At the End the Baby Disappears
(NYRB Classics, 2012)
With the advent of a new century, it’s heartening to rescue just a few of the many deserving, near-forgotten books that have gone out of print. One-time best-seller The Other, published by a retired actor in 1971 and later made into a Hollywood summer scare-fest, was in a resale bin waiting to be donated to the Salvation Army, until NYRB Classics moved to rerelease the book in time for Halloween.
The Other opens like the horror classic that it is. Twin boys Niles and Holland are bored on their family’s rural farm. Holland has just killed the family cat. Father is dead from an accident, and worse is to come.
While the trope of the evil twin is as old as Cain and Abel, the sinister implications of linked fate play here in 1930s rural Connecticut amidst the willful ignorance of adults who seem always to look for the most blameless explanation.
There is Niles, the creative, empathic child, and there is his brother, a bit too charismatic, too unaccounted for at sinister hours. They share a face, a knee, a knuckle. But more than biology, they share a grandmother and a game. And it is no ordinary game. This is a game of imagination and concentration—to get inside a thing and know what it is like to be the thing.
Let’s play pretend. Let’s imagine being a boy in a field of tall grass during a hot Depression summer. It is late afternoon. The sky is light blue. The grass switches at exposed skin. Eyes, closed. There are other children. A cat.
Don’t go in the cellar. Put away the pitchfork.
Can it be felt? Is feeling the same as becoming?
That an actor-cum-author could ask these questions—that, especially, a closeted gay actor-cum-author could ask these questions is not a surprise. That these questions could become the niggling knife in plain scenes of familial conversation, beauty parlor gossip, and kitchen cooking is the quiet brilliance of Tryon’s novel.
As scenes of domestic life unfold, the reader begins to slowly connect what has occurred and is occurring. The more Niles tries desperately to explain away his brother’s morbid fascinations, the more bodies accumulate. Tryon utilizes the barriers of point of view to masterful effect, stringing the reader through confusion and frustration as the curious mystery of how very bad Holland is becomes more and more apparent.
Broken into three sections, the action is framed by an untrustworthy guide—a madman we assume—and he is insistently familiar, as close to our inner voice as the ramblings of a foul-smelling subway dweller long disconnected from the world above ground. And, as to any holy fool, we know we should pay attention; he knows something we don’t. He knows how the story will end.
Despite this voice’s immediacy, our guide and interlocutor is not the star of Tryon’s horrific meditation (though he is a part of its stunning reveal). Unlike contemporary authors who often let style and voice win in a tug of war with character building, scene setting, and plot twisting, Tryon’s gift is his ability to let the narrative build into a complete new world. We are dazzled and horrified by the carnival’s grotesques. We smell the burning apple cellar. We taste the stopped party wine.
And, like any of horror’s exemplars, The Other includes a full cast of stock bogeymen and fools. A mother, Alexandra, nervous and frail. A father, already dead, his absence a pall on the farm. The young newlyweds, making love in the upstairs room. The kind old woman and her witchy stories. The annoying tag-along. The tortured pet. An immigrant farmworker who sees all, and, like the madman, knows the end long before we do. But it is the grandmother, Ada, with her Russian memories and mythic superstitions from a pre-Bolshevik homeland, who overshadows all in matriarchal care and dread. In her grandboys she sees the potential of genius, and it is she who nurtures them into ecstatic (and deadly) reveries.
Perhaps this, really, is Tryon’s greatest trick. Because in Ada, and in Niles, and in Holland, the impulses of imagination and empathy and compassion become the knife pricking the first bloodshed and the tinder feeding the last blaze. Despite talk of hell and Satan, evil originates much closer to the heart and mind.
That Niles and Holland might also be the perfect metaphor for Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic should not put off the casual reader. Make no mistake: This is a horror novel in a literary darling’s dress. Readers seeking a nail-biting, page-turning plot complete with gore and mayhem will not be disappointed. But while the scene of an impaled boy will haunt long after the page has passed, it is the underlying themes illuminated in each chilling interaction between twin and twin that will ultimately disturb.