The Fright Stuff

How the High Strung’s Josh Malerman sealed a six-figure horror book deal while scared silly

Thanks to John King Books for providing the perfect space for the photos; 901 W Lafayette Blvd., Detroit; 313-961-0622.
Thanks to John King Books for providing the perfect space for the photos; 901 W Lafayette Blvd., Detroit; 313-961-0622.

Josh Malerman is sipping a bourbon and coke on the balcony of his Royal Oak apartment, white lace and foliage dripping from every available space thanks to the vision of his artist fiancee Allison Laakko. With a floppy military-style cap perched on his head and his active eyes darting from the storage cabinet stacked with boxes of horror VHS tapes to his cat Frankenstein, he takes a drag from a Parliament cigarette, thinks hard for a minute and says, “Remember that scene in The Human Centipede when the girl tries to escape and the doctor says, ‘Now you’ll be the middle piece’? The guy at the front had it made.”

That sort of exchange is typical when engaging in conversation with Malerman. The frontman with local indie rockers the High Strung recently scored himself a two-book, six-figure North American deal with HarperCollins. The book is titled Bird Box, and it’s already been optioned for a movie by Universal Studios. These last few months have been a whirlwind for Malerman, and yet when we meet with him he’s exactly the same amiable, excitable, fast-talking gent that we met when writing about the High Strung a couple years ago.

Don’t mistake his modesty for apathy though; he’s genuinely excited — child-on-Christmas Eve excited. His years of toil bearing fruit at last, he carries an air of impatient but gleeful anticipation, and gratitude aplenty. When we arrive at his house, he can’t wait to show us his six fish tanks, his box of horror soundtracks on vinyl, his scads of horror DVDs, his figurines of Norman Bates and Frankenstein (to match the cat), and the art that is literally painted onto the apartment walls. He’s like a child showing a new friend the toys in his bedroom for the first time. When we ask to see his weird and wacky cartoons, they keep coming like colored handkerchiefs from a magician’s sleeve.

When the discussion turns to horror films, Malerman shifts conversational gears at an impressive rate. Horror fans, perhaps more than any other movie aficionados, will talk endlessly about the subject — for example the merits of gore movies vs. psychological horror, or whether they prefer fast-moving or ambling zombies. Why is Cannibal Holocaust controversial? Why did they have to make so many Saw movies? Listening to him talk, you understand that Malerman is a horror fan first, and that passion led him to write.

This isn’t the story of a drug-addled rocker writing horror literature to exorcise demons his songs won’t. Nor is it another tale of the romance and mystique of a tortured soul. This is the story of a genuinely intelligent and nice guy in one of metro Detroit’s hardest-working rock ’n’ roll bands. That Detroitwork ethic has helped define the High Strung’s career thus far, and Malerman carries it over into his writing. He’s talented, yes, but he found success because he didn’t know how to quit.

“I wrote my first book in fifth grade,” says Malerman, who was born in Southfield and raised in West Bloomfield. “It was about a dog that goes to outer space and is an ambassador for Earth. I didn’t get a formal introduction to horror until right about the age of 12, when my uncle showed me Twilight Zone: The Movie. When you’re 12 years old and you see that — oh, God. I devoured as many horror movies and novels as possible. In the ’70s, there was The Exorcist, The Other and Rosemary’s Baby, and then Stephen King takes off from there. I was at exactly the right age for all that. … Even if Mom put the movie on, you feel like you shouldn’t be watching it. It all worked wonderfully with me. I got legitimately scared, and excited — didn’t want to see it but wanted to see it again. That led to me trying to write horror stories.”

Debbie Malerman, Josh’s mom, says that her son always had a vivid imagination. “I’m not so sure about the horror,” she says. “I know he and his brothers loved being scared. He loved giggling about how they all jumped. But I think his horror books feature different kinds of horror. He’s evolved.”

Evolve he has, and the writing has come thick and fast. After a few years of false starts, Malerman eventually finished his first novel, Wendy, when he was 29. In the nine years that have followed, he’s completed 16 novels. However, the idea that he spent that time shopping each of those books to agents and publishing houses and then banging his head against a wall every time he received a rejection letter can be dismissed straight away. Rather, Malerman was discovered almost by accident.

“I never shopped any of them,” he says. “After finishing Wendy, it’s almost like I was living in a delusional world. I’d have a shelf with books that I wrote. There’d be dedication pages, there’d be ‘other books by Josh Malerman’ pages, there were forewords, afterwords, like it was my finished piece of work. I would interview myself in the shower about how the new book was going. In that stretch, I had a blind faith that it was all going to work out one day. I never actually sought out an agent or a publishing house. A friend of mine named David Simmer got wind of what I was doing and he sent one of my books to a literary lawyer in Los Angeles. He loved it, and he sent it to other people, including an agent, and he picked me up, and that’s how Bird Box got to where it is now.”

While it is true to call Malerman a fan of horror fiction, he’s also an avid, ravenous student of the genre. He reads as many books as he can find on the subject, always looking for a previously undiscovered gem of information. “I’ve been reading a lot of books with names like The History of Horror Cinema,” he says. “I’m currently reading a book about television horror hosts, like Elvira and, around here, Sir Graves Ghastly. I’m also reading one about 25 horror novels that were turned into movies. I’ve been on this kick and I think it’s typical of a horror fan — you could read many books on the same subject trying to find that one little nugget of information that you didn’t know before. That makes it worth it.”

On the surface, Malerman isn’t the stereotypical horror movie fan, decked out in Texas Chainsaw T-shirts and eager to describe in minute detail their favorite torture scene from a Hostel movie. Rather, Malerman wallows in the thrill of the fright. He enjoys that feeling you get after the movie has ended and you don’t want to turn the lights off, the movies that linger in your head hours after they’re over. In fact, Laakko tells us that, after recently watching The Conjuring, Malerman made her escort him to the bathroom at 4 a.m., too afraid to go pee by himself. He wouldn’t have it any other way; Malerman understands that to not find a horror film scary is akin to not finding a comedy movie funny. What’s the point?

“I think there are two types of horror fans,” Malerman says. “One laughs at the gore and wants to see the best kill possible. ‘Did you see that she was hung on a meat hook?’ It’s all about taking apart that sort of thing. The other type of fan is legitimately scared. I’m in the latter category. With The Conjuring, I’m 38 years old and I’m literally watching it with my hands over my eyes. I think some horror authors are trying to scare you, but with me, I’m as scared as the reader is of the story. I’ve always been that way, since watching the Twilight Zone movie — watching Firestarter when my parents were out, or sneaking out to watch A Nightmare on Elm Street at a friend’s house because I couldn’t watch it at my house. That makes you doubly scared — of the movie, and of the possibility of Mom finding out.”

Just to set his mother’s mind at ease, Malerman went off and formed a rock ’n’ roll band then set about touring the nation in search of adventure and the occasional paying gig. The High Strung has the sort of admirable work ethic that sees them on the road more than not. The band made the news when they planted their old and dying tour van outside of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland (homemade plaque included) without being invited, and they tasted some top-level success when their song “The Luck You Got” was picked to be the main theme to the William H. Macy show Shameless. With all of that going on, when does Malerman find the time to write?

“We were off the road for two months when I wrote that first book, Wendy,” he says. “The next eight came riding shotgun while Derek [Berk, drums,] was driving us around the country. Derek loves driving. Chad [Stocker, bass,] loves sleeping in the van. For years, Derek would be driving, I’d be frantically typing out a novel — I only use two fingers — and Chad would be asleep behind us. Then we’d drink and play a rock show. But if you think about it, there is a lot of downtime on the road. If you write two or three hours a day, you can get a lot done in that time.”

High Strung bassist Stocker says that Malerman rarely switches off when the band tours. “He’s always creating environments, situations and the characters to go along with them,” Stocker says. “When he’s not doing that, he’s steeping himself in reading or listening. Just driving around the country over and over again, he’d be coming up with these characters half-based on his fears, or ambitions, half-based on his true experiences. I think having so much empty space and time to fill in your day, when traveling like that, promoted his creative drive. It was that or waste away thinking about the other side of the coin: ‘Shit, man, I live in a truck with two other dudes, I’m stealing Snickers bars and hot dogs from truck stops to eat, and we are going to sleep in the truck tonight in Mississippi in August. I hope to get a shower soon. I’m just a glorified bum!’”

Malerman knows that too many details can ruin a surprise, so he’s reluctant to give too much about Bird Box away. He carefully teases us, saying, “Bird Box is essentially a young mother’s tale of raising two children in a macabre, shadowy and extremely dangerous world. You can’t look outside, you can hardly go outside, and a blindfold is your greatest protection. The book alternates between two key moments in [the mother] Malorie’s life: when she is pregnant and arrives at a house where other people are attempting to understand what has happened to the outside world, and when she is desperately traveling a river, blindfolded, with the two children. Where they are going, what they are leaving behind, and what they might encounter on the river makes up the meat of the story. The bird box is an alarm system that they use.”

In this case, the story of the writer’s success might be as compelling as the story he has written. With no knowledge of the publishing industry to guide him, Bird Box really did seem to fly into the hands of all the right people before becoming the subject of a bidding battle. “The book went to auction, and there were a few publishing houses that I spoke to on the phone,” Malerman says. “They told me what they had in mind for it, and they were all amazing. It seemed silly to say no to anybody — I wanted to give everyone a book. HarperCollins’ editor, Lee [Boudreaux], is absolutely fantastic and that’s what sold me on them. She’s super intelligent and full of good ideas. Allison was out of town at the time. I was at home, on the balcony, freaking out while talking to my agent. The agent sent the book to publishing houses, and then their answers started to come in. If anybody wanted to join in on the auction, they told her as much. I knew that one of the houses was going to put Bird Box out. It was just a matter of which one.”

Malerman’s agent Kristin Nelson is no fan of horror, but when she couldn’t put the book down she felt that she was on to a winner. “I just couldn’t stop reading,” she says. “I had to find out why Malorie is blindfolded, why is she on the river, what the heck is going on in this world and will she survive. And the editors I gave it to all felt the same way. In fact, I sent Josh’s editor, Lee, the manuscript on a Thursday. The next day, she sent me an email around 7 p.m. on a Friday night cursing me. She had popped open the novel to just give the first chapter a look and then several hours later, hadn’t finished making dinner for her family. She couldn’t stop reading until she had reached the end. That following Monday, she made an offer.”

Boudreaux says, “I had no intention of working all night, no intention of reading a whole submission. But I finished it at 1 a.m. I just knew that I loved it and I was certain there would be other readers out there who felt the same way. I also loved that the protagonist was a young mother. Surviving in this world contained so many paradoxes and burdens; Josh examined these beautifully.”

Bird Box is being readied for an early summer 2014 release. That could be followed shortly afterward by a movie adaptation, although little has been confirmed at this point. “Once HarperCollins picked it up, my manager started to shop it to studios and producers,” Malerman says. “One producer, Scott Stuber (Ted, Identity Thief), started trying to assemble a team with the intention of presenting it to Universal Studios. The director he got, Andrés Muschietti, had a sleeper horror hit last year called Mama. I loved it because it had a new monster, its own thing. I love when that happens. I thought it was legitimately scary, so when I heard that he was on board to direct Bird Box, I thought it was nuts. His first movie was pretty fucking good. Once he was on board, plus the producer, and HarperCollins bought the book, I think that was obviously sweeter to Universal. A screenwriter is attached and he’s working on it now. I’ve never done this before so I don’t know exactly what happens next, but I think after he’s done they start to cast it. I met him in that moment, and he’s super enthusiastic, super nice and a really smart guy.”

That’s the life of Josh Malerman right now; he’s preparing for the release of his first novel and the movie adaptation, and the High Strung has one song left to record for a forthcoming new album. The hard work that has seen him struggle for many years is finally paying off. His mom knows why. “I believe he found his passion,” Debbie says. “I think being on the road all those years has helped him realize what is important in his life and how important his writing is. He’s a strong person and I think it takes that to get up every day and work on your craft. His father and I work long hours at a CPA firm and that may have some kind of influence, but I doubt it.”

Don’t be so sure, Ma Malerman. We often take cues from our parents, even if it’s because we were hiding out from them to watch scary movies. And even though Malerman has grown creatively, he’s arguably just as terrified a horror fan today as he was in those formative years.

“I lived in a basement in Clawson for two years before moving to where we are now in Royal Oak,” Malerman says. “It was a really creepy basement. I’d sit there on my own with the lights out and headphones on and watch Italian horror movies — it was horrifying. To go to the bathroom after that was terrifying. I’d have to leave my bedroom light on.”

One suspects that, even when Malerman is the one doing the scaring through his stories, he’ll always be that 10-year-old boy, full of both joy and paralyzing fear.

Life’s much more fun that way.

Brett Callwood is a staff writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

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