The Haunted Van: Talking with Josh Malerman and The High Strung

June 28, 2021   •   By James Rickman

I. GHOST STORIES

WHEN HE WAS about 14, Josh Malerman saw a strange man in the living room of his parents’ house. The rest of the family was asleep, and Josh was watching USA Up All Night. Sensing movement in the room, he glanced up at a picture hanging on the wall behind the TV. The picture’s frame reflected the room behind him, including a doorway to the kitchen. Somebody was there in the glass — a man peering around the kitchen door, holding the doorjamb with one hand. Josh jumped, blurted out “Oh fuck!” and watched the man raise a finger to his lips. Shh-shh. Two silent sibilant bursts, not angry, more like, “Don’t worry, I’m just watching you.” Josh turned around. The man was gone. He trotted into the kitchen and called out the name of his older brother, hoping he’d been the one in the reflection. When he realized he was alone — or alone with someone who didn’t belong in the house — the world seemed to melt.

Three decades later, telling me the story from his home in Franklin, Michigan, Malerman is struck less by the extreme creepiness of the shushing ghost than by the encounter’s lack of a basic horror trope. “The reason this is so harrowing to me is that this wasn’t out of the corner of the eye,” he says. “This was interaction: I saw it, I reacted, it gestured, and I reacted again to his gesture. This wasn’t like, ‘I thought I saw grandma in the bathroom,’ or something.”

Malerman knows a few things about horror. He wrote the novel Bird Box — published in 2014 and later adapted into a Netflix movie that smashed records and birthed the ill-advised #birdboxchallenge — in which mysterious creatures drive anyone who glimpses them to suicide or worse.

Bird Box was his first published novel. He’d already written over a dozen while touring the country with his band, The High Strung. His current book tally is 33 written, nine published, and two more slated for release toward the end of the year. Pearl, out this October from Del Rey Books, is about a psychic one-eyed pig. The next one, Ghoul n’ the Cape (from Earthling Publications), weighs in at 300,000 words, roughly five times the length of Bird Box. Like several other Malerman works, Ghoul is about a journey. The title characters lurch westward across America, fleeing from something called the Ghost Star — a dot in the night sky that, according to the Cape, is about to swallow the country. But the book takes its time, plunging deep into the psyche of Ghoul, a diminutive drunk reluctantly swept into the Cape’s plan. The first scene includes a dream sequence that runs for nine manuscript pages, teeming with New York oddballs who form an impromptu parade:

Walking, all of them walking, thousands of max-freaks lumbering along, moseying to a beat Ghoul mistook for out-of-place summer waves crashing against the bottom of Manhattan in his sleep; knocking like it was asking to be let in; knock knock, who’s there, Ghoul asked?; a pale dot; a pale dot who? Ghoul asked; a hungry pale dot open the door to Manhattan.


Malerman sees Ghoul as the beginning of his writing career’s second act. The first one opened in 2004, when he started writing Bird Box, ran through years of “writing blindly, ecstatically, all over the country,” and ended with the summer 2020 release of the Bird Box sequel, Malorie. While Malorie plays directly into the success of its predecessor, Ghoul seems willfully challenging.

“I want this character, I guess the author, to evolve,” he says. “And that doesn’t mean writing loftier shit, that doesn’t mean getting more literary — or maybe it does. But it doesn’t mean consciously doing that; it just means let’s stretch. If you’ve had an idea that seemed out of reach, try that one, and if you have something that you thought was too crazy, try that one.”

Will his fans follow him, Ghoul-like, into this wild terrain? Will the book transform him from a genre writer into a writer of literary fiction? (Is that distinction even a thing anymore?) And is there a personal Ghost Star — or ghost man — from which Malerman himself is trying to escape?

II. INFINITE CIRCLES OR WHATEVER

Pearl and Ghoul n’ the Cape aren’t the only releases in Malerman’s near future; in October, The High Strung will release their new album. They did not, as so many other bands have done in the last year, record their various parts in isolation, cobbling them together in a maze of Dropbox folders. They found a way around the lockdown by unearthing an album recorded and shelved 19 years ago. It’s called Hannah, or the Whale, and while Ghoul marks a new act in Malerman’s writing career, the album is an early scene from the band’s first — one given new meaning by the unusual circumstances behind its release.



The Hannah story goes like this: in 2002, The High Strung, a Brooklyn-based quintet of friends from the suburbs of Detroit (except multi-instrumentalist Jason Berkowitz, who grew up in Beachwood, Ohio), were preparing to record their first album. They had hooked up with a label, Tee Pee Records, and a producer, Jim Diamond, whose work played a key part in the Detroit garage-rock resurgence brought into the mainstream by The White Stripes. A friend back in Michigan mentioned that his mom was leaving town and that he’d be looking after her house in the neighborhood where everyone but Berkowitz had grown up. The band had an 8-track tape machine and some new songs in the works, so three weeks before they were to start on the previously planned album, they set up in their friend’s house and got to work.

The resulting 10-song collection is surprisingly different from the album they recorded with Diamond, which came to be called These Are Good Times. Hannah is mostly stripped-down and sweet, with chirping guitars and reverbed-out choral parts, while These Are Good Times loudly proclaims the band’s attraction to the hooky, blown-out sound of their hometown.

On a six-way Google Meet in late March, I start by asking if anyone in the band balked at the idea of recording two albums back to back.

“No,” Berkowitz says. “This was all about — like, prolific’s not the word. Just like eat, create, write, build, record.”

The other members — Malerman, bassist Chad Stocker, drummer Derek Berk, and singer-guitarist Mark Owen — agree. (Owen and Malerman are the band’s principal songwriters.) Then I ask them to describe the Hannah sessions.

Stocker: I remember we had the recording gear on the dining room table, but it wasn’t like where you ate everyday meals; it was that one room where you set up when you had company over.


Owen: Suburban house, suburban subdivision.


Stocker: Cul-de-sac.


Owen: Carpet!


Malerman: The drums should be way more muffled with that freaking carpet, but whatever.


Stocker: And then all the instruments were in the room next to that dining room. There was a couch that I think I slept on for a few or many or all of those days.


Berkowitz: If you weren’t, I was.


Owen: I believe that we did the vocals at Josh’s father’s house.


Stocker: Mm-hm. About a month later.


Owen: Yeah, yeah. After being in New York for years and then being on the road for months we were back in our hometown in the suburbs, making a weird album.


Berk: Like living in our high school existence, in a weird way.


Me: It sounds like a full-circle thing that happened almost at the very beginning.


Malerman: Right. That’s really strange. It’s almost like infinite circles or whatever. But I didn’t think of things in terms like that. We could have been anywhere, man. We could’ve been in Idaho, Japan —


Owen: It’s true. Our hometown was kind of meaningless in that way. It was just like, okay, this is a place where we’re all at and it’s between touring and recording or whatever. It wasn’t nostalgic or important in that way.


Berkowitz: One difference as the outsider who didn’t grow up there — I felt comfortable going into all of their parents’ full fridges and eating out of them.










Because it was made without expectations, Hannah is more playful than These Are Good Times. I sense that the suburban setting contributed, too. Good Times was recorded in downtown Detroit, in a former chicken-processing facility whose other occupants around that time included The White Stripes, The Dirtbombs, and The Von Bondies. It’s hard to listen to that album without faintly tasting Jameson chased with a pony PBR. No such residue clings to Hannah.

And then there’s the pandemic. Malerman again: “I think one of the virtues of being prolific is that if you take so many snapshots — in our case, that’s albums; in mine, albums and books — oftentimes you’ll look back and be like, ‘Oh shit, this photo is way better than I thought.’ And so here we are in lockdown and it’s like, you know, we can’t be together to make an album right now, but guess what, guys? We left ourselves one. And that’s an amazing thing to come to.”

III. THATS MY MONSTER

In the novel Ghoul n’ the Cape, evil takes several forms, but the primary source of dread is the aforementioned Ghost Star. Invisible or intangible violent forces are common in Malerman’s books: in Black Mad Wheel, men are crushed flat by a mysterious sound, and the Bird Box creatures are never shown in the book or the movie — although for the latter it was a close call.

Do an image search for “bird box monster” and you’ll find a primer-gray bust, bald, eyes closed, with an expression like an old woman tasting something gross or Ian MacKaye with a sore throat. A dream sequence had been added to the script, one that would indulge the question of what these lethally ugly creatures look like. A costume was actually built — the head of one, at least — and used in a scene that got cut from the movie. (Sandra Bullock, who plays Malorie, described it as “a long fat baby.”) I ask Malerman how he felt when he first got wind of the scene.

“Scared out of my mind, dude,” he says. “That will be what everyone assumes it must look like because ‘There was only one time I saw the monster. Doesn’t matter if it was in a dream; that’s my monster now.’” He tells me about a guy who makes high-end action figures of movie and TV characters. Malerman learned that he had made a figurine of the short-lived Bird Box creature, and he got in touch. Having confirmed that only one of the figurines had been made, he offered to buy it. “And then I was like, ‘Can you also give me just the case with nothing in it?’ Because this…” Malerman gets up from his desk and steps off screen, “…is what the figurines should be.” He reappears, holding an impeccably branded Bird Box blister pack, empty.

Malerman rattles off several other things he’s written in which the evil is implied or offstage. He’s working on a novella that begins with a family gathering at the deathbed of its patriarch, who confesses that he’s a serial killer — a serial killer who’s never killed anyone. All his life the man’s brain seethed with appalling homicidal desires, but he kept them to himself. I ask Malerman why he’s attracted to that kind of storytelling.

“I guess you could start to argue that I’m not afraid to see something head-on, but maybe I’m always hiding a little off to the side, right?” he says. “Like, presenting myself in a certain way, but the real me is a little — not a serial killer, but a little off-camera. And also saying like, ‘Hey, you know what might be freakier than a serial killer? One who resisted that all day, every day. Imagine being that guy.’” 

IV. BURNOUT

The High Strung never signed to a major label or advanced past the club circuit, even after years of hardcore touring and the placement of their song “The Luck You Got” in the opening credits of the Showtime series Shameless.

I ask the band if their draw improved over the years. After a pause followed by a lot of guffawing, Malerman says, “You know, at the time it might’ve seemed like the crowd was skinny or something. But now that really makes it seem legendary, man, because we’re talking about like 2,000 shows, probably an average of 20 people a night, which all together would fill a stadium.”

I think he’s lowballing, but even if we take Malerman at his word, 20 x 2,000 = 40,000, which is the capacity of Detroit’s Comerica Park. My guess is that their cumulative headcount could have filled the Pontiac Silverdome’s 80,000 seats. “We filled stadium — singular,” Berk says.

Owen and Berkowitz left the band after These Are Good Times; Owen returned 11 years later. The High Strung did most of its heavy touring as a three-piece — although Owen bristles a little when I suggest that Malerman, Stocker, and Berk are the only road dogs. “Here’s how you know it’s The High Strung,” he says. “I toured nonstop in a crazy wave. I would put my touring days up against anybody in any band, you know, on our level. And I still am dwarfed by the three of them.”

The band’s reflections on touring life are unanimously positive. Stocker came to the realization that “this is my stasis,” and Berk goes so far as to say, “I couldn’t live on the outside.” Deep into our call I mention that no one has uttered the word “burnout.”

“There was an article,” Berk says. “Someone wrote that, like, ‘These guys have burnout written all over them.’ And we were just like, Fuck you.

“I saw red, man,” Malerman says. “Remember that? I was so fucking mad at that article. Dude, that’s before I even wrote one book! Oh God, I wish I could find that fucking guy right now and talk to him again.”

I saw The High Strung about five times when I lived in New York, including shows at a Chinese restaurant, a much-loved Lower East Side club, and a South Williamsburg record store. It usually seemed like everyone onstage and off was wasted; god knows I was. And since the band turns 21 this year, it feels appropriate to ask them about how much they indulged.

“Well, on our first tours, we hardly got paid at all,” Stocker says. “So, if you weren’t a part of drinking the case of beer they gave you, then you weren’t getting paid that night. And then the other guys in the crew were getting paid more than you, which was two beers.”

Malerman recalls a bender: “Me and someone in Son Volt’s entourage or whatever just fucking went for it for the time we were on the road with them. I mean, it was the minute you arrive, the minute you leave. And then after that tour ended, we had a few shows and it was really a thing of ours: no canceling shows. Even if no one’s there, like, come on, man, let’s do it. But I was just out of gas from getting wasted too much for a couple of weeks, whatever it was, and we canceled a few shows and drove home.”

If this was the nadir for a band of hard-traveling Detroiters, then I am impressed and confused. (Malerman also suffered from panic attacks, but they didn’t cost the band any shows.) The explanation that they’ve endured because they were friends before they were a band and simply loved what they were doing is … Okay, let me just say that I had a band too, and the core members were friends before the band started, and we loved playing together more than anything. We toured the country several times, although we played about half as many shows as The High Strung. A few of us drank too much. Members came and went. And at the first indication that we might be nearing the end, I moved across the country.

I can’t help but doubt The High Strung’s impenetrable good cheer, but then I can’t find a reason not to believe them. Their record speaks for itself, in both senses of the word — the thousands of shows and the lost-and-found Hannah. They don’t play as much these days, but they’re still going. And Malerman, who wrote all those novels on the road before a single one got published, is taking big chances at a moment when other writers might worry that one act is all they’ll get.

Bands are uniquely set up for burnout, but the moral of The High Strung story is that it’s not inevitable. Maybe the real question is why we find stories like theirs so implausible.

At the very end of the interview, Berkowitz says the name of the band’s second album, Moxie Bravo — just the two words with no apparent context. Confused, I ask when the album came out. 2005? “Yeah, but to me it’s the title of the band,” he says. “Moxie Bravo. And as somebody who’s participated and been a fan, that goes in the — well, not the eulogy, because we’re not there yet.”

GHOST CODA

I left something out of Malerman’s story about the ghost who peered around the kitchen doorway. Here’s how that part of our interview begins:

Me: Have you ever had something that might be interpreted as a supernatural encounter?


Malerman: Yeah, I did. Um, I’m not sure how much to tell you. How about this: I’ll tell you the whole story — it’s embarrassing; it includes jacking off, alright? — and you tell me how much should go in the thing.


Yes, young Malerman wasn’t just watching USA Up All Night; he had actually gone downstairs to whip his pony while his family slept. (He later gave me permission to include this part of the story.) So, if the ghost’s shushing really did mean, “Don’t worry, I’m just watching you” … first of all, yikes. But maybe the “watching you” part is misleading. What if we traded Josh’s ghost for the spectral shusher at the beginning of the original Ghostbusters, the one who turns into a roaring, snaggle-toothed banshee? A ghost like that would have an entirely different meaning in the presence of a teenager with his pants unzipped. So was Josh ashamed, or at least afraid of getting caught?

“The answer is no. It wasn’t like, ‘I’m abandoning mom and dad and Christ!’ No! It was just like, you know, ‘No one’s around. Let’s roll.’”

A clue to Malerman’s ghost might lie near the end of Bird Box, when Malorie remembers something a friend said about the creatures. We’ve seen the horrific things that happen when people lay eyes on them, so the line comes as a surprise: “Maybe they mean us no harm. Maybe they are surprised by what they do to us. It’s an overlap, Malorie. Their world and ours. Just an accident. Maybe they don’t like hurting us at all.”

Malerman has a unique talent for giving evil a trace of innocence. It’s a formula that gets inverted within the author himself — the guy who’s “not a serial killer, but a little off-camera.” Only after our interview did I notice that the artist who hides a little off-camera looks a lot like the man whose reflection he saw in his parents’ living room, and who told him not to worry.

¤


James Rickman has written for Variety, FLOOD, Paste, The Rumpus, Talkhouse, and many other publications. He has served as an executive editor at Playboy and managing editor at PAPER. A native of Santa Cruz, California, he’s been playing in bands since age 12.