8 Novels About Humans Eating Humans
Sheila Yasmin Marikar recommends fiction that showcases the eroticism and savagery of cannibalism
From the Showtime series Yellowjackets to the upcoming Timothée Chalamet film Bones and All to the increasingly unsettling allegations against the actor Armie Hammer, cannibalism is having a moment—in popular culture, anyway.
Literature has long been fascinated with this particular form of savagery, which found an unexpected home in my forthcoming book, The Goddess Effect.
Cannibalism was not at all on my mind when I began the story that evolved into my debut novel. I worked it into the narrative after an early reader observed that the only thing the villain at the center of my wellness satire was guilty of was “arch capitalism.” Looking for a way to make The Goddess Effect more absurd, I delved into a form of barbarity that has captured the imagination of contemporary authors, as well as older and classic writers over the years. Below are eight works of literature that explore cannibalism in manners both overt and discreet.
Beowulf, translated by Maria Dahvana Headley
In her 2020 translation of the epic Old English poem, Headley uses modern slang like “bro” and “stan” to contemporize scenes like the monstrous Grendel’s cannibalism of the people who disrupt his sleep. In her introduction, Headley compares the original text to “Old English freestyle” and “the wedding toast of a drunk uncle.” Her liberties with translation make such chronicles of inhumanity feel all the more cinematic.
A Certain Hunger by Chelsea G Summers
Dorothy, the protagonist of this faux memoir of a serial killer-slash-restaurant critic who feasts on the flesh of men, takes pleasure in describing the stomach-churning spoils that have graced her past plates, likening a hunk of a man’s buttocks to “rump roast.” A satire of over-the-top paeans to food, the prose in this novel turned even Summers’s stomach: she told the New York Times that combing over a final version of her manuscript prompted her to go vegan for two weeks.
Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh
A master of spinning stories from the profane, Moshfegh weaves cannibalism into her tale of a medieval village on the brink of collapse, writing, perhaps, the most gruesome scene ever involving a pinkie toe. That the village in question is religiously vegetarian makes the act, and the character who commits it, even more depraved.
Earthlings by Sayaka Murata
This coming-of-age story revolves around Natsuki, a disenchanted girl convinced that she’s an alien from another planet. As an adult, Natsuki loses (among other things) her sense of taste, reunites with her cousin, and retreats, along with her husband, to the mountains outside of Tokyo. Without modern conveniences (like the titular staple of Murata’s previous novel, Convenience Store Woman) Natsuki resorts to cannibalism: “Miso Soup with Man” and “Man Simmered in Sweetened Soy Sauce” bring back her sense of taste—and lead her to sink her teeth into her cousin and husband, as well.
Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica, translated by Sarah Moses
Originally published in Spanish in 2017, and translated by Sarah Moses into English in 2020, Agustina Bazterrica’s dystopian novel imagines what the world would look like if the meat factory farms produced were human. A love story is embedded in this graphic repudiation of the industrialization of meat, as is a commentary on the relationship between man and animal.
Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander
This darkly funny novel revolves around Seventh Seltzer, a Cannibal American who initially wants nothing to do with his minority identity. With his mother on her deathbed and her dying wish to be consumed by her own children, Seventh and his siblings are forced to reckon with their heritage for reasons sentimental and practical — obeying their mother is the only way for them to receive their inheritance.
The Devourers by Indra Das
This genre-bending tale begins with a history professor in modern Kolkata who is solicited by a “half werewolf” to transcribe a pile of handwritten scrolls. As the professor gets more and more absorbed by the contents of the scrolls, the novel turns into a chronicle of shape-shifting people from centuries ago who regularly engaged in cannibalism, rape, murder, and other barbaric acts.
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
No round-up of cannibalistic literature would be complete without a mention of Thomas Harris’ 1988 icon of horror fiction, which revolves around the serial killer and human organ gourmand Hannibal Lecter. Immortalized on screen by Anthony Hopkins, the 1991 film version of Lecter took liberties with Harris’s prose. In the book, Lecter recounts eating a victim’s liver with fava beans and a “big Amarone.” Wary that viewers might not be able to identify the Italian wine, the film’s producers changed the line, giving Chianti a reputation that it has yet to live down.