Over two decades have passed since the fire at Elmbridge High, an inferno that took the lives of three 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.
I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher (Little, Brown Books & The Novl) in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Personal Enjoyment: ●●●●○
Writing Quality: ●●●●○
Let me start by saying The Dead House by Dawn Kurtagich is a very special book to me– not only was it the first ARC I ever received from the publisher, but it was also a book I’ve been eagerly anticipating. It has three things that will always reel me in: mixed-media formatting, psychological thriller/supernatural horror in young adult lit, and an unreliable narrator. Though we’re given the ending (tragic fire, students dead) from the beginning, don’t mistake its inevitable conclusion for this story being at all predictable.
We are given the story in the form of incomplete diary entries, police interviews, psych evaluations, and sticky notes passed between two “sisters,” Carly and Kaitlyn. The problem is, Kaitlyn isn’t supposed to exist. Is she an alter-ego created out of deep psychological trauma? Is she a second spirit sharing Carly’s body? The best part of this book was that, in the end, I still didn’t know for sure.
The Dead House definitely kept me up at night. When I’m genuinely scared, I can’t just stop in the middle of things! I have to see them through to the resolution. Unfortunately for me, this book is long; some people can read 400 pages in one sitting, but alas, I am not one of them. Fortunately (or maybe still unfortunately), it was kind of needlessly long. I felt that Carly/Kaitlyn’s stay in the psych ward (not a spoiler, it’s where the story begins), especially, could have been much shorter because, for the most part, it was just maintaining the creepy atmosphere instead of adding anything to the story. But because of the extra length where nothing much of importance happened, I could more easily put the book down in the middle to go to sleep.
This isn’t a book that will hand you all the answers, but I feel like that is typical for supernatural horror, psychological thrillers, and weird fiction. I think boxing it into just one genre is doing this book a disservice– you should read it and decide for yourself where you think it fits best. However, I did feel some aspects just didn’t fit in nicely with the rest of the story. Some plot points felt like a convenient way to further the creepy atmosphere of the novel and get things moving in the story, but they didn’t resolve nicely or add up with everything else in the world.
I also noticed that because the story leaned too long in the direction of one genre, too much information was tacked on at the end to push it back towards the possibility of being another. This final extra insight into the story ultimately gave the impression that too much was hidden from the very beginning, and I feel it would have been far more convincing had we been given all the information at the start. Nevertheless, this was a book that kept me guessing until the very end, and even after I had finished it, I was still second-guessing myself.
One of my favorite things about this book was the number of times I found myself cheering for the characters, hopeful that everything would work out alright in the end. I really felt for Kaitlyn, as our primary narrator, and I feel the story would not be quite so convincing without her strong voice. She was a tragic and misunderstood character, and, regardless of what exactly she was and how she came to be, she felt so real.
Finally, the book itself was beautifully crafted, and I’m so glad more YA authors are playing with mixed-media formatting. I loved getting to see all the different bits of evidence– from psych evaluations to eye-witness accounts. However, I do feel the story would have been enhanced with a bit of traditional narration. There are limits to what can be said through diary entries, and sometimes Kaitlyn’s memory was a bit too descriptive. The photo evidence, as well, felt a bit staged for dramatic effect, and occasionally the textual description of camera placement didn’t match the angle of the photo. In one particular instance there is a close-up shot of a dark wardrobe– while this image was striking, I don’t remember any textual evidence to explain why the camera would be so focused on the wardrobe when the majority of the events described would require a broader view of the entire room. This may seem like nit-picking, but because the entire novel was formatted as a case file, I subconsciously began to look for things that didn’t fit into a case file.
This book is already out in the UK, but for those of us in the US, it will be out on September 15, 2015. I will definitely be picking up a finished copy to read and love all over again.