Book Review: Pearl by Josh Malerman

Pearl by Josh Malerman is the legend of a strange new monster, unlike any other in horror—a sentient, talking pig that brings death and destruction to those it encounters. 

Pop culture is rife with tales of adorable pigs developing a close rapport with their owners, displaying almost human intelligence, as shown by pigs such as Babe or Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web. Sometimes, as in George Orwell’s famous allegory of a utopia gone awry, a pig’s intelligence and manner become indistinguishable from that of a human. What if, Josh Malerman seems to ask here in Pearl, we brought that spectrum of fictional porcine behavior over to its inevitable conclusion, with a pig whose intelligence turns to malevolence and worse as it realizes what humanity does to its kind.

Or “he” and “his,” I should say, as Pearl is no mere animal. Raised on the Kopple’s working farm, Pearl’s presence is a constant cloud over the area. The townsfolk of nearby Chowder drive past as quickly as possible, though none can say exactly why. Before Pearl’s arrival, the farmer’s daughter, Sherry, had dreamed of taking over the family business. But as the years pass and her dad continues to raise the pig instead of bringing Pearl to slaughter, Sherry finds herself first asking for a stand of trees to be planted between the pigpen and her bedroom window, then leaving home as soon as possible to travel the world. It’s a long time before she comes back, married with two children and not a lot of money, and soon not even married. At least she has two lovely sons—even if the younger one, Jeff, seems to share the same antipathy she does for Pearl and the other pigs on the farm.

It’s on their latest visit to her father’s that a confrontation between Jeff and Pearl results in bloodshed, with Jeff screaming that Pearl made him do it. Ordinarily, this is the kind of thing that gets a boy an appointment with a specialist, but Sherry and her father both know that if anything is deeply wrong with the situation, it isn’t to do with her son. Jeff is a fairly normal child, and Pearl—well, Pearl is different.

Pearl moved. Jeff heard his hooves coming first, then saw the pink snout, pink head, big body trot into the bedroom.

 

”STAY AWAY!”

 

But Pearl didn’t stay away. He got closer. Too close. He raised his snout to the ceiling, and his lips parted, and Jeff saw rows (rows!) of teeth, shark teeth, framed by brown, fatty lips, until it was all Jeff could see, floor to ceiling fan, Pearl’s mouth growing, expanding, wider…

When word spreads through their small town that a kid is claiming that a pig at the Kopple farm talked to him, this sets off a chain reaction of events that will lead to an evening of death and destruction, as wave after wave of visitors is drawn into Pearl’s web. From trespassing teenagers to cops answering distress calls and, perhaps most importantly to Pearl, his nemesis, a man named Bob, they all come for their audience, no matter how disbelieving or otherwise.

Bob screamed.

 

Screamed out the window. Part exuberance, part war call, part letting the pig know he was on his way and he was going to grab the first axe he saw and he was going to chop the fucking thing’s legs off first and then gut him alive, then strip out of this pink suit and dress up in pig guts and dance around the farm like a free man fired from a free-thinking gun. He was going to end this, tonight, with or without permission from whoever had to give permission to kill a pig, no permission out here, no more, out here in the lawless mad mania of man and pig.

This novel is a wild ride from start to finish, a clever subversion of popular pig tropes with just some really terrific, terrifying writing. Originally published in a limited edition several years ago under the title On This, The Day of the Pig, it’s finally available on the mass market and will further cement Mr. Malerman’s status as a master of modern horror. I’ve never been culturally predisposed to liking pigs myself, so I absolutely bought into the premise from the start; people who enjoy their bacon may have a lot more to ponder. All good horror stories raise questions of morality that we might not have given ourselves room to think about before. If pigs are so smart, is it ethical to slaughter them for food? And when does ethical consumption turn into casual cruelty?

For all its gruesomeness, Pearl is a sly, almost suffocatingly intelligent look at how we treat animals and how, perhaps, we deserve to be treated in turn. Even I had my moments of feeling sympathy for the monstrous pig. That ending, however, is guaranteed to give anyone the creeps. At least, I reassure myself, pigs aren’t immortal. Small comfort for Pearl’s victims, but a really excellent read for any horror fan.

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