Book Title The Dead House
Author: Dawn Kurtagich
Number of pages: 432
Part-psychological thriller, part-urban legend, this is an unsettling narrative made up of diary entries, interview transcripts, film footage transcripts and medical notes. Twenty-five years ago, Elmbridge High burned down. Three people were killed and one pupil, Carly Johnson, disappeared. Now a diary has been found in the ruins of the school. The diary belongs to Kaitlyn Johnson, Carly’s identical twin sister. But Carly didn’t have a twin . . .
Should this book be picked up? the tl;dr review:
– Story is presented through a series of evidence (e.g. diary entries, video and voice-call transcripts, news articles, etc.,)
– Unreliable narrator encourages skeptical hats be worn; revelations can be guessed at but does not dilute the end-game reveal
– There are unsettling moments but nothing crazy in terms of gore. Also, the entire story takes place at night basically, or in very dark, claustrophobic spaces
– Can be difficult to feel compassion for various characters/MC
– There is a supernatural touch to the evil within this story
Let me share some “lessons” The Dead House has taught me:
- Unreliable narrators are the reason why 10-foot poles exist.
- Having friends interested in witchy woo-woo dark magic means you’re setting yourself up to die.
- Vlogging the supernatural is just not a good idea. “Let me just pull out some EVIL from my back-pocket…”—like, why is this even a thing?
- Attending parties with underage substance use underscores bad shit happening. Moderation is a myth.
- When you find out your school is connected with a hospital, you should make immediate plans to book it to Mars.
- Cancel any plans you have of being a criminal profiler. Because you won’t succeed.
- Schrödinger’s Cat lived and died for you, so why would you open up some sketchy artifact-diary? Just don’t. Or do? (R.I.P you.)
Full disclosure: I received an advanced reader copy of The Dead House from the Book Blog Ontario Meet-Up. I extend thanks to Little Brown Books for providing me with the opportunity to review this book.
One walks in the light; the other at night. They are the same. They are not the same. They are the same. “Soon!” she tells her; scattered messages left unanswered in an empty home. The hours blend—day into night, night into day—a Voice watches on and only one remains.
What stands out in The Dead House is that 95% of everything takes place at night or in some claustrophobia-inducing room. Read that over again. By having the MC [basically] living in the darkness, our reading senses become heightened because as far as horror goes…you KNOW almost every single fucking bad thing that has ever happened occurs at night. The boarding school itself isn’t anything special, so the grit, grime and historic appeal of the weathered building and dingy deadness that surrounds the building feels organic. Moreover, its horror but it’s not shit-your-pants-scary, or gory for that matter; just unsettling [and at times] a mind-fuck of a scene/revelation.
Kurtagich’s The Dead House reads like a folder of evidence (e.g. diary entries, video and voice-call transcripts, news articles, etc.,) and you, the reader, are the Sherlock-ian detective scrutinizing the details therein. This is where the story shines; not as a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, but as a compilation of various writing structures that lives and dies by the reader’s rationalization as details becomes known. There’s a natural progression in timeline made clear by “before/after” notes so it’s not incredibly difficult to follow. In all: it’s fun, well paced, a bit sinister, but nevertheless a page-turning experience.
That being said, while it’s easy to accept (or grow accustomed to) knowing that the voice is speaking/writing to the diary (addressing “Dee” as the viewer of thoughts); the portrayal itself was often perplexing to conceptualize. To explain: many of the entries feel like word-for-word verbatim of the events themselves as opposed to remembering key facts and ideas for a journal. It ultimately suspends belief when even conversations are keenly noted. There was no indication of the MC having eidetic memory…so it feels weird that everything was meticulously recorded.
With unreliability at the forefront of dissociative personalities, the skeptical hat you wear reading Carly/Kaitlyn’s perspective transfers over to the other cast like a cautionary coping mechanism. That being said, the writing is strong enough that even if you’re able to predict the outcome, it doesn’t dilute the storytelling from being what it is.
(This next comment is difficult to explain.)
While it is true that horror equates to death [usually], it’s power in delivery comes from when you grow attachment to the characters—to care for them. In the case of The Dead House, it just didn’t matter to me if they died. I could sympathize with their struggles but it was an “okay, they died, moving on” type of situation. Feeling the heebee jeebies is expected. Heck, even rooting for the MCs is a prerequisite. But compassion is rare. At its core, I think further detailing to the back-story of their already deceased parents would have helped. Not info-dumpy per se but something to tide over the frustrations and emptiness experienced by the protagonist to actually hold meaning.
Through all the supernatural scares that surprise readers, everything is a bit easygoing and fails to deliver a one-two punch of an urban legend-ish that could apply elsewhere in the world (or in your own home). I’ve accepted that there’s always going to be one guru character that seems to have all the knowledge. That’s a fact, really. But the actual entity itself—for me—lacked detailing to give it that timeless quality in continuously tormenting others. That’s what makes horror truly bone-chilling: living in another reader’s dreamscape, on and on. I sort of got that…but also not really. Otherwise, the style of writing and mediums of portrayal in The Dead House still makes for a strong horror read particularly in YA-fiction.
This is a title you’ll want to have for Halloween. It’s a badass debut that does one thing right: it makes you want to read the story again to find Easter eggs as if you’ve missed something—even if you’re stepping back into the depths of hell again—because unreliability, at its best, will always mean you’ll walk away with more questions than answers.