One thing I was definitely aware of was that, fifty-something twelve-year olds, I knew I wanted the girls to be more advanced than the boys. And what a fun way to show it: begin with these seemingly genius boys, only to be outdone by the girls their age. While writing the rough draft I included scenes of giant Plexiglas cribs in the Yard. The Baby Days. I struggled over what was going to be in the Corner. Sometimes, as a horror lover, I find myself trying to jam something supernatural into the story. Only because I love those elements so deeply. But at some point I had to give up with the Corner. I simply couldn’t have a ghost or a demon in the freakin basement of the turret. It felt like a defeat at the time! But I get it now. And thank God I didn’t force that. One of the real “world building” moments for me was coming up with the actual Check-Up rooms. The dogs behind glass. The men with magnifying glasses .D.A.D. at a desk unseen by the Alphabet Boy being inspected. For me, the whole book bloomed out of those Check-Up rooms.
I don’t know if it’s a huge spoiler to say that these children eventually “revolt,” but what I particularly found chilling is the awe, the pride, that these parental figures have when the children demonstrate that they’re advanced enough to revolt by age 12, rather than 20. Talk about building their psyches, and navigating around potential typecast/stereotypes of “cult leaders”
It’s as if D.A.D. and M.O.M. intentionally raised fifty-something time bombs. I think it’s safe to say they’re both smart enough to know what they were getting themselves into. Delusional or not. It’s almost like you can imagine them making eye contact in the Glasgow Tunnel, both wondering, When is it going to happen? Today? Will our experiment explode in our faces… today? Obviously a lot has to do with them “failing” to achieve what they wanted to achieve in life. But I don’t see them as wholly pretentious people with penchants for dark philosophy. I almost don’t even see them as megalomaniacal as much as I see them as unfathomable overcompensaters.
And what about the delicate matter of writing about two class-sized groups coming into puberty…
I intentionally lowered the age of the Alphabet Boys and the Letter Girls to avoid as much “sexuality” as I could. In the original draft they were 15 years old and it became unruly, haha, how often sex must come up in that scenario. I realized I didn’t want the book to be about sexual urges as much as gender equality and, for what it’s worth, there was a small part of me that wanted to see how the experiment would pan out.
At what point, as the writer of a horror story, were you aware of how this would end?
I think I knew what was coming the whole time. How could I not? What other end could there be here? I think D.A.D. and M.O.M. know what’s coming, too. And boy does it feel good, the moment K suggest to J what must be done…! Feels like someone reached into the book and finally armed them. But not only with knowledge…, with tools, too.