Josh Malerman is becoming a bonafide horror master.
After the huge success of Bird Box, Netflix’s adaptation of his novel of the same name, Malerman has been in high demand in the horror community. His latest book, Inspection, takes a different approach to the genre than his previous work, but still manages to bring the chills and thrills.
In an isolated tower, deep in the woods and surrounded by cherry trees, twenty-six boys have been raised to know nothing but the world they see. Each named after a letter in the alphabet, these boys are lorded over by an authoritarian figure known only as D.A.D. This man, adorned in red and sporting a jet-black beard, dictates what they do, what they read, who they live with and what they think. He controls them with a small army of instructors, armed guards, attack dogs, but he controls their minds with his very words. Every morning, each boy is subjected to an invasive “inspection” where they are examined for physical ailments known as “vees”, “rotts”, and “placasores”. As they are looked over for any signs of these plague-like diseases, they are subjected to questions to try and determine their state of mind. Their dreams are dissected, their hopes and their fears analyzed.
One such boy, J, has been feeling disconnected from the others. He has seen something out in the woods at night. Is it a low-laying branch playing in the moonlight, or is it the ghost of one of the boys, A and Z, who have never been seen again since they were sent to the “Corner”, this school’s version of hell? The boys are reaching puberty, or “The Recasting Years” as D.A.D. calls it, so feelings are rising within each that they can’t explain away. They are beginning to distrust one another, and most importantly, they are beginning to question the rule of D.A.D.
D.A.D. sits in his office, guzzling martinis as he watches the boys, and frets about his ability to control the boys during this time. There is also dissent brewing within his employees. Warren Bratt, a writer who creates all of the fictionalized books the boys read under the pseudonym Lawrence Luxley, has made a decision to write a new story. This new story is not approved by D.A.D., for it will attempt to tell the boys the truth for the first time in their lives. He writes a book called Needs, where they are introduced to the concept of women for the first time, shattering everything they have been taught in their lives. If he is caught with this manuscript, he will be sent to the “Corner”, a place of nightmares from where no one has ever returned.
Seems like a lot to digest right? Well, this all happens within the first few chapters of Inspection. It’s as if you, as the reader, are dropped into this world and forced to acclimate yourself to its harsh realities. Malerman’s prose begins to stall during these quiet times, but everything hits a fever pitch once you learn that there is more than one school. Across the expanse known as “The Pines”, there lies another school. This school is run with the same philosophies and policies as the first, only this one is populated by only women and girls.
What follows is a coming-of-age story that feels like it was ripped directly from our current political climate. We are conditioned to fear the “outside”, just like these boys and girls. What lies beyond the pines is only death and destruction. What lies beyond the edge of our understanding? To use a device from Bird Box, what mysteries stand just beyond our blindfold? These are themes that are handled beautifully in Inspection. What happens when we can no longer believe what those in power tell us? What if there is a better world lying just past our leader’s desire for control and power?
The ending of Inspection left me absolutely breathless, but the pay-off isn’t what makes this book so magical. It’s the themes of love, desire, revenge, evangelical extremism, hatred, guilt, power, and nature versus nurture that kept this book in my thoughts for the last few weeks. Malerman writes with a frenzy during the second half of the book, and his words find a way to keep the reader spellbound and up late at night. While the opening half of the book feels like an information download that you don’t have quite enough memory space for, the second half feels like a cathartic release of emotion and fear. It feels almost like a good cry after a long day at work. Inspection fills you with tension as you learn about the school and gives you a place to focus your rage as you unconsciously understand that this world isn’t as foreign as it might have seemed at the start.
There are a few issues that I had with the premise and set up of the novel (What about those who are gender-fluid? If there are a bunch of horny teenage boys locked in a tower, wouldn’t most of them be exploring their sexuality with one another? What do they think a boner is?), but none of these questions deter from the overall power of the novel. It showed me that the power and control of D.A.D. was complete, and that their natural desires were squashed by the fear of doing anything that might send them to the “Corner”. These boys and girls were completely repressed by fear, and the second half of Inspection shows what happens when religion or institutionalism hold back what is natural and needed in humanity.
Inspection is a beautiful novel that you need to pick up and read today. You can find it on Amazon or at your local Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up and give it a read. Josh Malerman is quickly becoming one of the finest voices in horror fiction, so jump on this train before it leaves the station.
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