We all know how dangerous nature can be. There are numerous articles about what to do if approached by a bear or wolves, guidelines for avoiding and surviving animal attacks, and the less we get started on the war Australia lost against the emu, the better. Animals hold a special place in horror, as well. They’re often representative of nature as a whole, something barely held back, unbound by social conventions and things like empathy. Killer animals in horror are also a great way to feature a monster that’s familiar enough for the reader, but still terrifying and alien enough to give the sense of something unnatural. Animals also have the added kicker of making it seem like whatever they do is part of some greater natural order, which ratchets up the tension and terror even more without bringing in any supernatural or cosmic-horror elements. With all this in mind, here are seven terrifying books about the darker side of nature.
Pearl, Josh Malerman
Walter Kopple’s grandson Jeff suddenly and violently decapitates a pig when visiting his grandfather’s farm. He insists, to anyone willing to listen to him, that Walter’s prize pig Pearl was the one who made him do it, or at least made him want to. Pearl seems to have an effect on Walter’s family, as well–his daughter seems visibly afraid of the pigs, and Jeff and his brother appear to have some past run-ins with Pearl. But it’s when Walter decides enough is enough that things finally turn deadly and Pearl gets bigger, more murderous plans of his own. Malerman does an amazing job of ratcheting up the dread quickly, casting Pearl as an object of horror even before the pig’s POV chapters proceed to show the king of the farmyard in all his sociopathic glory. From there, the story unfolds like the best of gothic fiction, pitting the malevolent force of Pearl against humans and animals alike in a terrifying battle of wills.
Cows, Matthew Stokoe
Steven is a young man who just wants to fit in with everyone else. He spends his time working the meat-grinder at a slaughterhouse and engaging with a cast of monstrous human characters including his disgusting mother “the Hagbeast,” his death-cultist boss, and a hypochondriac upstairs neighbor who keeps trying to give herself home medical procedures. He also discovers a herd of sapient cows living beneath the city that demand he kill his boss for them, under threat of being trampled to death. That is about as normal as any description of Cows will ever sound. It’s an outrageous and grotesque portrait of urban and industrial decay and every time I recommend it, I wonder if I’ll end up on a watchlist. But there’s an unusual poetry to the outrageousness that also makes it so compelling, a twisted, weird, and surprisingly genuine discussion of power dynamics, religion, and the desire to be normal. It’s also just gross, disturbing, and effective enough for the reader to sit up and take notice.
(Content warnings for graphic and disturbing sex acts, abuse, coprophagia, invasive medicine, and, as goes without saying, animal cruelty)
The Rats, James Herbert
One of the classics of killer-animal horror, The Rats sets up a pattern early in its chapters, developing a series of doomed characters and then having them messily devoured in terrifying detail by a ravenous horde of sapient rats. Herbert’s book is infamous for its graphic scenes, but what’s more impressive than the story of an art teacher battling intelligent, brain-eating rats is the amount of pathos and tragedy Herbert puts into the novel. London is portrayed as dismal and apocalyptic, the infrastructure and repressive social attitudes harming the populace even before the rats can sink their teeth in. All in all, it’s a nasty book, but it’s also easy to see why it’s endured this long, as Herbert’s knack for grim scenes and ability to make you care even about victims who don’t last much longer than a page lift this up a little higher than the average “everyone gets eaten alive by animals” book.
Night of the Crabs, Guy N. Smith
Smith holds the (somewhat) dubious honor of being the master-crafter of trashy killer animal novels. His most high-profile work is, of course, his Crabs series, beginning with this volume where crabs invade a small Welsh island. The book’s heightened dramatic narration, lurid kill scenes, and straightforward prose create a rather odd tone, like reading a 1950s B-movie, a fact only heightened by the monstrous crabs laying waste to everywhere they crawl. But as far as trashy books about evil crabs go, Night of the Crabs is a delight, managing to be gripping and fun rather than just silly. There’s a reason Guy N. Smith’s books spawned an impossibly vast number of sequels, and while it might not reinvent the form, it’s a nasty kind of fun, and that’s all it really has to be.
Clickers, J.F. Gonzalez and Mark Williams
A nastier, scaled-up splatter novel in the vein of Night of the Crabs, Clickers sees a school of angry red, venomous crabs descending upon a small fishing village in Maine after tearing a fishing vessel apart. The opening on its own is a pitch-perfect descent into chaos, dropping a bit of exposition on the clickers before they gorily destroy a boat and its crew, ending the scene with a kill by trident, of all things, signaling that these aren’t the normal variety of large, murderous crustacean. Gonzalez and Williams build up the threat slowly after their opening kill, the clickers growing more alien and threatening with each new appearance, that alienness only heightening their gruesome rampage across New England.
Cujo, Stephen King
One of King’s more grounded works (about as grounded as vintage King ever gets), Cujo begins with Cujo, the big friendly Saint Bernard of the dysfunctional Camber family, chasing a rabbit into a cave and coming out with rabies. Around him, the townspeople of Castle Rock go about their lives, all creating a chain of events that will eventually end with Cujo mauling multiple people and trapping a mother and son in a hot car. “Huge killer dog” is a solid premise in and of itself, but by fleshing out the town to show how the central tragedy happens and showing Cujo’s point of view as he slowly grows more and more homicidal makes it utterly wrenching when the dog finally goes on his rampage. It’s got a greater impact, watching a dog who only wants to be a good friend to humans and a series of small, mundane, but interconnected steps lead to catastrophe while the atmosphere of dread only grows.
Dogs, Nancy Kress
Kress wastes no time opening Dogs with a vicious attack on a two-year-old girl, and the tension and suspense only ramps up from there. In the small town of Tyler, a strange form of flu begins affecting dogs’ aggression centers, turning them from beloved pets to ravenous murderers. As the town is locked into quarantine and people either barricade their beloved pets inside or abandon them to roam feral through the streets of Tyler, Tessa Sanderson, an ex-FBI agent living a quiet life in Tyler, must work with the town’s Animal Control officer to stem the plague and figure out the cause of the mysterious virus. But things only grow more tense and urgent when intercepted communications from a terrorist organization mention Tessa by name. Dogs is a beautiful escalation, from a basic killer-animal premise into a biothriller and more besides, twisting and turning in satisfying ways until its eventual conclusion.