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Delusion) believe that people around them have been replaced by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 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
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
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
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