I can’t help thinking of this diabolically entertaining novel as “Rosemary’s Baby’s Parents.” Not that Rosemary Woodhousehas been appropriated by the author, Chase Novak. But the basic situation is similar. A well-heeled Manhattan couple conceives a child in fraught circumstances. Result: horror. Except that Novak has worked a switcheroo. Instead of a baby gone monstrous, this time it’s the parents.
“Breed” starts out affably enough. Alex Twisden and Leslie Kramer live almost directly across Central Park from where novelist Ira Levin planted the Woodhouses — or, rather, where they were planted by those responsible for the movie version of “Rosemary’s Baby”: in the neo-Gothic Dakota Apartments. Alex, a lawyer from a stuffy old family whose heirlooms lord it over the couple’s townhouse, hardly bothers to hide his sense of privilege. Although less haughty, Leslie meets Alex’s high standards thanks to her beauty and brains (she has a high-powered job in publishing). Alex very much wants an heir, and Leslie yearns to be a mom, but no matter how hard they try, pregnancy remains elusive. In their frustration, they join a support group for couples in the same fix.
Time passes. Fresh out of options, Alex and Leslie run into the Johnsons, a couple from the support group who have succeeded where the others failed: They have a baby. Never mind the husband’s feral appearance and erratic behavior. On his say-so, Alex and Leslie are soon en route to Slovenia, where for a hefty fee a certain Dr. Kis will work his magic on their behalf.
Back home after being injected by the eccentric Slovene, Alex and Leslie undergo profound changes. One day while visiting the Johnsons, Alex swipes from their refrigerator a Ziploc bag containing a dead rodent. Later, in private, “he takes his prize out of his pocket and devours the plump hamster in four quick bites. It is easily and without question the most delicious thing he has ever tasted.” For Leslie, the transformation is more benign, at least at first: She is pregnant.
Three children are born. One of them is a living disaster, so malformed that the doctors and nurses hide it away. The other two, Adam and Alice, are seemingly normal in every way.
All this takes place in the first 60 pages. The remaining four-fifths of the novel pits Adam and Alice, now 10 years old, against Alex and Leslie, whose love for their offspring is so bestial that they may literally act out that standard parental effusion, “You’re so adorable, I could eat you up.”
There are chases across Manhattan, with Central Park providing a refuge for a band of kids who are also products of the Kis method. Innocent bystanders are dragged in, notably Mr. Medoff, one of Adam’s teachers. When Adam escapes from his parents’ custody and shows up at Mr. Medoff’s apartment, the teacher would like to help but, being gay, faces an exquisite dilemma: By taking in this desperate fugitive, he will leave himself open to Lord knows what kind of accusations. And there is a raucous climax in and around the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Along with suspense and shocks, Novak delivers enough humor to make the mayhem palatable. When Leslie returns to Slovenia late in the novel, seeking to reverse the magic potion like a disconcerted fairy-tale heroine, she hires a cabbie to help her find Dr. Kis. Is his office far from her hotel? she wants to know. “Nothing in Slovenia is far,” the cabbie replies.
Three decades ago, Novak, also known as the Washington-born writer Scott Spencer, gave us “Endless Love,” a now-classic novel about youthful passion taken to excess. His most recent novel was “Man in the Woods” (2010), a fine thriller that arose out of a plausible, even mundane situation: Two respectable men get into a fight over a dog, and one of the brawlers ends up dead. “Breed” hews more closely to the recipe for its genre, but with triumphant effect. The best American horror novel since Scott Smith’s “The Ruins,” “The Breed” is redolent of Roald Dahl at his creepy best.
Drabelle is mysteries editor of Book World.
By Chase Novak
310 pp. $25.99