It was the cover, and the tag line “the girl of nowhere,” that snagged me when I was looking for something light to read, because as we all know, Young Adult horror novels are light reading. Well, Dawn Kurtagich’s debut novel, The Dead House, really is light reading, a horror tale with an intriguing twist that will have you wondering for at least a while.
Now I rarely venture into Young Adult territory, partly because I don’t know what can and can’t be included in it, and partly because my own reading habits didn’t develop that way. But The Dead House was just among the new releases at my local store, so I picked it up, only to see its category afterward. What does it mean in this case? It’s about teens in their last year of high school. It does talk about sex, a bit. And its take on identity issues probably would be more appealing to teens than any other group.
The back cover has R.L. Stine calling it “original.” Well, don’t get too worked up about that. The problem of the protagonist who’s not certain if she’s crazy or really dealing with magic has been around almost since the gothic novel was invented, and the use of documents, including newfangled technology, to tell the story can be traced back to Dracula and even before that to the epistolary novel.
Where Kurtagich deserves credit is in her treatment of her protagonist’s mental condition and in her use of magic. Carly Johnson is a split personality, with her alter ego named Kaitlyn. The relationship between these two is intriguing, especially as we get most of it from Kaitlyn. And then Kurtagich throws in a twist halfway through the novel which confuses even our protagonist as to just what she is. Kurtagich tends to rely on withholding information to build suspense, a technique I greatly dislike, but Carly/Kaitlyn’s odyssey is the real driver of suspense in the novel, and the reason I kept reading.
And then there’s the magic. Some people make a big deal of demanding that one have a full and novel system of magic behind one’s stories. That’s not here. Kurtagich deserves the credit for putting together a type of magic and backstory for it that combines Scotland with what looks to me to be voodoo. It’s not a fully fleshed out system, but then for the story it doesn’t have to be, and given what our characters know, it shouldn’t be shown as a complete system. Let’s be clear: the purpose of magic in a fantasy story is to allow the writer to bend reality in ways to further the story’s plot and themes without seeming arbitrary. And this Kurtagich does.
The Dead House wasn’t quite what I was expecting. But it’s an entertaining bit of horror. I found the psychological elements much more horrifying than the magic, but that’s me. And the conclusion, while finally a bit predictable, does take a satisfying route to get there. So here’s hoping Kurtagich’s next novel, which should have come out about now, builds on the more successful elements of this one.