On This, the Day of the Pig by Josh Malerman
A Book Review by Rich Duncan
I’ll never forget the first time I read Josh Malerman’s debut novel Bird Box. By now, it has become a cultural phenomenon after the release of the film, inspiring numerous memes, challenges and otherwise dominating pop culture, so I won’t rehash the plot. But I remember reading it and being obsessed with the idea of having one of your major senses taken from you. He crafted a unique take on a post-apocalyptic world and made monsters that were downright frightening despite the characters never seeing what they actually looked like. It was an imaginative take on a well-trod genre and he did an amazing job bringing this world to life despite eliminating a vital human function. It was a tense read and marked the arrival of an exciting new voice in the genre. I was hooked and knew as soon as I finished the last page that I would be a Malerman fan for life.
Malerman is a unique writer with a wild imagination and each of his subsequent releases tackled different styles of dark fiction. Black Mad Wheel was a mind-bending spiritual sibling to Bird Box that follows Detroit-based rock band The Danes as they attempt to track down the source of a mysterious and extremely dangerous sound emanating from an African desert. Malerman has also dabbled in more subtle horror and weird westerns with A House at the Bottom of the Lake and Unbury Carol respectively. When I heard news of his limited Cemetery Dance release On This, the Day of the Pig, I knew I had to have it. Despite loving everything he has written to date – each novel for their own reason – I did have a few questions. How would a full-length novel that focuses on a pig named Pearl work? Just how scary could it be? The answer may surprise you.
The novel opens with Sherry Kopple taking her sons Jeff and Aaron to visit her father Walter, a well-known farmer in Chowder. The farm represented their childhood, the brothers spent many summers taking care of the animals and spending nights outside. Their grandfather puts them to work on the farm and when he starts listing the things he wants them to take care of, Jeff silently wishes for anything other than feeding the pigs. Anything that will keep him from coming face to face with Pearl. To his relief, his grandfather tasks him with feeding the horses. However, while he is out there, something draws him toward the pig pen. Before he knows it, he finds himself face to face with Pearl. Pearl, the pig who stands out from the rest. Jeff sees him sitting much like a person would, with his head cocked to the side, staring at him with his one good eye. See, Pearl has a “bad” eye, one that is hidden by a flap of scarred skin, that conjures a feeling of dread for all who have seen it. As Jeff stands there facing Pearl, he begins to feel scared. Pearl exudes intelligence that frightens him, but surely it’s all in Jeff’s head. But then why does it seem like Pearl is tracking his movements? As his paranoia grows, Jeff commits an act of violence that reverberates through the town of Chowder.
These rumors reach three teens at Morgan High School – Mitch, Jerry and Susan. Mitch convinces them they have to go to Kopple Farm to see if the rumors about Pearl are true. When the group finally steps foot on Kopple Farm, they get more than they ever bargained for. Because there is something special about Pearl. There’s a very good reason anyone who ever gets near him becomes very afraid. On this, the day of the pig, the three teens from Morgan High and the Kopple Family will learn the full extent of what Pearl can do. Amidst mayhem, confusion, and bloodshed, they will sing for Pearl.
My best advice if you’re looking to read On This, the Day of the Pig is to go in completely cold. I will go over a few things in this review, but they are more generalized points and interesting things Malerman does structurally. But for maximum enjoyment of this novel, avoid reading anything that seems like it may even remotely give away what makes Pearl special. Uncovering the insidious truth behind Pearl and Koppel Farm one page at a time is a part of what makes this novel so special and a damn fun read. While not directly connected to Malerman’s previous work, longtime readers will find it interesting that On This, the Day of the Pig gives a nod to the strange town of Goblin from his collection of novellas.
Throughout the novel, Malerman does some interesting things structurally. One of them is the alternating point of view of the chapters ranging from the human characters to Pearl. The idea of seeing this novel from a pigs perspective could have felt a bit silly, but not only is it essential to the storyline, it comes across as natural, which was pretty surprising. The other thing I dug is that there are sections of the novel where he really delves into a character’s inner voice and explores their thoughts. These bits of internal dialogue often come at a frenetic pace and occasionally have a very stream of consciousness feel to them. I can see how some readers may not like these sections, but I feel it helps amplify an important aspect of the novel. The more I think about how it connects to the plot of the novel, the more I enjoy these stylistic choices.
Pearl is the driving force of this novel. He is a monolithic figure that is malicious and capable of things that defy explanation. What’s interesting is that he is every bit as fully formed as Malerman’s human characters. Pearl has motivations, emotions and is more complex than just the oddity that makes him stand out from the other pigs. I also liked the way Pearl’s influence stretches through multiple generations of the Koppel family. The mother, Sherry, was one of the first people to realize the dark potential of Pearl lurking beneath the surface. She’s an interesting character and throughout the novel, we learn that Sherry sees a therapist and uses a trick called the “mind-bag” a place where she can place her troublesome thoughts and bury them. She has a satisfying arc where we see her come to grips with her past fears as she attempts to save her family and those around her.
As I mentioned earlier, when I initially heard of On This, the Day of the Pig, I thought to myself, “Just how scary could a book about a pig be?” The answer turned out to be: pretty goddamn scary. There are more than a few scenes in this novel that are pure nightmare fuel, feverish visions that pop up when you least expect them for maximum impact. While there are some frightening elements in all of his books, this may be his most straight-up, in your face horror novel yet. There are elements of Psychological Horror, Body Horror, and some fresh takes on other horror genre staples. It carries the spirit of vintage horror paperbacks in its pages, so if you ever wanted to see Malerman tackle that style, you need to get a copy of this book. I had a blast reading this and highly recommend picking up a physical copy while Cemetery Dance still has some in stock. Not to mention the vibrant artwork done by Slasher Dave that manages to capture the allure of 80’s paperbacks. Josh Malerman is an imaginative, born storyteller, and I look forward to following his career and seeing what sort of stories he still has in store for us horror fans.
Be sure to stop by later this month for our coverage of his highly anticipated new novel Inspection!