There's nothing like a sibling to send us to the point of fury and beyond.
Family life is all about guilt and in the case of horror fiction, that response is usually justified. Horror writers love to keep it in the family and never more so than when twins are involved.
They're like the flip side of our own personality, our own evil selves, and try as we might we just can't get away from them any more than we can escape our own identities.
If the general reader has heard of one Edgar Allan Poe story than it might well be The Fall of the House of Usher. Its fame is such that it has been casually referred to in stories such as Agatha Christie's Poirot mystery Halloween Party and in the comedy Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, both without the need for further explanation.
The House of Usher has become part of our cultural architecture.
The lifelong tensions between Roderick Usher and his twin sister Madeleine come to a head on the far side of her deathbed when he guiltily buries her prematurely in the family tomb.
What Roderick has to feel guilty about the reader is left to conclude for themselves but we are left in no doubt as to the mutually antagonistic lifetime the two have spent cloistered together in the family's unhealthy ancestral home:
"He was enchained by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted, and whence, for many years, he had never ventured forth - in regard to an influence whose supposititious force was conveyed in terms too shadow here to be restated - an influence which some peculiarities in the mere form and substance of his family mansion had, by dint of long sufferance, he said, obtained over his spirit."
Roderick's promptness in bricking up his twin immediately after her death, instead of waiting for a decent period of time before the burial, swiftly takes its toll on the sole remaining Usher:
"A light step on an adjoining staircase arrested my attention. I presently recognised it as that of Usher. In an instant afterward he rapped, with a gentle touch, at my door, and entered, bearing a lamp. His countenance was, as usual, cadaverously wan - but, moreover, there was a species of mad hilarity in his eyes - an evidently restrained hysteria in his whole demeanour. His air appalled me."
Even more so than with other family members, the close relationship of twins sharpens the horror of their being stuck together.
That must surely be due to already having spent nine months stuck together inside the womb.
Of course as siblings you don't have to be twins to spend a lifetime stuck together and to reap the rewards of the dark dysfunctionality that continuing proximity implies.
In Night and Silence by Maurice Level an ancient sister dies, leaving a deaf-mute brother and a blind brother to struggle on together as best they can without her.
Here also the motif of siblings being responsible for the premature burial of their brother or sister (a sort of morbid sibling rivalry taken to a dark and terrible conclusion) resurfaces:
"The moans became louder, the raps firmer. Feeling his way, stumbling against the walls, knocking against the packing cases which serve as furniture, tripping in the hole in the floor, he staggered about trying to find his sleeping brother. He fell and got up again, bruised, covered with blood, sobbing, I have no eyes! I have no eyes!'"
The extreme form of sibling rivalry that leads to a murderous attack on a brother or sister is horror's way of portraying the tensions that can build up inside any family.
If there's anything more uncomfortable than doing evil towards a sibling, it's the evil that we are capable of perpetrating on behalf of our brother or sister.
In James Herbert's novel Others, the hero Nick Dismas investigates the shadowy Perfect Rest nursing home and discovers that terrible cruelties in the form of scientific experiments have been conducted for decades against deformed infants abandoned at birth.
Dr Wisbeech gives a chilling justification for his violence against some of the most vulnerable in society. The evil doctor naturally has no qualms about trying to shift the blame onto his brother.
"'My brother should not have survived,' he said, reaching into his suit pocket for the silver cigarette case again. He lit up, noticing that my own cigarette was only half-smoked, then tucked the case away again. 'But he did. And although deformed and terribly debilitated, in come ways Dominic was much stronger than I. Yes, I must grant him that: he certainly knew how to survive almost from the day we were born. As we grew older, he learned how to dominate.'"
It lies at the heart of any sibling relationship that even if they are capable of driving you to the pitch of murderous fury, or vice versa, you'd still kill without hesitation to defend them, so perhaps Dr Wisbeech's instinct to protect (however misplaced and terrible) has its foundations in human psychology.
But then the survival of the fittest within any family centres around being able to shift the blame from yourself onto your sibling whenever anything goes wrong, doesn't it?
Thank you for reading my article about twins in horror fiction.
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