Published: Mandy PSL #62
Reprint: Mandy PSL #211
Artist: Kim Raymond
Esther Blake is having a hike out on Storm Peak with her father and brother Tom. Suddenly, a storm comes in without warning and lightning strikes Esther. Her condition almost kills her several times in hospital, and she has to be revived by artificial respiration, hovering between life and death.
When Esther returns home she starts having nightmares of her family being cruel towards her. They force her to do all the work while mocking, bullying and beating her. They sneer at how she has to do everything by hand, with no modern labour-saving devices to help her. She is dressed in rags and the house is shabby and run down.
Then Esther’s cousin Astra arrives to stay. Everyone marvels at how she could be Esther’s twin, except for the colour of her hair. Esther notices how she and Astra are virtual mirror image opposites. Astra even has the same scar on her left arm that Esther has on her right. Hmm, doppelganger alert here?
What the story pays less attention to verbally, but can be seen in most of the panels, is that Astra is wearing a star-shaped necklace. Meanwhile, Astra is making odd remarks about things she should not know about that have Esther becoming suspicious of her – in a worried sort of way.
In true doppelganger fashion, Astra is soon causing big trouble for Esther. She plays sly tricks to get Esther into trouble with the family and then sweetly telling them, oh please, please, don’t blame Esther. What makes it so easy is that the family always seem to instantly believe the worst of Esther despite Astra’s sugary sweet attempts to convince them otherwise – as if they were being poisoned or under a spell of some sort. And while they are harsh with Esther, they make a big fuss over Astra and what a sweet girl she is.
It’s exactly the same thing at school once Astra starts there with Esther. Astra’s tricks and everyone oddly assuming the worst of Esther all the time soon get Esther into big trouble with the teachers and losing her friends. Esther’s performance begins to suffer, both academically and athletically, and it’s not just because of Astra. Esther feels oddly tired and unwell and can’t understand why. Esther is soon pushed out of the sports teams while Astra takes her place. Everyone comments on Astra’s sporting performance being just like what Esther’s used to be (another clue?).
By now Esther has realised that Astra is pushing her out of everything and deliberately turning everyone against her. But she soon finds trying to speak out does no good with everyone just assuming the worst of her all the time.
Meanwhile the nightmares continue, but now they seem to be more than just nightmares. In one dream, the evil family chase Esther into brambles and thorns. When Esther wakes up she finds scratches on her arms and legs that were not there before. In another dream the abusers force her to scrub the floor until her hands are raw, and she still has to scrub. Next morning, Esther finds her hands look and feel exactly that way. She also suspects that Astra knows the contents of the dreams.
Then Esther dreams she is back on Storm Peak, and being hit by lightning. Astra and the evil parents come up behind her. Astra jeers that they have come for her, and eggs them on to carry Esther off. Esther breaks free of them but gets hit by lightning. When Esther wakes up, she is surprised to see Astra looking white and scared for a change. She realises Astra is scared because she knows about the dream.
Realising the dream means something, Esther heads straight to Storm Peak first thing in the morning. As she climbs up the peak, she sees Astra has followed.
Astra explains that she is the evil side of Esther. The lightning accident caused her to come in from a parallel universe where everything is the opposite of what it is in this one. Her plan is to take Esther’s place in this universe and drive Esther into the other universe, where the abusive versions of Esther’s family are waiting. Sure enough, they start appearing and Astra urges them to take Esther.
But Esther doesn’t think so because there is something different about Astra this time. Next second she realises what it is – Astra does not have her necklace. When Astra sees this, she screams that she’s lost her protector – “He-elp!” (Oh dear, Astra, left the house in too much of a hurry, did you?) Then lightning strikes both girls. Esther falls unconscious. Presumably because the protector is missing, the evil parents grab Astra and ignore her pleas for them to take Esther instead.
When Esther regains consciousness she finds everything is back to normal. All trace of Astra has disappeared and nobody but Esther knows anything about her. It’s as if Astra never existed at all. Esther concludes it must have been a dream or something. But later, Esther gets a nasty shock when Mum turns up Astra’s necklace while spring-cleaning. Dream – or what?
Evil doubles that are created to cause trouble for the protagonist until the protagonist finds the way to destroy them are not new in girls’ comics. But this one goes way above the usual doppelganger format because it’s got so many other well-established, popular formats thrown into the mix as well: the Cinderella theme, abusive guardians, the scheming troublemaker, the evil influence theme, and the regrettably less-used theme of the alternate reality. What’s not to like about this story? It brings together so many of the DCT themes that are always so popular on their own. Together they make for a really intense, exciting and crackling story where the protagonist is attacked on all sides from the threats posed not only by the evil double but also by the other themes listed above.
The scheming troublemaker who pushes the protagonist out with nasty tricks was one of the most frequent themes at DCT, but this version really catches the eye because it has supernatural elements attached. There are hints that Astra is exerting some evil influence on everyone to make them act so negatively towards Esther. We suspect this even more so once it is revealed that Astra’s necklace has powers of some sort. And it’s not because the antagonist is just spiteful or jealous as most troublemakers usually are. It has a far more sinister purpose – to weaken Esther and soften her up for transportation to the alternate reality while Astra takes Esther’s place.
However sinister the undertones of the scheming troublemaker scenes, they don’t hold a candle to the night terror dreams. These are truly the best moments of the story and what make it truly frightening. It’s even more terrifying when we find out that this is actually the fate that lies in store for Esther if Astra succeeds. This makes the climactic scene of Esther struggling against the evil guardians all the more electrifying – and it’s not just the lightning.
Ironically, the nightmares of the evil guardians also add a sympathetic element to the evil Astra. When we see what life is like at home for Astra through Esther’s nightmares we can certainly understand why Astra wants to escape that universe. But we are not going to have her throw Esther into that hellish universe in her place.
Here the Cinderella theme of girls’ comics gets turned on its head. Instead of some talent helping her escape her misery and getting a happy ending, the Cinderella gets thrown back into that life of abuse and drudgery. We may feel a pang of pity for Astra there. Yet we still want her gone and are relieved she is back where she belongs – because unlike the protagonists of the Cinderella stories, she is evil.