115 – The Dead House by Dawn Kurtagich

The Dead HouseThree students: dead.
Carly Johnson: vanished without a trace.

Two decades have passed since an inferno swept through Elmbridge High, claiming the lives of three teenagers and causing one student, Carly Johnson, to disappear. The main suspect: Kaitlyn, “the girl of nowhere.”

Kaitlyn’s diary, discovered in the ruins of Elmbridge High, reveals the thoughts of a disturbed mind. Its charred pages tell a sinister version of events that took place that tragic night, and the girl of nowhere is caught in the center of it all. But many claim Kaitlyn doesn’t exist, and in a way, she doesn’t – because she is the alter ego of Carly Johnson.

Carly gets the day. Kaitlyn has the night. It’s during the night that a mystery surrounding the Dead House unravels and a dark, twisted magic ruins the lives of each student that dares touch it.

Debut author Dawn Kurtagich masterfully weaves together a thrilling and terrifying story using psychiatric reports, witness testimonials, video footage, and the discovered diary – and as the mystery grows, the horrifying truth about what happened that night unfolds.
Ugh, you guys, this was hella disappointing. I was so psyched for this book! It’s an epistolary horror novel, beautifully designed – seriously, if you even run across this at the library or a book store, take a moment to flip through it, because the graphical elements and typesetting for the bevy of notes, transcripts, and pictures is totally engaging. Anyway, the premise seemed solid – although as Ollie and I discussed in the last Papercuts Podcast episode, the potential for some mental illness fuckery was there.

Still, I was so hyped when I got my hands on this, I guzzled it all down in two days, and now I’m just… So disappoint First off, you guys should know that this book has like four different blurbs on Goodreads, and only one of them isn’t totally misleading. This was the one I got:
Over two decades have passed since the fire at Elmbridge High, an inferno that took the lives of five teenagers. Not much was known about the events leading up to the tragedy – only that one student, Carly Johnson, vanished without a trace…

…until a diary is found hidden in the ruins.

But the diary, badly scorched, does not belong to Carly Johnson. It belongs to Kaitlyn Johnson, a girl who shouldn’t exist. Who was Kaitlyn? Why did she come out only at night? What is her connection to Carly?

The case has been reopened. Police records are being reexamined: psychiatric reports, video footage, text messages, e-mails. And the diary.

The diary that paints a much more sinister version of events than was ever made publicly known.
There’re varying levels of detail, but three out of the four summaries come at it from essentially the same angle, and present the same questions as the premise: “who is Kaitlyn, what is she to Carly”, etc, etc.

Except that’s not what the book is about at all. This would be the more accurate summary:

Two decades have passed since an inferno swept through Elmbridge High, claiming the lives of three teenagers and causing one student, Carly Johnson, to disappear. The main suspect: Kaitlyn, “the girl of nowhere.”

Kaitlyn’s diary, discovered in the ruins of Elmbridge High, reveals the thoughts of a disturbed mind. Its charred pages tell a sinister version of events that took place that tragic night, and the girl of nowhere is caught in the center of it all. But many claim Kaitlyn doesn’t exist, and in a way, she doesn’t – because she is the alter ego of Carly Johnson.

Carly gets the day. Kaitlyn has the night. It’s during the night that a mystery surrounding the Dead House unravels and a dark, twisted magic ruins the lives of each student that dares touch it.
Sigh. The big question I’d been expecting the book to be centered around, answered right there in a blurb – in exactly the way I’d hoped it wouldn’t be.

Obviously none of this is the book’s fault, but it is another reminder that sometimes blurbs lie, and that having four different summaries for the same book on Goodreads is a terrible idea. Just an FYI for anyone who might be approaching the book the same way I did.

MOVING ON.

So yeah, page one, we learn that Carly, the personality/sister that is assumed default, but is not our perspective character, has been diagnosed with Disassociative Identity Disorder. The doctors assert that this is a recent thing, triggered by the trauma of her parents’ deaths, but Carly and her sister/alter Kaitlyn – our protagonist – insist that this isn’t so. According to them, they’ve lived their whole lives as two independent souls sharing the same body, with Carly active during the day, and Kaitlyn at night. oh yeah ok So not an ideal set-up. The book makes it clear both in and out of character that this isn’t the way that DID normally works, and in-text that is supposed to make you doubt the accuracy of the diagnosis. The primary mystery here is whether or not the girls are possessed rather than dissociative, and if the events of the book are supernatural in nature, or just a product of Carly/Kaitlyn’s troubled mind.

As promised, the book is told mostly through Kaitlyn’s diary, leaning heavily on the possibility of a delusional, unreliable narrator, with more “objective” sources, like video/interview transcripts, emails, and chat logs interspersed to balance that out.

So there’s absolutely a discussion to be had about the portrayal of mental illness here – or, at least, the use of pointedly-inaccurate DID as a plot device. It’s part of a larger discussion of the portrayal of mental illness in horror in general, and it’s one that I hope to have with Papercuts Podcast in the future, with people more qualified to speak on it than I am now.

I will say that in this particular case, I would have hoped for a little less trope-tastic portrayal of DID, specifically because Dead House is so firmly committed to not interpreting Kaitlyn’s experiences one way or the other. The book can easily be read as a tale of mishandled, unsupervised teens enabling one others’ paranoid delusions to tragic ends, and I feel that if you’re going to make that a viable interpretation, then the psychology needs to be solid. It shouldn’t hinge on a classically inaccurate version of that disorder that perpetuates a bunch of nasty stereotypes about already heavily stigmatized people.

But from what I gleaned from the author’s notes, it seemed like this was a case of concept first, justification later.

Anyway, even putting that whole mess aside, I still didn’t end up liking Dead House all that much just as a story. The book is meant to cover the hundred+ days between the start of Kaitlyn’s diary, as she goes back to school for the first time since her parents’ deaths, and the fire that it’s heavily implied, if not said outright, that she started. It’s supposed to engage us with the mystery of what went so wrong, but having finished it, I’m left feeling like it took way too long to make it to a payoff that wasn’t nearly worth the wait.

First off, Kait’s diary entries got ridiculously repetitive. Dozens of pages could go by without it feeling like anything was actually happening, and without any progress being made on the plot. Second, it didn’t feel like we really got down to brass tacks until the last quarter of the book at least, and then a TON of things were just dumped on us as though we hadn’t had an entire three-part introduction to get that ball rolling sooner.

Handy example: the book makes a point of being all mysterious about the ~three students~ who died in the inferno, but I didn’t even realize that we were probably supposed to be in suspense about which of Carly’s five-man band would survive because they barely make more than cameos until part four! Part four! AKA: every beat from a 90-minute possession flick squished into ~a hundred pages.

I appreciated a lot of the individual elements, some of the ideas, and the presentation, obviously, but Christ, I got so bored reading through this fuckin’ thing. I powered through it mostly because I expected some sort of resolution, you know, to literally anything: the mystery of Kaitlyn’s sanity, the significance of the mutilated ghost-woman she kept seeing, her parents’ deaths, but the book is so set against an explicit textual interpretation that we don’t get any real explanation for the mysteries that it felt like the book had been trying to set up. And again, I appreciate the idea of it all, the idea of just “presenting” evidence or whatever, but in this case I didn’t find it satisfying. The careful ambiguity was obnoxious, and the narrative reveal that we were given just wasn’t enough to make the previous four hundred pages worth it, mostly because it wasn’t even introduced until that last hundred.

Also, I have to throw in that this fucker has some of the worst forced love-interest banter that I’ve ever read. Seriously there are other ways for romantic interests to relate to one another than snark, jfc.

This was pretty much a bust for me. I was really hoping to at least get some atmosphere or creeps out of this one, but despite its valiant efforts, even that was a no-go. I’m on the fence as far as recommendation – I think this is probably the sort of book that other people might enjoy, and again, the presentation is A+. I think it might make an interesting movie, and you know what would have been neat? If there had been a way to actually view the transcribed video clips or interviews, like a QR link to an audio file or YouTube video or something. Hell, they could have at least made the MalaGenie.com website or whatever that was specifically mentioned in the text.

Come to think of it, why is Night Film the only book to have made multimedia tie-in content a thing? DO MORE STUFF LIKE THAT, PUBLISHING INDUSTRY, THAT SHIT IS COOL. It would have bumped this up at least a star.

Anyway, Dead House: I wasn’t anything but disappointed, but you know, YMMV. Just make sure you read the right blurb before you buy.

TWO STARS

Two Stars

 

3 Responses

  1. Azure

    October 16, 2015 7:40 pm, Reply

    I put a theory on my Livejournal that blurbs lie to you if the blurb writer didn’t care or if it was a bad book, the writer didn’t know what to write, so they made up whatever. Four blurbs is rather excessive and spoiling a plot point, what the heck?

    So Carly/Kaitlyn is Jeanette and Therese from Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines? Is there a symbolic death to one personality, allowing the survivor to be the dominant personality?

    • Cyna Cyna

      October 17, 2015 1:33 am, Reply

      Oh no see that’s the thing, the version that “spoils” the plot point is the most accurate one, because the thing it spoiled, the thing I thought WOULD be a plot point, was not actually a plot point after all. Looking at the variety in the blurbs, I suspect it might HAVE been a plot point in earlier drafts tho.

      Well, SPOILERS, but the Carly personality disappears, which triggers the second act. Kaitlyn rejects the psychological explanation and grasps on to the theory that they’re being magically fucked over by (made-up) Irish voodoo, and she and her roommate basically ruin everything trying to get Carly back.

  2. ketkitamhankar17

    July 8, 2016 6:32 am, Reply

    Hey I agree with your review, I wanted to add something. The big reveal of how the parents died… was so anticlimactic that I wasn’t even surprised. It wasn’t everything it was made out to be. Also the reveal of who had done what to cause the supernatural occurrences to happen were also super confusing and not engaging because it just all muddled and off track. There was no thoughtful guessing game to help understand the mystery of who the “bad guy” was. Anyway, this is a bit jumbled as it’s quite late at night. Cheers!

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