I like to look at the book ads on the subway, and every once in a while I’m rewarded with the marketing campaign of one of the books I worked on. I can sit on the subway bench basking in pride, thinking, I worked on that; I helped make that book. Other times I’ll see a book advertised that I feel like I have to check out. That was the case this summer, when I was enjoying the air-conditioned breeze of a subway car, and my eye wandered to the subway ad for Chase Novak’s horror novel Breed, with this blurb from Stephen King: “The best horror novel I’ve read since Peter Straub’s Ghost Story.” Now, I trust Stephen King’s recommendations; through him I’ve been introduced to Shane Stevens and Peter Abrahams, and he also has a healthy appreciation for my lady Joyce Carol Oates.
Breed’s a beautifully designed book. The cover is all black with a simple red squiggle that at first glance seems to be an abstract design, but as I read the story, the more it revealed itself to be a line drawing of a pregnant woman, the subject matter that the novel deals with. On the surface, Breed is a very simple story, a Grimm’s fairy tale almost. What gives this story its heft is how it’s translated into modern-day Manhattan.
The Twisdens really do have the perfect life. Alex is the last living heir of an old-money New York family, like the Astors. He has a family manor near Central Park filled with antiques and oil portraits of blubbery-faced Twisdens of yore. He married Leslie, a youngish editor, who he met outside his mansion as she admired it. The two have been together for a few years with beautiful evenings out, the right entertainment and gifts to mark occasions, but they are childless and can’t get pregnant despite all their money. Leslie is ready to adopt, but Alex wants a genetic Twisden to inherit his estate. They have started going to couples’ infertility meetings because Alex believes that is where they will first hear about cutting-edge treatments that might not quite be legal. And then one day they run into one of those infertile couples who are now hugely pregnant and smug with their secret.
Alex trades favors with the father to be, and he and Leslie end up on a trip to Eastern Europe to see Dr. Kis, a researcher who uses unorthodox treatments but has phenomenal success rates. After a series of painful injections that both Leslie and Alex have to endure, they share a weird but passionate night, surprised by the animal-like lust that came out of them. The day after on the plane ride home, Leslie knows she’s pregnant—she just feels it. Leslie and Alex now find themselves prisoners of their bodies—some of it is good, like the confirmed pregnancy and twins at that, but they find they are very different from what they once were.
“Before the visit to Dr. Kis, most, if not all, of his emotions were mixed. Even the blackest sorrow had somewhere within it dark blue shimmers of hope; even the greatest joys held within them consciousness of joy’s inevitable ebbing. His emotions were like hot-air balloons, and each of them carried the ballast of memory and knowledge. But now the ballast is gone and everything he feels is total, and practically overwhelming. He is not ever merely hungry—he is ravenous. He is not annoyed—he is in a seething rage. He is not feeling romantic—he is overcome with lust.”
Fast-forward ten years and we are introduced to Alex and Leslie’s twins Alice and Adam, who are crippled with the terrifying secret of their parents. The mansion has fallen into ruin with most of the antiques sold to finance the family now that Alex and Leslie can no longer hold down jobs because of their more animal-like natures. The twins are locked in their bedrooms each evening with no way to escape; even their windows have elaborate locking mechanisms, fire codes be damned. But the twins sense that this is more to keep them safe from their parents than anything else. With each year, Alice and Adam’s parents are becoming more and more forgetful about things like keys, and one night, the twins plan a great escape. The rest of the book ends up being a long chase sequence set mostly in Manhattan, with long, extended scenes set in the Metropolitan Museum and Central Park, gentrified areas of the city where you don’t expect to see kids running in terror from their rich parents.
The second part of the book has a few scenes and descriptions that border on grand guignol, but I found them compelling too. There’s one death scene that is quite grisly, but at the same time, it’s beautiful and redemptive. Lots of tantalizing details pushed me to keep turning the pages—wolflike teenagers who are older versions of Alice and Adam, warning of a change during puberty, and parents who are restrained by these children in unusual ways. But then these details are left behind and the ending is roomy and wide-open…for another book in the series.
I wish I’d known that this was a series book before I began it. I suppose this tendency toward series is just the evolution of literature. I’m rereading Frankenstein right now, and it seems so old-fashioned with an introduction to the material via letters from a third party who’s completely outside of book’s main story. Maybe stand-alone novels are going the way of the epistolary form.