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Black Mad Wheel by Josh Malerman2 stars
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Josh Malerman made quite a splash with his chilling 2014 frightfest Bird Box. With a movie of that book going into production, expectations were naturally high for his follow up. And so it breaks my heart a bit to report that it’s a real disappointment. Though it does a number of things very well, Black Mad Wheel just can’t stick the landing.

Like Bird Box, Black Mad Wheel has to do with sensory perception. In the earlier book, a woman and her kids had to make their way blindfolded through an apocalyptic landscape, because the mere sight of the story’s horror causes you to go suicidally insane. In Black Mad Wheel, which opens in Detroit in 1957, a sound of unknown origin has been discovered emanating from deep within the Namib Desert. Hearing it causes convulsions and agony, and it somehow possesses the ability to disable all weaponry, from guns all the way up to nuclear warheads. Malerman himself is a rock musician, so a horror novel about a deadly sound featuring a rock band seems a natural fit. Reading the story, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was inspired by an old Kate Bush song from the ’80s called “Experiment IV,” in which the military is trying to develop “a sound that can kill someone from a distance.”

Anyway, the Danes are a group of Detroit one-hit-wonder rockers who met while serving during the Second World War. Twelve years on, they’re drawn back into service when a gruff military type shows up at their studio, plays them the mystery sound — which I’m sure they appreciated while vomiting all over the floor — and offers them 100 grand each, quite a chunk of change in 1957, to travel to Namibia to locate the source of the thing.

The story is told along two timelines, one detailing the odyssey itself and the other, its aftermath, with Philip Tonka, the band’s leader, laced up in a covert Iowa hospital with literally every bone in his body broken. From this we can infer things didn’t go too well in Africa. But he’s being treated by a literal mad doctor, who’s injecting him with some kind of serum causing accelerated healing, because of course they want Philip to go back to the desert and finish the job. All of this alarms a young nurse named Ellen, who decides that her superiors are up to no good and vows to help Philip, even if it costs her job.

There’s quite a bit of stretching your suspension of disbelief you have to do to swallow a lot of this story, as you might have guessed. For one thing, why wouldn’t the military have a team of acousticians, or some guys with scientific credentials, out there searching for this sound? Why would they round up a bunch of former buck privates who never even saw combat in the war they served in over a decade before, and whose only apparent qualifications now are being in a band? Are the Danes the only former servicemen who are musicians?

Despite this, Malerman does offer some effectively tense scenes, both in the desert and in the hospital. I especially liked that the Namib Desert was a setting at all. It’s good to get a horror tale with an unconventional location, and why the endless ghostly sands of the Namib haven’t been adequately exploited by horror writers before is a genuine mystery. It’s as awesomely remote in its way as, say, the Antarctic, which is very familiar territory for horror fans.

As for characters, though, it’s hit or miss. Philip feels underdeveloped as an individual, and really, the Danes are only interesting when Malerman presents them together as a group. Far more development is given to Ellen the nurse, who’s working out some past guilt, even though her ultimate role as self-motivated caregiver is completely conventional and the blossoming romance between her and Philip is perfunctory as it comes.

But the book’s main failing is its climax, which goes beyond the acceptable parameters of how to be open-ended and ambiguous into straight up incoherence. There’s an attempt to introduce a sort of Christopher Nolan-ish “is reality here really real” element into how things resolve, but it just faceplants into confusion and frustration. In the end, Black Mad Wheel just sounds too many wrong notes to make for a truly harmonious composition.