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Book Review: Black Mad Wheel by Josh Malerman

“Mixes music and horror in a way that is thoroughly original and devilishly compelling.”

Black mad wheelPhilip Tonka is a broken man. Every bone in his body, broken. Yet, he survived, and is healing faster than anyone anticipated. Tonka was exposed to a sound capable of crushing a man, and rendering weapons useless. Flipping back and forth between time lines, we see what led him to his near fatal encounter before, and his miraculous recovery at the hands of the same people who asked him to find the source of the sound in the first place. A vast government conspiracy, a broken man pumped full of drugs to speed his recovery, and a young nurse who risks everything to save a man she barely knows. Josh Malerman’s latest novel, Black Mad Wheel, thrusts readers into the African desert with pulse pounding suspense and dives deep into the weird with a story unlike anything you’ve ever read.

Malerman, the author of Bird Box, and singer/guitarist of The High Strung, mixes music and horror in a way that is thoroughly original and devilishly compelling. Philip Tonka, pianist for The Danes, a Detroit band desperate for a hit, is approached by the Army to find the source of a mysterious sound. Philip leads his band into the searing desert, figuring finding the sound will be easy, and the money isn’t that bad either. In fact, it’s great. Who else would be better to deal with a weird sound that makes bullets useless other than a group of musicians? What Philip and his bandmates find in the desert defies description. Just as music deals with timing and space, the area where the Army believes the sound originated reverberates with bits and pieces of history’s own time and space. And then there are the bodies. Flattened as though run over by a steamroller, the sound squashes men without blinking an eye. When one of his bandmates comes up missing, Tonka and crew push on through the dunes, determined to find their friend while facing the horrific artifacts left behind by the sound.

The story moves in non-linear fashion with expert pacing by Malerman, switching gears between time lines and perspectives, building suspense by constantly keeping the mystery front and center. As Tonka begins to recover from his exposure to the sound, Ellen, a young nurse at the hospital, begins to suspect there is much more to this poor broken man than meets the eye. When his recovery gains in leaps and bounds, Ellen knows something isn’t right. Shadowy men follow her, and she grows fearful for her safety. After Philip regains consciousness, he enlists Ellen to help him remember what happened by having her draw the things he saw in the desert. Somewhere, locked in his memory, is a secret, and the military will stop at nothing to get that information.

Malerman’s strength here is his characters and knowing the stakes involved. With top-notch dialogue and exciting exposition that doesn’t drag the story down, he knows his story people well enough to let them open up a little, providing an emotional backdrop to this mind-bending story. The desert scenes are very reminiscent of Willard scenes in Apocalypse Now, replacing the humid Vietnam jungle for the arid African desert heat. None of the characters here are squeaky clean stereotypes. Everyone has flaws and faults, yet they feel genuine and nuanced. The main real villain is a deep government conspiracy, which often is best rendered faceless and without description.

The central question of the story is “what is the opposite of war?” Malerman doesn’t beat you over the head with any form of socio-political rambling, instead allowing you to make your own decision about the question. The titular ‘sound’ of the story is never fully explained, adding fuel to the mystery. Obviously, the sound is the catalyst that gets the story moving, but what is at work here is much deeper than a malevolent sound stronger than a nuclear bomb. The real threat is in discovering how far people will go to turn an anti-weapon into an actual weapon. The ‘sound’ is the mystery, and in most cases, the best mysteries are the ones that have no solution or concrete answer. If you solve the mystery, then what’s the point? Readers looking for specific and detailed answers to metaphysical anomalies will not find answers here. As with reading most weird fiction, the mystery isn’t what makes the story, but rather how people deal with the mystery.

Black Mad Wheel is a suspenseful novel, another testament to Malerman’s exceptional storytelling abilities. As the story progresses, readers will find themselves turning the pages faster and faster until the end, yearning to know what happens to these characters. The story is firmly planted in weird fiction, straddling that delicate area between science-fiction and horror, yet fully accessible enough for the casual reader wanting something to read that is completely different and original from the usual thriller fare. Josh Malerman has another homerun with this one, so you’ll want to get this book in your hands, and your head, as fast as you can.

 

BOB PASTORELLA

 

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers

Paperback: (304pp)

Release Date: 23 May 2017

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