The Dead House: a random purchase – an unexpected pleasure!
The Dead House by debut author Dawn Kurtagich is not your average narrative. In fact, it reads more like a screenplay than a novel. The story presents itself as a volume of evidence in a criminal investigation against Kaitlyn Johnson, wanted for burning down her boarding school and for the death of several people.
But Kaitlyn isn’t real.
Or is she?
The Dead House inside jacket/back of book blurb:
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.
I purchased a hard copy of The Dead House when my local Indigo Chapters ran an inventory discount. I liked the look of the cover, and the theme of the book (dark, ghost-story, teen/YA horror).
Through the “evidence,” Kurtagich unravels the complicated lives Carly and Kaitlyn Johnson. She leaves us guessing: are they two souls in one body or alternative selves in a girl with dissociative identity disorder (aka split personality)?
If Carly has DID, she has a very unique case, for when the sun goes down, Carly disappears and Kaitlyn emerges. However, few people know of Kaitlyn’s existence until her nightly wandering leads to dark magic being used against her.
The layers and mystery in this story intrigued me. What started as a story of dual-self becomes a who-done-it mystery of spiritual magic and demons. Kaitlyn falls into a depression fraught with hallucination – or is it demonic possession?
The Dead House is not a difficult read, but it isn’t light and fluffy either. Plot twists abound and the freak-out factor is not for the faint of heart.
Fictional religious elements add interest to the story, but are without significant explanation. Kurtagich implies the magic comes from Celtic sources (on the imaginary remote Scottish island of Fair Island, and not the actual Fair Isle in Sheltand). One thing threw me off. The main demon figure is Aka Manah, an Old Persion/Iranian demon. We read more of Kaitlyn’s state of chaotic mind than about this unusual connection between (implied) Celtic and Persian religious pantheons. Hopefully, I’ll better understand after reading Kurtagich’s upcoming work The Nadia Tapes. Nadia is the character that introduces the religious element of the story.
I can easily see this book made into a movie, especially since there isn’t a lot of transposition of dialogue required (and there’s the familiar trope of a Ouija/Spirit board in use at a Hallowe’en party that never ends well). I think the lack of descriptive narrative is my biggest disappointment with the book. There are elements of Kurtagich’s descriptive talent with lines like: “They switched the outside lights on tonight, so all the white-barked trees stand starkly orange under the new moon like lepers bent and twisted.” However, most of the book is dialogue/transcript/reporting, or self-reporting via diary entries, which do not highlight Kurtagich’s metaphorical talents.
Although I like how Kurtagich conveys the progress of Carly/Kaitlyn, the volume of evidence that *is* the story is very fact-based sharing of information. I wanted to read more of Carly/Kaitlyn and her relationship with the other students, and her younger sister (now adopted into another family), in order to make the ending more satisfying. The hard copy is 400+ pages, most of which could be trimmed down (dare I say omitted?) if the story contained more narrative rather than photocopies of post-it notes, scrap paper, reports and transcripts, plus photographs and doodles. I’m glad I bought it on sale, because had I paid full hard copy price of $18+ plus tax, I might have regretted spending the extra money on the “visual ambiance,” even though I understand the appeal.
This book has a plot that keeps you coming back. The end of The Dead House is less satisfying than it’s somewhat slow build-up. Carly/Kaitlyn’s conclusion is fairly open-ended, as such stories often are. Some parts left me unsatisfied. Although we know at the onset that Carly/Kaitlyn’s parents are dead, their death and Kaitlyn’s reaction is not well explained. This may be intentional, but it’s not clear. There is also the question of why people have been disappearing on the grounds of Carly/Kaitlyn’s school for 20 years following the Johnson incident. Is this an allusion to another book?
I like the way Carly and Kaitlyn communicate. They are opposite sides of one coin, but neither is a caricature of the other. The girls, and what they experience, feel very real – even when Kaitlyn develops her own imaginary friend. However, the support cast, in particular those who play significant roles, are not similarly fleshed out. They could also be more diverse, but parts of the UK, diversity is not as widely represented as larger cities, so I can see how the characters would “fit” the country’s current demographics. However, all of the characters are able-bodied, with neurotypical development, even if the main character has significant psychological issues (…or does she?).
Overall, The Dead House by Dawn Kurtagich is worthwhile if you like mysterious, Gothic fiction. When you read it, be sure to pay attention to the dates provided because the segments aren’t in chronological order. I enjoyed reading this book and look forward to reading more of Kurtagich’s work.
contains: horror, gore, violence, strong language, implied sexual acts
WARNING: AmazonCA lists this in sub-genres of “Children’s Books” and I think that is VERY misleading. There is nothing child-like about this book or its contents.