‘Bird Box’ sequel has eerie connections to face masks in 2020

"Malorie" by Josh Malerman (Penguin Random House)

DETROIT — Like the title character of his new book, “Malorie” — the sequel to his bestselling “Bird Box” — Josh Malerman has a strong viewpoint on face coverings.

“It’s this little piece of cloth, you put it over your face and it decreases the chances of you and someone else getting sick. Great! Done!,” says Malerman, 44, speaking by phone a day after the start of Michigan’s new mask requirement.

“Malorie is 100 percent that kind of person: ‘We know this works. Why would we try anything else?’”

In the metro Detroit author’s terrifying 2014 debut novel “Bird Box,” blindfolds were key to surviving a world where just looking at mysterious creatures turned humans violent and insane.

And how’s this for a parallel to 2020’s coronavirus pandemic? For much of the book, the characters stay quarantined inside to protect themselves from a threat that they can’t — or, at least, shouldn’t — see.

The 2018 Netflix adaptation of “Bird Box” became a huge hit and — thanks to memes, gifs and late-night TV jokes — a cultural phenomenon. The movie was so popular, it turned Malerman’s taut novel into a New York Times bestseller five years after its original publishing date.

Now, readers can find out what happened to the cautious heroine played by Sandra Bullock in the movie. Seeped in tension, the sequel also is prescient in its echoes of current COVID-19 fears.

“Malorie” picks up at the location where “Bird Box” ended, at the school for the blind that Malorie had reached as sanctuary after taking two children on a perilous river journey. Then it jumps ahead a decade to the life that she and her son, Tom and adopted daughter, Ophelia, both 16, have built at an abandoned summer camp in Michigan.

Fiercely protective of her kids, Malorie keeps them on a strict regiment of safety precautions against the creatures. But when a stranger brings news that people close to Malorie may be alive in the Upper Peninsula, she risks putting her family in jeopardy with another dangerous trip.

The possibilities for a sequel intrigued Malerman, 44, after he watched a pre-release screening of the “Bird Box” movie with his fiancee, Allison Laakko.

“By the end of it, as silly as it sounds, I turned to Allison and I was, like, “Well, now I want to know what happens to her.’ And Allison rolled her eyes (and said), ‘You could find out if you want!’”

The success of the movie spurred Malerman to finish a rough draft of “Malorie” by February 2019, relying in part on a plot thread that had been trimmed from “Bird Box.”

The Washington Post describes the world of “Malorie” as “utterly compelling,” noting that “Malerman balances the novel’s various elements — family drama, road novel, supernatural thriller — with skill and genuine compassion for his characters and their blighted lives.”

And, of course, a film based on the sequel is in development, according to Malerman, but he says that is all he knows for now.

It’s been a long journey to overnight success for the writer and musician, who began crafting novels and short stories while touring with his Detroit-based band, the High Strung (whose song “The Luck You Got” is the theme to Showtime’s “Shameless” series).

Before “Bird Box” was published, the West Bloomfield High and Michigan State alum had written 14 novels without trying to sell them. The book received good reviews, and Malerman’s spare, sharp prose drew comparisons to the stylish horror of director Alfred Hitchcock.

But it was the Netflix movie that put Malerman on the publishing map. It was viewed by 45 million accounts worldwide in its first week on the streaming site.

He says the movie opened many doors for him and has led to meetings on projects with actors and producers. And he was able to buy his first house, in the small upscale village of Franklin.

Malerman hesitates to make comparisons between the plot elements in “Malorie” and the pandemic, because his book is “a good scare,” not a real tragedy that’s causing massive illness and death globally.

But certain themes resonate with the realities of COVID-19, starting with the real-life political divide in America over taking the virus seriously and following the safety measures recommended by medical authorities.

“There always has been a thing in the ‘Bird Box’ world of those who live by the blindfold, as Malorie does, those who would wear mask, and those who say this is mass hysteria ... a group psychosis.”

According to Malerman, the biggest parallel between the book and 2020 is not masks and blindfolds, but “the not knowing when this is going to come to an end.”

In recent months, people have been gravitating toward entertainment that delves into the details of imaginary pandemics, from the 2011 movie “Contagion” to Stephen King’s “1978 novel “The Stand.”

Malerman thinks such works can be oddly comforting. When you watch or read a comedy, “you’re aware of the fact you’re escaping something, whereas, if you watch something sad or scary, maybe you’ll also be aware that you’re facing something.”

As a writer and singer/songwriter, Malerman often seeks ways to add collaborative projects to his schedule. When “Bird Box” initially was published, he and Laakko put together readings where audiences were blindfolded.

Last year, he staged a theatrical reading from his 2019 novel, “Inspection,” in the chapel at Detroit’s Masonic Temple. The performers wore papier-mache heads created by Laakko to portray the students from the book’s isolated, menacing all-male school.

Michigan’s shutdown hasn’t slowed Malerman’s urge to multi-task creatively. This spring, he released a serialized novel called “Carpenter’s Farm” on his website for free and invited others to create their own art inspired by it. He received a novella, poems, a short story, music and a 76-minute “official score,” all of which he linked online to the novel.

With “Malorie” just arriving, Malerman sounds open to continuing the “Bird Box” saga, perhaps with a third book. He muses about a situation where the creatures seem to be gone. Who would still keep their blindfolds on and for how long? How can you know for sure they’re not there?

“That is a freaky scenario: They’re gone!,” says Malerman. “That’s a great title for book three: “They’re Gone.” You as a reader are like, ‘No they’re not’!”

Tribune Wire

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