Friday, June 11, 2021

the last book I read

The Other by Thomas Tryon.

The small town of Pequot Landing, Connecticut, seems like an idyllic place for a family to live, especially two teenage boys: plenty of room for them to roam wild and free, run, dig, have adventures, all that stuff. And Niles and Holland Perry, thirteen-year-old twin brothers, certainly see it that way - wide open fields to run through, old buildings and cellars to explore, ponds to swim in.

A couple of clouds loom on the horizon, though, most notably the recent death of the twins' father, in rather mysterious circumstances, smashed bloodily into the cellar by the ill-timed descent of its heavyweight wooden trapdoor. The twins' mother, Alexandra, has retreated to her bedroom with a clandestine supply of booze in the wake of this and emerges only rarely. The family is kept together by tough, pragmatic old Russian matriarch Ada, the twins' grandmother, who has a close relationship with the boys and teaches them a slightly mysterious semi-supernatural game involving projecting their consciousness into other living things: animals, birds, etc. Whoa, you'll be saying at this point, No Good Will Come Of It - well, wait and see.

Various peripheral family figures are also knocking about the place, including the twins' slightly annoying cousin Russell, his parents and various other aunts and uncles. And it's Russell who kicks off the series of unfortunate events that follows, by leaping unwisely from the barn into a pile of hay in which someone has unfortunately left a pitchfork, prongs upward.

Further tragic events follow: old Mrs. Rowe next door is found dead in her house, apparently of fright, and with some evidence of having received a visitor at or around the time of her death. And, finally, the twins' mother, Alexandra, takes a tumble down the spiral stone staircase leading to her upstairs room - she survives, but is left confined to a wheelchair and robbed of speech.

It is at this point (on page 173 of my 250-page copy of the book) that Ada, a bit more rooted in the real world than the rest of the family, takes charge of the situation and brings about the major plot-related rug-pull which throws a completely new light on everything that has gone before. I am going to describe that rug-pull for you now, so obviously MAJOR PLOT SPOILER ALERT: Holland is dead, and has been for a few months, having accidentally hanged himself while attempting to kill a cat in the well. This happened a few months after his father's untimely demise, but before the current run of incidents started.

This is such a neck-snapping turnaround that you can imagine the book just ending here, but it doesn't. It's unclear exactly what's been going on, and how much Niles himself knows about it, still less how much Ada suspects, but if any suspicion falls upon Niles at this point it's not enough to motivate anyone to do anything, as he still has the run of the place. And sure enough further events occur, most notably the disappearance of Niles' elder sister Torrie's new baby. Everyone else is still walking around with their heads in the clouds but Ada (finally) starts to suspect what's going on. Does Niles know what's happened to the baby? If he doesn't, maybe Holland does?

The baby's whereabouts are eventually revealed, in fairly spectacular circumstances, and while the rest of the family are still running about like headless chickens at the horror of it all Ada decides that enough is enough, and since she feels partly responsible, what with her encouraging the boys to play their weird consciousness-swapping game, she makes a heroic gesture and drags Niles off to the barn intending to set fire to it with them both inside.

I don't really know what my expectations of The Other were; I put it on my Amazon wish list after seeing it in some list of forgotten 20th-century classics. I think I was expecting some rather low-key psychological chiller/thriller, but it's actually considerably more lurid than that, the revelation about the fate of the baby in particular. It's never made completely clear what's going on with the whole Niles/Holland situation: the surface reading is that Niles (the nice one) has some psychological trauma that makes him assume the personality of Holland (the psychopath) at certain times, commit various atrocities and then not remember them afterwards. That's the non-supernatural version; there is another one which has something to do with the game the twins played with Ada and has Niles either acquiring some part of Holland's consciousness by doing their Vulcan mind-meld thing after his death or being possessed against his will from beyond the grave. I suppose there is another possibility, which is that Holland contrived to hang Niles in the well and has subsequently assumed his identity. There is a slim framing device involving an initially-unidentified narrator in some sort of secure mental facility, a narrator who it should not surprise you (if you've been paying attention) to learn is Niles (or perhaps Holland), who did not die in the great barn-burning after all.

The Other was quite a publishing sensation in when it came out in 1971: timing is all, and it surfed the same supernatural thriller boom as its rough contemporaries Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist (and Carrie a couple of years later). Unlike those two, which invoke Satan himself or one of his minor functionaries, the supernatural elements here are pretty light, and could by some readings be absent altogether. Thomas Tryon's back-story is interesting and unusual as well: a Hollywood actor for many years before branching out into writing in his forties. He was also executive producer for the film of Johnny Got His Gun

But is it any good? I find that a hard question to answer. The first half is a bit meandery, apart from Russell spearing himself to death, but the pace then picks up and really cranks up the melodrama and borderline hysteria after that, especially after the key revelation about Holland's death. Twins, especially identical ones, are a winner as a plot device as everyone agrees they are A Bit Weird and prone to all sorts of near-telepathic shenanigans and occasional identity-swapping for nefarious purposes, even when one of them isn't dead. 

I guess what I would say is: I enjoyed it quite a lot, and one of the things a book like this does is make you want to go back and read the pre-rug-pull bits again to verify, for instance, in a Sixth Sense sort of way, that no-one actually interacted with both twins at the same time in the first half of the book. I'm not sure I'd make any grand claims of literary merit, but that probably doesn't really matter.

Tryon wrote another supernatural-ish thriller, Harvest Home, a couple of years later, with similar success, from which (with maybe a dash of The Wicker Man added into the mix) Stephen King pretty clearly took inspiration for Children Of The Corn. The Other was made into a film in 1972.

One final mystery is why my NYRB Classics paperback edition has a picture of Jamie Oliver on the front of it; perhaps he was chosen as a representative of some creeping unnameable evil. A harsh but not completely unreasonable judgement, I'd say.

1 comment:

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