Getting scared is fun, and Josh Malerman knows this all too well. The Detroit-based author is known for writing enthralling horror stories, starting with 2015’s terrifying breakout hit Bird Box. Today marks the release of his newest novel, Black Mad Wheel, in which a rock ‘n’ roll band of former WWII veterans is recruited to investigate an otherworldly sound echoing across the Namib Desert. Malerman weaves the band’s tale with another narrative set in the States, following a victim of the sound who wakes up to find that nearly every bone in his body is broken.
Because Black Mad Wheel is set during the late 1950s, I interviewed Malerman in an environment that transported us to the past. We chatted about the horror genre and his novel while sitting on a replica backseat bench of an old Buick, dislodged and resituated into an exhibit in Detroit’s Historical Museum.
“The huge breakthrough for horror came in the ‘70s with three novels,” Malerman says. “The Other by Thomas Tryon, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. This opened the door for the ‘80s paperback boom, and horror was no longer a marginal genre in the same way it had been. Horror may often be in the basement of the used bookstore on a black shelf, but we all know the way to that basement now!”
A horror fiend, Malerman corresponds with fellow horror novelists and reads 50 or more contemporary horror books per year (not counting his extracurricular research into horror soundtracks, horror films and nonfiction titles covering the history of horror). And while Malerman recognizes that it’s morbidly entertaining to discover what’s hiding around the corner in a novel, he also believes that horror stories can explore deeper societal fears.
“There’s always been social injustice,” Malerman says, “it’s just that [in horror writing in the ‘70s and ‘80s], there wasn’t yet this overriding collective sense or cause of ‘I have to write about this or combat this or pull back the wool.’”
Modern horror has become more contemplative and “less cartoonish” Malerman says, while acknowledging that everyone can still relate to the jump-scare, boogie man horror stories of the past. But now, he muses, authors’ imaginations can’t help but interweave with the concerns of the material world. Horror writers aren’t necessarily writing escapism anymore; their stories appear to be more about confronting the monsters lurking in present.
“Suddenly, we’re in an age where it’s hard to look away from the exploding toilet that is Washington on TV news,” Malerman says. “Not only that, but it feels wrong to look away. It seems like in the late ‘90s through recently, it was a matter of ‘may the best idea win’ [in horror]. But nowadays? It’s hard to sit down to write without wanting to address that exploding toilet.”
Black Mad Wheel is set 60 years in the past, but it still resonates with the worries of today. The bandmates are haunted by a sound with paralyzing powers, and Malerman succeeds in evoking dread for this new technological terror. From there, Black Mad Wheel crescendos with a spate of mysterious disappearances, disturbing Satanic mirages, AWOL ghosts and a thrilling pair of confrontations between two uniquely-represented monstrosities—one in the Namib and one in a U.S. hospital.
One of Malerman’s greatest feats in his latest novel is setting a tone of brotherly friendship between his main characters, which amplifies the tension when one bandmate (or more?) falls into peril. As the lead singer and guitarist of The High Strung, he’s had 18 years of recording albums and touring with his lifelong friends to draw from in his fiction.
Musicians often fight against being boxed into a genre category, but fiction authors may embrace and champion their realm of expertise. That’s certainly the case with Malerman. Because, as our conversation revealed, he aims to prove how much more horror can achieve with its scary schemas.
In Black Mad Wheel, for example, the book’s existentialist qualities radiate from one key conversation in which characters discuss the disproportionate advances between philosophy and technology over history. “It’s like, no matter how wise you feel, you really don’t come to realize the certain wisdom your dad had when he was 40 until you yourself reach 40,” Malerman says. “But technology doesn’t wait. You just add a piece to the gadget of your dad’s generation and presto—huge weapon! And yet, the minds behind those weapons are still those same human minds, and they don’t move any faster than they ever have.”
Walking through the Detroit Historical Museum’s exhibits, we see pictures of soldiers from Detroit shipping off to war in WWII. “With every generation,” Malerman muses, “there’s this feeling that this war is different from the last one, or this war is more important. But I thought more about it and realized how we’re never that far from any war, back into the past or looming in the future.” This is the concept behind a “mad wheel”—repeated histories, continued blunders.
Malerman’s ultimate goal is to suture substantive conversation starters into his scares while keeping things fun. “I want to thrill [readers],” he says. “I don’t want to freak them out in a way where they’re thinking about nuclear weapons, but I do still want them to have fun while I’m freaking them out.”
So what’s the key to “freaking out” readers? Malerman says it’s employing the “suddenness” of the horror genre. “[You might set up a] sci-fi story with: ‘On such and such a date, the sun burned out after this many years of spinning around this planet at such a speed and temperature and thus and thus,’” he jokes. “Whereas with horror, you can just say,” and here Malerman’s voice drops, “‘the world went dark!’”
It’s a darker world these days, for sure. But authors like Malerman are proving that horror has the potential to conjure some illumination…and still provide a good ol’ fashioned jump-scare along the way.
Jeff Milo is a Detroit-based freelance writer who has covered books and music for Paste for several years. He reports on Michigan’s music scene for regional publications, as well as more unique features on his own website.