Review: Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses by Kristen O'Neal
Publication Date: April 27, 2021
Attributes: na fiction, novel, slice-of-life
Tags: queer protagonist and side characters, living with chronic illness, horror trope as character metaphor, dramatic comedy
Quick note: I received a copy of this book from Kristen, who's a friend, but that did not influence the content of this review.
Priya and Brigid are sick.
Both have illnesses that come on without much warning. It's painful and exhausting and embarrassing; their bodies sometimes feel beyond their control.
One has lyme disease. The other's a werewolf.
Many books, the werewolf – Brigid – might take center stage as the main POV character. She's vibrant, and witty, and has to keep tons of raw meat in her fridge to deal with the one time a month she turns into a huge hairy beast.
But Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses takes the subtler path, and it pays off. The book instead takes a slow build that starts with with the shyer Priya, an aspiring doctor home from college to deal with brain fog and aching joints. She's on the mend, but feels trapped. Her main outlet is Tumblr, and her friends there.
Priya and Brigid, her longtime internet bestie, join a Discord server that hosts a chronic illness help chat. These conversations are great fun; the ensemble's struggles are illustrated through multimedia snippets and chat logs.
When Brigid goes radio silent one weekend, Priya is genuinely worried about her friend – but she also sees the 1-hour road trip as a way to exercise some small steps of freedom.
Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses really starts to shine here. Priya discovers Brigid's wolfy secret, through a series of hilarious incidents (one involving a hapless animal control guy, who becomes a recurring and delightful character who does NOT appreciate all these weird prank calls about large dogs). Priya wants to help her friend. But more than that, she treats Brigid's mysterious problems as a way to avoid her own.
Ultimately, this is a quiet, character-driven book. There's a serious “werewolf on the loose”/chronic illness relapse incident toward the end, sure. (Cue animal control friend Spencer to the rescue, and hospital escape hijinks.) But most of the action comes from the friendship between Priya and Brigid.
The two characters grow together and clash, grappling with their feelings of frustration with their unpredictable bodies. They try to take back small freedoms and find independence and direct their lives back in the directions of their hopes. And when Brigid starts looking for ways to get rid of her werewolf transformations forever, Priya takes the danger – and the perceived rejection of chronic illness – personally.
I enjoyed the book a lot, especially in how it turns a classic horror trope – transformations as a metaphor for modern anxieties! – into a more slice-of-life character study. It also fits neatly into a genre of monster books that use ill/queer/disabled/POC characters as both the figurative and the literal. Instead of relegating said characters exclusively to the monster roles (the common form of the trope), these books allow marginalized characters humanity, but still explore and upend the ways our experiences resonate with the monster allegories.
(Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve is another notable recent example, though it's a more intense political horror than dramatic comedy.)
Also worth noting that this book falls into the more gray-area “new adult” genre, rather than strictly adult or young adult. The characters are a little older, 19-20s, and they're dealing with more adult questions like “what do I do with my life now that it's been totally derailed?” But it takes the more quick-read, quippy style and tone less common to adult novels.
In-all, this book is a darkly fun, smart read that explores some more serious themes. Definitely recommend to anyone who's looking for a character-driven, lower-stakes read with a modern setting and a speculative quirk.
More like this: I did this section in my last few reviews, but it felt kinda weird to just randomly throw loose associations out there so... I'm thinking I'll drop it and just mention those associations in the reviews!
Kae Petrin is a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Find them at @petrinkae on Twitter.