Monday, October 22, 2012

Hidden in the murk

The Other, by Thomas Tryon, is a great, creepy story.

I summed up this book previously, and rather than run the risk of telling spoilers, I'll stick to the jacket copy here:

Holland and Niles Perry are identical thirteen-year-old twins. They are close, close enough, almost, to read each other's thoughts, but they couldn't be more different. Holland is bold and mischievous, a bad influence, while Niles is kind and eager to please, the sort of boy who makes parents proud. The Perrys live in the bucolic New England town their family settled centuries ago, and as it happens, the extended clan has gathered at its ancestral farm this summer to mourn the death of the twins' father in a most unfortunate accident. Mrs. Perry still hasn't recovered from the shock of her husband's gruesome end and stays sequestered in her room, leaving her sons to roam free. As the summer goes on, though, and Holland's pranks become increasingly sinister, Niles finds he can no longer make excuses for his brother's actions.

The setting is bucolic, idyllic; the summer is hot, lazy; the telling is lyric, lulling you, not into a sense of security, but into a passive but uncomfortable state where you know things couldn't possibly be secure, things aren't what they seem, there are things people don't know.

From a review in The Brooklyn Rail: "That these questions [re feeling, becoming, sensing] 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."

A hint of something lurking beneath.

With a goodly harvest, almost more than he could manage, he footed his way back along the mud shelf to the loading platform. He dropped the cattails in a heap and lay on his belly beside them, head hanging over the platform edge, eyes staring meditatively down at the water. It was pleasant there in the shadows. It smelled of coolness, like a fern garden; like the well once had before they sealed it up. From upside down, one piling, gloved with green algae and slime, and larger than the rest, seemed to rear back as though resisting the gray mud that mired it. He squinted, looked hard, saw: primordial ooze, spawning strange being down below, a race of quasi-lunged, half-legged creatures dragging themselves along the bottom; a world sunless, gloomy, nocturnal, where sunken logs lay, sodden and heavy, poor dead drowned things, and with them, hidden in the murk, savage bloated creatures, mouths wide as shovels, thick lips nuzzling threads of water-whitened ganglia, picking clean of flesh skeletons through whose empty eye-sockets coldly glowing eels would like night trains, while overhead, through the ruined roof, pterodactyls soared the vacant sky.

He drifted, dreamed; and dreamed some more.

I was describing this book to my sister — she said it sounded familiar and was trying to place it, and when she asked the author's name it fell into place. Thomas Tryon. Everyone read Thomas Tryon in the 70s. She'd gone through a phase herself as a teenager gobbling up everything he'd written.

Dan Chaon (who falls smack between me and my sister in terms of generation) is similarly enthusiastic in reminiscing in the book's afterword about discovering The Other. He explains:

The novel is really about the moment when the weapons of childhood are revealed to be no more than a box of tricks. It's a parable of the terror many us come to around age twelve or thirteen, a deeply disturbing epiphany.

The twins' Russian grandmother knows all about it. "We sometimes reach a point in our lives where we can't ever go back again, we have to go on from there. All that was before is past now."

I really look forward to rediscovering this book on my shelf some dark and stormy night years from now, or my daughter finding it and regaling me with the details of the mysterious psychological tricks, by which time I will surely have forgotten the twists, and who suffered from them.

The Other is a box of tricks: magic tricks, tricks of the light, dirty tricks, tricks of mind, literary tricks. Trick or treat, I loved this book.

Excerpt.
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