Josh Malerman remembers having to sneak down the stairs of his West Bloomfield boyhood home to watch tense movies like Firestarter, a film based on the Stephen King horror novel. “When you’re a kid, it’s like there’s yellow police tape around the room of horror stories,” he says. The lure of crossing the line added zest to the experience. “You’re not just worried about what’s happening in the movie, you’re also worried about Mom and Dad knowing you’re watching the movie. So it was doubly scary.”
These days, it’s Malerman authoring frightening scenarios. And increasingly, reviewers are comparing the 42-year-old Ferndale resident with King as a writer of supernatural page-turners with imagination, robust storytelling, and sustained tension.
The movie industry has noticed. A Netflix-produced adaptation of Malerman’s post-apocalyptic thriller, Bird Box, is now in the works with a possible release later this year. Sandra Bullock has the starring role as a woman accompanied by two small children who try to navigate to safety down a river in a rowboat — with all of them blindfolded in order to avoid seeing a mysterious entity that causes suicidal madness for anyone who views it.
Bird Box marked Malerman’s first published novel when it debuted in the U.S. and United Kingdom in 2014. But it was hardly the first one he wrote. He penned some 14 novels before submitting any, the work done during a seven-year span when he was almost constantly on the road as a singer-songwriter-guitarist for the rock band, The High Strung.
Fans of Showtime’s Shameless have heard The High Strung’s “The Luck You Got,” the opening theme song for the long-running series. The band — which currently includes Chad Stocker, Derek Berk, Mark Owen, and Stephen Palmer along with Malerman — has left behind the cross-country tours, but is currently working on its eighth album.
Malerman had begun drafts but hadn’t finished any by the time the band took a break from touring in 2004. Staying temporarily at his father’s house, he would go to an all-night coffee shop in Birmingham where he finished a book for the first time.
Back on the road, Malerman brought a renewed commitment to writing, putting in three hours a day either freehand or on a computer while sitting in the tour van. “The idea from the start was to create a body of work,” he says. “I think if you see yourself writing numerous songs and numerous books, you become looser with each one.”
His approach may be loose, but he is also disciplined and prolific, sometimes knocking off 5,000 words a day. On the heels of Bird Box, he published another novel, novellas, and some short stories. His next novel, Unbury Carol, is a horror-western story set for release in April.
Even as the manuscripts piled up, Malerman lacked a plan to get published. Then a friend from West Bloomfield High School sent the draft of one to someone he knew who worked in publishing, the break that Malerman needed to get noticed.
Horror and music come together in Malerman’s second novel, Black Mad Wheel, which hit bookstores in 2017. The bond between musicians is a key theme in this suspenseful tale of a 1950s Detroit-area band that becomes involved in a U.S. military investigation.
Malerman doesn’t flinch from being described as a horror fiction writer, but rejects the brutal violence that is sometimes a part of the category. “For me, the badge of honor is being able to sustain frightening tension for the duration of a whole novel,” he says.
The success of Bird Box has kept Malerman traveling, but with a wider itinerary. Accompanied by his fiancee Allison Laakko — an artist and musician in her own right — he has done book readings and signings across the U.S. and Canada as well as Rio de Janeiro and Istanbul, where the book has garnered enthusiastic fans.
Malerman talked with prospective screenwriters as they developed their vision, but hasn’t read the finished script. “I am completely open-minded to whatever they end up doing,” he says. “I hope it is scary, I hope the music is phenomenal, and I hope everyone has a great time making it.”