Black Mad Wheel
Reviewed by Shane Douglas Keene
2014 was a banner year for horror fiction, seeing debut efforts put forth by what we now consider to be some of the best authors in speculative fiction. We saw the publication of Nick Cutter’s brilliant and terrifying, The Troop, and M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts, just to name a few. And among all the great work that was produced that year and all the great authors to rear their remarkable minds and imaginations was a young author and musician by the name of Josh Malerman. Bird Box was a breakout novel that was released to high and well-deserved acclaim, being nominated for the Bram Stoker award and the UK equivalent James Herbert award, and almost instantaneously gaining Malerman a devoted following on both continents. Now, with the sophomore novel, Black Mad Wheel, we finally, after three very long years, get to find out if the uncanny success of that first book was a fluke or not. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.
Having had several mini social media conversations with Malerman over the years—and one epic interview—I’ve learned that Josh is a unique individual. His mind moves a trillion miles an hour and he’s almost constantly bouncing ideas around in rapid-fire succession, almost as if he has no choice. And the more I know of him, the more I suspect the latter is true. He just can’t help himself. Whether writing music with his band, The High Strung, or penning fictional paragraphs on the ceiling of their tour bus, everything he produces is something wholly original and mentally refreshing, and Black Mad Wheel is no exception. If you read Bird Box and you were expecting or hoping for more of the same, you’re going to be taken unawares by this story, as Malerman employs his mind twisting magic to both delight and terrify you with situations you couldn’t imagine if you tried. But he can. In spades.
Black Mad Wheel is the story of a post-WWII rock band, The Danes, all ex-veterans who have been hired by a shady sect of the US government to find and identify a strange and debilitating sound in the middle of the Namib desert, a place where some of the earliest species of men are thought to have originated. But more than that, it’s the story of one man’s pain and suffering, of agony and agonizing recovery and, ultimately, of madness and terror. This is where Malerman really exhibits his true brilliance. He’s a master of sense and sensation, a thing you’ll come quickly to learn in the opening pages as you bear witness to a doctor’s excruciatingly detailed descriptions of all the bones Philip Tonka has broken. Those three words, “all the bones” will mean a lot to you by the time you finish that first few pages. A hell of a lot.
To tell you all the high points of any given Malerman work would be an exercise in futility. It would be easier to tell you what isn’t amazing about this novel, so I’m just going to stick with a few salient items that really stood out for me and you can make your decisions from there. One of the things that always resonates with me in Malerman’s work, be it long or short, is his incredible alacrity with prose. His ability to turn a phrase, or to mesmerize his reader, is matched by none, and that’s no exaggeration. I could turn to any page in the book and wouldn’t have to spend any effort searching for a suitable quote to illustrate the point. But in truth, I don’t even have to go past the first few paragraphs to illustrate that point:
“The patient is awake. A song he wrote is fading out, as if, as he slept, it played on a loop, the soundtrack of his unbelievable slumber.
He remembers every detail of the desert.
The first thing he sees is a person.
That person is the doctor. Wearing khaki pants and a Hawaiian shirt, he doesn’t dress like a doctor, but the bright science in his eyes gives him away.”
Those beginning passages show us a few things right out the gate. First, we’re immediately involved and interested in the story as he throws out several details, raising intriguing questions that make us more than willing passengers on this terror-train to madness. Another thing we see right away is that the book is going to be something special. The very last line of that quote demonstrates Malerman’s exemplary grasp of the English language and his magical ability with metaphoric prose.
An element of Malerman’s writing that I find endlessly fascinating and immensely impressive is his ability to manipulate mood and setting. The scenes in the desert, intense and sharp as a rifle-crack, somehow carry a sense of barrenness, a possibility of no return, or an “abandon hope all ye who enter here” sort of vibe that sets you firmly on the path that Malerman wants you on, putting you in a tense, edgy mood and grooming you to be that much more shocked and appalled by his unexpected and frequently terrifying reveals. And, like the wasteland of the Namib, the hospital where Philip lies immobile in the half-light of healing is rendered with a broad and beautiful brush, the hushed, almost unnerving sounds of the hospital, the beeping of monitors and whisper of voices like ghosts in the quiet ward. You find yourself as captivated and stationary as the patient himself while suspense piles up in sensate layers and the nurse Ellen starts to suspect that all is not right.
As in Bird Box, so in Black Mad Wheel, Malerman writes from a unique place, that being the inside of his hyper-creative brain, and what comes out on the page is a work made perfect through its intentional imperfections. Josh Malerman is, above all else, a student of the human condition with all its wonders and flaws and his pen flows freely with literary masterpieces that place him firmly at the top of his field. Black Mad Wheel has a damn good chance of being my favorite book in 2017, and I think, if you read it, it will be your favorite too. I don’t use the word sensation in reference to an author very often because I think it too much of a cliché. But in the case of Josh Malerman, it couldn’t be more appropriate.