Writing about the work of Josh Malerman always presents something of a conundrum for me. For one thing, whenever I type his name I feel almost compelled to preface it with the words, “The Great…” And whenever I think of that, I find myself thinking how strange and uncommon that is, and also how wonderful. That the individual in question is so young is something that my grizzled experience tells me should inform the depth of his ability but it doesn’t do that at all. Or, even more wondrous, if age is a factor in the level of his talent, if he will—and I assume this to be the case—get better with time and experience, then the thought becomes nearly uncanny. He’s already so freaky, magically, vastly, endlessly, remarkably and all the other ‘lys” good at what he does that it’s almost impossible to conceive of a world in which Malerman is even better than he is right now. Because with the sad advent of the recent death of the great Jack Ketchum, in my not at all humble estimation, Josh Malerman became the best living author working in the field of horror right now, bar none. I’d bank on that and you can too. In a time when we are surrounded by some of the best that have ever laid pen to paper, there is none better.
But enough about that guy, let me talk instead about his book, this book. Carol Evers, the titular character in Unbury Carol, dies at the beginning. Is that a spoiler? No, not really. In fact, it’s central to the story. Because Carol has died many times in her lifetime. Suffering from a rare physical malady, she often unexpectedly falls into a coma so deep she barely shows any signs of life at all and only the most meticulous of examinations can determine that she’s actually still alive. But even though it has happened so often, this time our protagonist finds herself in real and imminent peril. Because one of the only two living souls who know of her condition, her close friend John Bowie, has died leaving her treacherous and self-serving husband Dwight as the only person she can rely on to keep her alive. But Dwight has other intentions for Carol this time, and especially for the money she would leave behind should something untoward happen to her. And he intends to make damn sure she meets a sad and untimely demise. But he fails to take her former lover, the infamous outlaw James Moxie, into consideration. Moxie also knows of her condition and when he learns of her plight, the retired gunman takes to The Trail once again, hell bent on saving the woman he still loves and visiting terrible justice on those who would do her harm.
Now that all may seem like a lot to tell you in a review and possibly even like I just spoiled the fuck out of the story. But that’s not the case at all. In truth, you can discover all that information just by reading the synopsis on the book’s slipcover. And in spite of that little info dump, it’s just the tip of the iceberg and when you read the book you might be surprised to discover I haven’t told you a thing. And I’m not going to tell you anything more. Get the book and let the much more eloquent and refined Malerman tell you the rest. Instead, I’m going to tell you this: You may have read the author’s work before. Like me, you might even have read ALL the Malerman. But you haven’t seen anything that will prepare you for this book. Because Josh Malerman’s superpower is originality. Everything in the guy’s life is an exercise in creativity, from his music with The High Strung to the words he graces the page with and even in his personal relationships, he applies his eccentrically obsessive imagination and everything becomes a new experience under his energetic tutelage. My imagination tells me that’s as true for him as it is for his readers. When you read his work, you get the sense that he’s discovering these things, these events and places, these larger than life characters and the joys and hardships that shape them.
And therein lies the true magic of Malerman’s brilliance. One singular facet of his personality that makes him such an interesting person to interact with and such a fantastic author. He loves people. He loves to watch them and to study them, to interact with them and perform for them, and most importantly for our purposes, to create them. And with Unbury Carol he’s built the most dynamically mesmerizing, intensely engaging cast of characters of his entire career in the forms of such protagonists as Moxie and Carol, and the delightfully wicked villains Smoke and the creature known only as Rot. In spite of being intensely terrifying, Smoke is one of the best evil adversaries I’ve ever encountered in a story and Rot, well Rot is just scary as hell. They are all so perfectly well rounded and written that you sometimes find yourself so deeply immersed in the story that you might as well be viewing a live action performance, so invested you are in the outcomes of each one of these people’s–and monster’s–stories that you can’t help but see it through to the brilliantly violent and horrifying finale that comes with a surprise element that Malerman in no way prepares you for along the way.
All the time I was reading this wonderful book I kept finding myself asking, “am I reading my favorite book of the year?” And it was a valid question as I rounded out the read with the very strong sense that I may have just read my favorite book of the decade. A weird western, fantasy, and horror mashup, Unbury Carol is everything I hoped it was and nothing that I expected it to be, much like all of Malerman’s other work, and I can’t say enough good about it, nor talk about everything I want to within the limits of this venue. Suffice it to say that if you haven’t read the work of Josh Malerman, you haven’t witnessed the kind of greatness that is available to you in the horror industry today. In a decade that is seeing top notch horror films and fiction being produced in quantities unseen since the ’70s and ’80s, no one is doing it better than Malerman is and you should hie thee to your favorite bookseller right now and find out what all the well-deserved buzz is about.