After Peter Benchley’s Jaws was published in 1974, its massive success and that of the 1975 film adaptation inspired a wave of authors and filmmakers hoping to hit the commercial jackpot with their own lurid tales of aquatic creatures terrorizing those poor fools who thought it was safe to go back into the water. Books and films about piranhas and giant octopi followed, and Guy N. Smith even memorably wrote a series of novels about killer crustaceans, beginning with Night of the Crabs in 1976. Larger and more intelligent than Jaws’ iconic great white shark, killer whales also enjoyed a brief moment in the spotlight. Produced by Dino De Laurentiis and starring Richard Harris and Charlotte Rampling, Orca: The Killer Whale was released to theaters in 1977, to poor reviews and middling box office results. Peter Tonkin’s 1979 novel Killer, however, fared much better. Lean and tightly plotted, Killer emphasized the orca’s formidable physicality and intelligence in prose in a way that Orca: The Killer Whale failed to accomplish on the silver screen. While successful in both the United Kingdom—the author’s home country—and in the United States, Tonkin struggled to produce subsequent novels. The aquatic horror boom faded with time, and Killer inevitably fell out of print.
Now, more than four decades since the book’s debut, Killer is back. It received glowing coverage in Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction (2017) retrospective, and now the novel itself is a part of Valancourt Books’ companion PAPERBACKS FROM HELL line of cult classic horror novels curated by Hendrix and Too Much Horror Fiction blogger Will Errickson. The Valancourt Books release is available in both digital and nostalgia-inspiring mass market paperback format, with Ken Barr’s vintage cover artwork and a new introduction by Hendrix.
The titular Killer is a massive orca raised in captivity as a part of a US Navy experiment. Trained dolphins were used during the Vietnam War to detect enemy divers attempting to sabotage moored ships, and the novel envisions an evolved version of the real-life Marine Mammal Program, one in which an orca—more powerful and more intelligent than a dolphin—is conditioned not just to find suspicious swimmers, but to terminate them as well. The killer whale takes to its training all too well and, inevitably for this type of horror story, a moment of human error leads to disaster. The orca kills one of its captors and escapes its enclosure, fleeing to the deep sea with a taste for human flesh.
Some time later, promising young scientist Kate Warren sets out for an Arctic research camp, hoping to form a closer relationship with her brilliant but (both physically and emotionally) distant marine botanist father. Their brief reunion is cruelly interrupted when their plane crashes en route to the research facility, leaving father and daughter trapped on an aimlessly drifting ice floe with four other survivors. Resources are meagre and tempers quickly grow strained, as the group of survivors includes both arrogant camp director Simon Quick and Colin Ross, the taciturn scarred man Simon holds responsible for the death of his loved ones after a disastrous Antarctic expedition. The situation deteriorates even further when the stranded party comes to the attention of the escaped killer whale, now dominating an entire pod of two dozen wild orcas. The killer’s training kicks in and he becomes fixated on the humans, intent on both devouring them and teaching the pleasures of human meat to his fellow cetaceans.
Killer is a taut story of survival. Where Benchley’s Jaws filled pages with meandering subplots involving the Mafia and Police Chief Brody’s wife’s infidelity (wisely excised from the film adaptation by Steven Spielberg), Tonkin wastes no time getting to the good stuff. The six stranded individuals are rarely given time to catch their breath, and neither is the reader. Killer is also clearly a horror novel, rather than a simple wilderness adventure. Whenever the killer whales fall upon their prey (be it human, whale, polar bear, or walrus), the violence is almost triumphantly graphic. Where the shark in Jaws is a solitary, almost machine-like predator, Tonkin uses the orcas’ pack tactics and malicious cunning to great effect. The survivors are always on the defensive, struggling to deal with the killer whales’ organized ambush attacks while supplies dwindle and their ice floe gradually, inexorably disintegrates around them.
While tension—punctuated with bursts of gory violence—dominates Killer, Tonkin also deftly captures the emotional dimension of the story. Even before the killer whales arrive on the scene, the gripping plane crash sequence effectively reveals each character’s inner world, sliding from perspective to perspective as each of them confronts their own mortality. Some react with grim resignation, others turn to religious faith (fascinating supporting character Job wavers between Methodist Christianity and the Arctic gods of his Inuit heritage), while others reveal cowardice and contempt for their fellow man. The tendencies and weaknesses displayed during the crash scene become more and more pronounced on the ice floe as the survivors’ situation grows more desperate.
Does Tonkin succeed in his original goal of outdoing Benchley’s Jaws? Killer perhaps holds together better as a novel; Jaws is a rare example of the movie adaptation being better than the original book. On the other hand, the orca’s superior size and intelligence aside, on a primal level there’s something deeply terrifying about great white sharks that orcas can’t quite match. Killer is an easy recommendation for enthusiasts of “animal attack” horror novels, but the vastly uneven odds and interpersonal conflict among the survivors is likely to appeal to fans of zombie novels as well. With Peter Tonkin’s Killer, the PAPERBACKS FROM HELL reprint line has resurfaced another winner.