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Notes on Thomas Tryon’s “The Other”

The oddest thing happened while I was reading this book. Two-thirds of the way through, I realized I had read it before.

To be more specific, something happens in the novel that jolted me back to a younger self: that of me holding the paperback in my hands, perhaps similarly shocked at the turn of events. But suddenly I could see the cover in my head: plain black type on white, a drawing of a boy in profile perhaps incorporated into the “O” in “Other,” and — if I remember correctly — the same boy in profile, but larger, after you turn the cover. And a yellow, or perhaps red, edge on the edge of the pages, like those old Dell paperbacks. (The copy I’m holding up above is the New York Review of Books Classics reprint.)

Or did I imagine that memory? But now — at least after I got to that point in the novel — I vividly recall the book sitting on my parents’ bookshelf, though it’s not the sort of novel that either of my parents would have read (the supernatural wasn’t their cup of tea).

In partial defense of my amnesia, however, I was perhaps twelve, about the same age as the twins in the book. That was a little over three decades ago, and much has happened in the intervening years to blunt my memory. But to carefully read a novel, to savor its evocative atmosphere of dread and the changing seasons, to picture the frightening events in my head — and not to remember any of it until I got close to the end — seems uncanny.

I was a precocious reader when I was younger. But reading Tryon’s novel now, with its elliptical, subtle prose, makes me wonder if I really could have comprehended all of this when I was in my pre-teens. Perhaps I merely skimmed the book, reading only the ends of chapters — but I’ve never done that, and not even when I was younger. I also see that a movie version came out soon after the novel, but I don’t remember ever seeing it.

I should say a little bit about The Other: it’s about identical twins. Or more precisely, it’s about an evil twin. The novel is told mostly from the perspective of Holland, who watches his twin brother Niles’ disturbing pranks with increasing concern. But both Holland and Niles are also connected in an odd way, perhaps psychically, which heightens the dreaminess of the tale. It’s one more twin trope that the novel plays with successfully: that of siblings who share a secret language. All this is set in a small New England town in the 1930s, its temporal remoteness adding to the fable-like quality of the novel.

It’s the doubleness in the book that adds to the oddness of my experience. (There’s another dimension to the novel that deepens the unheimlich-ness of my amnesia, but it’s a serious spoiler, so I won’t reveal it.) It’s the fact that I was suddenly reminded of my past self, my younger double reading the same book, while I was under the spell of a book I thought I was experiencing for the first time.

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