Breed – Chase Novak

UnknownSometimes you can flip along the titles on your kindle and have no idea how some of those books got there. Breed, by Chase Novak, was one of those for me. I suspect I was elated by rereading Ira Levin’s seminal New York horror Rosemary’s Baby and wanted more of the same. One button-press later it was on my device and I immediately forgot about it.

But this week, looking for something different, I stumbled upon Breed, prodded it open and began to read.

The blurb wants to eat you up:

Alex and Leslie Twisden told each other they would do anything to have children. The price didn’t matter. But the experimental procedure they found had costs they couldn’t foresee.

Adam and Alice Twisden’s lives seem perfectly normal. Except that, every night, without fail, their parents lock them into their rooms.

And the twins know that the sounds they can hear are not just their imagination. They’re real. And they’re getting louder…

Breed is a clever little book – too clever, perhaps – an urban fairytale about those most-ferocious of creatures, Manhattan pushy parents.

Alex and Leslie Twisden enjoy a life of wealth and privilege. He’s a partner in a top law firm and she’s in publishing, and they live in a big townhouse by the park. But, try as they might, they can’t have kids. Their obsession leads them to Slovenia and the unethical practice of Dr Slobodan Kis, whose painful treatment involves injecting them both with all manner of animal hormones, including those of the Gobi fish, which has a tendency to eat its young. By the time Alex and Leslie get  back to their hotel room, they’re already beginning to become more animalistic.

Ten years later, jobs gone, their splendid home gone to seed – and with keening noises coming from the basement – Alex and Leslie struggle to hold on to the last vestiges of their humanity. Every night, they lock their children in their rooms so that they can’t eat them. Adam and Alice have had enough of this and go on the run, where they meet a pack of kids who also live in fear of their parents.

I liked the prose in Breed very much. Novak is a classy writer, there’s no doubt about that, and has plenty of satirical fun with the Freudian conceit. The imagery is good – Central Park is packed with feral boys and girls hiding from their dangerous parents – and there are some genuine thrills in the extended chase sequence that powers the middle section of the book.

But the horror in Breed isn’t quite on point. There are one or two narrative twists that make you blink in surprise, but Novak ensures we pity, and even like, the monstrous Alex and Leslie, who never quite live up to their cannibalistic marquee billing. The parents are so self-aware about their own degradation, so forlorn about their lack of humanity, and in a funny way to boot, that the menace is undermined somewhat. There’s little doubt that their escaped kids Adam and Alice will be eaten. And when you sympathise with the antagonists, the danger, the horror of the situation, slips away.

Saying that, Breed is an enjoyable ride, full of sly humour and clever observation. And the characters are enjoyable. Alex and Leslie, both before and after their transformation – are a real treat.

With its upper west side setting, it’s bound to draw comparison with Rosemary’s Baby – hell, I’ve already done it – and any horror book is going to come off poorly in that regard.

It turns out that Chase Novak is a pseudonym of Scott Spencer, a well-regarded literary novelist who wrote, among other books, Endless Love – congratulations, now you’ve got that song going round your head. The word is that Novak is working on another horror, Brood.

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