In an age where flash fiction has made way for tweet-sized narratives, an online group recently invited entries for two-sentence horror stories. Among the submissions was this: “I begin tucking him into bed and he says, ‘Daddy, check for monsters under my bed.’ I look underneath for his amusement and see him, another him, staring back at me quivering and whispering, ‘Daddy, there’s somebody on my bed.’”
The staple interpretation would be that one of the two kids is a monster, but the possibility that both might be authentic is just as intriguing. It taps into our deepest subconscious fears built around the idea of the double or the doppelgänger—a shadow-self that may be more ‘real’ in some ways than we are, implying that our knowledge of ourselves and the world we take for granted is incomplete.
Readers familiar with Bill Watterson’s great comic strip Calvin and Hobbes may picture the brattish Calvin as the boy in the story. Drooling monsters under the bed are a feature of Calvin’s rich inner life, but so are alter egos and doubles, beginning with his stuffed tiger and companion in fantasy Hobbes. On a website containing off-kilter, subtextual movie analyses, I once read an essay suggesting that the protagonists of the film Fight Club—an unnamed man and his aggressive hidden self, who encourages him to explore his masculinity—are versions of the grown-up Calvin trying to deal with his isolation. I doubt that Chuck Palahniuk—the author of the novel on which the film was based—had any such thing in mind, but his book, like Watterson’s series, comments on the schizophrenia that accompanies the stresses and demands of modern life.
Doubles or nemeses in literature go back a very long way though. There are the classic formulations in works such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (a doctor isolates the darker side of his nature, then finds that the primal savage he has thus unleashed is the dominant self) and Edgar Allan Poe’s William Wilson (a debauched young man is shadowed by a lookalike, who seems intent on revealing the former’s misdemeanours). But there are also stories where the double theme is less immediately apparent. Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer is told in the voice of a young, unnamed ship’s captain who allows a mysterious man named Leggatt aboard his vessel one night and keeps him hidden in his cabin; as we learn about the stowaway’s past, we see how it could be a cautionary tale for the narrator.
Interestingly, when the story first appeared in print more than a hundred years ago, it was called ‘The Secret-Sharer’, meaning that the captain and Leggatt shared a secret—but Conrad later decided to remove the hyphen, making the title more ambiguous. His most influential novel Heart of Darkness can be read in similar terms too, with its premise of Charles Marlow, a man from the ‘civilised’ world, travelling into the Congo to meet an enigmatic slave-trader, Mr Kurtz. Thanks to his brief encounter with the deranged Kurtz, Marlow eventually returns with his own sanity intact and a clearer understanding of dark and dangerous places—not just in the physical world but also in the human soul. In one sense, he is like a Jekyll who gazed into the abyss and survived the test.
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(This story appears in the May-June 2014 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)