When I snagged an ARC of this out of the Happiness Box (it's what I've taken to calling the plain cardboard box that work ARCs come in), I had every intention of reading it right away. And then fifty other books walked into my life and I shelved this, knowing that I could always come back to it. I didn't know that it was a found-diary-format novel, in which case I'm sure I would have gobbled it up much sooner. But none of my timing issues would mitigate the slightly sour aftertaste that this left. Looking at other readers' reviews, I feel like I'm the only one who didn't love this. Pessimistic Pamelibrarian strikes again!
To be clear, The Dead House is not a bad book. It kept me engaged throughout because I wanted to know what (if anything) would be revealed. But it is a thoroughly weird book, and not always in a good way. More like a "this needed a few more rounds of edits" way. There are so many subplots, including (BUT NOT LIMITED TO):
an evil house of the mind
a ghostly girl who's just a bloody torso
evil not-Ouija Ouija boards
evil foster parents
a raver guy named Viking.
So let's do this!
We begin with a report looking back on the anniversary of the "incident" at Elmbridge High School, which killed 3 students and left one (or two?) missing. Recently, the journal of the missing girl, Carly Johnson, was discovered and made public. Purportedly, it tells a story far worse than what the public knows.
This is a found-journal format book, and I really, really enjoy those. I appreciated the time taken to craft Carly's journal, which, at least in my ARC, looked like handwriting (but was legible--thank you, typesetter!) There were crossouts and blots and doodles--things you would find in a real journal. Kudos to the design team, because this is a pretty cool-looking book.
Via journal entires, transcripts, and hastily scribbled notes, we discover that Carly has DID (dissociative identity disorder). Her alter (ego) is Kaitlyn, a tormented risk-taker who only emerges into consciousness at night. Carly lives the day, Kaitlyn, the night. Carly/Kaitlyn strongly disagrees with the diagnosis of DID: they are two people, or souls, in the same body. C/K's psychiatrist tells her that eventually, as DID is treated, the alter is subsumed into the person's psyche and will cease to exist. Carly and Kaitlyn do not want this to happen ... or is that just Kaitlyn's opinion? They've always been together. They need each other, just as the light needs the dark.
This part of the book--Kaitlyn's dependecy on Carly and the ambiguous nature of their existence--was fascinating. It's a painful, unhealthy relationship between two minds inhabiting one body. The author notes that she has a family member with DID, so after reading that, I felt better about the main character struggling with this so violently.
The only other person who knows about this dual nature is Carly's best friend, Naida Chounan-Dupré, who is a Scottish witch. She practices mala (don't bother looking it up, because the author created it specifically for this book from "all the cultures I grew up with" because diversity?) as her grandmother taught her--but strictly the white magic type. You know, cantrips and little charms and seeing your "soul energy" and so forth.
Anyway, so Kaitlyn keeps coming out at night and communicating with Carly through their message book, but she does keep secrets. Like the quirky Dr. Watson-esque hipster guy she meets in a confessional and who is, naturally, super hot and into her. Eventually, she tells him about herself/selves.
One day, Kaitlyn wakes up in the morning. Oh no! Where is Carly? Who stole Carly? Her psych, Dr. Annabeth Lansing, explains that her personality is integrating, but she still needs to revert to being Carly-Carly instead of being Carly -pretending-to-be-Kaitlyn-to-hide-the-pain-Kaitlyn. I know. It's ... confusing. However, the journal entries chronicling this time period are frighteningly unhinged and very, very believable.
After a brief return to the hospital for treatment and a subsequent breakout, Kaitlyn seeks Naida's help in figuring out where Carly went. Naida, using her super mala skills, tells Kait that she's been possessed and that there is an evil mala practitioner who has taken Carly's soul.
Yep, we've gone straight off the rails into "let's demonize the mentally ill person!" land. That's one of my least favorite places to be, by the way. It's right up there with The Love Triangle and TSTL Territory. By turning Carly/Kaitlyn's struggles into a paranormal problem, the author both dismisses the very painful reality of living with mental illness--waving it away with the wand of "OH LOOK, MAGIC!"--and insinuates that people who are mentally ill are "just" demonized.
Again, maybe I'm more sensitive than most people, but when I was younger, someone told my mom that my little brother, who has BPD, was demonized. Excuse me? My little brother is not possessed. He has a genetic condition predisposing him to a chemical imbalance in the brain. There is no demon inside his head.
There's a lot of "blah blah I don't want to take my meds" stuff from Kaitlyn, and then the police accuse her doctor of over-medicating Carly, and I was like "Nope." A patient with Carly's level of mental breakage needs help. But it's pretty obvious that this is a no-drugs book, unless we are talking booze and pot, in which case, use away!
One of the early diary entries says: "There's a voice in my ear. His name is Aka Manah. I have never told Carly about him because--hello, crazy ... I know it's because of the drugs they give Carly. the Klonopin, the Xanax, and the Risperidone*." So your benzodiazepene, sedative, and anti-psych meds make an evil voice appear in your head? You've been reading the side effects labels, haven't you? And also all those websites about how drugs are evil but if you just sniff this essential oil you'll be totally fine! Admittedly, I'm touchy on the subject, given that my entire family suffers from one or more mental illnesses, and I take or have tried some of the meds Carly takes (not for the same reasons--I don't have DID!).
There's this very popular trope in fiction that people with mental illness shouldn't take meds or see doctors because they should just be themselves, man. Groovy, man. Every med is vilified as making a person feel "dull" or "sluggish." For many people, rebalancing the chemical wonkiness in their brains can save lives. And if it's your choice not to take meds and you want me to respect that, then you also need to respect my choice to take Prozac so I don't have suicidal ideation. Thanks.
The ending of the book is kind of a mess of weird (fake) Scottish rituals, murder, more murder, topped off with an unsatisfyingly ambiguous ending. Normally, I'm all about the ambiguity, but what failed me here was the intent. Movies or books that maintain a sense of ambiguity and confusion throughout and end that way have integrity. Veering off into Paranormaland and then hastily wrapping things up with a "So what do you think REALLY happened?" ending felt a bit lazy to me. Like, if you're going to go with paranormal, then commit.
If you want a good found-diary format book that's also spooky and unreliable, check out Ainslie Hogarth's darkly funny The Boy Meets Girl Massacre (Annotated), which I reviewed here. It's less flashy than The Dead House, but it's also a lot tighter and a lot spookier.
I received an ARC of this book from the publisher.
*Oddly, the author uses the generic name for the brand name drug Risperdal but capitalizes it. I know way too much about psych meds. Again, this was taken from an ARC so it could have been fixed in the final version.