In my younger days, I gobbled up Stephen King novels like popcorn. Carrie, The Stand, Cujo, Pet Sematary…I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. Forget any deeper meanings or morals; I just want the nip of a scare, the familiar tingle of a good fright. I flipped page after page propelled along by King’s tight stories and wicked characters. That is, until I read It. That damned clown Pennywise sucked the joy out of horror novels and left me with months of dark nightmares. He not only haunted my dreams, he took up permanent residence under my bed, inside the dark closet, in the basement’s deepest corners. I vowed never to read another horror novel again; but as any horror aficionado can tell you, “never” really means “until it gets you later.”
Last week, when I left BookExpo America, I packed up mounds of galleys to ship home, grabbing the top copy for plane reading. Once crammed into my seat, I took the book out of my bag. In my hand was Breed by Chase Novak (aka Scott Spencer) and boldly emblazoned on the cover was this accolade by Stephen King: “BREED is the best horror novel I’ve read since Peter Straub’s GHOST STORY.” Faced with a choice between a gummed up old magazine in the seat pocket in front of me and a pristine yet-unpublished horror novel from a well-known author, I sucked it up and chose the latter. When we landed two hours later, I didn’t want to put it down.Breed’s plot begins in a familiar way: Alex and Leslie Twisden, a wealthy young couple, are unable to conceive and will try anything to have a child. (Ah, it’s Rosemary’s Baby, I think. Wrong.) They learn of a doctor in Ljubljana, Slovenia who has been successful with cases like theirs. Upon their arrival, they check into a small hotel. Above the door “is a stone carving of an old man with his forefinger pressed to his lips, presumably asking passersby to keep their voices down.” The reader knows, though, that this old man is really saying, “Shh.. don’t tell the secrets you are about to learn.” And secrets abound in this story.
The procedure works, and less than nine months later Leslie gives birth to twins. Flash forward ten years, and we find the twins locked in their rooms at night while listening to strange and horrible sounds emanating from the rest of the house. Both frightened and determined to discover their family’s secrets, the twins escape and their parents ensue. The novel’s horror elements reach fever pitch as the twins approach the secret’s discovery and the parents close in on their children.
But Breed is not simply a horror novel. With razor sharp observations and wit, Novak keenly explores the eternal questions of teenage alienation and angst (Who am I? What am I? Am I doomed to become my parents? ). He takes some very funny swipes at current trends, like helicopter parents and food obsessions (“no one in town can foam a Jerusalem artichoke quite like the chef at Trattoria Gigi”). Ultimately, though, Breed is about those pieces of our characters that define us as truly human, distinguishing us from the others with whom we coexist.
Reading Breed was like stumbling upon a favorite food that had slipped my memory, awakening cravings that had long been buried. I have rediscovered the horror novel, and look forward to devouring more. This time, though, I’ll know to avoid the ones with clowns.