That Time Josh Malerman Found a Disembodied Wrist in a Lake: An Interview
With Bird Box and the recently released A House at the Bottom of a Lake—plus, all the short stories he's published in various magazines and anthologies—Josh Malerman has quickly become one of my favorite modern horror writers. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity ask him a few questions about his influences, his band, and his upcoming second novel.
What was your introduction to the horror genre?
I can’t remember how old I was, what exact age, but I was outside playing basketball with my brothers and my cousin at my cousin’s house when Uncle Bob told me he had a movie he thought I’d like. I can only guess as to what I said, how I behaved, what I did to get him thinking that I, more than my brothers, would like to see a horror movie for the first time in my life. Maybe I’d been saying weird dark shit as we played basketball? The swish sounded like falling bones? The ball against the backboard like a fist against the inside of a closed coffin lid? No idea. But Uncle Bob sat me down and showed me Twilight Zone: the Movie. By the time Anthony was forcing Walt to pull the rabbit from the hat, I was in love.
The first scary book for me was The Face of Fear by “Brian Coffey.” How could I know that Mister Coffey didn’t exist? That Dean Koontz was using pseudonyms all over town?
One more thing that may have contributed to my getting into horror:
One afternoon Mom came home with a cassette tape that she said I wasn’t allowed to listen to. I knew she’d been to see a psychic and I knew that it was a tape of that session. I waited till I had the house to myself and I put it on. Turns out it was a recounting about a ghost my Mom had seen in the house. At one point my Mom asked the psychic, “Everyone in the house has seen the ghost except Josh. Why?” Now, I was alone, listening to these grainy voices on loud state of the art speakers. I was chilled. “Josh can’t handle it,” the psychic said. And I was ambushed by two very strong feelings: 1) PRIDE: If my brothers could handle it...why couldn’t I? And why didn’t I know they had seen a ghost? Why was everyone using kids gloves with me? 2) HORROR: How bad is the ghost that I couldn’t handle seeing it? And was it listening to the tape with me then? In the room?
In A House at the Bottom of a Lake, two teenagers discover a house…at the bottom of a lake. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever found in a lake?
At summer camp, swimming, I stepped on something squishy and pulled out what I believe to be a wrist. No hand, no arm. Just the wrist. The other kids were swimming and horsing around fifteen feet away. I had treaded off to pee. I stepped on the thing, pulled it out of the water, examined it, decided, yes, it was a disembodied wrist, then I gasped, dropped it, couldn’t find it again, and quickly joined the others.
How did you get involved with This is Horror [publisher of A House at the Bottom of a Lake]?
I’d done a podcast with This is Horror covering Bird Box. I told them I wanted to send them a whole book of novellas (I’ve got twelve or thirteen of them.) That overly-ambitious idea was narrowed down to “how about one?” Months later I was halfway through A House at the Bottom of a Lake when I realized it wasn’t going to be novel length and I wrote Michael, asking if he was interested in the new one. He said yes.
When reading slush, I come across a lot of stories that are obviously the opening chapters to novels. What should a short story be, and what shouldn’t it be?
I like my shorts to be impressions. Slices of life. In and out. But not all of them, of course. Some of them show the monster, some don’t. Some don’t have a monster at all. It’s tricky because you could make a novel out of every short story if you were determined to do it. But sometimes it’s just a matter of getting that freaky moment on paper. Like when your friend tells you his or her ghost story...typically that story chills you more than a three-hundred page novel can. I keep that in mind when writing a short.
How do you prepare each story you tackle?
I do all and everything I can to sustain the original enthusiasm for the idea itself.
How is The High Strung lately? Do you still tour as much as you did before Bird Box’s released? Have you incorporated any live-readings during concerts? Obviously the dream here is to blindfold an entire audience in a mosh pit and perform an insane Bird Box reading, right?
Honestly, I think the High Strung is suffering because of how much attention I’m paying to the books rather than the songs. It used to be that a longer idea was a novel, a short idea a song. But nowadays the short ideas become short stories and so what’s left for the songs? There’s total imbalance going on and it’s no doubt my own fault. If I wrote a new album tomorrow, we’d record it. Working on it. Maybe it’s time for a novel length series of songs.
What can you tell us about your upcoming novel, Black Mad Wheel?
Black Mad Wheel takes place in 1957. Former members of the army band, four guys who are now in a rock band playing all over Detroit, are tapped by the army to go to the Namib Desert in Africa and locate the source of a very frightening sound. Like Bird Box, the narration is split in two...the soldier-musicians hunting this sound...and a hospital in Iowa where one of the musicians is trying to heal from what the sound did to him.
Everybody already knows about the 8,000 novels you’ve already written that await publication. What are you writing NOW?
It’s an exorcism off camera. Two boys, a Jewish kid and a Catholic kid, are always shuttled into the Catholic kid’s basement by the Catholic kid’s parents. Go play. Go play. But through the ceiling the Jewish kid hears the Catholic kid’s parents arguing. Sounds like they’re talking about something in the house. What to do about it. Over the course of the fall and winter, the thread upstairs escalates (off camera) until the boys are scared shitless by what they’re hearing above. It’s an inverse to the old “afraid to go down the basement stairs” thing. These boys become afraid to walk up them.
Before you go, recommend some non-fiction horror novels that have blown you away.
Here’s a few:
The Demonologist by Gerald Brittle
Conjuring up Philip by Iris M. Owen, Margaret Sparrow
The Ghost of 29 Megacycles by John G Fuller
The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis
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