During my final college years, I was frequently greeted with warmth by complete strangers who thought they knew me. It was disconcerting to be hailed across the quad only to have these folks say, “Oh, you’re not her,” when they got a bit closer to me. Apparently I had a doppelganger! It happened again a few years later, when my college boyfriend (with whom I had broken up) got a new girlfriend who looked enough like me to be my mirror image. That was creepy.
So I could easily sympathize with Frank Lindbergh, one of a group of protagonists in Dead Ringers, when a man enters his home late one night who looks exactly like him — “His own eyes. His own smile. His own face.” The man beats him to a pulp and makes himself at home. As far as anyone can tell, Frank continues to go about his business, but in fact the real Frank is handcuffed to a pole in his own basement, naked from the waist down, held prisoner by his double.
What’s going on? Why has Tess Devlin seen her ex-husband on the street in Boston when he’s hiking in the White Mountains? Why has Lili, Tess’s best friend, got an exact duplicate holding an art sale at a swanky gallery? Why is Audrey, a psychic, seeing a reflection in the mirror that looks at her with hatred? And who is the blindfolded man who is suddenly slipping in and out of the lives of all of them?
Christopher Golden uses many old horror tropes to good effect in telling this tale. There’s a terrifying haunted house that you couldn’t pay me to walk into. There’s an archaeological dig in the past that is the nexus between all the characters who are seeing doubles. There’s the group of people who tried to summon a demon and found themselves overpowered by forces they didn’t understand. And there’s one other item that I’ve never encountered in a horror novel before: a psychomanteum, which sounds like a gazebo made of mirrors, now used as a special booth in a hotel restaurant.
But Golden goes beyond the tropes to draw believable characters who act in completely believable ways when confronted with the horrific. No one is especially heroic, though they all seem to have the bravery of average people responding to a threat. Nick and Tess are especially believable in their response to a threat to their daughter. And none of them has the inhuman strength and ability to recover from an injury that so many horror heroes do; they have to figure out ways around their injuries, including relying on others they would not normally choose to rely on.
Unfortunately, Dead Ringers feels padded, as if there is a great 225 page novel hidden away inside this good 300+ page book. Almost every character is physically attacked by his or her double in some way, with lots of wince-inducing descriptions of the injuries they suffer. Each feels the weirdness of seeing his or her double, but the discussions of the emotions that course through them are repetitive. It takes a very long time before anything of substance happens after the doubles are discovered. The slow pace makes this novel easier to put down than I usually expect of a horror novel. It’s a shame that today’s market seems to require that books be so long; I miss the short, sharp shock of the shorter horror novel.
Despite the pacing, the realistic characters makes Dead Ringers one any fan of Golden (I’m one) or any aficionado of horror that doesn’t drag entrails across every bloody page will want to read.