Josh Malerman is a member of rock band The High Strung, and the author of the Bram Stoker Award-nominated book Bird Box. Tomorrow, April 10, marks the publication of his latest novel: the horror western Unbury Carol. We recently got a few minutes with Malerman to discuss the new book, his music career, and how his two creative passions interconnect.
About Unbury Carol:
Carol Evers is a woman with a dark secret. She has died many times . . . but her many deaths are not final: They are comas, a waking slumber indistinguishable from death, each lasting days.
Only two people know of Carol’s eerie condition. One is her husband, Dwight, who married Carol for her fortune, and—when she lapses into another coma—plots to seize it by proclaiming her dead and quickly burying her . . . alive. The other is her lost love, the infamous outlaw James Moxie. When word of Carol’s dreadful fate reaches him, Moxie rides the Trail again to save his beloved from an early, unnatural grave.
And all the while, awake and aware, Carol fights to free herself from the crippling darkness that binds her—summoning her own fierce will to survive. As the players in this drama of life and death fight to decide her fate, Carol must in the end battle to save herself.
The haunting story of a woman literally bringing herself back from the dead, Unbury Carol is a twisted take on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the final page.
Unbound Worlds: What is Unbury Carol all about?
Josh Malerman: I don’t want to put it in too much of a box, but it’s a horror western. Essentially, it’s about a fellow who is trying to cross the territory and bust up the funeral of a woman he believes is being buried alive.
UW: There was an extreme fear of being buried alive in that period. What got the book going?
JM: My books typically start with a singular image: a guy rushing to stop someone from being buried alive. Obviously, the novel is lot more complex than that, but that’s just the thread: It all blossomed from there.
UW: James Moxie, the hero of Unbury Carol, isn’t exactly a good buy, but there’s a villain, too.
JM: His name is Smoke, and he’s just a very odd villain: a gunless, hatless outlaw in the old west — a very fun bad guy. To me, he steals the thunder of the book from the main characters.
UW: I’ve read books before in which I thought the villain was a lot cooler than the hero.
JM: I’ve felt the same way, but now that we’ve caught that, we have to ask how we can make our heroes amazing again. Can we swing that back a little? It seems like all of the villains are the best now. I’m a huge horror fan, and that is almost all villains in a sense. For most of us, it is harder to make an agreeable guy awesome, than it is to create a great villain. Now I look at it as a challenge. It doesn’t all have to be “hero good, villain bad.”
UW: Is it because you are familiar with the tropes and don’t want to rely upon them as much? In other words, it gets harder because you want to write something better than what inspired you?
JM: Yes, but I’m glad you said it, because if I said it then it would come off as pretentious!
UW: Well, you want to do your best job.
JM: You do want to do your best job. When you sit down to write a book, you intend for your own voice to make the characters unique. It’s just going to happen no matter what you do, but when you’ve written enough books, you do start to think about it more. If I’m going to write about something that has been done many times before, then how can I make it my own? Or maybe I should forget that idea entirely and do something new. The danger in that is that you can be caught trying too hard. I think I would rather be caught trying too hard than pulling off a sub-par novel.
UW: Is creating music different from writing a novel? Do you think you use different parts of your brain?
JM: Yes. One hundred percent different. It’s almost like having conversations with two very different friends. One friend is very political, and you’re talking with him, and then you turn to your other friend who is a total goofball and he wants to talk about his new tattoo. It is that same kind of jumping from one sphere to the other. It takes effort, but there are similarities, too. There are definitely rhythms to both. When I write a book, it’s like there’s an invisible drummer in the office with me, and I’m writing to him. Sometimes, I’ll come back months later and read the draft, and I won’t remember the beat that guy was playing. It will feel out of sorts. I’m not trying go be funny, but maybe it was a jazzy, off-kilter beat, but you felt it when you wrote it. Either you rewrite it or get back into it. To me, the similarity is the go, go, go of it: the rhythm.
UW: Did you have any music in mind when you wrote the novel? Yours or someone else’s?
JM: Yes, I have — and I have no qualms saying so — one of the greatest horror vinyl collections in the universe! I play one after the other while I’m writing. Sometimes, the older stuff is almost too movie-like: too dramatic, you know? A lot of the newer stuff is singular stuff, droning keyboard … really, Carpenter is the father of that whole thing.
UW: Right, there’s new stuff, like the “It Follows” score.
JM: Exactly, I listened to that one recently. “Under the Skin” has a genius soundtrack. There are others that aren’t eighties-style synth, too. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I tried to write a scary book while listening to rock and roll, or country music just to try something different. I’ve done so many in a row with that same kind of atmosphere. Maybe I should shake things up.
UW: Do you have anything you’d like to say to your fans? Other writers? Your readers?
JM: To the writers, I’d say that I can’t wait to read what you write next, and let’s all get rid of the words “good” and “bad”, and then we’ll all write what we really wanted to write. To the readers, I hope that saying Unbury Carol is a horror western doesn’t box it in too much. It is wider than that, and I hope it thrills you to pieces.