Book Review: The Dead House, Dawn Kurtagich (2015)

September 16th, 2015 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

I’m the thing in the dark”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley, and a physical ARC from NOVL. Trigger warning for rape and other forms of violence.)

Could I pretend to be a regular girl who sleeps, who dreams, who has a life ahead of her instead of an existence in which she’s dragged around like an appendage by the one she loves most?

I curse anyone who reads this book.
If you touch it, hell will be waiting.
Screw you. Happy reading.

Carly and Kaitlyn Johnson are sisters – in a sense. The girls share a single body: Carly inhabits it during the day, and at night, she is “discarded” and Kaitlyn assumes control. Their psychiatrist, Dr. Lansing, believes that they have Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID, more commonly known as multiple personality disorder), brought on by the deaths of Carly’s parents – while Carly’s best friend Naida is convinced that they are two souls trapped in one body; a source of immense power that could make them a target for malevolent spirits and dark witches.

When Carly/Kaitlyn’s parents die in car accident, the girls are committed to Claydon Mental Hospital, where they come under the care of Dr. Lansing. She’s convinced that the trauma gave birth to the Kaitlyn “alter” – even though both girls insist that their condition predates the accident; that they’ve always been two. Yet two of the three people who could corroborate their story are dead; the third, their younger sister Jaime, is just a child, easily dismissed. And so they stay at Claydon, while Lansing tries to “reintegrate” their personalities. Once they’ve been deemed stable enough, the girls are sent to live at nearby Elmbridge High School in Somerset, a boarding school accustomed to taking in Claydon graduates.

As the story begins, Carly and Kaitlyn are readying for their return to Elmbridge for what will be their senior year. Keep their heads down, feed Lansing the lies she wants to hear – and when they turn 18, they can disappear into the streets of London, teeming with people 24-7 to meet both girls’ needs. But before the year is over, six (seven?) people will be dead, the entire girls’ wing of the dormitories burned to the ground. What was the impetus for the murders? Possession? Mass hysteria? A psychotic break? Black magic?

Twenty years have passed, during which time new information has shed a light (albeit a dim and fractured one) on what would eventually be known as “The Johnson Incident.” Told via a mix of diary entries, post-it notes, IMs, video footage (or rather, transcriptions thereof), police interviews, and news clippings, The Dead House is a mockumentary-type story; YA fiction’s answer to The Blair Witch Project.

I really appreciate the recent proliferation of unconventional YA books (or maybe they’ve always been around, and I’m just noticing): tales told through a series of uncovered (or covered-up) documents (The Dead House; the upcoming Illuminae); narratives supplemented by sketches, doodles, and other forms of graphic art (Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything); stories presented in a series of short poems (5 to 1; One). So I was pretty psyched about The Dead House (my exact words when I got my grubby paws on an ARC? “MY PRECIOUS!”). The expectations were sky-high…which is why I’m so bummed to be writing a 3-star review.

Writing middling, 3-star reviews is HARD. More often than not I have trouble pinpointing just what wrong for me. Also, it’s difficult to find anything meaningful to say about a story that doesn’t inspire strong feelings either way. And so it goes with The Dead House.

For whatever reason, the story just failed to grab me. I didn’t find it especially suspenseful or scary. Even those parts that should have creeped me the eff out – walls that rain blood; a girl severing her own tongue; potential animal sacrifice – barely registered on ye ole King-o-Meter.

The story is riddled with false leads that are disproved much too quickly, sometimes mere pages later. This killed any sense of suspense I felt and grew very boring, very quickly. I mean, the more suspects, the better! Right? There are a plethora of plot twists (good!) – but few of them seem to make any sense (bad!). By the time I reached the story’s climax, I’d been bombarded with so many suspects bearing flimsy motives that I didn’t much care anymore. The whole thing was just surprisingly underwhelming.

Aside from the format, the strongest aspect of the story for me was the relationship between Carly and Kaitlyn. The light half and the dark half. Warmth and sun and activity vs. cold and moon and isolation. Surely their partnership must be marked by conflict and jealousy as well as love and interdependence; each girl has things the other never will. Whatever one girl does to her body (not eat – Carly; self-harm – Kaitlyn) will be felt by the other. (Leading to a rather uncomfortable sequence when Kaitlyn has sex for the first time.)

And while we see shades of this ambivalence in Kaitlyn, the format of the story really restricts the degree to which we’re allowed to know Carly. The bulk of the story is told by Kaitlyn, through her diary entries; we get precious few glimpses of Carly’s personality at all. There’s the Message Book, of course, which hold great promise – but Carly’s notes are short and sparse. Another wasted opportunity.

So when Carly goes missing…eh. I didn’t care nearly as much as I should have.

The same is true of Kaitlyn’s relationship with Ari, which felt uninspired. There just wasn’t any spark there.

I’m also bummed that we didn’t get a larger window onto Carly’s friendship with Naida, especially given certain later revelations. I really wish Kurtagich had explored that angle in greater detail, rather than dishing and dashing, as it were.

The Dead House has a great premise but failed to deliver. That said, if you do decide to give it a try, do yourself a favor and get your hands on a physical copy. I’m a huge fan of ebooks, but this is one of those rare books whose pages scream to be turned by hand. The design is lovely, and the blank space and various fonts help to set the pace and mood. I don’t know how the craftier aspects of the book translate to an iPad, but I can tell you that it’s just not the same on a Kindle. If you do this, go all out.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Carly/Kaitlyn Johnson suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID, perhaps more commonly known as multiple personality disorder). Carly may be gay or bisexual; towards the end of the story, it’s revealed that she thinks she’s in love with her best friend, Naida. Brett sexually assaults her after figuring this out, and continues to harass Kaitlyn after Carly disappears. Carly is anorexic and Kaitlyn self-harms. Naida’s boyfriend, Scott Fromley, is described as “a lanky boy with dark skin, a little over six feet tall, with a slim frame and black hair.”

Animal-friendly elements: Everyone is appropriately horrified when Naida suggests they sacrifice a rooster (they choose to sacrifice personal items instead), but that’s about it.

 

Be Sociable, Share!

Filed under , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply