Welcome to Freaky Fridays, that most wonderful time of the week when we curl up in front of a roaring fire with an old horror paperback and wait for it to consume us and reduce us to ashes as we read.
It’s time for that most important holiday of the White Anglo Saxon Protestant year: Christmas! Is there a season more sacred to the cast of St Elmo’s Fire, Ordinary People, Love Story, and anything by Whit Stillman than the Yuletide days when they can wear tweed and corduroy, put on their turtlenecks, sing “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”, drunk drive over icy roads as they head home from the country club, and overdose on sedatives in their extravagant bathrooms of Venetian marble while sobbing silently?
Horror paperbacks have risen to the occasion by turning out a fistful of excellent tales of WASP destruction set during the holiday season, from the boarding school pyromania of Tricycle, to the gibbering nervous breakdown of Such Nice People, and the cold-blooded sociopathic antics of Halo. But the most over-the-top of the bunch is The Sibling, a wonderfully-written account of a young man sliding into madness, falling in love with his sister, and picking out and wrapping the worst Christmas present ever (hint: he found it attached to a corpse).
Written by the author of the Quiller spy novels, you couldn’t pick a more upper class name than either of writer Adam Hall’s two real names: he went by Elleston Trevor, but was born as Trevor Dudley-Smith. And that’s just the beginning of the names in this book that read like the membership list at the Winnetka Golf Club: Georgina Richford Scarborough, Kimberly Talley, Princess Bibi di Bomba. They wear Gucci, have their hair done by men named Raoul, speak French whenever possible, say things like “drinkie-poo” and when the book begins, one of them is getting buried in her pale blue Rolls Royce.
It’s a funeral for a minor character’s grandmother but as a uniformed chauffeur lowers the luxury sedan, stuffed with red roses, into the open grave we get a pretty good introduction to the kind of world we’re in. It’s made even more memorable by the moment when a rock hits the top of the Rolls as it’s being buried and scratches the paintwork, scandalizing the onlookers. Then it’s off to Ashdown manor, home of Lorraine and Charles Stuyvesant.
Lorraine is helping her son, Raff (short for Raphael), sort his skis, which is exactly the kind of thing we all suspect the idle rich do all day long, when she breaks the news: his sister, Debby, is coming home from boarding school for Christmas. Instantly the room gets chillier than a Lutheran’s hug. Reading between the lines, we get the feeling all is not well between Raff and Debby, who haven’t seen each other in three years, and the scene ends with the ominous line Lorraine delivers to her husband when he asks how Raff took the news:
“He’s put the clown in her room,” Lorraine said quietly.
Turns out, it’s a good thing. “The clown” refers to a clown picture that Raff and Debby fought over as kids and the fact that he’s placed it in his sister’s room means he’s maybe ready to make amends. Maybe. These two kids hated each other’s guts and haven’t seen each other in three years because their sibling rivalry almost got one of them dead, but when Debby arrives (she flew over on the Concorde, of course) we realize she wasn’t the problem. Raff was the one who almost murdered her and when she sees him for the first time in three years she wets her pantyhose in sheer terror.
But time has passed and these two siblings are both good-looking, hormonal teenagers and they instantly spark to each other. Debby gets a potter’s wheel for Christmas and Raff gets a new custom Jag, and it’s not long before the two of them are making up for lost time, rough housing, having car chases, and bonding into best friends for the first time ever, while their cold-hearted, bloodless parents stand around at their own formal Christmas party exchanging priceless dialogue like:
“Would you like to dance?”
“No. Would you?”
“No. For God’s sake, let’s have a drink.”
Soon Raff and Debby are playing more and more dangerous games. He “accidentally” runs her car off the road, but they chalk it up to him being caught up in the heat of the moment. He lures her out onto thin ice by calling her a chicken. They climb up onto the icy roof of their mansion to take in the view and Debby almost falls to her death, at which point Raff saves her life and the two of them make out. Suddenly, Raff feels like an adult person doing adult things, or maybe like a character in a V.C. Andrews book.
But there’s something wrong wrong with Raff. There’s something wrong, as he puts it, inside him. He feels a dark wind rising in him that carries him forward, carries him away, makes him lose control, and he doesn’t want to hurt his sister no matter what. But with that same breath he says to her, after they make out, “Just don’t do that with anyone else, or anything at all, with anyone else, ever, unless I’m dead.”
No one notices things are getting a bit dramatic because they’re pretending so hard that everything’s normal. Even when Raff rapes their next door neighbor (who’s been trying to seduce him) and beats her badly, she knows he’s gone insane but convinces herself to let it go. It was the heat of the moment. She’ll talk to his mother. Later. And Raff walks away from the violent encounter reassuring himself that he’s not a monster, that he didn’t do anything bad, that it was just the excitement of sex that made him attack her. It was no big deal, because he’s not a bad person. Everyone tells him so. How could he do a bad thing?
But it’s clear that Raff is slipping away. He spends more and more time in a hallucinatory fantasy world where he’s a brave warrior defending his sister from wolves (the neighbor’s dog that he kills with his bare hands), and enemies (pretty much everyone he sees). He begins breaking into the morgue at the local hospital and stealing body parts for Debby, leaving them wrapped up on her vanity table: a finger, a chunk of meat, a penis. Debby loves her brother, and she loves that they’ve reconnected after spending so long apart, but she fears him, and she fears for him, so she doesn’t say anything. She clings to him, instead, denying the changing world around her. “Everything moves,” she says, as the world spins and their cells age and her brother gets crazier and it all shifts out of place and nothing fits together anymore.
Finally, after a failed intervention by Lorraine, and the reappearance of the hypnosis-loving Dr. Reisenkönig—the therapist that recommended the siblings being separated in the first place—Raff has a total psychotic split and abducts Debby. Torn between her brother and the world, Debby picks her brother, and as they tear off on a vertiginous car chase up icy mountain switchbacks, she tells him, “It’s us against them…Us against the whole world. Keep going.”
This incestuous Thelma & Louise don’t make it, and the book ends in a conflagration that ruins a whole bunch of lives, leaving the remains of these people, whose only sin was that they loved each other too much, buried in the snow.
Merry Christmas, everybody!
Grady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his previous novel was Horrorstör, about a haunted IKEA, and his latest novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, is basically Beaches meets The Exorcist.