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Black Mad Wheel / Josh Malerman

Ecco / May 2017
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

Following the widespread acclaim that accompanied his 2014 debut, Bird Box, Josh Malerman had two choices: Follow suit with an equally accessible tale or go outside the (bird) box and craft something entirely dissimilar. With Black Mad Wheel, he opted to do both. The result is a satisfying sophomore effort that feels in some ways more authentic if not as immediately arresting at the outset.

Black Mad Wheel’s authenticity comes from the fact that Malerman merges two real-life worlds he knows intimately—music and fiction. As the frontman of the indie Detroit garage-rock outfit The High Strung, Malerman—the writer—is able to deliver the fictional goods in this story of Philip Tonka, the lead singer and pianist of a fictional Detroit-based rock band called The Danes who wakes up in a seemingly unremarkable Midwestern hospital literally smashed to pieces following the band’s sojourn to an African desert in search of the origin of a mysteriously evil —and powerful—sound. Got that? Yeah, it’s a weird—almost dauntingly ambitious—set-up on the surface, but wise readers who trusted Malerman enough to take them down a river blindfolded should strap themselves in and go along for this ride, too.

Black Mad Wheel rolls out in parallel narratives that move between Philip—with the help of a kindly nurse named Ellen—waking up in the mysterious hospital and slowly piecing together recent events and what happened to him and his bandmates in the Namib Desert. Fascinatingly, Malerman develops a palpable narrative rhythm with these crisp, concise alternating passages that seems to reinforce that—at its heart—Black Mad Wheel is a story about the dueling benevolent and malevolent power of music. The rhythm of the novel picks up as later chapters shorten, building to a feverish intensity in the third act.

Malerman is as comfortable within the novel’s post-WWII setting as he was in the post-apocalyptic landscape he created in Bird Box, proving that he’s no one-trick pony as an architect of setting. And while he throws plenty of weird fiction clichés into his Black Mad Wheel stew—military conspiracies, mad doctors, creepy hospital corridors—his application of such tropes make them feel wholly unique.

If there was one criticism this reviewer could level at the novel, it’s that it feels underdeveloped at times—like it was plucked from its literary branch before it fully ripened. The character of Ellen, for example, and her ensuing romance with the novel’s protagonist, feels rushed, tacked on. As a result, it never quite gains traction for this reader. Likewise, the grand reveal deep in an abandoned diamond mine falls flat. While Malerman toys with and teases some cosmic horror elements, they don’t materialize and the payoff—although it hits the target—misses the bullseye.  

With Black Mad Wheel, and Bird Box before it, Malerman has established a new speculative fiction niche—sensory horror—and firmly positioned himself as its maestro. In his previous novel, he explored sight—and its opposite, blindness—and used sensory deprivation to create fear. In Black Mad Wheel, he dissects and deciphers sound, imbuing it with its own distinctive subset of senses and sensations. Here, the horror derives from sensory overload. Sound is kinematic and visualized as geometry of motion—rippling waves of translucence that have heft and vibration. It leaves you wondering which sense Malerman may take on next; just imagine what he could do with taste or smell.   

Black Mad Wheel cements Malerman as a strikingly original literary talent. With a weirdly unnerving setup that’s perhaps a notch or two better than the novel’s less inspired payoff, Malerman crafts an absorbing musical analogy of the cyclical nature of war and how history—for all we learn along the converging roads of life—is doomed to repeat itself like an overplayed pop song.

Purchase Black Mad Wheel by Josh Malerman.

Posted on Thursday, September 21, 2017 at 05:02AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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