Book Review: The Dead House by Dawn Kurtagich

I. Do. Not. Know. What.  To. Think.

Seriously, I can’t even give this book a star rating. I’m too conflicted.

Release date: September 15, 2015

cover the dead house

Amazon Description

Three students: dead.
Carly Johnson: vanished without a trace.
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.
Carly gets the day. Kaitlyn has the night. It’s during the night that a mystery surrounding the Dead House unravels and a dark, twisted magic ruins the lives of each student that dares touch it.
Debut author Dawn Kurtagich masterfully weaves together a thrilling and terrifying story using psychiatric reports, witness testimonials, video footage, and the discovered diary – and as the mystery grows, the horrifying truth about what happened that night unfolds.

My Review

I’ve started jotting down a quick Pro/Con list after I read a book that I later expand into a review to post. Problem is, for every pro I wrote down, there was a corresponding con. I honestly cannot decide if I loved this book or hated it. When I went to give the book a star rating, I literally write I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO THINK instead.

I’m breaking this down into matching pros and cons. You can decide if you think the pros or the cons win.

Pro: This book is hands down the creepiest thing I’ve ever read.

I don’t watch horror movies. I don’t read thrillers or horror novels. But when I was asked if I wanted to read an ARC of The Dead House, I decided I was game to try out a new genre.

Holy crap. I would have read this book in one sitting, except that I honestly had to put it down every few hours. It was too dark to absorb in large quantities. Everything about this book is creepy–the paranormal angle, the mental illness angle, the characters, even the format (diary entries, transcribed interviews and video clips) became disturbing.

In being a scary-AF book, The Dead House succeeded. A++

Con: Monotone creepiness.

As I said, everything about this book was creepy. Which, unfortunately, made the creepiness somewhat monotone. There was no rise or fall, no happier moments where I could take a deep breath that could later be knocked out of me. It was scary 100% of the time, which “weakened” the scariness. I wanted happy moments, not just to give my soul a moment to recover, but so that the creepy moments would be more impactful.

Pro: The Carly/Kaitlyn premise was so cool. 

I loved the two souls in one body (or two personalities in one body, if you’re a psychologist) idea. From the first page, I loved and empathized with Kaitlyn–the girl stuck in the dark. The dynamic between Carly and her was starkly human: both of them love each other like sisters even though they’ve never met, but Kaitlyn is also incredibly jealous of her sister for being the “real” one. They were both struggling to hide Kaitlyn and keep themselves out of the loony bin, but they were also permanently separated, and thus they could never have a transparent relationship. There were secrets from the get go, and they only continued to mount as the story went on.

Con: Carly was never a part of the story.

Since the story is driven by Kaitlyn’s diary entries, Carly is actually a minor part of the plot. Notes she leaves for Kaitlyn and a few diary entries of hers are included, but that is the only contact the reader gets with Kaitlyn’s other half. Carly’s fellow students mention her second-hand, but I still felt that there was a Carly-shaped hole in the story. I never “met” her, I never connected to her, and I never fell in love with her, so ensuing plot lines were weakened because my heartstrings weren’t as tied to Carly as they were to her sister.

Pro: Dossier format was interesting and Kurtagich “pulled it off.” 

The book is a dossier of evidence collected about the case–Kaitlyn’s journal, footage from Nadia, and various interviews conducted by the police–as well as commentary from the dossier’s compiler and from psychological experts. Everything is organized chronologically and weaves together to tell a masterful story.

I was amazed at how effectively random pieces of paper could convey a story. Jumping back and forth between different forms of evidence was never distracting or confusing. The way the dossier was compiled added to the aforementioned creepiness of the story.

Con: The dossier format kept me “out” of the story. 

Nothing in the dossier is truly reliable. Kaitlyn wrote her journal entries after the things happened, and no one forced her to write down every detail, or the cold hard facts–just her impressions. Nadia’s footage obviously couldn’t record everything. The other transcripts and interviews rely on people being honest and the interviewer asking the right questions–neither of which happened.

I felt like I was never connected to the real story. Everything felt second hand and untrustworthy. The dossier format was interesting, but it also separated me from the story; we never got any scenes that were happening “live,” never got to fully connect to the story.

It also struck me as unrealistic that Kaitlyn would write down everything that she did in her diary, and that Nadia would record everything that she did. The two most prominent forms the story was told in often came across as a stretch.

Pro: This book is POWERFUL. 

You can tell how ramped up this book got me. In that sense, I have to love this book. Any story that makes me shake with half-formed thoughts (*activating fangirl mode*) is a good one. This story hit me in the fact over and over, grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go. If you like being emotionally and mentally pummeled by the books you read, pick up this book right now (or in September, when it hits the shelves). I know I won’t be forgetting this book for a looong time.

Con: Some parts of the plot missed the mark.

The romance was a big part of the plot that didn’t work for me. I liked the love interest (Ari) in the beginning, but the more intimate their relationship became, the less I cared for it. A major cause of this is that dossier format. It’s not like Kaitlyn is going to write down minute details about her relationship with Ari, because she’s  the one living it, and videos of their time together don’t give the viewer a sense of the emotions each is feeling. I was told of their love, not shown it by the story, and subsequently I just didn’t care about it that much.

The deaths in this book lacked ceremony. While I understand that the point was that the circumstances surrounding the deaths were vague and unknown, it still bothered me that deaths were announced in pasted-in notes. If a character’s death is going to affect me, it has to take up more than a sentence of the novel.

Pro: The paranormal aspects were unique.

Scottish voodoo. You read that right. This book surrounded a type of magic that I’d never even heard of. The paranormal elements that grew out of this were unique and compelling. It was refreshing to see a YA plot surround a mythology that isn’t Greco-Roman.

Con: I didn’t follow the paranormal plot line very well.

To be honest, all of the paranormal bits in the plot were confusing. There’s a house, a girl, a snake. Then the magic workers have like five different names, which were never explained clearly enough for me to remember the nuances (and the nuances were important). I understood the broad strokes of what was going on–enough to enjoy the story–but I wish more of the paranormal elements of the plot had been slowed down and explained. The story could have been richer if I’d been able to follow it.

Pro: I don’t know what to think.

This book is a constant battle between conflicting views of the “Johnson Incident.” The police and psycologists consulted in the dossier believe that everything can be explained by various characters suffering from various mental illnesses. The characters themselves, however, believe that everything is caused by paranormal occurances, namely Scottish Mala voodoo.

Both sides are supported during the dossier. Neither “wins.” And it drove me crazy. I’m still thinking about it. I don’t know what I think (as you can tell).

The Dead House is a giant questionaire: what do you think happened? And it does an A+ job asking that question and leaving the reader unable to answer it.

Con: I don’t know what to think.

I like closure. I like it when books ask questions because I can trust the answers will be surprising. This book doesn’t have answers–or really, it has too many answers to choose from. I wanted to be thrown a bone that pushed me toward one side or the other, and while a few pieces at the end could have been considered “evidence” for one side, I was still left unsatisfied. The Dead House is built of questions–ever increasing questions that leave the reader absolutely sure that there will be an incredible answer that ties everything together.

I’m still waiting for that answer.

Enjoyment of The Dead House comes down to one simple question:

Do you like unanswered questions?

If you like it when a book drops you off a cliff and leaves you with the sensation of falling and grasping for answers, then this book is great. If you have a lifelong struggle with closure and crave explanations and definite answers, this book might drive you insane.

I’m on the fence.

Is a book about the journey or the destination?

The journey–the majority of The Dead House–is captivating, chilling, and powerful. The ultimate destination–answers to the questions that the journey posed–is murky, and doesn’t really exist.


And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to have a mental breakdown trying to figure out where to put this book on my bookshelf (which I organize by how much I enjoyed each book).

I received an ARC of this book for free from Hachette Publishing at SDCC. (THANKS!) This in no way influenced my review.

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