I always go into movies blind. Maybe I’m a purist or some sort of ass backwards control freak, but I most enjoy movies when I know my reaction to them is purely mine. While I always value a good, critical review, I don’t really care to know the Rotten Tomatoes rating or whether it lives up to the book version. It’s always more rewarding (and, really, more interesting) to compare a fully formed opinion of my own to everyone else’s and see where I fall in the space of media and consumer consensus.
So I walked into Parasite fully expecting a horror movie. Based on the classically opaque trailer and the fact that it played before some other horror movie, my brain filed Parasite away under “horror movies in 2019.” I, of course, did not get a horror movie. And, reader, it was perfect.
Instead of horror, I got… something horrifying, for sure, but so much more exquisite. Have you ever taken a nondescript piece of chocolate from a box that bears no description of what each little square and oval holds, so you have to just go ALL IN and bite into the thing? Because, when all is said and done, you know that, at the very least, you WILL be eating chocolate and that’s a net positive. And so you bite into it and, yes, there’s the chocolate but then you discover what’s underneath and it’s raspberry nougat or marzipan or just pure truffle (substitute any of these for your favorite chocolate stuffing) and the experience becomes richer, more complex… exactly what you were expecting but with added layers of gooey goodness.
That’s how I felt when I saw Parasite.
I wanted to create a list of books that carried the same experience for me. Not just books about parasites, or about class warfare (though who doesn’t love a good fungal uprising…), but books with epic climaxes, a seething rage just beneath the surface, and healthy servings of existential dread. And here they are:
The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey
Carey’s novel presents, on the surface, a classic sci-fi narrative: it takes place in a world where a parasitic virus turned the world’s population into zombies, and those who remain struggle to find a cure and save humanity. Of course, part of finding that cure is conducting morally questionable experiments on children who have the virus. What no one counts on is the zombie kids being able to intelligently and strategically fight back.
What captivated me the most about Parasite is how the members of the Kim family were just as grotesque as they were sympathetic. There is something admirable about the will to survive, even if it means destroying everything in your path.
Her Body And Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Maybe it’s a stretch to say all the short stories in Her Body And Other Parties are about or involved parasites, but isn’t it in the name, after all? One of the definitions of “party” is “a person or people forming one side in an agreement or dispute.” In the book’s case, the parties involved are the body of a woman and some unidentified other. And are they agreeing or disputing? Perhaps a little of both, all the while blurring the lines between what’s reality or fantasy.
Parasite feels a little fantastical in much the same way, and portrays the relationship between the Kims and the Parks as both consensual and not. It’s never clear who exploits whom and if either party is aware of that tension.
Gerald’s Game by Stephen King
The obvious King novel to include in this list is The Stand, a book entirely about a mutated virus that wipes out humanity and ushers in a biblical apocalypse. And I love The Stand, okay? But King’s most famous works are also his most heavy-handed (and thick enough to stop a bullet). I’m partial to the weirder, smaller tomes (clocking in at 332 pages, Gerald’s Game is basically a novella in King-verse), and this one has a truly genre-bending feel. The entire story is a ghostly cat-and-mouse game, capped with an amazing twist at the end, just like Parasite.
A Head Full Of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full Of Ghosts is a distinctly modern take on classic demonic possession. What happens when someone appears taken over by demons in the age of deep fakes and reality TV? A Head Full Of Ghosts is a story of unreliable narrators and the modern influence that the court of public opinion holds over everything. It asks as many questions and offers few answers, much like Parasite does. At the end, it leaves readers wondering exactly who is possessing whom. And what’s possession if not another form of parasitism?
Semiosis by Sue Burke
Did anyone else have dreams of being eaten by sentient plants as a kid? No? Guess it was just me. Semiosis is a story about the natives of a new world draining its colonists of their resources and lives. Except, in the case of SSemiosis, the leeching comes from a shocking and unanticipated source.
Both book and film are undercut with social commentary—environmental and classist imperialism.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Moshfegh’s novel isn’t categorized as horror, but neither is Parasite, and I’d make the case that both certainly are. There’s no gore, no zombies, no vampires, no apocalypse—but there is dread, heaps of dread. And monsters, too, if you look hard enough. The monsters—the parasites—aren’t supernatural, or riddled with some plague. They’re normal people. They’re you and me. They’re us… average humans leeching off of other humans in some way. In Moshfegh’s novel, as in the film, every interaction, every move, is transactional, and all a ploy to trample other humans and get ahead. Ahead of what, though?
Honorable Mentions (short stories and non-genre):
“A Starvation Artist” by Franz Kafka
In preparation for writing this article, I looked up the etymology of the word “parasite” because I’ve been a linguistics nerd since I won my elementary school spelling bee three years in a row. Turns out that it’s derived from the Greek for “alongside” and “food”, and later “eating at another’s table.” In Kafka’s short story, a man performs a great feat: living without food. But, as his performance continues, the crowds mock him and treat him like a sideshow act. As they lose interest, he withers away, the attention that kept him fed disappearing along with his will to live.
“Paranoia” by Shirley Jackson
One of my favorite stories by the masterful horror writer, “Paranoia” is a little known story of the big bad, lurking just around the corner or hidden in a basement, and how one can see the signs, even when no one else can (or carese to believe in them).
Lauren Jackson (LJ) is the marketing/publicity manager at Saga Press and Gallery Books. Her primary areas of interest are true crime, horror, Star Trek, and making spreadsheets. Her sun is in Scorpio with a rising sign in Libra and a moon in Gemini, for which she is seeking professional help. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @alsoknownaslj, or on Hinge if your filters are right.