Josh Malerman seems to be the king of sensory horror. He wrote Bird Box, the novel that was adapted into the Netflix film featuring Sandra Bullock, mass suicides, and blindfolds. I didn’t read the book, but I found Bird Box to be a good horror movie; you never find out what the beings are that compel hoards of people to commit suicide, and this unknown is a huge piece in what makes it so scary. It evokes a fear of the unknown, as well as making viewers watch their nightmares unfold. The sensory horror element in this story (the mysterious beings) are a catalyst for the events in the movie, not the main event in the story, and that is what makes it okay that you never find out that information. In Black Mad Wheel, the blindfolds would have been earplugs, as the sensory element is hearing, instead of sight. I found Black Mad Wheel to be a very similar story in some aspects; it has a lot of the elements that Bird Box does, it uses the same storytelling method, and the author doesn’t give you all of the information in order to form your own speculations and opinions. Although overall it was a pretty thrilling story, it didn’t really hit the target in the end with the horror, and I thought the ending was severely lacking.
Both stories are told in a flashback sort of way – one chapter is told in the present, and the next flashes back to the beginning of the story, and it’s told in this alternating fashion as both timelines build up to the major plot points of the book, where the timelines become one and the story finishes out. This isn’t my favorite storytelling method. It does lend to the fear aspect of the book, definitely, as you can see what the aftermath is and you piece together and form theories on how the earlier story got to that point, but I just do not enjoy the jumping around very much. It can disintegrate the cohesiveness of the story if the author can’t execute this method perfectly, and I’m not sure Malerman had perfected the method when he wrote this story.
Black Mad Wheel is the story of a rock band who was recruited by the Army to go to Africa in search of a mysterious sound in the middle of the desert. This band, The Danes, was an Army band during WWII, and was recruited because they were previously in the Army and were believed to have some extra expertise on sound. The sound, as it turns out, makes you violently ill from hearing it. It can disable weapons and break every bone in a man’s body. Whether the Army wants to harness the sound, or just get rid of it, The Danes’ mission is simply to find the source. This premise is very unique, much like Bird Box was, and I was really excited to read the novel. But in the end, the story was pretty deflated and I felt like it was completely wasted.
My biggest complaint is that the premise of the novel wasn’t explored NEARLY enough, and so the conclusion was incredibly lacking in any real resolution. I feel like Malerman had a great idea when he created Bird Box, and given that we have five senses, he probably felt like he could go somewhere with that, and thus Black Mad Wheel was born. The idea is fantastic, it’s original, and it had so much potential, but there are so many questions that he left unanswered, so many avenues he left unexplored, that the ending was a supreme let down. The bulk of the story was the lead up to and the aftermath of this mission, which was enough sensory horror to instill you with the sense of fear of the unknown, but when it came to the point of the mission, Malerman didn’t answer ANY questions on what the sound was, where it came from, what it really did. I get that this was so the reader could draw their own conclusions based on the information they were given, but he gives so little information, and some conflicting information, that it’s really hard to draw those conclusions. The sound was a catalyst for the story, but it was also an ENTIRE plot point for the story, and by not delivering on that front, it leaves you feeling unsatisfied in the end. Like I said earlier, with Bird Box, this is admissible, since it’s not the entire point of the story, it’s simply the catalyst for the story. But the sound in this story IS the story. And it’s as if Malerman half-concocted this idea and couldn’t figure out how to explain it at all, so he explained what he could come up with, and just settled for letting the reader do all the heavy lifting. I do feel like the story itself was good, the premise was good, and it was an engaging read. But it’s like Malerman made this amazing chocolate cake, and then finished it by topping it with nacho cheese sauce. Yes, the cake was really good, but the topping ruins the entire thing. It’s so incredibly frustrating that the buildup was so good, just to have such a hard let down.
Another aspect I wasn’t big on was the romance in the novel. It really had no place in this story. It was haphazardly thrown together at the end, with no buildup, and I just couldn’t get over this fact. It was superfluous to the story, it added no depth, no character development, and it didn’t enrich the story, so I don’t understand why it was written in. This is just a small piece of the story, so it’s not enough to ruin the entire thing, but it is something that irks me. Along with this, there was really no character development. I get that with a horror novel, this isn’t a huge thing, since the point of the story is the scary, but the main character didn’t really seem to have any depth. He didn’t have a personality, he didn’t seem to have any goals, no real relationships even with his bandmates, and a boring character doesn’t make you feel too tied to the story.
The redeeming quality of the book was the captivating quality of the story. I was hooked for a majority of it, and the premise is thoroughly creepy enough to keep you engaged. I enjoyed taking part in the journey the main character and his band were on, I was rooting for him in the hospital, I was afraid of what was going to happen to him. I was emotionally invested in the story, and that makes a book good to read. The ending of a book can make or break it, though, and it really broke the story for me. It was thoroughly unsatisfying and left me with so many questions, that it made it unenjoyable in the end.
Overall, I think I’d give this 3/5 stars. It wasn’t awful, but it didn’t inspire me to read any more of Malerman’s work. Hopefully if he writes another sensory horror, maybe on smell or touch, it will have much better exploration of the main plot points, and depending on how well reviewed it is, I might give it a shot.