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This Josh Malerman Novel is Completely Unpredictable and Utterly Bizarre

Dare to give it a spin?

black mad wheel excerpt tlu jan 2024
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  • Photo Credit: Fernando Paredes Murillo / Unsplash

The Danes, a band made up of ex-army men, also known as the “Darlings of Detroit,” are so desperate to get out of their slump and produce another number one hit, that when the military asks them to investigate the source of a mysterious sound in the African desert, they agree. Philip Tonka, the band’s keyboardist, takes the lead on the quest and guides the rest of the group through the desert–which really just results in Tonka leading them into an ominous and twisted conspiracy. 

The book begins with Tonka waking up in the hospital six months later with no recollection of what happened to his band, and every single bone in his body broken. Though his body heals at a miraculous rate, the near-fatal accident is incredibly mysterious, and with the help of his nurse they begin to unravel the horrific truth more and more with each passing day. 

Josh Malerman’s Black Mad Wheel includes some utterly bizarre and truly terrifying moments in his Bird Box follow-up that fans have come to love. And today, you can read an excerpt below. But be careful, you're going to get hooked…

Read on for an excerpt of chapters one and two of Black Mad Wheel by Josh Malerman—and then purchase the book to read the rest! 




Black Mad Wheel

By Josh Malerman

Chapter One

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  • Photo Credit: Oskars Sylwan / Unsplash

The patient is awake. A song he wrote is fading out, as if, as he slept, it played on a loop, the soundtrack of his unbelievable slumber.

He remembers every detail of the desert.

The first thing he sees is a person. That person is the doctor. Wearing khaki pants and a Hawaiian shirt, he doesn’t dress like a doctor, but the bright science in his eyes gives him away.

“You’ve been hurt very badly.” His voice is confidence. His voice is control. “It’s an unparalleled injury, Private Tonka. To live through something so . . .” He makes fists about chest high, as though catching a falling word. “. . . unfair.

Philip recognizes more than medicine in the man who stands a foot from the end of his cot. The strong, lean physique. The unnaturally perfect hair, the skin as unwrinkled as a desert dune.

This doctor is military.

“Now,” the doctor says, “let me tell you why this is such an incredibly difficult thing to do.” Philip hasn’t fully processed the room he is in. The borders of his vision are blurred. How long has he been here? Where is here? But the doctor isn’t answering unasked questions like these. “Had you broken only your wrists and your elbows, we might surmise that you fell, hit the ground in just such a way. But you’ve broken your humeri, radii, and ulnae, too; your radial tuberosities; coracoid processes, trochleas, and each of the twenty-seven bones in your hands.” He smiles. His smile says Philip ought to share in the astonishment. “I don’t expect you to know the names of every bone in the human body, Philip, but what I’m telling you is that you didn’t just break your wrists and elbows. You broke almost everything.”

Sudden whispers from somewhere Philip can’t see. Maybe voices in a hall. Philip tries to turn his head to look.

He can’t. He can’t move his neck at all.

He opens his mouth to say something, to say he can’t move, but his throat is dry as summer sand.

He closes his eyes. He sees hoofprints in that sand.

“Now, had you broken only both hands and arms, I might dream up an accident you were involved in; the victim of a press, say, a vise of some sort; possibly both your arms were on a table when a heavy weight fell upon them. But, of course, it was not only your hands and arms that were broken. The femurs, tibiae, and fibulae on both legs were cracked, too, as were the patellae, medial epicondyles, every transverse axis (which ought to have been enough to cause a coma itself), as well as most of the twenty-six bones in each of your feet.” The doctor speaks with such freedom, moves with such health that Philip feels parodied by comparison. “I suppose one might reenact the scene, place you on a cliff’s edge, arms and legs hanging over that chasm, as something so cruelly shaped, just wrong enough to connect with each of the aforementioned bones, fell from the sky, delivering you the most violent community of fractures I’ve ever observed. But no. Your woes do not stop there.”

Behind the doctor, where the beige wall meets the powder-blue ceiling, Philip sees an African desert at midday.

He thinks of the Danes.

“Your pubis, ilium, sacrum . . . crushed. The pubic symphysis, anterior longitudinal . . . ruptured. Your ribs, Philip, each and every one . . . along with every intervertebral disc, the sternum, manubrium, clavicles, up through the neck, to the mandible, zygomatics, temporals, frontal, and . . . even some teeth.” The doctor smiles, showing his own. “Now, one might hypothesize such a result befalling a man who had been lying down upon a stone slab, unaware that a second stone slab would drop from a height, crushing him entirely, all at once. Such a theory might be of interest had each of the fractures been close to the same distance from the surface of your body. But, of course, this isn’t the case. The fracture in your anterior longitudinal is a full inch disparate from the one suffered by your mandible. In fact, there isn’t a single uniform break in your body; no pattern to divine an object, a cause, a picture of what hurt you. In other words, Philip . . . this wasn’t caused by a single solid object, and yet . . . it all occurred at the same time.”

The doctor steps aside, revealing what looks to Philip like black canvases glowing with shining white paint. Unfinished shapes. Cracked patterns.


More than one of them look like hoofprints in the sand.

“I dare say,” the doctor marvels, “it’s the most breathtaking injury I’ve ever encountered. Some would call it . . . uncanny. Observe for yourself, Philip.”

More whispers from somewhere Philip can’t see.

“Now,” the doctor says, turning from the X-rays to face Philip again. “You’ve just woken up . . . just come to, and I realize this must all be a considerable shock. You’ve been our charge, comatose, for six months.” The number is impossible. The number is cruel. The number adds distance between himself and the Danes. “That’s six months you couldn’t possibly be aware of, and so now must begin the process of healing. Both physically and emotionally.” He brings a forefinger and thumb to his chin. “But there are questions.”

“Where are the Danes?” Philip croaks. And his voice is creaking wooden stairs. His voice is an old piano bench tested.

A whispered gasp from out of Philip’s field of vision. A female voice.

He spoke! it said.

“The obvious initial question,” the doctor continues, ignoring Philip’s own, “is . . . how could a man survive such a thing?”

A breeze stirs his manicured brown hair.

Philip tries to raise an arm, can’t.

The doctor easily extends an open, flat palm, as though showing Philip the difference, now, between them.

“But then . . . here you are . . . you’ve survived. And so the second, more urgent question is . . . what happened out there, Private Tonka?” He plants his hands on his knees, bends at the waist, and brings his blue eyes level with Philip’s own. “What did you and the Danes find in the desert? Or, rather . . .” The doctor waves his hands in the air, playfully erasing this train of thought. The gesture is so out of place as to seem irreverent. “Let’s forget your fellow musicians, your band, the Danes.” The cold measure in his eyes suggests he already has. Again, Philip sees hoofprints, a trail of them extending.

He hears a sound, too, sickening and sentient, creating a trail of its own, curling up and over the horizon of his memory. He tries to fight it with his own song. His and the Danes’. The song that kept him company as he slept.

But the doctor’s voice quiets it once again.

“The question is not what you found . . . but what found you?”

Chapter Two

Philip is on the Path. That’s what he’s always called it. The Path. Not the Right Path or the Wrong Path. He’s careful not to specify. So when any of his friends or family ask him if he’s drinking too much, wonder aloud if he’s hanging out in the bars too often, he always answers the same way.

Hey, broom off. I’m on the Path.

Philip’s symbol for the Path is a single piano key, an F, worn on a necklace. The key itself was torn from the first piano Philip saw when he returned from the war, World War II: a trashed upright left on a curb not two hundred yards from the airport in Detroit, Michigan. Despite its missing leg, cracked wood, and flaked yellow paint, the piano was a portent to Philip; a welcoming committee couldn’t have given him a warmer reception. After hugging his parents hello, after stowing his bags in their new 1945 Chrysler, Philip asked them to wait, so he could bring a little of the piano home with him.

Into the future with him. Postwar.

Onto the Path.

Choosing the key was easy. F. Because F was the only note in both mnemonics for beginner piano players:

EGBDF (Every Good Boy Does Fine)


One mnemonic ends, another begins.

As ends war, so begins life . . . at home.

Life on the Path.

Twelve years later, at thirty-one years old, Philip may not have the same army physique he had when he and the Danes performed for soldiers in England, but he has the same philosophy he had back then. Let his acquaintances in Detroit (and there are many of them; the Danes are bar owls) think the Path is religious, unreligious, unhealthy, delusional, or insane. It doesn’t matter. After a world war and a hit song, living free is the only path to walk.

Today the Path has led him to a good place. A recording studio in downtown Detroit, at Elizabeth and Woodward, in this, the year 1957. The Danes (“the Darlings of Detroit,” as the Free Press named them) own it. A four-way split. Larry, the fun-loving bassist of the Danes, the long-haired freak, found the place. An empty square made of cinder blocks, once used for plucking livestock, the acoustics were too perfect to let go.

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This is it, Larry had said months ago, extending his hands out, palms up, like the goofy host of the game show Who Do You Trust? on television. This is Wonderland.

But not all the other Danes were convinced. A former chicken coop didn’t quite feel like the place to make hit records.

You love everything, Duane said, the first time you see it.

And you, Larry said, pointing at the other half of the Danes’ fabled rhythm section, are way too conservative to play rock ’n’ roll. Did you see the elevator?

Duane frowned.

You mean the wooden box full of chicken feathers?

I like it, Philip said, already seeing the partition that would separate the control room from the live room.

Well, shit, Duane said. Once you got Philip on board it’s a done deal. He looked around the cold space and saw Ross was smiling, too. Shit again. We’re doing this, aren’t we?

Larry put his arm around Duane’s shoulder.

Can you see it?

Nope. I can’t see it.

Right there . . . a sparkling set. Larry snapped his fingers, as if capable of manifesting Duane’s Slingerland drums.

I don’t see it, Larry.

Oh yes you do.

I see a cold place to record come December.

Larry laughed. His leather coat crinkled as he pulled Duane closer.

Come here.


To the window.

The window was just a small square cut unevenly into the white cinder-block wall. The four bandmates pressed close together and looked out at Detroit below.

Look at that girl. Ross whistled softly.

I know her, Philip said.

Know her? Ross asked. How is it that you know every girl in Detroit, Philip?

Philip shrugged.

Girls like the piano, Ross.

Well, shit, man. All my life I heard that it was girls and guitars, guitars and girls. I picked up the guitar for girls. And now you’re telling me—

Look. Larry pointed. There’s another one. Just as fine.

The Danes grew quiet. Their ears were almost touching.

You know her, too, Philip?

Philip paused for effect.

Naw. I don’t know her.But I bet she walks by every day, Duane said, his voice distant.

Oh man, Larry said, turning to face the drummer. Oh MAN, Duane!

Now, hang on, I didn’t say—

We’re doing this, Duane!

Now hang on, Larry—

We’re buying our own fucking studio space!

Today, Wonderland is full. The Danes have been hired to produce an album, a rock and roll record, because they’re good at what they do and the space they got is legendary around the city for its “room sound.” Even jazz players have recorded with the Danes, despite the band’s reputation as being crazy. That room might be as professional as my uncle’s liquor cabinet, Clay Daniels once said, but fuck me if it doesn’t sound like gold. The Danes recorded a hit song and two follow-ups in Wonderland. “Make Noise” reached number seventeen on the regional charts and “Killer Crawl” spiked at number six. But it was “Be Here,” at number one, that propelled them. And still, the fact that they served in World War II is the bigger draw. It doesn’t matter that they weren’t on the front lines. To most Americans, being in the army band was just as good as being in the army. And the tag veteran is the reason locals who have no interest in music at all stop in to see what happens at Wonderland.

Some of these people have become drinking buddies. Others have walked away worried about Philip Tonka, the piano player who took more shots than he played notes.

Broom off. I’m on the Path.

What Path?

Look down. You don’t see it? You’re standing right on it, too.

Some think the Danes are damaged. They drink more than the veterans of World War I. They never miss a party. And they’re spontaneously writing the postwar soundtrack that’s equal parts angry, joyful, confused, and intentionally ignorant. As in, let’s move on. As in, that was yesterday. The name of their number-one hit song unintentionally sums up their collective worldview.

Be here.

Breathe it.

Be it.

“Put a blanket in it,” Larry says into the control room microphone. Today they have a job to do. But will they do it?

“Really?” the kid drummer of the Sparklers asks. Through the glass he looks like a lost child. “A blanket in a bass drum?”

Duane gets up from the control room couch and speaks into the microphone. His deep voice has always been the most authoritative of the Danes’.

“Makes it less plastic, son. More of a thud. Trust Larry. Put a blanket in the bass drum.”

The Sparklers’ drummer, a suburban kid, clean curly blond hair, looks for a blanket.

“On the cots,” Philip says, pointing through the glass. He sips from a bottle of Ronrico rum. The Sparklers’ guitar player is helping his drummer look. He accidentally knocks the tuning pegs of his Fender Stratocaster against the wall. Because he’s already amped, the sound blasts through the control room speakers.

“You see those four cots in the back?” Duane tells them.

The Danes often sleep in the studio; wild nights, wee hours, right where they need to be come morning. The floor is littered with empty fifths.

The drummer picks up a sleeping bag.

“No,” Larry says into the mic. “Too thick. Something lighter.”

Now the drummer is blushing. Thinks he’s being put on. The band’s manager, Arthur, a rich kid from Birmingham, looks bothered. He’s standing by the leather couch in the control room.

“Fellas, we hired you to make a record, not decorate Fred’s drum kit!”

“You see that yellow-and-black blanket there, Art?” Larry asks him, pointing with a pencil through the glass to an unmade cot against the far wall.

“Yes. Of course I see it.”

“That’s the same one we used on ‘Be Here.’”

The manager crosses the control room quickly. He takes the microphone from Larry.

“Freddie,” he says. “How about the yellow-and-black blanket on the mattress by your knees?”

The drummer’s pants slide down his butt as he bends to get it.

Philip plants a hand on the manager’s shoulder.

“You know what your boys need?” he asks.

“What?” Art checks his watch. He keeps checking his watch. He’s worried about time. Time and money.

“Your boys need an afternoon out of the house.”

“No way,” Art says, holding out both palms toward Philip. Philip sees a flash of what Art will look like when he’s older, when managing bands is a novelty item on the shelf of his past. “We’ve been here for two hours and still haven’t done a lick of work.”

“What do you mean?” Duane asks. “We picked out the blanket, didn’t we?”

Philip takes the manager by the wrist.

“Take your watch off,” he says.

Art covers his watch with his other hand. As if he’s being mugged. By Philip. The Danes have that quality about them.

“What is it with you, Tonka?”

“I mean it. Take your watch off.”

Hesitantly, the manager does. He hands the watch to Philip.

“What are you going to do with it?”

“I’m gonna smash it.”


Philip smiles.

“I’m gonna wear it is what.”

Philip puts it on his wrist, adjusts the clasp.

“Hey, Tonka! We agreed on a price, fair and square!”

“We did,” Philip says. “But that’s half the problem.”

“You want to renegotiate? Dammit, I knew I couldn’t trust you guys!”

“Who said anything about renegotiating? Relax. We agreed. Fair and square. The ‘square’ is the problem.”

“What do you mean?”

Philip leans over the control room microphone.

“Gentlemen,” he says. “Set your instruments down. We’re going out.”

Behind the glass the band looks scared.

“There’s a hole in your soul,” Duane tells the manager. “Big enough to swim through.”

“And you’re going to fill it?”

“Not all in one afternoon,” Larry says, already putting on his leather jacket. He runs his callused fingertips through his long hair. “But we’re gonna try.”

Art is shaking his head, pleading, whining, as Duane slips into his black leather coat and Philip checks his jean jacket for money. The Sparklers enter the control room, slumped, confused.

“Come on, guys,” Philip says.

“Where?” the guitarist asks.

“We’re going to get inspired.”

On the way out, as they’re leaving the studio, the phone rings. Philip pauses at the door and looks.

Some rings, Philip thinks, are more loaded than others. As if a man might be able to hear an important call . . . before answering.

He locks the studio up and follows the others outside.

We hope you enjoyed this excerpt. Purchase Black Mad Wheel to read the rest!

Featured Photo: Fernando Paredes Murillo / Unsplash