Author: Chase Novak (pseudonym for Scott Spencer)
Published: 04 September 2012
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Genre: horror, science fiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Alex and Leslie Twisden have a lifestyle that most can only dream of. He is old money, the descendant of a prestigious New York family that has blessed him with a life defined by wealth, and a magnificent house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. When he married the younger, beautiful Leslie, many thought of her as his trophy wife, but in truth they were deeply in love. They have successful jobs, a luxurious lifestyle, and are utterly happy together. The only flaw in this otherwise perfect picture is the absence of a child. With his grand his family legacy, Alex is determined to produce an heir, but the couple cannot conceive and Alex is too old-fashioned to consider adoption. They spend a fortune on endless fertility treatments that yield nothing but wasted time and emotional exhaustion.
Leslie is on the verge of giving up when they learn about a dubious and ludicrously expensive treatment from a doctor in Slovenia. The desperate couple blindly submit themselves to the doctor’s painful treatment, which involves injecting them with a cocktail of animal DNA. Leslie falls pregnant shortly after, but the couple’s happiness is marred as the horrific consequences of the treatment become manifest.
Ten years later, the Twisden twins, Adam and Alice, live in fear of their parents. They are forbidden from speaking to others about their strange home life, and every night they are locked into their bedrooms. Adam spies on his parents with a baby monitor, and hears disturbing sounds and unsettling conversations from their bedroom. Terrified, he and Alice run away from home, only to have their ferociously loving parents hunt them down.
Breed is one of those horror novels that are conceptually scary, rather than genuinely unsettling. I had mixed feelings, as there were some things that I really liked, while other aspects were a bit flat. I’ll start with the good stuff. I liked Alex and Leslie. I liked the fact that, whatever their problems (and they have some really bizarre, repulsive problems), they love each other and they’re happy together. This is true throughout the book.
Aside from a few creepy moments, I didn’t find the book very scary, but I loved the idea behind it. Alex and Leslie are essentially turned into violent animal/human hybrids, making it increasingly difficult for them to function in public. Everything in their lives starts to break down – appearance, work, their magnificent home. Alex’s house is filled with valuable antiques that get sold off as the couple struggle to make the kind of money they’ve become accustomed to. They lose their grasp on language and memory, and Leslie is particularly bad. At the start of the novel she works in publishing; later, she can’t remember common words or how to use them, and her speech is peppered with malapropisms.
Some of the most disturbing changes are in the couple’s feeding habits and sex life. Adam and Alice have long stopped getting attached to any pets that enter the house, and the sounds that come from Alex and Leslie’s bedroom make it clear that their passion for each other is now suffused with brutality.
And yet, you have to admit that the Twisdens are loving parents and spouses. This is not a simplistic descent into evil and violence. The Twisdens are all forced to fight an internal battle between instinct, emotion, and reason. Alex and Leslie adore their children; that much is obvious. However, they can’t help the fact that they are also longing to eat them alive. The animal DNA in their blood makes it impossible for them to shake off this urge; they can only fight the longing to give into it. Ironically, the only fertility treatment that worked is the one that makes them want to murder their kids.
Adam and Alice know their parents will eventually kill them, but they have to fight against an instinctual urge to trust and obey them. They love their parents, and want to be with them, but arm themselves with small weapons in case of an attack. And although the children are the victims here, you can’t ignore the fact that they share their parents’ bizarre genetic makeup. At age ten, they already show signs of a beastly nature. What will they be when they grow up?
All these contrasts and contradictions lend a sense of pathos that I haven’t often found in horror, where the emphasis on gore and terror typically leaves little opportunity to feel truly upset about the people involved and the conflicts they’re struggling with. Alex and Leslie were my favourite characters, not just because they were savage, but because they wanted to be good and they made a wonderful (if weird) couple. At the same time, their savagery is so vile that you can’t ever ignore it. I always appreciate an author’s ability to make me tussle with conflicting feelings.
But now the bad stuff. I thought Adam and Alice were rather flat characters in contrast to their parents. They naturally won my sympathies – you have to feel sorry for ten-year olds being hunted down by their cannibal parents – but I never cared for them all that much.
I also didn’t like the wild children the twins encounter when they run away. Apparently there are plenty of wealthy, barren New York couples who turned to the Slovenian doctor, and their kids now run around in some kind of feral gang (if they don’t get eaten, that is). All these additional characters seemed to dilute the plot. Theoretically, it’s more horrific that so many couples are turning themselves into violent animals just so they can breed, but in practice it suddenly seems too common to be all that devastating. I also think the book could have been much more tense if the story was focused on the Twisdens and the few other supporting characters, with perhaps one other family to give us an idea of how much worse things could get. Instead, the wild boys help the twins escape when they can, and the chase feels less threatening. Finally, some of the plot strands were left hanging, which is always annoying and unsatisfying.
So once, again, I find myself with a horror novel that didn’t really scare me. On the bright side, I’d much rather read a novel like Breed, which is a decent book in itself, than the more stereotypical kind of horror novel, which is pulp drenched in gore. Breed has it’s share of bloody violence, but Novak uses it sparingly, so that it shocks without feeling gratuitous or cheap. I give the novel a solid 6/10, and the search for terrifying horror continues.