A show of hands: How many of you know what a psychomanteum is? If the word isn’t part of one’s vocabulary, it will be after reading Christopher Golden’s novel Dead Ringers. The narrative is filled with doppelgängers, occultists, ghosts, and a demon, all of which are tied to an antique 19th century psychomanteum. No need to Google or turn to Wikipedia; a psychomanteum is a small structure with mirrors inside. Also known as “an apparition box,” its purpose is to contact those on the other side of the mirror: the dead—or the demonic.
Self-esteem challenged Tess Devlin sees her ex-husband walking a Boston street. He is fitter, and far better tailored and coiffed, than at their last meeting. When she approaches him, he professes not to know her. She phones him to vent her anger at his brusque brush-off only to find that he is not in Boston, but having a bucolic getaway with his girlfriend. Tess and her emotionally wounded best friend Lili later experience the dead ringer phenomenon on a highly personal level. They find they each have a double, who is a physically improved version; more stylish and confident. Before you can say “Equal Opportunity Stepford,” or sing “Send in the Clones,” it becomes evident that those affected have something in common.
The book is engaging, but there are elements that detract. Exposition is delivered in heaps with lots of information to process all at once. In addition, there are too many physical fight scenes between the supernatural interlopers and their all too human counterparts. The humans are physically and psychologically scarred but determined, and the occult endowed adversaries get injured, but repeatedly bounce back. It may be cinematic, but reading those multiple action sequences reduces the impact. The “downtime” sections of the plot, when the assaulted individuals attempt to attend to their everyday lives, don’t quite jell.
Trying to find equilibrium is an arduous task in such extraordinary circumstances, but Golden strikes gold when he focuses on how the human characters respond to their challenge. He hones in on their fears and horrors. There’s bitter heartbreak and frustrated fury when Tess observes her six-year-old daughter being cradled and comforted by the not-Tess imposter. Another character feels his very being siphoned away by his diabolical double: “Memory seemed like another country, the nation where he’d been born but which he had long ago left behind. He felt bloodless and hollow, not a husk so much as a balloon that had never been fully inflated.”
Dead Ringers has a lot going on and much to absorb. There’s an affinity for broken people who struggle through everyday life that permeates the novel. Author Christopher Golden ups the ante by putting those folk through the ringer, a dead ringer face-off where the face is all too familiar and the enemy is one’s own mirror image.
Dead Ringers is available now from St. Martin’s Press.