Book Review : Josh Malerman - Unbury Carol (2018)
Most people know Josh Malerman from the Bird Box fame. And why wouldn’t they? It was a craze that swept through the internet like few others. He’s also releasing a fortunately timed sequel in December, so it’s unlikely that it’ll change soon. He’s the Bird Box guy. But if blindfolds and post-apocalyptic hellscapes aren’t your shtick, he’s been quietly one of the most daring and versatile horror writers, this last couple years. In 2018, he released a dark Western with a title that is as mysterious as it is alarming: Unbury Carol. What the fuck? What did Carol do to get buried alive? Is she even alive? So many questions.
It’s a wild one and I swear to God, it has nothing to do with Bird Box.
I’m sure you’ve guessed it: Unbury Carol tells the story of Carol Evers, a married woman in the Old West suffering from a bizarre and unexplained ailment. Whenever she’s too stressed out, she’ll collapse and appear dead for a period of time. But Carol is really caught in a netherworld she calls Howltown, fully aware of her surroundings (or almost). Only two people know about her condition: her conniving husband Dwight and her old flame, outlaw James Moxie. When Carol tries to tell someone else, she collapses and Dwight figures that if he wants to inherit her fortune, he needs to bury her now and quick. And that doesn’t quite go as planned.
Unbury Carol is obviously a dark, contemporary retelling of Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty. It’s even written on the back cover blurb. But Josh Malerman gave it a good enough scrub to reveal its underlying horror. For example, instead of conveniently falling asleep the damsel in distress lays motionless, but completely aware of the horrible fate awaiting her. Instead of being spellbound my a jealous witch, she’s taken advantage of by a greedy husband who’s way too self-involved to understand what it is to love someone. Carol is going through some dark shit. I don’t know about you, but no promise of any fucking prince charming would make me want to go through the risk of being buried alive.
Speaking of prince charming, Josh Malerman borrows from other popular myths and folktales in order to emancipate from the shadow of Perrault’s story. The choice of the Old West setting and to have an outlaw playing prince charming are not innocent. James Moxie embodies the idea of freedom, while Dwight Evers is exactly what he is to Carol: compliance with society’s rules. A needless compromise made to fit a system. There are other supernatural aspects to Unbury Carol, which heavily borrow from medieval myths and legends. I’m not going into details here because it would spoil a cool aspect of the novel, but rest assured. It doesn’t feel like a hodge podge of influences. It’s wrapped up in one seamless package.
I quite liked Unbury Carol. Josh Malerman has a smooth touch with characters that makes them fit the unlikeliest of premises. It’s a little bit on the long-ish side. I mean, there’s 350 pages covering what is essentially a period of two days, plenty of people get involved and it becomes quite difficult to find the highway between pages… let’s say 150 to 250? I have no doubt that back then, a mysterious death meant plenty of people stuck their noses where it didn’t belong but overall it hurt the pace of the novel. But still, Unbury Carol is a smart, inspired and original western. It feels like an oxymoron to say, but it’s quite an exploit.