Recently, Josh Malerman was able to splurge in a way many indie rockers can’t. At a book store in East Lansing, Michigan, he stumbled upon a copy of Stephen King’s 1977 novel Rage, a school-shooting tale written under his Richard Bachman pseudonym that’s been out of print for years. Despite the hefty price — $350 — Malerman snapped it up. “It was a crappy, beat-up version,” he says. “To me, that was a crazy thing to do.”
For roughly two decades, Malerman has been singing, writing songs and playing guitar with his band the High Strung, pounding out Kinks-influenced power pop on albums like 2004’s These Are Good Times and 2009’s Ode to the Inverse of the Dude. The group’s record sales and fan base are solid, if modest, but nothing compares to the success he’s found in his other life. On the side, Malerman writes novels and short stories, many in the horror genre, and one of them — his 2014 dystopian novel Bird Box — became the year’s biggest streaming sensation on Netflix.
Starring Sandra Bullock as a mother dealing with a world in which unseen creatures impel people to take their own lives, thereby devastating the planet, Bird Box has been viewed by anywhere between 25 and 46 million people (depending on the source). At an age when many indie rockers his age are looking at a less-than-profitable future, Malerman, 43, is enjoying a rare second wind thanks to his other, increasingly busy job. “A lot of people ask, ‘Are you a writer who’s a musician or a musician who writes books?’” he says. “There’s a tendency to ask that question. But I’ve been doing both for decades now.”
Malerman grew up in the Detroit area, where he met his High Strung band mates — including bassist Chad Stocker, drummer Derek Berk and guitarist-songwriter Mark Owen, all still in the band — in elementary and high school. The first film that made an impression on Malerman was 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie, and the first record in his collection was DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince’s “A Nightmare on My Street.” “It was a foreshadowing,” he chuckles. “Music and horror — two things I ended up doing.”
The friends coalesced as a band during Malerman’s Michigan State University days, and in 1998, they moved en masse to Brooklyn. The High Strung’s punchy, garage-psychedelic sound could easily have clicked in the way it did for other rock bands of the time, but the High Strung always fell a bit short. They moved east just in time to miss the White Stripes-fueled garage band revival in their native Michigan. “We’re rehearsing [in New York] and hearing about all this music from back home and going, ‘Wait, what happened?’” Malerman says. In New York, they watched as another band rehearsing in the space next to theirs — Interpol — took off. That never quite happened with the High Strung. To earn a living, the band took to the road for six years.
Partly as a hobby and partly as a way to relive the tedium of touring, Malerman, who grew up reading classic horror and sci-fi from Poe and H.P. Lovecraft to King, began writing in vans, bars or wherever he could find a spot. He wrote over a dozen novels, starting with Wendy — “a psycho-sexual novel about two fellas who research an abandoned haunted house of serious ill-repute” — but they began piling up, unpublished. Thanks to an old friend who ended up in the entertainment business, Malerman found an agent, and Bird Box, written in such a hurried fashion that it didn’t have indentations or chapter breaks, was submitted to publishers.
A homage of sorts to the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” the novel was first published in 2014. By then, the film rights had already been optioned, from the rough draft that Malerman wound up revising. The book sold well, and Malerman’s writing career took off. He subsequently published Black Mad Wheel (about a fictional band from the ’50s sent on a government mission) and Unbury Carol, a dark take on Sleeping Beauty. Altogether he says he’s now written 28 novels, most of them still awaiting publication.
Malerman had no say in the movie version of Bird Box, which deviates in several ways from his novel. (Spoiler alert: His ending is slightly darker, and one of the central characters in the film has a much smaller role in the novel.) But as the latest example of a horrific planetary future that suddenly doesn’t feel that implausible, Bird Box has clearly plugged into apocalyptic fears. “It feels closer than it did a few years ago,” Malerman concedes. That said, he thinks other factors are as important to the movie’s must-see status. “It’s always been something of a Rorschach test,” he says. “What do you see in this book? What do you think the creatures are? The other part is that it’s the story of a woman who is reluctant to have a baby but has one at the worst time in history. It’s about [Bullock’s character] discovering that she’s a good mom.”
The High Strung, who have released a steady trickle of albums and EPs over the years, caught a break when “The Luck You Got” became the theme song for Showtime’s Shameless in 2010. But Malerman admits his side job as a writer has threatened to overtake the band, which went five years between albums thanks to his schedule. “There were times when I talked to them and said, ‘There’s so much going on,’ and I didn’t see how it was possible to slip an album in,” he says. Salvation arrived when Owen, who had left the band, rejoined.
Their latest album, this month’s Quiet Riots, finds them reinvigorated on tracks like “Alien Madman” and “Goffin and King,” a salute to the classic songwriting team. The album was cut a year ago and held back until the appropriate time — which appear to be very much now, since more people than ever have heard of him thanks to Bird Box.
Malerman’s writing life still beckons. In March he’ll publish Inspection, a school-academy thriller, and although he’s not allowed to say which, two more of his books have been optioned for films. There are no current plans for a sequel to Bird Box, but Malerman is open to the idea. He felt the book had a satisfying conclusion, but the film adaptation made him want to see more. “When I saw the movie version, I thought, ‘Now what happens to her?’” he laughs. “It was a funny feeling, like, ‘Wait, I want to know.’ We haven’t talked about a sequel in a real way, but I love the idea.”
In the meantime, Malerman is still adjusting to his new success, from attending a swanky Los Angeles premiere for Bird Box to grappling with a wave of dangerous “Bird Box Challenges,” in which people blindfold themselves and, like the characters in the movie, attempt tasks like driving. The trend has resulted in numerous accidents, a YouTube ban on such viral videos, and a statement from Netflix cautioning people from imitating the movie.
“Man,” Malerman says, pausing momentarily when asked about it. “At first I was joyfully wrapped up in the fact that people were having fun with it at all. Then I read about a woman who trashed a car, and it’s like, ‘Whoa, whoa.’ It’s a mind-boggling thing. You can just eat a sandwich blindfolded. You don’t have to drive a car.”