Cocooned in complacency: A critical review of “The Chrysalis” (2018)

This blog is not known for its cutting edge analysis. We barely review anything fresh, let alone anything less than a year old. Is that fair? One cannot live in the past eternally. Then again, if Brendan Deneen’s relatively recent novel “The Chrysalis” is an example of what passes for intelligent horror in the brave new world of popular fiction, then perhaps there is a reason to keep living in the past.

Tom and Jenny Decker–he trying shake off a drinking problem and she recently pregnant–are moving up in the world. They are moving out of a cramped New York dwelling into a New Jersey suburb, moving from bar tending into the corporate world and moving from a couple to a family of three. Their new house is surprisingly inexpensive for its size, which either has to do with the fact that it’s a fixer-upper or that its previous occupants murdered each other while influenced by something inhuman growing in the basement.

When one begins researching “The Chrysalis,” one notices that it’s described as a slow burn, blending psychological thriller with sci fi elements. That sounds like prime cosmic horror. It’s also kind of a lie. There is very little that is slow or subtle about “The Chrysalis,” and its narrative has more in common with the fuzzy logic of slasher films than titans of psychological horror.

The story is very familiar, with its alcoholic heroes and haunted houses and things going bump in the basement. That doesn’t bother me. Deneen admitted that the novel was inspired in part by his love for retro horror movies. Unoriginal isn’t bad. It just puts more pressure on the presentation.

And it doesn’t bother me that so much about the eldritch thing downstairs is left unsaid. Its origins are shrouded in mystery, as is how it influences the inhabitants of the house. Readers are free to imagine whatever fantastic history they want for it, and that’s fine. A little mystery is good for the blood.

What’s a little less fine is that its ultimate goal seems unrelated to how it behaves for the entire story–assuming its goal is revealed in the final pages of the book, which I think it is. And if I’m wrong, then that’s a flaw in characterization. That’s not surprising, given how shallow all the characters are.

Tom and Jenny are both presented as attractive young people who have a lot of things handed to them, which is useful for the plot because it needs a lot of conveniences to keep it going. Tom has a best friend who hands him a new job. Jenny opens an exercise studio and the universe hands it a bunch of new customers. There’s a nosy neighbor with a weird little girl who exist so that Jenny has someone to talk to while Tom is out acting like a dick and waiting for Jenny to forgive him. You get the idea.

The worst example happens when Tom is considering working at a bar where a cool old dude has taken a liking to him, seeing as how Tom looks like his long-lost son. Nothing is particularly made of this tidbit, which just acts like an excuse for the cool old dude’s daughter to reveal she’s transgender. It’s never mentioned again, and no one’s relationship is impacted by it, because that kind of sensitive revelation happens all the time to Tom. After all, his sister-in-law is in a mixed race lesbian marriage.

One could waste time wondering if Deneen isn’t just ticking a box on a diversity checklist–antagonists include a bigoted middle aged white handyman and a comically uncaring white-collar boss–but the pressing problem is that no one is much deeper than their description. That’s when you might start wasting time asking if anyone actually acts like that.

Let me help you out. In reality, not everyone talks like an adolescent or behaves with the emotional balance of children on a seesaw. If you’re a new employee, your boss will actually do oversight on your performance. Mental hospitals are not that accommodating. And injured squirrels do not crawl into basements, jump into the arms of strange human beings and allow themselves to be stuffed into the waiting primordial maw of a mutating thing that’s growing out of the side of the foundation.

So the answer is no, people don’t actually act like that. At least, normal adults don’t. You could try to defend things and say that that’s the point. A pretty standard critique of “The Chrysalis” is that its about the horrors of growing up–the fears of taking responsibility at work and at home. If that’s the case, everyone is failing at being an adult, regardless of age, race, gender identity or whether or not something evil is living in their basements.

A quick glance at Deneen’s writing career reveals that he has mostly written children’s books, YA and fan fiction-style mashups. He’s an experienced writer, and his writing style is certainly readable. But if he wants to make something that’s really worthy of comparison to “Rosemary’s Baby,” that style needs to mature as much as his characters do.