Impressions before Reading
You got me–I’m not really into horror. Being anal, I have thought out exactly why this should be. I’m not exactly afraid of fear, contrary to FDR’s dictum. There are plenty of small, irrational things to be afraid of and, I believe, the small things in life are often the trickiest to navigate and the problems that we spend our insomniac hours obsessing over.
I scared off a burglar once. Well, I say that. I saw a man’s head peering through the stained glass above my front door, ignored it like a man with stupidity on his forehead and steel in his veins, and then I jumped out of my morning slippers five minutes later when I saw the same man edging along the windows looking onto the backyard. He had hurdled a fence and stood with his nose pressed against the glass, leaving definite marks that I shuddered at later. In short, I survived by hiding behind a rocking chair far from a phone, poking my head out from behind it to warily eye him. He bolted when he saw me, which makes me think the poor man was more scared of me than I was of him. At any rate, this is my macho story to show that I’ve faced some peril. Though I was frightened I still managed to retain rationality.
And that is why I go full-blown wump reading or watching horror. (A wump is the clinically recognized collision of a wimp and a wuss, all rolled into a tidy burrito of gelatinous-legged splendor.) Horror is calculated to play up my interest and expectations with slow, placid openings when I start reading in the daytime. By nightfall, my insomnia kicks in and the blasted page turners start to make me lose my head, finding all the emotional investment I spent in the opening chapters turn into grisly murders and twists that make me afraid of the omniscient dark that huddles around my low-wattage bulb, which is eager to flicker out and die on me as a final act of betrayal for all the times I’ve swatted at a moth and succeeded only in upending the lamp perch. The author, in staging this scenario, is something of a malevolent god.
And it didn’t put my mind at ease when I discovered that The Other is a debut novel from a B-movie actor. And he played some pretty boy characters. Seriously. Look at ruggedness there.
Still, this all meant that I could be pleasantly surprised and overwhelmed by the caliber of the writing that I found within these yellowed pages. I bought an original 1970s copy full of the possessing musk of that era, the smell becoming an olfactory horror in itself as it plunged into my throat with each progressively shallower breath as I got closer to the climaxes. Because there are a few. And to Tryon’s credit, he pulls off a spectacular twist and then refuses to end on that note. That would have just been an O. Henry surprise ending, but instead we’re given a further 80-odd pages.
This review is going to be a bit different from my others. I can’t really discuss the plot because that in itself would give away too much of Tryon’s game. My intention has never been to give away the storyline; I don’t write for people who’ve completed the book, so may I say just go out and read it. Don’t expect shock value horror in the form of gore or the supernatural. The novel has its scary moments but, to my mind, it fits snugly into the camp of the psychological thriller. Besides, genres exist mainly for the marketing–we’ve all read books that, with wonderful writing and broad themes, transcend singular genres and become plain ole “fiction” or “literature”.
Holland and Niles Perry are twin boys living out a hazy summer in 1930s Connecticut, performing their own secretive, imaginary games in a dungeon-like apple cellar. The two are fundamentall different, with cruel prankster Holland easily dominating the mother’s-little-angel that is Niles. Their mother is emotionally detached due to the recent accidental death of her husband so the boys’ eccentric Russian grandmother guides them whilst a series of inexplicable deaths occur throughout the small town.
I’ll be curt and discuss the relationship between the twins, ostensibly one being good and the other being a nasty piece of work. That’s how things work out. But if it weren’t for the inside jacket flap or any piece of advertising for this novel proclaiming that it’s about twins, the reader wouldn’t know it for 39 pages (in my edition). I feel like Tryon did this purposefully, delaying the revelation that the brothers are identical. He comes to it in a roundabout fashion that reveals far more in retrospect about Niles’ personality. Looking in a shallow pool, he “put his hand out, thoughtfully, abstractedly, as though to touch that other, similar boy who peered back at him with such a longing expression.” When he finishes his paragraph long description of Niles staring at his reflection, Tryon informs us that the face is cherished “not for any sake of its own, but because in each small particular it was the exact and perfect twin of Holland’s.”
Really, half the fun of the book for me was getting to that twist and reevaluating everything that had come before it. The terrifying segments of the first 2/3 of the book become worse with the revelation. The realism of Tryon’s characterization is winning–he perfectly realizes what it feels like to be the boy who is living under the thumb of his older brother, being dominated by whims and participating in the casual cruelty of a child’s small world. A cat is hanged in a well by Holland in the first few pages. Maybe my inner child is sadistic, but in the world of a horror story this isn’t necessarily spine tingling. Sorry cat lovers. When I was 6 I knew a boy who put six spiders in a jar with one cockroach, shook it up, and watched them attack each other. He’d bet me which creature would win. I even took a basketball and aimed it at ants in the gravel alleyway behind my house. By the end of two minutes’ bouncing the ball–and my hands–were speckled with the bloody remains. To me this was an enjoyable form of boredom and the red spots were delightfully sticky. Yes, I know young boys are odd.
And I was not expecting all the Richard Wagner references. Even in the 1930s I find it hard to believe that a young boy is going to develop a fondness for Wagner’s mammoth operas where there are wonderful moments and tedious half hours.
Well, this was potentially the least helpful book review ever. But you’ll thank me for not spoiling the plot twist or the ending, and I really couldn’t analyze this book without talking about those in depth. So thanks for bearing with me when there isn’t even a dislike button for you to vent your fingertip’s fury on.
“Damn Mother Goose.”
“The pool filled, their broken images doubled in the water, duplicated precisely as jacks on a playing card.”
I love when a narrator says something like this: “I think imagination’s a healthy thing. Makes so much more possible to one, doesn’t it? I know; you’re probably saying Holland never had that sort of imagination; but you’re wrong. He had imagination all right. Lots of it. It isn’t all Niles, you know. Not by a long shot. Do not imagine I am predisposed in his favor as a simple matter of course; if you think this, then I have led you up the garden path.”
And this was a hit right to the jazz lover in me: “Saxophones are the devil’s instruments.”
And a few pages later: “Tchaikovsky with saxophones,” she muttered, “it is like salami.”