Wheel in the Sky Keeps on Turning

Philip Tonkin is healing. Fast. It should be impossible, no, it IS impossible because he was smashed flatter than a proverbial pancake. Nearly every single bone in his body shattered and he was in a coma for six months and yet he’s awake now and beginning to move. But waking only fuels Philip Tonkin’s nightmare.

In Josh Malerman’s Black Mad Wheel it’s the 1950s and Tonkin and his band The Danes have had a brush with fame with one of their songs. They’re in a studio helping to produce another band’s music. The Danes met and formed while serving in WWII. They didn’t consider themselves soldiers, just musicians serving Uncle Sam. One day while sitting in a bar in between songs, they’re approached by a man with the government who tells them about a sound emanating from the Namib Desert in Africa. Officials haven’t been able to pinpoint the sound’s exact origin, not even after sending in two other teams who came back empty-handed.

The band agrees to give the sound a listen and back in the studio they watch the GI man put earplugs in. Never a good sign. The reel to reel is set up and PLAY is pressed. The sound begins as nothing at first and then comes out as almost more of a feeling than a sound. The band members begin to vomit and curl in on themselves with pain. The reel to reel is stopped and as the band struggles to recover physically and mentally from the eerie sound, the government man says they’ll each get $100,000 to travel to the Namib Desert and find the sound’s location. They have 24 hours to decide. After that, the deal is off the table. After mulling it over, the Danes decide to do it. If anyone can do it, a group of musicians should be able to hunt the sound down.

Sounds easy peasy, yeah?

No.

They endure the journey to the desert, flying in a military plane. Getting nearer the sound the men begin to sicken, the noise a squeezing thrum of a physical presence. The GI man sets them and all their recording equipment in the desert along with a historian, an old drill Sargent from boot camp who has been mysteriously turned out of the military. The GI man says he will be back to collect all of them in exactly two weeks, he says, and leaves them in the desert.

Then the ‘Black Mad Sh*t’ begins to hit the fan.

A band member is taken by a strange creature that leaves goat like hoof prints in the sand. They begin the search for him but he’s vanished.

In between recounting the band’s mission, Philip Tonkin wakes from his long coma in an Iowa hospital. Ellen, a nurse, has been caring for him for six months and has grown attached to him. He’s shot full of painkillers around the clock and she’s shocked that someone whose body has been nearly obliterated has not only survived but, upon waking, slowly begins to move.

His body is in ruins and his mind scarred from the desert, but he knows the rest of the Danes are still alive somewhere in that desert. But the hospital he’s in is no ordinary hospital and his doctor is ‘off’ in a way no doctor should be. Ellen does as she’s told but has begun to question the doctor’s motives. So has Philip. Something dangerous is happening. And something even worse is about to go down.

Black Mad Wheel is full of shadowy government dealings, a heavy and palpable supernatural presence, and the paranoia that the unknown is going to be weaponized before the ‘good’ guys can find it. Put your earplugs in if you don’t think you can handle it. I bought mine in bulk from Costco.

Jeepers Creepers Where’d You Get Those Peepers?

I once saw something that almost made me go crazy. I was in the ladies changing room at the public pool. I was putting my socks on (I dress and undress in a bathroom stall because like a normal woman, I hate my body) and all of a sudden the room turned into an 80 year old’s version of Girls Gone Wild. Boobs and nether regions flapping around, sagging butts, sagging fronts. Sagging everything. I didn’t know my eyes could snap so fast to the ceiling so I wouldn’t see anything.

Then again, this was from a 17 year old’s view. Now almost 38, I admire the comfort and ease with which these woman glide around the locker room naked, talking in groups like they’re having a cocktail on someone’s back porch. Will I ever reach that ease? God no. I‘d change my clothes in the trunk of my car before getting undressed in front of anyone.

birdboxJosh Malerman’s dystopian novel Bird Box centers on Malorie who seems utterly unflappable. She moves into an apartment with her sister Shannon and then goes out on a date and gets knocked up. Oh yeah, also the world is coming to an end and in the most horrific way possible. There are news reports out of Russia of people going insane, killing themselves or violently killing anyone around them. But that’s okay with Malorie because it’s happening far away. Over There. It’s not happening Here. Plus, she’s pregnant so that kind of gets in the way of thinking about some bizarre plague happening worlds away.

But IT begins to move across Canada and into the United states. People start hanging themselves from trees, entire families killing themselves or being killed by a loved one. No one is positive about what is happening. The consensus is that a person sees something so horrible that the only thing to do is kill themselves or anyone near them. The sisters haven’t heard from their parents in days so you know that’s not good. They stop leaving the house, even for groceries. Shannon stays glued to the television watching the mess unfold. Malorie isn’t paying attention because she’s knocked up, hasn’t told the father yet and you know, generally busy creating life and trying not to think too much about the future.

She barely notices her sister covering all of the mirrors and windows, getting spooked and paranoid. Soon, there are rumors that people are seeing “creatures” ( a less panic-inducing word than monsters) as in “There’s something in my backyard, something not found in any episode of National Geographic.” But nobody knows what these creatures look like because they’re all busy boarding up windows, putting up heavy curtains and keeping their eyes squeezed shut. Malorie sees an ad in a newspaper that says a group of people have gotten together in a safe place to ride this thing out. Sounds good. Sounds bad. It could be a house of serial killers but by this time, the world’s gone to hell and she’s pregnant and trying not to think about giving birth in a world where one look at a ‘creature’ can send you stark raving mad. I think I would ignore my pregnancy: “Oh that? That’s a nacho gut. I love nachos.”

So she figures “Screw it, I don’t want to be alone at the end of the world.  Let me go find these people and hopefully they won’t try to kill or eat me or eat me and kill me.  Whatever.”

While she’s heavy with both pregnancy (or nacho gut) and dread she’s pretty cool-headed. She goes to this house in an abandoned neighborhood. She gets to the door and knocks. Someone on the other side asks if she’s alone and tells her to close her eyes. The door opens, she scurries in, and the door is slammed behind her. She opens her eyes and sees some very terrified but normal people in the room. At least they don’t look like cannibals. Yet. They look like what they are: scared people who have no idea what’s going to happen to them.

This small group lives the next few months as a tight-knit group. They all have their chores: like walking down a path in the backyard to the well to get clean water but doing it while their eyes are clapped shut. There is a cellar stocked with canned goods but that will last them only so long. Some of the men go out to gather more supplies. This takes days because it’s kind of hard to find a can of soup in a neighbor’s cupboard when your eyes are shut tight.

Malorie is getting huge, beginning to wonder how on earth is she going to give birth when there are no staffed hospitals. It seems like a whole lot of nothing is happening because there’s this group of scared people hanging out in a house where nobody can look out the window or go get a pail of water with their eyes open. But there’s this thick tension, the kind of tension that makes you want to jump out a window. The group can’t stay there forever. Food is going to run out and someone’s going to open their eyes while getting water (it’s kind of like when someone says “Don’t touch that wall because I just painted it.” What’s the first thing you do? Reach out and touch it.)

But then someone comes to the door. A man with a briefcase. Do they let him in or send him on his way? He gives off a bad vibe. His smile is too shiny and he holds onto that briefcase like it has the last set of shiny teeth trapped inside and only he can be their keeper. The group begins to whisper and fight amongst one another. Do they ask him to leave? Demand to see what’s in the case? The guy is obviously trying to divide them and set them fighting and it works.

A big bad happens. I wish I could write these reviews and be coyly mysterious without giving anything away but I’m incapable of that. It’s more likely that I’ll end up confusing everyone. And myself. Which happens a lot. Let’s just say there’s a lot of blood, confusion, the birth of twins, the world is still at an end and people are still going around blind-folded.

Told alternately (and with mega skill) between pregnant Malorie surviving the breakdown of the world and Malorie five years later as she takes her children away from the only safe place they know because it is no longer safe, Bird Box is more than a tale about the end of the world. It’s about finding people to ride out the end of the world with. And about monsters that may or may not exist and damn it, open your eyes so you can see them even if it drives you into murderous madness.