Depressing, dark, the first fiction book in book in quite some time to actually make me feel the intensity of the scenes in such a breathless fashion, and depressing (yes, it’s worth a second mention, to parrot a line from the book), all describes Chase Novak’s 2012 creature horror book, Breed. I grabbed at it while trying to decide what to read next and saw Stephen King’s blurb on there (blurbs work!), “The best horror novel I’ve read since Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. By turns terrifying and blackly funny, Breed is a total blast.” To be fair, the blurb had me at “Stephen King” underneath it, but hearing him describe the book as horrifying was compelling.
And King wasn’t wrong, about either claim. The book is indeed horrifying in parts, but also comedic in that sort of dry, laughing-because-it’s-all-kind-of-horrifying way.
The gist of the story is that Alex and Leslie are desperate to sire a child, primarily so Alex can continue his prestigious New York lineage dating back centuries. Leslie just wants to make him happy by being the vessel for such a prestigious name. But they can’t seem to crack lightning in the bed, and so, they turn to a shady doctor in Slovenia, Dr. Kis, to help as a last resort.
While Dr. Kis, using part-human and part-nonhuman (seems like dog) “ingredients” to his progeny elixir, does live up to the hype of “delivering” a child to them — twins, in fact, named Alex and Alice — it comes with a rather notable side effect: Alex and Leslie are turned into werewolves. Now, Novak doesn’t use that word, but this awesome creature book is definitely about werewolves! There is references to howling, exceedingly quick fur growth, the deliciousness of dogs, and the desire to cannibalize humans, including their own children.
That is sort of the macabrely humor of the book, foreshadowed by a scene early on in the book when Alex and Leslie stare forlornly at a man playing with his child, saying something to the effect of, “I could just eat you up!” We’ve all heard parents coo to their children in this way, but it’s one of those harmless expressions that is a bit odd when you think about it for a minute. Why do we say that to our children? Scientists call this “cute aggression,” our brain’s response to the overwhelming emotion we have upon seeing something so cute, and that’s how our brain deals with it. It’s a bit like the aforementioned nervous laughter response.
But this wouldn’t be a horror book or a creature book, if Novak didn’t take this cooing phrase to its extreme: What if parents really were eating their children, ironically after going through so much trouble to finally have children in the first place? I could read even deeper into this, and suggest that one of the internalized fears parents have (speaking as a non-parent) is that they will devour their children, metaphorically, of course. That is, devour them with their baggage of past mistakes and regrets, or their forecasting of hopes and dreams onto them, or any myriad ways our human fallibilities manifest and project onto our offspring. However, in this book, the children aren’t just mere bystanders or victims. There are bands of children who have survived their parents’ attempts to eat them and keep their parents chained up, longing for the tender meat of their children. This band of children come in handy when Adam and Alice break free from their claustrophobic home under their evolving (devolving?) werewolf parents. Some of whom have hit puberty, which means they are also turning into werewolves.
Adam and Alice also rely on the help of their schoolteacher, Michael, who is also a gay man. I bring that up because there is some interesting social commentary, but also integral plot weaving, going on here with the Michael character. Not knowing where else to turn to, Adam and Alice split, and Adam goes to Michael’s apartment. But what will it look like for a 10-year-old boy to show up at a “homosexual” teacher’s house, especially a teacher of a posh, preppy New York City private school? Whose father, at least at one point, was a high-powered lawyer, with a notable name? It doesn’t take long for the headmaster of the school to worry about the insinuation, or for Alex, in his quest to get his children back under his iron fist, to toss around the “pedophile” accusation.
After a few stops-and-starts in the chase to capture his children back, Alex chases Michael, who now has Alex and Alice in his care, to the Met, aka the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That chase sequence beginning at the posh school to the Met, through the Met, and back out of the Met near Central Park, is the scene I was talking about where I was holding my breath and tensed while reading, dying to see what would happen. Would Alex catch up to them? And I knew Leslie was lurking somewhere, too. Ultimately, unfortunately and sadly, Alex does catch up with them and quite easily disposes of — kills — Michael in gruesome, public fashion, and then races off to get killed by a metro bus when fleeing the police. Dang, for Michael’s fate, that is.
For how horrific the book can be (like the snippet of a detail that Alex, after kidnapping Michael’s boyfriend, Xavier, chewed off Xavier’s arm while he was conscious), there is also sweet tenderness to the way Novak writes, like Michael’s death in how hard he tried to save the twins, or in the perspective of the twins, where they are both fleeing their parents in terror, but also, are so conflicted because it is their parents and they still love them. Or the unfurling madness of Leslie, who is slowly losing her mind and trying to resist the temptation to eat her twins, because she still loves them, and they still love her, despite having knives and a wine corkscrew at the ready, should she try to gnaw on them.
Like King, although with less authoritativeness behind it, I also recommend Novak’s book. The writing was crisp, gut-wrenching, as gross as anything King himself has written, and also well-sketched, with me rooting for the twins and Michael to survive the madness enveloping them.