Welcome to Freaky Fridays, an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet serving up the oldest and mustiest forgotten paperbacks from the Seventies and Eighties for your dining pleasure.
Right now, we’re in the middle of calls for a brand new build-up in American military force, and we’re also confronting the reality of the asymmetrical battlefields of the future. New challenges require new military tactics and that often requires new weapons, but please let me state now, categorically and unequivocally, that the Pentagon should never develop weapons that include: giant spiders, doorways to other dimensions, evil rattlesnakes, spray-on marijuana, anti-Vietnamese piranha, genetically-engineered barracuda, robot killer sharks, shark-octopus hybrids, human-shark hybrids, or dinosaur-shark hybrids. Not even one dollar should be allocated to fund even the most preliminary research in those fields.
The entire film and publishing industry have spent decades warning us about the dangers of laser sharks and hyper-intelligent stingrays, but every time you turn around yet another military experiment has escaped back into the ocean where it eats its weight in happy-go-lucky swimmers on a daily basis. In case we missed the point, Killer warns us of the dangers in doing something even as seemingly innocent and foolproof as training a giant killer whale to become a super-smart, ultraviolent, weaponized sushi platter. Trust me, even this can go wrong.
The first novel from Peter Tonkin, who’s gone on to write dozens more, Killer wastes no time introducing us to its titular killer whale, 39 feet long and weighing seven tons, bred to be smart enough to do the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle in two hours flat. Housed at the Alternative Intelligences Marine Facility in Oregon, along with some psychotic dolphins, this big black and white baby is our latest line of defense against the Soviets and he’s highly trained in strategy and tactics. The only thing that could possibly go wrong is if he discovers how good human flesh tastes. Wouldn’t you know it, while on a tour of the facility a US Navy admiral makes a slight gesture with his arm that triggers the killer whale’s reflexes, and he instantly leaps 30 feet out of the water and takes the gesticulating limb off at the shoulder.
“Delicious!” the whale proclaims, as the base scientists scramble to destroy it. But it’s too late, and within seconds the whale has pulled a Free Willy and is heading north to the Arctic where it can’t harm anyone, as long as no eminent biologists schedule an expedition to look at some frozen lichen on the ice pack.
Coincidentally, at exactly that same moment, Kate Warren, an eminent biologist, has joined her father’s expedition to the Arctic to examine frozen fungi on the ice pack. Dammit! Brilliant and beautiful, Kate hopes to make a mess out of her daddy issues on this trip. “Ever since I was a little girl,” she tells him. “I have been working as hard as I can so that one day you might tell me that I am too good to be true.” Accompanying her on this dangerous and potentially embarrassing therapy session is Colin Ross, a one-armed giant and the best cold weather man in the business. Job, a very short Inuit, and Simon Quick, the camp director. They all hate each other, they all want to get into Kate’s pants, and they all taste like chicken.
Before anyone can even start unpacking their daddy issues, the expedition plane goes down and our maladjusted crew are stranded on a 20 acre ice floe that breaks off from the bigger pack leaving our delicious biologists floating out to sea without a hope of rescue. To Peter Tonkin’s credit, this happens by the end of chapter one. Like a killer whale, he’s not going to screw around while there are delicious human limbs to be eaten. As our humans struggle to untangle their emotional issues and not freeze to death, one of them makes the mistake of pointing at something on the horizon which brings the killer whale crashing through the ice to eat his arm like a buffalo chicken wing dipped in honey-mustard sauce. In this scene we also learn that the killer has acquired scars on his face and a team of less-intelligent killer whale henchmen, proving that he’s gone full supervillain.
But that’s hardly their biggest problem, because also stranded on that ice floe is an angry polar bear, leading to one of literature’s only bear vs. human vs. killer whale rumbles (there’s only one other incident of this that I can recall, in chapter 12 of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl and it mostly happens “off-screen”). The ice floe keeps shrinking as the killer whale and his henchwhales keep attacking (“Give me those delicious human arms!” they scream, in high-pitched whale song), and the humans keep doing stupid things like falling off ice cliffs and fumbling with their dynamite before dropping it down their own pants. Kate’s daddy issues are resolved when her father dies horribly. Then, a swarm of 200 walruses overrun the rapidly-shrinking ice floe as they flee in a frenzy from the deathpod of killer whales.
As in many of the greatest works of Russian literature, nothing expresses man’s precarious position in the universe like a man vs. walrus battle royale. Remember, this is a handful of humans with rifles, ice axes, and dynamite against 200 fear-crazed walruses. What follows is some of the goriest, most pedal-to-the-metal biologist vs. sea mammal warfare ever committed to paper. “They had been fighting the walruses for more than an hour and…they had won,” Tonkin writes as our battered humans, drenched from head to toe in walrus blood, sink to the snow, exhausted.
It’s not over!!! Because now the killer whale has his appetite thoroughly whetted by all that crazy walrus blood in the ocean and he really wants to eat the humans. And Kate has had her appetite whetted, too, and she makes awkward love to one of her gore-encrusted science friends in the latrine tent. Tonkin rewards the reader for sitting through that queasy-making scene with a finale that is all-out biologist on killer whale violence involving whale-riding, nose-chopping, dynamite-chucking, and Inuit suicide bombers. The chaos and madness only draws to a close when every last inch of the ice floe is smashed to pieces and soaked in blood.
Truly, one of the most action-packed, non-stop, hellbent-for-leather books about the angry pandas of the sea, Peter Tonkin lives up to the promise of that exquisitely berserk cover by the great Ken Barr and delivers a novel that should be read in its entirety at the next meeting of the Armed Services Committee. Build more nukes, build more drones, even build more shark-octopuses. But for God’s sake, America, leave killer whales alone.
Grady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his previous novel was Horrorstör, about a haunted IKEA, and his latest novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, is basically Beaches meets The Exorcist.