If you're a horror fan, you're probably familiar with the trope of the demon child — you know, the sweet little kid who undergoes a horrible transformation and terrorizes everyone in his or her path (or is just born evil, like Rosemary's titular baby).
But the new novel Breed turns that trope on its head because in this tale of baby lust and body horror, it's the parents who end up becoming monstrous. "On a realistic level, everyone says having kids changes everything," author Chase Novak tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "So you take that idea and you marry it to ... undergoing some really outre medical procedure, and you see how far those changes can go."
Novak is actually author Scott Spencer in disguise. Best known for 1970s literary megahit Endless Love, Spencer has adopted a pseudonym to explore pulpier tales like that of Alex and Leslie Twisden, the doomed couple at the hert of Breed.
The Twisdens have everything — money, a Manhattan mansion, solid careers — everything, that is, except children. After conventional fertility treatments fail, Alex talks his wife into trying one last thing: injections from a mysterious Slovenian doctor. The injections work, but with terrifying side effects.
"They become beasts, they become dangerous, they become capable of hideous violence and even cannibalism" as the book progresses, Spencer says. Caught in the chaos are 10-year-old twins Alice and Adam, who know there's something not right about the way their parents lock them in their rooms every night. "[The parents] don't want them to get out, and they don't want to get in," he adds.
Spencer says Breed is based on the struggles of friends he's seen go through round after round of fertility treatments. "The pathos and the difficulty of that, and the toll that it took on their personal lives ... stuck with me forever," he says.
Horror doesn't have to be silly, Spencer says; in fact, serious issues like infertility make great fodder for horror. "It pushes it to the edge, and you explore the darkest possibilities of the story ... in any good story, something important should be at stake."
And there's another component: Spencer's childhood fear that he just wasn't safe in his own house. "I hate to say it because my parents are completely blameless, they're just as sweet as could be and they did love me," he says. "But there's a time in a child's life ... when you realize that a) they're separate people, and b) that they have a life that doesn't include you, and c) they're very strict about your bedtime, and why are they so interested in getting you out of there? And my imagination just started to spin and spin and spin."
Spencer says he also wanted to write a comic take on the narcissism of parenting. Alex and Leslie Twisden have enough money to go to the ends of the earth to get pregnant — and they do just that, when adopting closer to home could have solved their problem. "The idea that they wanted some extension of themselves is the roots of their undoing," Spencer says. "I wanted to keep this whole highly privileged world of Manhattan parenting very realistic."
There are some parallels between Breed and the literary tales of romantic obsession Spencer has written under his own name. But Spencer says he needed to create a second identity. "Who wouldn't want to be someone else," he asks, "and also remain yourself and able to travel back and forth between these two people?"
More importantly, Chase Novak was willing to go places Scott Spencer couldn't. "Spencer's limited by the fact that ... he's buried beneath this tottering stack of pages he's already written. And Novak had nothing on his mind but this sort of mania to follow the nightmare logic of these thoughts and memories. In other words, Spencer couldn't have written Breed. It was up to Chase Novak."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
If you're a fan of horror movies or books, you may be familiar with the trope of the demon spawn. You know, the sweet little kid who undergoes a horrible change. Well, the new novel "Breed" turns that on its head. In this tale, it's the parents who undergo a monstrous transformation.
SCOTT SPENCER: Everyone says having kids changes everything. Everyone knows that when you have kids, you change. So you take that idea and you marry it to undergoing some really outre medical procedure, and you see how far those changes can go. And they are really - they become beasts.
CORNISH: That's author Scott Spencer, and that medical procedure is an infertility treatment gone totally wrong. It's also the launching point for Spencer's new novel, which he writes under the pseudonym Chase Novak. His main characters, an elite New York couple, are desperate to get pregnant by any means possible. And so they travel to Eastern Europe and undergo a radical treatment.
SPENCER: They become dangerous. They become capable of hideous violence and even cannibalism.
CORNISH: And it's sad because the children, of course, they love their parents and fear their parents. And I think you capture that so well about that relationship from a child's point of view - how vulnerable you are to your parents.
SPENCER: And the parents really love those kids. They're not just one thing. Those parents do everything they can for those kids. They make them their little dinners and walk them hand-in-hand to school. And loathe themselves for their wild, bestial thoughts that descend upon them as the day turns into night.
CORNISH: It's the first book I've read in a while where the parents lock the kids in their rooms, literally, for their own good. Not because they don't what them to get out.
SPENCER: No, they don't want them to get out and they don't want to get in.
CORNISH: Now, how did this idea first come to you?
SPENCER: Well, the idea of - the whole idea of people coping with infertility comes not from my own experience as a father, but I have so many friends who've struggled with that, and I watched them go through so many procedures. And the pathos and the difficulty of that, and the toll that it took on their personal lives, the toll that it took on their marriage - it stuck with me forever. And the second place that it comes from is my own childhood fears that I just wasn't safe in my own house.
CORNISH: Oh, can we follow up on that? What happened at home?
SPENCER: Well, I mean, I hate to say it because my parents were completely blameless. They were just as sweet as can be and they did love me. But there's a time in a child's life, and I don't think I'm the only one, I know I'm not the only one who felt this, when you realize that, you know, A, they're separate people, and, B, that they have a life that doesn't include you, and C, they're very strict about your bedtime, and why are they so interested in getting you out of there? And my imagination just started to spin and spin and spin and the only thing I could come up with was that they were planning to do me in, in some way.
SPENCER: And I did get past this, but it wasn't easy. And it lasted for a long time. And it was an idea that remained compelling to me because what could be more destabilizing than to feel that the only people who you really must trust in the world are not trustworthy?
CORNISH: And, you know, in dealing with infertility, it's such an emotional and serious issue for people. And how did you balance the subject matter with the genre? You know, essentially a kind of readable horror story.
SPENCER: Well, I don't think that horror stories have to be just about things that are silly. I think that the things that make horror stories frightening is that they're about things that are very serious. But it pushes it to the edge and you explore the darkest possibilities of the story. So, I didn't really feel there was a conflict. I think that in any good story, something important should be at stake.
CORNISH: Now this book - on the cover of the book it says, from a new name in horror, Chase Novak. And...
SPENCER: It's a very, very new name in horror.
CORNISH: It's a very, very new name in horror. It's in fact, new to you, right?
SPENCER: It's new to me. It's new to me because I published, so far, 10 novels under the name which is Scott Spencer. And I understand that, you know, after you write 10 novels and you publish suddenly something under a different name, there's gonna be, you know, inevitably some curiosity about why did you change your name.
But, I've always, and I really mean always, wanted a second identity. I mean, who wouldn't want to be someone else and also remain yourself and be able to travel back and forth between these two people? And the other reason is that I've been assuming new identities my whole writing life. Especially when I write novels in the first person, which I have the narrator do and say things that I need the reader to believe. That, let's say, I burned down my girlfriend's house or I ran for Congress, or that...
CORNISH: And you're afraid that your book "Endless Love" and "Waking the Dead."
SPENCER: Yes, and then finally, Chase Novak stepped forward because he was willing and actually eager to go places in a novel that Scott Spencer just couldn't be able to reach. You know, Scott Spencer's limited, but the fact that he stands on top of, actually, maybe he's buried beneath, this tottering stack of pages he's already written. And Novak had nothing on his mind but this sort of mania to follow the nightmare logic of these thoughts and memories. In other words, Spencer couldn't have written "Breed." It was up to Chase Novak.
CORNISH: Now I'm not sure how to say goodbye. Chase Novak, slash Scott Spencer, thank you for talking about the book with us.
SPENCER: Well, thank you for having me on. It's really been a pleasure.
CORNISH: The new novel is called "Breed," and you can read an excerpt of it at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.