The Fright Stuff
How the high strung’s Josh Malerman sealed a six-figure horror book deal while scared silly.
Published: August 21, 2013
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.”
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