From ancient myth to urban legend, the uncanny valley that is the doppelganger has long terrified and mesmerized. Caitlin Starling’s latest novel, Last to Leave the Room delves deep into the realm of psychological horror, poking at our fears of what is alien in ourselves.
Dr. Tamsin Rivers’ ruthless nature is legendary among her colleagues, as is her ability to overlook the vagaries of the law in order to get things done in the name of research. It’s no surprise to anyone when she is tasked with solving a major problem: The city of San Siroco is sinking, and no one understands why. The fact that Tamsin’s experiments on quantum entanglement began at the same time San Siroco started sinking could be pure coincidence, as Tamsin argues to her handler, Mx. Woodfield. But nowhere is sinking quite as quickly as Tamsin’s basement, the depths of which are descending into the ground at an alarming pace. And worse still, a mysterious door in the wall has spit out a perfect replica of Tamsin who has neither her memories nor her acerbic personality. She is pliable, innocent and biddable—the perfect test subject. As Tamsin begins her experiments on her double, her memory and faculties begin to falter, endangering both her professional standing and her personal safety.
Last to Leave the Room is a study in claustrophobia and paranoia, combining the best of psychological horror and science fiction. Starling’s close perspective brings us into Tamsin’s brain, including the subtle, terrible ways it begins to falter. The effect is slow at first, with mismatched details that are easy to miss and a slow tension that ratchets up almost imperceptibly. Starling’s prose shifts with her main character, narrowing the scope of the novel as the walls begin to close in around Tamsin. This constricting perspective becomes viscerally discomfiting, as if the reader is losing pieces of their own memories. It’s psychological horror at its most terrifying, the kind of writing that makes you stop to question—just for a moment—how well you know your own mind and your own world. And that’s before Starling dives into the body horror possibilities that come with experimenting on your own doppelganger. Last to Leave the Room will deeply unsettle readers as it asks two existentially fraught questions: What exactly makes you, you? And who are you when all that is stripped away?