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Review of Incarnate by Steve Stred

Steve Stred is one of the most prolific writers alive today, to such an extent that his latest full-length novel release, Incarnate, caught me by surprise—in more ways than one. Bearing a cloven hoof upon the cover I wondered, at first, if it was connected in any way to his epic Father of Lies trilogy, but on further inspection, the book is standalone, and although the cloven hoof is not a red herring, and there is certainly a demonic presence in the tale, there is much in Incarnate that is new for Stred’s writing, and in all the right ways. 

Stred has a trademark minimalist style that allows you to fill in the blanks. His prose is intentionally straightforward, no-nonsense, which allows him to create believable and credible worlds and people. I always know I’m in a Steve Stred novel from word go because the family or friendship dynamics are spot on and well-thought out, without any need for painstaking exposition. This is the case in Incarnate, where Ryan, along with his parents Craig and Nora, form a family unit that is instantly relateable and likeable. They decide to make a stay at a house that, as local legend would have it, has been haunted due to a séance gone wrong. If you’re rolling your eyes at this point, please stay with me, because while many of these ideas and elements are well-worn, Stred makes them new, and offers a number of surprises. 

The demonic presence, known as The Watcher, and who soon comes to terrorise our happy family, is no generic demon, but an insidious being with uniquely disturbing methods for hunting. Though there is an element of the “haunted house” tale here, it bears far more kinship with Shirley Jackson’s legendary masterpiece The Haunting of Hill House than any shlocky TV re-run. Stylistically, Stred has reached new levels, this being his most fluid, evocative, and supple prose. Consequently, the house holds a fascination that works upon the minds of Ryan and his family, and subsequently upon us. Stred furthers this fascination by deploying an ingenious meta-device of including excerpts from an old book written about the house, a book which seems to be speaking to its reader directly, in order to further inveigle us in the history and “mind” of the house. This was one of my favourite elements of the story, and the mystery of the author of the book becomes a compelling thread woven through Incarnate. 

As I said before, however, Stred often uses familiar tropes, but he always handles them in unique ways. For example, most horror authors utilise claustrophobia to heighten their horror. For example, they set their story in a cramped underground basement, a collapsed cave, a locked room, a prison cell. The horror is concentrated by virtue of the concentrated space. Notice, too, that those previous examples are largely urban. Stred, however, as someone who I know from interviews and his afterwords, clearly has extensive experience as an outdoorsman, shifts his horror often to nature and expansive, large spaces. We see this in much of his work, such as The Stranger and The Girl Who Hid In The Trees (the latter was the first book I read by Stred) in which great forests form the backdrop for the horror. Stred seems to know that whilst we dream horrors will come and find us in the dark recesses of the city, real horror actually dwells out there, in the wilderness, where no one can hear us scream. Of course, there are many famous horror stories that do use rural spaces, including classic Slashers such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even Friday The 13th to an extent. However, often they rely on the incompetence of city-folk entering this rural space to generate mishap and tension. Stred pits extremely competent and intelligent people against the wild, and they still get royally messed up by it. 

So, whilst the horror is centred around the house, Stred makes the house the epicentre of a wild and dangerous world that borders ours both literally and metaphysically. There is an incredible, double-meaning line in which he invokes this liminality, “…only those who’d travelled these lands knew and understood.” By “these lands” he means the forests and lakes and wild spaces, but he also means the worlds beyond our own, the world from which creatures like The Watcher have emanated. Stred makes us aliens to our natural world and shows us our impotence against it. 

What further intrigued me about Incarnate, however, was the use of dream. This links thematically, of course, with contacting others worlds and planes. Often, in horror, dreams are used as a cheap scare to shock the reader during quieter moments. And whilst Stred does wrongfoot us one or two times, he also uses the dreams to further this idea of the house, and The Watcher, possessing their victims, and taking over their minds. In one stunning sequence, Ryan is dreaming he is in the woods, and the dream ends with a moment of transcendental horror, “Ryan knew what he was looking at. It was his window. The window of his bedroom. Within the window was the silhouette of a boy, of himself, one hand out in front, palm on the glass.” This moment is so incredibly well-written it cannot help but make the hairs stand on end. Ryan is the Watcher in his dream. We are left to wonder at the deeper meaning of this. 

As a final point, the climax to Incarnate is one of the best Stred has written. It is at turns moving, horrifying, sad, and uplifting. In fact, bizarrely, it is possibly one of Stred’s most optimistic endings, though, if you are new to Stred, I should warn you that it is certainly not happy in the traditional sense! 

You can get your copy of Incarnate here: 

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA

In addition, I had the honour and pleasure of interviewing Steve Stred about his writing. The interview will become available exclusively to my Patrons on November 12th, here: https://www.patreon.com/themindflayer Sign up at any tier level to get access to this interview, plus other interviews with occult authors, such as S.C. Mendes! 

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Review of Father of Lies: The Complete Series by Steve Stred

Father of Lies: The Complete Series is arguably Steve Stred’s magnum opus. This occult, brutally dark window into the lives of those practicing forbidden magic in the shadows is at once harrowing and totally absorbing. Like a bad acid trip, it keeps us enthralled with vision after vision yet desperate to escape its clutches. 

Based on Stred’s real life experience of joining a cult of a dark web, this quadrilogy and its accompanying essays, interviews, and insights into how the series developed is as disturbing as anything Stred has ever written, which is really saying something. In each successive instalment, Stred takes us deeper into the lore and world of Father, the leader of a cult attempting to ascend into the Black Heavens and achieve immortality alongside godlike demonic entities. We follow both the poor misguided souls hoodwinked into the cult’s masochistic belief system, and the deceitful leaders trying to engineer their own deification. Though this book draws together many ideas and themes that are recurrent in Stred’s work, including animal-human hybrids, the threat of wild or remote spaces (particularly forests), and the evils of secret organisations, it also goes one step further into the Crowleyian territory of sex magic. 

Stred both pulls no punches, graphically describing scenes of sexual molestation and rape without a scintilla of restraint or euphemism, yet also uses coded symbolic language to hint at the magical significance of the terrible acts performed by the cult members. For example, the motif of the “horn and hoof” is a clever symbolic cypher for the penis (horn) and vagina (hooves are cleft, and therefore frequently represent the female principle). Interestingly, the dark god Abaddon, whom the cult frequently calls forth, has male genitalia but cloven feet, thus embodying the esoteric concept of the divine androgyne, an entity that combines male and female principles. It is not my intent to bore you by deciphering every image, but I wanted to demonstrate how deep Stred’s work is; like the eponymous figure of the Father of Lies, Stred deceives us by writing in a direct and simple prose-style that belies the real depths lurking beneath the surface of his work. 

Stred treads a knife-edge in more ways than one with this series. He exposes the lies of cult-leaders and how they deceive and hypnotise their followers, yet he also doesn’t deny the possibility that dark magic exists, and convincingly paints scenes of harrowing supernatural agency. Despite the almost relentless savagery of the narrative, there are moments of beauty or warmth breaking through the black night like stars. The friendship between Detective McKay and Professor Bianchi is a surprisingly tender affair that makes it all the harsher when it is wrenched apart. 

There are also scenes of wonder, though they are often coloured with horror too. There are women who glow with supernatural fire to those with true sight. There are acts of surprising (if misguided) courage by the downtrodden. And there are dark gods, who demonstrate their horrifying power in opulent and brain-searing ways. Perhaps the most awesome scene of this nature in the whole series is from the third novella, Sacrament. Blood begins to shower from the sky, and a character strips down to the nude, opening their mouth to swallow the rain. We are told, “His eyes widened as the portal opened, and his mind stepped into the stars.” It is moments like these that push this story into the transcendental sphere. 

Father of Lies is not an easy read. It is not for the faint of heart. And it is more than just the subject matter, which at points will even the hardiest person’s stomach turn, making me say this. It is also the oppressive mood of the narrative that stays with the reader long after they have finished reading. It is the sensation of being watched, of having read something you are not supposed to. Cliche though this is, one cannot help but feel Father of Lies embodies the Nietzschean idiom: Stare too long into the abyss, and the abyss stares back into you. 

Coupled with this, Stred plays with our perceptions of right and wrong, distorting them to egregious heresy. This feat is no better embodied than in the character of Abaddon who, though a demon, is oddly sympathetic, and even remorseful at times. In this way, Stred seems to appropriately echo Christopher Marlowe’s masterpiece Doctor Faustus and the demon Mephistopheles, who, though he tempts Faust to damnation, is yet an empathetic and strangely human character we relate to. Stred gives us sympathy for the Devil, often because the humans are so much worse. 

Anyone who knows me or who has been on one of my writing courses will be aware that I normally don’t go for bleak. I prefer eucatastrophe, redemption, and bittersweet. None of those are to be found in Stred’s work. Or if they are, it is in a twisted way. However, Stred does what he does so well, he makes an exception of my rule. There are so many wonderful indie authors in the horror field, many of whom I adore, but Stred has perhaps earned his place quite rightfully as the King of Horror, if only for his sheer courage to venture into the blackest depths where other writers fear to tread. 

You can purchase the book here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA

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Review of The Navajo Nightmare by Steve Stred & David Sodergren

I’ve always loved a good Western. I think it’s partly because the Western genre, for me, is very closely aligned with Epic Fantasy. Instead of swords, our heroes wield glinting silver revolvers capable of magically dealing death at impossible distances. Instead of taverns, there are saloons. Instead of warring fantastical kingdoms, we find the American Civil War. One thread that remains current through both genres relatively unchanged is the obsession with and value of gold. In addition, the great wastelands of the America Wild West fittingly conjure the mystical and fantastical landscapes sword and sorcery heroes often have to overcome on their quest. And speaking of quests, Westerns are rife with them, whether it’s a quest for revenge, as in High Plains Drifter (one of the most underrated films of all time), for some kind of holy grail, as in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, or redemption, as in 3:10 To Yuma. In short, I think Westerns and Fantasies are two sides of the same coin, which is why I love them both. 

This intersection of Fantasy and Western is beautifully embodied in The Navajo Nightmare, a short novel by David Sodergren and Steve Stred. There is so much to say about this epic collaboration it is hard to know where to begin. 

Firstly, this book is divided into two halves, the first, “BEFORE”, written by David Sodergren, and the second, “AFTER”, by Steve Stred. I came to this book as a huge, huge fan of Steve Stred. He is not only an amazing author, but one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. However, I was unfamiliar with David Sodergren’s work, and so was intrigued to experience his writing for the first time. His prose blew me away. What could have been a hackneyed account of a dangerous gunslinger losing everything he holds dear, a trope we have seen before, instead became an earth-shaking story of loss, written with passion and conviction. Sodergren’s prose is elegant, and full of quotable lines from the very first, including the killer opening, “As is so often the way with truly blasphemous acts, it all started on a Sunday.” 

Within a few short chapters, Sodergren made me completely emotionally invested in Charles Andersson and his wife, Mary. The two have a son, little Jack, and they live in a yet-to-be-built house just outside of Packer’s Mill. Both husband and wife have demons in their past they’re trying to leave behind, and as we see in both the first and second parts of the book, this is a through-line for the entire story. To what extent can we escape the shadows we think we leave behind us? To what extent can we change? 

Within an equally brief space, Sodergren rips your heart out in a scene that is at once startlingly brutal and callous, yet also restrained, turning the camera away from the worst, which leaves the reader space to feel the horror and pathos of what unfolds. 

Following this calamity, Charles Andersson becomes a changed man, but Sodergren neatly sidesteps the cliché of him simply becoming hungry for vengeance above all else. What’s interesting are the deeper and more destabilising character changes that come over him. He moves from an entirely cool and level-headed man, who never lets emotions cloud his judgement, to one who is irrational, lost in the mists of his own feelings, distracted. It’s this excellent character work that sets The Navajo Nightmare up for greatness. The character work continues as the Nightmare who was once Charles Andersson begins to lose his grip on who he is / was, and reality, until we reach a hair-raisingly climactic shootout worthy of being put to film, or etched onto my brain for all time. 

The second half of the novel is no less potent. Though the two writers achieve a surprising synergy between their two styles, one can feel the difference when Steve Stred takes over. It’s not that one style is better than the other, merely that with Stred’s half of the story we feel a tonal shift. The title of “AFTER” is appropriate, because this is a world post-Nightmare, a cynical world, perhaps, in which everyone lives with the expectation that evil will come knocking eventually. It’s also a shift into that Epic Fantasy mode I described earlier. Sodergren’s part is High Plains Drifter, a mystical horror-thriller shrouded in trauma and the power of the past. Stred’s is Bone Tomahawk: a nightmare mission into a heart of darkness. 

In part 2, Tanner, a gunslinger who seems to have some kind of connection to The Nightmare, is asked to assemble a team by the feisty Linda St. James to track down and end the Nightmare once and for all. This “fellowship” of deadly fighters is a brilliant contrast to the single focus of the preceding part of the novel. There’s Hank, an ex-slave of gargantuan proportions and strength; Cutting Teeth, a Native American skinwalker; Carter, Tanner’s lackey, a young boy with a weird connection to his horse; and Linda and Tanner themselves. The assembly of the team certainly has the feeling of an old-school fantasy novel, or a legendary B-movie like Krull, and things only get better as the group sets off on a perilous journey towards Packer’s Mill.

It soon becomes clear that the team is being haunted by something. They’re tracking down a killer, but in turn being stalked. Each person believes that it is a demon from their own past. Stred cleverly uses this as a mechanism to get each person in the group to narrate their own harrowing backstory. Not only does this enrich the characters, but it also serves as a powerful way to explore the themes of The Navajo Nightmare more deeply. Each person is dealing with a trauma, and each person had committed sins they now have to confront. Each person is themselves a Nightmare, a creation of the bad (and good) choices in their past. 

For those who have read other books by Steve Stred, such as The Stranger, it’s no spoiler to say that one by one each person in the group is picked off. As they get nearer their destination, the truth of what needs to happen to defeat The Nightmare is unveiled. What I loved here is that Stred has no problem giving seeming “B-characters” their moment. This makes his narratives unpredictable and sinuous, surprising just as often as they deliver the gory goods we so want. The conclusion is satisfying and oddly sweet despite how harrowing what came before it was.

The Navajo Nightmare is a must-read for those who love westerns, who love horror, and who love quests into the darkness. This one will stay with me for a long time. 

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA


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CONNECTING THREAT AND CHARACTER: THE SECRETS OF COMPELLING STORY

 

The other day, I finished reading a book called Cold Storage by legendary screenwriter David Koepp, the man behind the original Jurassic Park, among other significant screenplays. It was a good book, but not a great one, and that got me thinking about why, because it wasn’t immediately obvious to me what was out of place with the narrative, or if indeed anything was out of place at all and it wasn’t simply a genre mismatch with me. Cold Storage was certainly more thriller than my usual fare.

To briefly summarise: Cold Storage is about a new genus of fungus, cordyceps novus, a mutating semi-intelligent infection that can take over human bodies the way ophiocordyceps unilateralis can turn ants into “zombies” that harbour fungus-spreading spores. The threat is very real here, and following a few devastating scenes at the start of the novel expertly rendered by Koepp in truly cinematic fashion, we believe just how bad things could get if cordyceps novus got into the wider populace. There is even a whiff of zombie-apocalypse here, albeit subtly toned down; think more The Last Of Us or The Girl With All The Gifts than let’s say, 28 Days Later.

But cool as it was, I didn’t find myself caring very much about it, despite how well researched and inventively conceived cordyceps novus was. The other problem was that I didn’t care much about the characters either, and that really bugged me, because objectively I could say the dialogue was pretty good. Koepp’s screenplay background was showing its worth here, and the characters each had interesting hooks in their backstories that made me want to know more. I couldn’t understand why solidly developed characters and an interesting threat weren’t working in combination, and then of course it became clear. The problem was, the threat and the characters did not meaningfully connect. The characters were intriguing, but they were not characters whom I felt were unique to the story. In other words, these characters could have inhabited any story. I didn’t understand why they were inhabiting this one.

I think to understand this better, we have to look at examples of where this worked well. One recent novel that immediately springs to mind is Dan Soule’s Neolithica. Soule does a brilliant job of connecting the threat, that of an ancient bog body unearthed in the north of England which then comes back to necromantic un-life, with the main through-line of the protagonist Mirin. Mirin has just lost her husband, and is terrified of losing her child, Oran, as well. The bog-body or mummy is also a young boy, though he is warped by his interment in the earth and the dark things that happened to him before he was mummified. The mummy is actually referred to as “the boy” throughout the story. We can immediately see the parallels with Mirin’s fears and that “the boy” almost represents a Freudian return of the repressed. Mirin’s fears of a dead child are embodied in the literal dead child that now comes to ravage her hometown. Because the threat and character through-line connect so strongly, the story takes on a profound and powerful life. We understand why Mirin is the only person who can resolve this problem, why she has been “chosen” to face this ordeal. This is as much about her psychological battle as any supernatural one, and the story is all the stronger as a result.

Steve Stred similarly does a brilliant job of this in his horror novel The Stranger. The main character, Malcolm, is a racist, with an ingrained hatred for Native Americans. However, he and his family end up haunted by a supernatural being known only as The Stranger. This horrifying entity embodies the protagonist’s fear of the “other” perfectly, yet ironically The Stranger is in fact a god and one with the land he protects. It’s the human beings that are the unwelcome “foreigners” or “strangers” to its creation, a commentary on how Americans, and indeed many Western peoples, are all, in some way, strangers to their own land; violent interlopers, if you will.

We might also look to Christa Wojciechowski’s genius Sick trilogy to see how threat connects with character. In Sick book one, Susan tries desperately to keep her terribly ill husband, John, well, even resorting to desperate criminal activity to obtain painkillers and other medications, but his sickness is constant and overwhelming. On the surface, sickness itself seems to be the threat, but look a little deeper, and we begin to understand that perhaps Susan needs John to be ill as much as he needs her to look after him, and the two are in a parasitic relationship that is self-reinforcing. The real threat is not sickness, but getting better.

To look to a more classical example, Homer’s Iliad centres around the myopic, arrogant, selfish, narcissistic, brutal Achilles. The threat in the narrative is Hector, Prince of Troy, the greatest of the Trojans and perhaps the only combatant on their side who can match Achilles at arms. Hector is a brilliant threat, because he connects with Achilles on so many levels. The two are mirrors of each other. Both are princes. Both are unwilling participants in the war. Hector only fights because he feels familial obligation to defend his brother Paris (though he daily advises Paris to give up Helen, whom he stole in the first place, and therefore save thousands of lives). Achilles is refusing to fight because he fell in love with a Trojan woman, Briseis. But even before then, he only came along to the war because of the false promises of Odysseus, so was never fully committed to the cause anyhow. Both men have two key people they are passionately devoted to. In Achilles’ case, the young boy Patroklus, his best friend and lover, and Briseis, his other Trojan lover. In Hector’s case, his wife Andromache and his son Astyanax.

Yet the two are not only mirrors but polar opposites. Achilles is thuggish and dishonourable, defiling corpses and throwing tantrums. Hector is noble and spares the defenceless. Achilles’ two “loves” are both sexual in nature (even if we read Patroklus in the crustiest classics professor way as a “best friend” and not homosexual lover, there is still a scene where he and Achilles both share women in the same bed together – so the relationship is sexual, whether or not the two themselves share intercourse). Hector’s loves are familial, however: son and wife.

But perhaps most importantly, Achilles is a demigod, born of Thetis, the Nymph. Hector is mortal. In this way, Hector almost represents Achilles’ own fears of mortality, the fragility of life. Achilles believes himself invulnerable, but he has also been told by Thetis that he will die young if he goes to war. The story of Homer’s Iliad, without the context of other epics in the Trojan saga, is of a man being humanised by confronting death. In the end, after Achilles kills Hector and defiles his corpse for days on end, he finally is moved to tears by the grief of Old Priam, Hector’s father and Lord of Troy. He comes to understand that his own sense of loss for Patroklus is shared by others, who are suffering and have also lost love ones, and indeed, Achilles himself has caused much of this suffering. He returns Hector’s body to Priam, and the gods work a miracle whereby Achilles’ cretinous defacing of Hector’s corpse is undone, so that the hero can be given a proper funeral. It’s perhaps Achilles’ first noble and empathetic act.

Of course, it’s also possible to read The Iliad the other way. Or rather, from the Trojan perspective. Hector is the noble hero, and Achilles is the “threat” or “monster” that waits for him. Achilles represents Hector’s own repressed emotions: rage and sexuality, all of which have been subsumed by endless duty to his father, to his brother, and to Troy. Such deep readings, some might even say falsely anachronistic in their use of psychology to analyse a text that predates Freud by nearly 2,500 years, are only possible because of the way Homer connects the threat and his character.

So, as writers, we need to learn from this. If we want to create meaningful stories, we have to make sure that our characters inhabit a tale that was made specifically for them. The threat has to be not only relevant to the characters or protagonist, but part of them. The threat is self-generated. We each create the horror that we must one day face. In that way, perhaps the most archetypal example of this I can give is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What monster has your protagonist birthed, and how does it return to dog their steps?

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Review – Steve Stred’s The Stranger

My first introduction to Steve Stred was his novella The Girl Who Hid In The Trees. That novella was one that took me completely by surprise. It depicted a group of children, troubled by disappearances, who end up spending a night in the woods to disprove a local legend. What follows is a series of horrific encounters that flay the mind of the reader. The most impressive thing about the novella was the way it developed its characters, and the relationships between them, in such a short space; an all-too-convincing portrayal of adolescent anxiety, love, and friendship. The other thing that impressed me was Stred’s ability to ‘go there’. We see some pretty horrifying things happen to these people we come to care about. I greatly admired Stred’s fearlessness.

I knew that Stred was a major talent working in the field of horror from that moment. So, when I saw he had released another novel, titled ominously The Stranger, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy.

The Stranger sees us returning to the woods, which seem to be a source of anxiety or perhaps intrigue for the author. This time, we follow a family: Malcom, a hard-working but racist son-of-a-bitch, his wife Sam, and his two children, Britney and Tom. The family spends every year at the same nature resort. It’s almost as if Malcom is drawn to this place, though he isn’t sure why. He assumes it’s just because of the hiking, nature trails, and bike paths.

This year, however, things are different. The camp is being run by a strange man in an expensive suit and a necklace of what looks like (surely it can’t be) human teeth. And, even more to Malcom’s annoyance, they have a new neighbour, a native American man called Wandering River that Malcolm instantly dislikes. Steve deftly portrays the inherent racism at play without laying it on too thick. He drops us subtle clues throughout about Malcom’s attitudes and motivations which explain his actions and behaviours later on.

We sense Malcolm’s distain not only towards Native Americans, but also towards his environment. In other hands, Steve’s two big themes: our environmental footprint and the lack of equality in modern society, could be clunky or even preachy, but he ensures that we are invested in the characters and that the story itself remains king. Throughout, we alternate between sympathy and loathing, between understanding and repulsion. These undertones build along with the horror-tension, until one explosive scene where all hell breaks loose, and Malcolm and his family will never be the same again.

You see, Malcolm’s family take something from one of the ancient structures lying in the depths of the park. Now, the spirit that presides over the forest, the being known only as The Stranger, must take something from them…

Steve Stred’s handling of the supernatural elements in The Stranger is so potent it’s alarming, genuinely making me want to turn the light on at night. He shifts genre effortlessly: from family drama with racial undertones, to explosive Evil Dead-style splatterpunk, to a dark quest into an almost fantastical landscape. His explosive storytelling feels a little like the pacy prose of the great Carlton Mellick III, but with an added mix of bleak Japanese horror (Stred’s horror is similarly all-powerful and inescapable, which makes it all the more terrifying). The Stranger is even more effective than The Girl Who Hid In The Trees because he holds back for the first third or so of the book, building our expectation to excruciating levels. There are so many memorable moments in this story, both of the horrifying and emotive kind. His unflinching portrayal of loss and human suffering sets him apart from many other writers.

Alongside asking us to care more about our environment and our fellow man and woman, Stred asks some other big and bold questions. He asks whether its really is possible to redeem ourselves, and whether any apology is sufficient make up for catastrophic wrongs. He asks the question of what a creator of a universe might look like once they realise how screwed up human beings have become. And, he asks us to look at ourselves, because as we discover in The Stranger, can we really be sure who we are anyway?

In a way, I guess, the real stranger is the one we are to ourselves.