Richard Chizmar founded Cemetery Dance Magazine in 1988. It’s still in production today & is considered one of the best horror mags of all time, having published and even discovered some of the genre’s most famous and successful authors. Naturally, getting published in CD is one of the top items on my bucket list. This blog series is my attempt to read, review, and research every story CD has ever printed.
STORY: “The Double”
AUTHOR: Steve Rasnic Tem
CD APPEARANCE: Issue #1 (Dec. 1988: Vol. 1, Iss. 1), story 3 of 12
PLOT (spoilers!): A mother and father appear to be playing with their son before bedtime, however the inclusion of the words “poking” and “slapping” make it clear their affections are actually abusive. They even pick him up and drop him on his head. They do this all while almost chanting the words, “Our son. Our only son.”
Meanwhile, the son observes their faces and reflects that this has all happened before.
When the mother and father leave, the son builds a crude doll from clothes, and takes the time to draw his own face on it and even constructs fingers, toes, and- wait for it- a penis out of peanuts left behind in a bowl. Looking at his finished product, he notices “with disinterest” that the face lacks a nose.
When the parents return, they see the doll, abuse it till it literally falls to pieces, and do a “merry dance” over the body while repeating their “our only son” mantra. The son, meanwhile, watches from afar and appreciates that these kicks and smashes don’t hurt.
REVIEW: 4 of 5 stars. This story is very odd, very hard to explain, and very short (less than 300 words in total). Because of its inherent ambiguity I teetered on giving it only 3 stars. After all, when it comes to grading on a numerical scale, it’s easier for a story to have clear flaws and merits to justify my decision. However I also appreciate and respect gut instinct, and this story also has one other major descriptor: it’s creepy as shit. I believe Chizmar nailed the decision to publish this one. I now have the difficult task of trying to explain why.
Despite the haziness of what actually happens, Rasnic Tem’s story leaves us thinking, interpreting, and shivering as we go over and over this one after the reading is done. The primary questions one has are the following…
1) How could the parents mistake a doll for their son? Is it really a doll? Has it always been a doll? Is the son even real? Are the parents even human?
2) Does the son make a new double every night? Is so, how long has this been going on? If not, how long has he been suffering alone?
3) Why did Rasnic Tem include the detail about the doll’s lack of a nose? What significance does a noseless face have to an abused child? In a piece this short, it certainly was not included on a whim.
4) Why did Rasnic Tem specify that peanuts were used to construct the doll’s various appendages? Again, in a piece this short, it must mean something, right?
One thing that is clear is that the son is the victim of abuse, and that one of the doll’s appendages is a penis implies it’s not just physical but sexual. What isn’t clear is how he deals with it. Readers might assume it’s a straightforward (realistic) piece about a kid making a double to stand in for his own abused self, but of course in a straightforward piece the parents wouldn’t fall for that.
This implies there is something else- perhaps even something supernatural- going on. Maybe the son died long ago & is now haunting the parents in their dreams. Maybe the parents are some kind of monsters that can’t tell the difference between a real boy and a doll. Maybe the boy has a power that makes his doll look real to his parents. Rasnic Tem doesn’t provide enough clues for us to know for sure what the answer is, but I don’t think that’s the point. The point, I think, is for the reader to fill in the rest on his/her own.
My own interpretation is that it is a straightforward story, only it’s the son who is the one misinterpreting what’s going on. As someone who has done LOTS of research on abuse and recovery for my novels, one thing I can tell you is that the human mind is capable of amazing things, and I think the doll is how this boy’s damaged mind has found a way to deal with his situation. To be honest, I’m not even sure there is a doll (perhaps he only imagines making it), but if there is I’m pretty sure he’s only projecting that his parents turn so quickly to abuse it instead of him.
As a reader, I’m thoroughly entertained yet slightly annoyed by this story. I love how it continues to stick with me, but I’m frustrated that Rasnic Tem didn’t give me enough info to know the whole story. Despite my initial hesitation to give it as high as 4 stars, the truth is this ambiguity is the reason I can’t give it 5.
As a writer, I am reminded about the power and importance of not saying too much. Readers like to use their own imagination, after all, so leaving a story with an open ending (though perhaps not quite as open as this one) can, of course, be very entertaining.