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Onyx reviews: Dead Ringers by Christopher Golden

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 11/05/2015

Sufferers of the clinical condition Capgras Syndrome (or the Capgras Delusion) believe that people around them have been replaced by identical-looking imposters. The concept of doppel­gangers and replacing something with an exact duplicate is common enough that it became fodder for one of Steven Wright's deadpan jokes. It's funny because, if you can't tell the difference, why should you care? 

You care because the person who has been replaced is never an exact duplicate. There's always a sinister agenda at work, a notion used to chilling effect in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers or the "Shatterday" episode of The Twilight Zone, where a man accidentally dials his home phone number and another version of him answers the call.

Besides, what if you are the one who gets replaced? What happens to the original you?

The sightings of doppelgangers in Boston isn't an epidemic. Only a few people seem to be affected. First, Tess encounters her ex-husband on the street one day, only the man claims he's someone else and Nick, the ex, says he was out of state at the time. Then her friend Lili hears that she has an exact duplicate exhibiting at a gallery in town. 

They don't know that Frank, someone with whom they've had a past association, has met his twin face-to-face when the man invaded his home, chained him to a post in the basement, humiliated him and proceeded to take over his life. The more the doppelganger steals from Frank's life—the more he convinces people he is Frank—the stronger he becomes. At the same time, the real Frank is diminished. He grows weak and starts to fade from existence.

There is a common thread. The affected people were all part of an archeological expedition that explored bizarre findings in the basement of a historic mansion in Beacon Hill. A renovator discovered five bodies, a sinkhole covered in occult writing, and a psychomanteum, a self-contained room lined with mirrors used by people who try to commune with spirits and demons. Because of the occult implications of their findings, the archeologists brought in an expert, who explained the use of the psychomanteum and identified the bodies as members of a group called the Society of the Lesser Key. They had vanished in 1897 while attempting to follow in the footsteps of Cornell Berrige, the former owner of the Otis Harrison House, who disappeared in 1870. Audrey Pang claimed the members of the Society had been trying to complete Berrige's failed attempt to summon a demon.

Otis Harrison House, like the Kalendar house from Peter Straub's lost boy, lost girl, is a place of palpable evil that exists in plain sight. People who live on the same street sense that there's something wrong with it, but they've learned to ignore it. To pretend that it doesn't exist. One of the strengths of Dead Ringers is the way Golden depicts evil as a manifestation with a gut-wrenching, visceral impact on people who approach it. When Tess sees "Nick" for the first time, she's disturbed. When Lili sees her double, she's disoriented. But the doubles are convincing. The originals can never be a hundred percent sure whether they're dealing with a real person or a duplicate each time they meet up, which puts them constantly on the defensive. 

One thing they learn about the doubles is that they are all highly successful. They've been able to use supernatural powers to build better lives for themselves than the people they resemble. They are better versions of Tess, Nick, Lili, Frank, Aaron and Audrey. Tess has scars—physical and emotional ones—that are holding her back. Nick is mildly autistic. Frank is following in his father's steps as an alcoholic underachiever. And yet it is this essential humanity, flaws and all, that will help them battle for their very existence. The doppelgangers may be incredibly strong, but they aren't invincible.

There's also a joker in the deck, a blindfolded man in tattered rags who pops up from time to time, scenting the air as if attempting to determine whether he has encountered an original or a duplicate. But which is he after? And to what end?

The book wouldn't succeed if the characters weren't well drawn. If these were two-dimensional people battling demonic forces, there wouldn't be much at stake because the prize is their very humanity. Unless readers get to know Tess, Nick and the others, it wouldn't matter much if they were replaced by someone else. Golden does a very good job of keeping the action going while allowing these people to reveal themselves.

Also, it is worth noting that he treats the female characters especially well. These are strong women who neither look to nor need the assistance of the men around them to solve or fix their problems. They are capable of confronting evil face on, to protect themselves and the ones they love. This shouldn't need mentioning, but it is rare enough that it should be pointed out. To his credit, Golden also creates men who understand this. They don't always feel the need to step in and take charge, especially when one of the women has already demonstrated that she has the situation under control.

This is a disturbing book, with many harrowing scenes and no guarantees that everything will turn out well for everyone. There are some terrific battle scenes scattered throughout the book, and a free-for-all in a hotel restaurant that would have been the climax of many other books, but it all comes back to the Otis Harrison House, where the origin of the evil must be confronted. Golden saves the best—or the worst—for the end. A brief final chapter that is like a punch to the gut.

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