Book Review: The Chrysalis by Brendan Deneen
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tor Books (September 4, 2018)
Length: 304 pages
Every so often, I find myself pleasantly surprised by books like The Chrysalis, which, for the record, I believe was indeed written as a horror novel, though marketing for the book may have oversold the whole “monster in the basement” and “haunted house” angle a little too zealously. I get it, though. With a story like this, the creep factor is easier to sell, despite there being so much more it has to offer.
The book follows married couple Tom and Jenny Decker, who are urban millennials and proud of it. Both their identities are wrapped up in their modest but up-to-the-minute Manhattan lifestyle, with Tom working as a bartender and Jenny as a personal trainer to rich bankers. But then the day comes when their building management company suddenly raises the rent on their Alphabet City apartment, leaving the young couple no choice but to leave behind the life they’ve grown to love. Feeling dejected about having to move to the suburbs, their spirits are nevertheless lifted somewhat by the fact they’ve managed to find a beautiful, spacious, and surprisingly affordable three-bedroom Victorian in New Jersey.
The reason for the low cost of the house soon becomes apparent, however, as the grim history of its previous residents is eventually revealed. By then, the Deckers have already moved in, and Tom has stumbled upon the mysterious slime-covered chrysalis hidden behind an old refrigerator in the basement, which he keeps a secret from his wife. Jenny, on her part, is also trying to adjust to some major life changes beyond settling into a new house, for not long after the move, she discovers she is pregnant. The subsequent loss of her job becomes devastating, with a mortgage to pay and a baby on the way, forcing Tom to quit bartending for a corporate position which would help bring in a stable income for his growing family. With work being barely tolerable most days, Tom finds it easier to start each morning with a clandestine trip down to the basement to see the chrysalis, seeking the euphoric, almost intoxicating effects being in its presence grants him, which gives him the confidence to succeed at his job. Jenny also starts her own business, and for a while, life seems to be looking up for the Deckers.
Unfortunately, like any drug high, their success doesn’t last. As Tom becomes more and more obsessed with the secret he keeps hidden in the basement, the chrysalis’ nefarious influence grows, filling his mind with violent visions, unraveling his grip on reality, and destroying his life with Jenny.
What I find interesting about The Chrysalis—despite the novel’s “Welcome to the dark side of suburbia” tagline—isn’t so much the idea that evil and wrongness can lurk so close beneath the surface of normalcy, but that it’s really a story about a young couple experiencing “quarter-life crisis” (along with the themes and associated fears related to “adulting”) told through a horror lens. While it had its creepy moments, what impressed me most was the author’s attempt to deliver a deeper symbolic message. Whether it was communicated successfully is debatable, but regardless, I thought this book was wonderfully atmospheric and a fine example of building suspense effectively. I also give it credit for what it tried to do with the idea that some people just don’t want to grow up, desperately clinging on to their superficial perspective of reality to avoid facing real-life problems.
Depending on the type of reader you are, you might find Tom and Jenny relatable…or you might not. Personally, I found them both rather infuriating and off-putting, especially Tom, whose whining about having to become a corporate sellout was the epitome of entitlement, considering how the job was practically handed to him while many in the country are dying to find work and would have jumped at a much lesser opportunity if it means putting food on their family’s table. But poor Tom had to cut his hair, boohoo. Here, let me play you the world’s smallest violin. Still, even if you can’t relate to the Deckers, the story delves into concepts like family responsibility and addiction, offering a more personal perspective on Tom and Jenny’s plight. For one thing, they learn that nothing wakes you up to the reality of the world quite like the news of a baby. The narrative dutifully portrays all the highs and lows during this stressful time, puncturing surface-level moments of traditional horror with deeper and more significant themes that explore the characters’ confusion, anxiety, and feelings of helplessness related to their impending parenthood.
In the end, I think these are the ideas The Chrysalis tries hard to but struggles to convey, as a lot of the story’s potential winds up slipping through the cracks. Still, it gets kudos from me in spite of its outward appearance as another typical entry into the horror-suspense genre, mainly because of its efforts to go beyond the usual scare tactics by playing off the fears and existential woes of a new generation of emerging adults who dread having to grow up. Tom and Jenny thought their worst nightmare was becoming boring suburbanites and corporate drones, but this is a story about how the thing in their basement proved them wrong, with the author keeping the horror elements ever-present but understated. As a result, this book is really more unsettling than scary, but I really enjoyed it.