There are some pop cultural moments that seem so rare that it’s almost as if I dreamed them, that I was the only one in the world who remembered they existed at all. That’s how it is for Robert Mulligan’s underrated and little remembered 1972 film The Other. I have a clear memory of watching this for the first time on TV, crouched on the living room floor and enthralled by this quietly spooky take on New England gothic horror. Even, years later, I could recall moments that stayed with me, chilling, grotesque scenes of terror, gruesome deaths by pitchforks, a fiery and ambiguous ending.
Like The Omen, The Exorcist, and other 1970s horror movies, The Other figures prominently in my childhood memories, so when I discovered that it was based on a novel by Thomas Tryon, I sought it out. Unfortunately the book had fallen out of publication and what few copies I found were expensive. Last year, however, The New York Book Review Classics, which has rescued many classic books from obscurity, republished The Other with a foreword by author Dan Chaon.
The Other is a lyrically beautiful, if at times overwritten, tale of madness, identity, and gothic horror that is far more rooted in realism than it’s supernatural pedigree might suggest. While inspired by the film adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby, The Other has much more in common with Shirley Jackson’s work with its New England setting and preoccupations with the terror that exists under the thin veneer of small town values.
The novel follows Niles and Holland Perry, thirteen-year old twins in the fictional New England town of Pequod Landing, whose bond is so tight that it becomes frighteningly obsessive. “Older twin” Holland has a spellbinding hold over his younger brother, goading him into playing pranks on their cousin or neighbors. But when the pranks start to turn dangerous, Niles is unable to break away from his beloved brother. Over the course of a summer, Holland’s tricks lead to one tragedy after the next. The terror is very much explicable, though there are supernatural elements involving a “game” Niles plays with his grandmother, Ada, that eventually unveils the frightening truth about Holland and Niles.
Anyone familiar with the movie will already know the twist, but the novel works its own magic and keeps you in utter suspense. There were some scenes which stretched the imagination and played far more grotesquely than necessary–one involves a missing baby, whose discovery proves to be the more shocking and unnecessarily gruesome aspect of the novel (the film version handles this scene with the gravity it deserves)–but the elevated tone already suggests a satiric take on gothic horror, making it somewhat inevitable. Still I enjoyed the novel, especially since it delved into areas that were untouched by the film, deepening the history of the Perry family and the small town in which they reside. By novel’s end, innocence and evil have become indistinguishable and frighteningly banal. The Other is a sinewy, psychological horror story that deserves to better known.