Black Mad Wheel by Josh Malerman
Ecco (May 2017)
304 pages; $17.29 hardback; $12.99 e-book
Reviewed by Dave Simms
When Bird Box hit the horror scene three years ago, something special happened. Readers discovered a new voice, one which was lyrical and rhythmic but could also turn brutal on the next page. Josh Malerman wrote like a musician carving away at an album of great songs.The result was a true original which should have won the Bram Stoker award.
Coincidence? Not at all. Malerman is the singer and guitarist of The High Strung, a cool rock band. He’s like other authors who have been able to transfer their talents into music, and vice versa. His songs are his stories; his stories, his song.
Following one of the most innovative novels in a few years might have resulted in the clichéd sophomore slump. Instead, Malerman turned inward and penned a novel about the power of music, both good and bad.
Black Mad Wheel is tough to describe yet incredibly accessible, with strong characters and a narrative which flows like the best classic rock and roll.
The Danes, a one hit wonder band in the post-World War Two era, are looking for their next big thing. It arrives in the form of an offer from a military intelligence officer. He claims there’s a “sound” emanating from the African desert which not only disarms any weapon, but also destroys humans in a horrific manner. Of course, the band accepts and heads to find the source of the sound for a reward which could put all of them back on the path to wealth.
Meanwhile, in a parallel story, Phillip Tonka awakes from a long coma in a strange hospital, unable to move. Nearly every bone in his body broken, he is a miracle to those who care for him. Ellen, his nurse begins to unravel the mystery of what is continuing to happen to him, why he is still alive and healing at a rate that is physically impossible.
Both stories weave around each other like a great vocal riding atop a harmony, a guitar riff alongside a backbeat rhythm which can transform the simplest of songs into something magical. What the band finds in the desert is something most won’t see coming; Phillip’s tale is mysterious, thrilling, yet heartwarming as Malerman develops the bond between Philip and the nurse, attempting to explain the unexplainable.
Black Mad Wheel (a title which is fun to figure out) proves that Josh Malerman isn’t a one hit wonder. The story is just as enticing as Bird Box, which as much heart as horror. Do not miss this.
Highly recommended. This ranks near the top of any thriller written about music.