The strongest myths are the ones that resonate with our own experience, reflecting it back to us in metaphorical form. The genre of horror fantasy taps into some of our more primal impulses -- mainly fear of the unknown -- but a strong novel in this genre also connects with our modern selves. Lyndonville author David Stahler Jr. accomplishes both in his third young-adult novel, Doppelganger, a skin-crawling gothic that's also a thoughtful tale about isolation, violence and free will.
There's something inherently creepy about the notion of a double -- someone who's like you but not you -- and writers from Dostoyevsky to Stephen King have exploited this motif. Its roots lie deep in the folklore of the doppelganger -- in German, literally "double-goer" -- a mysterious twin who appears to living people, often to foretell their deaths. Freud used the doppelganger as a prime example of the "uncanny" -- something that disturbs because it's both alien and familiar.
Stahler takes a different tack: He tells his story from the doppelganger's perspective. In his version of the legend, doppelgangers are a race of monstrous "parasites" who conceal their hideous appearance by shape-shifting into human form. To do this, they must first kill the person they wish to become. As the narrator puts it matter-of-factly in the first chapter: "I met Amber two days after I throttled her boyfriend, Chris Parker. A week later we were in love. Or rather, I was in love with her . . . she thought I was him." Talk about an antihero.
But as we read on, we start to see that this doppelganger's not a scary monster so much as a pretty typical adolescent. Raised in a remote cabin by his none-too-nurturing mom, the nameless narrator quickly finds himself alone in the world, wanting nothing so much as to "find a home, join a real family like the ones I'd seen on TV." He doesn't know how to reconcile his natural appetites with his empathy for humans: "I wasn't sure if I'd be able to live by killing."
Through a handy plot twist, the young doppelganger encounters a teenaged linebacker with a bad attitude and a bit of a death wish. Before he knows it, he's living what looks like the American dream -- impersonating a hometown hero with a cheerleader girlfriend, living in a ranch house with two parents. Like any kid trying to fit in, the doppelganger learns the magic of small talk: "People like it when you agree with them." And his deep-down killing instinct comes in handy on the football field. "It was like someone unleashed an animal in this kid -- a predator taking down his prey with no mercy," the coach exults.
Ironically, it's not that hard for a monster to pass as a human being. With his dreams of a TV family, the doppelganger turns out to be far more naive than the people he encounters. Chris Parker's dad is an abusive drunk, his mother a passive bystander, and his cheerleader girlfriend has seen the real Chris's dark side enough times to call him a "fucking monster." The challenge the narrator faces is putting his victim's life to rights while keeping his own dangerous instincts in check.
Stahler, who teaches at Lyndon Institute, writes in an easy, colloquial style, and he knows how to plumb the depths of the ever-darker teen gothic genre. For many of that genre's fans, the notion of being a vampire or some other sort of quasi-human monster is a reflection of how they feel: alone. It's also a fantasy of being able to get back at the people who made them feel that way. ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer" had a high body count of football players and bitchy popular girls.)
Like "Buffy" creator Joss Whedon, though, Stahler takes the gothic in a humanist rather than a nihilist direction. He uses Shakespeare's Macbeth as an extended parallel to the doppelganger's dilemma, suggesting that our primal urge toward violence doesn't eliminate our capacity for moral choice. The narrator has been raised to believe that "good and evil and right and wrong were just human fictions." In one of the novel's more powerful passages, he realizes that there's nothing fictional, and nothing acceptable, about the consequences of the human brutality he sees in front of him.
The relationship between the narrator and his love interest, once she's recognized him as an impostor, may be a touch too swoony for such a dark setting. Still, Doppelganger stays more persuasive than preachy. Local readers who like Stahler's moody style should check out his 2005 novel A Gathering of Shades. Less gritty and more elegiac than Doppelganger, it's a ghost story set in the Northeast Kingdom and presided over by a formidable Quebecois memere with second sight. The rural setting, with its decaying, in-the-red farms and ancient orchards, is a realistic yet eerily effective frame for the tale of a teenager dealing with a parent's sudden death.
When I came across a man stumbling drunk down a backstreet at two in the morning, or spied a boy on his lonely way home from school, I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel the urge. It's a strange feeling, like hunger, only deeper, a sort of inner clenching that comes in waves and leaves longing in its wake. But I wasn't ready yet to assume a form. That's what I told myself, at least.
I couldn't figure out what my problem was. I mean, after all, I was a doppelganger. I was supposed to follow through on the urges. And it wasn't as if I hadn't been trained. My mother had taught me all the tricks, all the signs to look for, the right way to go about making a proper kill. So what was I waiting for? Maybe my mother was right. Maybe watching too much TV had spoiled me. It was the news, I think, that did it. All those sad stories of human failings or plain old bad luck. I couldn't help it, I just felt sorry for them.
I remember once -- I'd say I was around ten or eleven -- seeing two parents being interviewed on the local news. They were both crying, taking turns breaking down. Their daughter had disappeared. They showed her picture on the screen -- a pretty girl, about my age, with dark pigtails and green eyes.
"They should just be glad they don't have to feed her anymore," I heard a little voice say. I whirled around to see the girl standing there in real life, right behind me. Her clothes and hair were different from the picture, but it was her. I jumped back, almost knocking the TV over, but the girl just giggled and shook her head.
"There's a whole pile of schoolbooks in here," she said, throwing a loaded backpack onto the floor between us. "Since you finished the other ones, I figured you could start working on these. She looks to be about your age, after all."
I nodded but couldn't look her in the eyes. I just took the textbooks out of the pack and began studying them, not wanting to seem ungrateful. Later I realized it wasn't my mother I felt I owed -- it was that girl's frantic parents, and the little girl herself. Her form hung around the house for the next two weeks, cooking my meals and splitting wood.