Chrysalis of Death by Eleanor Robinson
If Phoenix Fire is a 1990s family-friendly action movie, then Chrysalis of Death is an early 2010s SyFy channel original late night action/thriller.
And I hate it.
Don’t get me wrong, the writing is above average. The plotting, the pacing, the tension—it all works. It’s not high literature, but then again, it’s a skinny little pulp novel called Chrysalis of Death. You should have an idea of what you’re getting into before you open the book. Well, at least part of an idea, because I thought I knew what I was getting into but I was so wrong.
The story revolves around a tiny town called Lazy Creek. Jeff Bedloe is there wrapping up acquiring fossils; he needs to head home to his wife in Oregon who’s due to have a baby very soon. He’s a nice guy, and stays a day late to thank the owners of the ranch he’s been staying at by getting them some rose quartz for their garden. In the process, he unearths a prehistoric species of caterpillars whose spines cause a transformative and deadly reaction.
The people staying at the ranch—an old socialite, an alcoholic writer, an international thief, the goodly ranch owners + family, and two young, rich, and unhappy couples—are the first to be exposed to the horror these caterpillars wreak, but soon all of tiny Lazy Creek is in trouble.
If that sounds at all interesting to you, stop reading now and track down a copy, because I’m about to spoil everything. One last word of warning, though, there are several rape scenes throughout Chrysalis of Death, and, this might come as a surprise given the name, several just plain depressing moments.
As a break before the spoiler review, how about these adverts inside the book? Man cigarettes and lady cigarettes. And so groovy!
Okay, spoiler time:
The book opens on Jeff singing to his matronly dachshund, Penny. If anything, I thought that maaaybe Penny would die. You know, heroically save the day and give Jeff the ability to get home. This thought depressed me, and I asked my husband to skim ahead and see how Penny was doing near the end of the novel.
He, being a kind soul, skimmed ahead and reported back that ‘on page 149 Penny has a good romp.’
As there are only 160-some pages, I took this as a good sign, thanked him for his service, and plowed on ahead.
As you might expect, the story moves quick. The international thief is infected first, and it’s not long before he becomes a Neanderthal-like monster of a person. He terrorizes everyone still in Lazy Creek while the Lazy Creekers themselves keep unwittingly coming into contact with the horrible caterpillars. And then people start dying.
Some people die of the effects of the toxin.
Some people are killed by the people affected by the toxin.
Some people are killed for money.
Some people kill themselves / their loved ones because they know the sickness is taking hold of them.
At one point, somewhat late in the novel, Jeff finally gets wise and suspects the caterpillars. He brings this up to the government doctor who is trying to pin down the cause, but the doctor won’t even entertain the idea—he’s transfixed on the notion of biological weaponry.
It’s clear at this point that an antidote isn’t going to come to fruition, so the next logical plot-point is evacuation and saving those left to be saved. It held the right weight to it, and when, say, the kindly ranch owners get sick, it hurts, but there’s still hope: Jeff Bedloe and Penny, the matronly dachshund. If anyone was going to make it through this mess, they were.
So when Jeff goes on a mission with the doctor to save a college-aged girl and a baby (the poor ranch owner’s niece and grandbaby), I wasn’t too worried. Pretty much everyone else was sick (or we’d seen them get stung)—someone had to make it out.
I mean, that’s the sort of book I thought Chrysalis of Death was: everything unravels at the seams, but Jeff somehow manages to pull through and makes it home to Oregon to be with his wife/meet his child. Everyone else might die, hell the contagion might spread world-wide. The future might be stupidly bleak, but damnit, he has his moment with his wife and their beautiful new baby.
I was so fucking wrong.
Jeff is killed in the rescue attempt. The baby dies of the disease. The college-aged girl and the doctor escape the infected, only for the doctor to realize they’re both infected themselves. He gives the girl pills that will kill her (without explaining what they are), then after she passes, takes them himself.
But there are still some characters kicking. Some of the Lazy Creekers, the horrible sheriff, the doctors staff and, presumably, matronly Penny as she’s put under their care. And against all odds they make it to the evacuation point. Maybe, just maybe—Nope. They’re all killed by the US Government who is convinced the cause of the illness is biological weaponry. They think that by killing the people (and the dog!) and fucking disinfecting the area to death will prevent its spread. The ‘evacuation area’ was a trap.
Everyone dies. And at the very end, the pilots of the helicopters that murdered everyone follow a flock of big, unusual butterflies back towards home.
I finished Chrysalis of Death right before bed. I couldn’t sleep I was so pissed. And when I did finally fall asleep, my dreams were a horrible mix of rage and pointless helplessness. All the doctor had to do was listen, and maybe, just maybe, they could have stopped the spread of the illness and saved at least some people from Lazy Creek.