‘Yesternight, upon the stair, I saw a girl who wasn’t there. She wasn’t there again today, I wish, I wish, she’d go away.’
On February 2nd 2005, Elmbridge High School was mysteriously burned to the ground. Three people lost their lives, twenty others were injured, and one simply disappeared.
That person was Carly Johnson, a former patient of Claydon Youth Psychiatric Facility, and student at Elmbridge. For twenty-five years she has been blamed for the fire, but now, with the discovery of her journal, footage from a fellow student’s school project, medical notes from her time at Claydon, and police transcripts from the time of the incident, the truth will be uncovered at last.
Normally when I review a book, I like to think a bit about other books that are similar; it’s a great way to get a bit of perspective when deciding what rating to give it, and it’s also useful in helping other readers to judge, based on my review, whether this a book they’d enjoy.
As far as The Dead House is concerned, I have failed miserably to think of anything to compare it to, because it is quite unlike any book I’ve ever read.
And it is brilliant.
First, however, I have to mention how beautiful this book is.
The entire thing has been artworked meticulously with burn marks and coffee cup rings, while the fonts change from page to page, depending on what you’re reading: if it’s a police transcript, it’s a typewriter font, if it’s a post-it note, it’s handwritten. The whole thing has been lovingly designed so as to give the impression of a report compiling all the evidence leading up to the fire, and I have to commend Orion Publishing for producing such a stylised book. These are the kinds of books that get kids reading, ones that exude imagination, and I only hope we’ll see more of them in the future.
Anyway, back to the story itself.
Which is terrifying.
I was initially unsure how much I was going to get into this book; being written in text extracts and audio/video transcripts, I feared it might lead to a very detached reading experience. Oh how wrong I was; at one point I had to force myself to put the book down because I knew I was going to have nightmares if I continued to read on before bed! Somehow, and I don’t quite know how she’s done this, but Dawn Kurtagich has written a truly terrifying book. I’ve always believed horror stories were best when they’re chock full of disturbing, and incredibly vivid, description, but apparently I was wrong. In actual fact it turns out that reading a video transcript of a scene in which there’s a creepy girl hiding in someone’s closet, is much more unsettling. Incidentally, I have not opened my own closet since.
What makes this book so clever, however, is Kaitlin. Kaitlin is Carly. Except she’s not. Carly’s best friend believes Kaitlin and Carly are two souls in one body, with Carly coming out by day, Kaitlin by night, but according to the doctors at Claydon, Kaitlin doesn’t exist; they believe that she is an alternative identity created by Carly as a result of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).
This idea alone is a brilliant premise for a book, but to make things even more interesting, the entire book is told from Kaitlin’s perspective. Reading from the point-of-view of a character who is consistently being told she doesn’t exist, and not only that, but who is being blamed for all the disturbing things that keep happening, makes for an incredibly fascinating read, because you just don’t know who to believe.
The plot itself is terrifying and intricate, and, although I don’t want to go into it and spoil anything, because this is a book that’s best to go into blind, I will say I was gripped from start to finish, and when it did finish, I just wanted to flip back to the beginning and start again. It is unpredictable, and incredibly clever, not least because of it’s style of narrative, and I repeatedly found myself gasping (and jumping) in shock, as bit by bit the mystery unfolded in ways I never imagined.
I cannot stress enough how refreshingly brilliant The Dead House is. YA Horror is a genre which is immensely under-appreciated, but with books like this around, I don’t see that lasting long. Dawn Kurtagich writes with real intelligence, but also with a sensitivity that shines through in spite of the book’s disturbing nature and unique structure. It is not for the faint-hearted, and anyone with as active imagination as I have will have fun sleeping at night, but any loss of sleep is completely worth it, because this is a book you need to read.
This is part of a series of reviews I am writing leading up to YA Shot, a UK day-long convention celebrating Young Adult and Middle Grade literature, which takes place on October 28th 2015.
To read more reviews from authors attending the convention, click here.