"Black Mad Wheel" Book Review
Written by Gabino Iglesias
Published by Ecco
Written by Josh Malerman
2017, 304 pages, Fiction
Released on May 23rd, 2017
Sure, Josh Malerman had an amazing debut with Bird Box that turned him into an international literary horror star, but could he do it all over again? Well, two chapters into Black Mad Wheel, the answer to that question was a resounding hell yeah. Tightly written, bizarre, unique in its approach to the theme at its core, and with touches of cosmic horror and dark weirdness, Black Mad Wheel is an unhinged novel packed with pain, ghosts of past wars, uncertainty, strange science, and even a sinister goat. However, despite all that, what lies at its heart is a tale of music and friendship that shows Malerman can bring the scares as well as a lot of soul.
The Danes, a Detroit band of ex-soldiers known as the “Darlings of Detroit,” have seen better days. They are short on inspiration and aching for another hit while putting in hours at the studio working for themselves and other bands. That’s why they don’t take too long to say yes when an agent from the US Army approaches them with a substantial offer: travel to an African desert to find the source of a mysterious sound that affects people in bizarre ways and collect a large sum of money for their efforts. Philip Tonka, the front man of The Danes, takes the lead and off they go into the desert. However, what seems like a relatively easy mission soon turns into a dark, dangerous, deadly journey through the unforgiving sands of the scorching desert. Before they make it back, everything the men know about reality, and sound, will change forever, and they will walk into the heart of something that belongs to the world of military mayhem as much as it does to something and somewhere beyond human comprehension.
I’m not a fan of long synopses in reviews and the above paragraph gets the job done, but Black Mad Wheel is actually two narratives running parallel to each other despite not occupying the same time and space. The one that takes place in the desert already happened. The other, one in which a nurse is taking care of Tonka, takes place in the present. The correlation between the two and the way they add up to an explosive, unforgettable finale that reminds me of the amazing ending in Giorgio De Maria’s The Twenty Days of Turin, are a testament to Malerman’s storytelling chops.
I knew Malerman was talented when I read Bird Box. The way he dealt with (not) seeing in that novel is part of the reason it became such a hit. In this one, he switches to an exploration of sound, and does it in a unique way that has nothing to do with his previous efforts. In Black Mad Wheel, sound is a living thing, a monster, and mystery:
“The sound is more of a flood than a reverberation. More like something coming toward him than a song. As if the air it travels upon is scorched, rendered black, leaving a trail as wide as the studio, and maybe the entire city beyond the studio walls.”
Black Mad Wheel is full of action, great dialogue, and populated by some interesting, well-developed characters (even if some are just human props), but perhaps the best thing about it is that it walks a fine line between a mystery, a horror story, and an adventure narrative. Fans of all those should pick this one up immediately. Furthermore, there is an inescapable sense of doom and weirdness that permeates the novel. There is strange science in action and a lot of military secrecy, but the goat walking silently in the dessert, the passages that take place underground, the soldiers from past wars, and that huge question mark that hangs over everything add up to a novel with an outstanding atmosphere that delivers the goods on many levels.
Ultimately, I think Black Mad Wheel hooked me because it inhabits a variety of spaces at once. This is a horror story, and a creepy one at that, but wrapped in that overarching narrative constructed on looks at friendship, love, danger, and courage. Also, hidden in there, right in plain view of any smart reader, are a love letter to music and another to The High Strung, where Malerman is lead singer. I’ll let the novel speak for itself:
“By turns the music is rage, resolve, acceptance, hate. Some phrases are so dark that Ellen imagines the shadows in here speaking. But there are moments of promise: major chords from the mist, brief melodies that let her know that no matter how dark Philip is feeling, there is more of his story to go.”
The same thing that happened after I finished Bird Box happened when I finished Black Mad Wheel: I wanted more. More than a fresh, unique voice, Malerman is one of the new horror stars, and I know I’m not alone in wishing we don’t have to wait long for the next one.
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