- The Other
- NYRB Classics, 250 pp.
Terror Under the Elms
Horror, as writer Stuart Kelly noted in a recent piece in the Guardian, is a genre that still struggles for respectability, even as others are taken into its literary fold. It doesn’t help that some of the genre’s best-known practitioners (*cough* Stephen King) are not exactly celebrated for their style or subtlety. Henry James and Shirley Jackson successfully crossed the line, substituting psychological acuity for gore, nuance for cheap thrills, but they are outliers in the field.
Now NYRB Classics has republished another memorable example of literary horror. The Other, written by former actor Thomas Tryon and first published in 1971, plays out like a classic coming-of-age novel, delineating the inner life of a bright, sensitive child on the verge of adolescence in elegant prose attuned to the heightened perceptions of youth (while reading it I frequently found myself thinking of Victorine, by Maude Hutchins, also republished by NYRB Classics). But this is a coming-of-age gone very wrong, with a body count that should please even King aficionados.
The summer of 1935 is a hot and languorous one in Pequot Landing, Connecticut. Elms yet untouched by the Dutch Blight shade the old houses, The Good Earth and Anthony Adverse are in heavy demand at the public library, and the headlines feature Bruno Hauptmann’s trial for the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby. “You look just like Mr. Coffee Nerves in the Postum ads,” declares a young boy’s aunt as she paints a mustache onto his face for the annual family magic show.
Six years into the Depression, multiple generations of the Perry family share the rambling old family place and its multiple outbuildings. The grownups stage “Poverty Parties” in the barn, and enjoy the self-sufficiency the property still affords – home-brewed root beer, home-pressed cider, home-pressed wine. In the private world of young Niles Perry and his twin brother Holland, time almost seems to stand still. There are pranks, and fishing, and the curious imagination “game” their Russian grandmother has taught them. There are plans to fill the apple cellar with cattail-down “snow” to create a private Winter Kingdom in which to relive the arctic adventures of one Doc Savage.
But this year, violent death has struck the Perry family, and Niles’s bond with his twin seems to be wearing thin. Their games no longer provide the same sense of refuge, and even Niles’s feats of imagination may not be enough to keep their shared world intact. Something’s gone wrong, something connected with the gold ring and the unnamable object wrapped in blue paper Niles keeps in a Prince Albert tobacco tin. And, as the hot weather drags on, the old Perry place becomes the site of one mysterious death after another.
The Other was Thomas Tryon’s first novel. Tryon had acted in film and on television for two decades before turning to writing; his disillusionment with show business is said to have been hastened by the humiliation director Otto Preminger heaped on him during the filming of The Cardinal (released in 1963, and featuring a performance for which Tryon was nominated for a Golden Globe). An immediate critical and popular success on its release, The Other has long been regarded as a classic of the horror genre, a work that, like The Turn of the Screw, The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle is as artful as it is unnerving. As in those other works, we are never quite sure where the protagonist’s idiosyncratic perceptions end and “reality” begins, and the author’s prose plays an integral role in maintaining the ambiguity at the story’s heart.
The Other does not read like a first novel, and Tryon’s style is central to its effects. The domestic and pastoral shades effortlessly into the macabre, as when he describes the “added touches” in the twins’ shared bedroom: “A sun-bleached hawk’s head, a red bicycle reflector stuck in one eye socket; a plaster bust with antlers attached ; the mandible of a fox on whose teeth was latched a turkey wishbone.” Playing the “game” with his Russian grandmother, Niles observes a dragonfly, and wills himself into its alien consciousness:
Lighter than air, and as thin; segmented body, metallic wings veined with silver and gold, iridescent like fairy-tale wings, inaudibly humming, beating faster than eye can see. Head loosely jointed, turning every which way, exquisitely sighted eyes avid for prey. Delicate, ferocious little beast, swifter than a swallow, flushing insect game from the clover preserves, devouring, devouring, devouring…
In a more low-key but even more sinister moment, Niles rescues a drowning wasp from a pitcher of wine punch, holding “the insect cradled in the spoon out into the sunshine while its wings dried.” As Niles watches the wasp, the twins’ aunts, one of whom has a deadly allergy, chat with a friend about dresses for country club dances, and paint colors for a wooden porch. Someone mentions buying pellets to poison rats and the reader, if not Niles, remembers another animal’s suffering. “By this time the wasp‘s wings had begun to flutter, and presently it heaved itself up and crawled to the lip of the spoon,” but no sooner has the tiny creature recovered than a hand jolts the spoon and sends the wasp flying towards the gathered women. The scene involves a masterly layering of intratextual references, and reveals Tryon’s knack for imbuing mundane objects and activities with cumulative horror.
The Other does not have the compulsive narrative drive that pulls Jackson’s best novels to their conclusions. Instead, Tryon moves slowly toward the final horrors, dwelling lovingly on the details of summer in the country — games in the hay mow, traveling carnivals — and then turning these to his own dark uses. If there’s a weakness to Tryon’s style, it’s that his immersion in the moment is sometimes so total that it’s hard to keep track of the larger thread of the narrative. But The Other is nevertheless a memorable work, one which deftly plays with the conventions of literary fiction as well as of horror, and which succeeds in unsettling the reader’s expectations at every turn.
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