I cannot resist a book with a creepy cover – especially if there’s a creepy house or building on it and so even though I’d heard nothing about this book and had never heard of its author, I took a chance on Dawn Kurtagich’s debut novel, The Dead House.
The premise is that investigators are looking into the death of three students at Elmbridge High, a boarding school in Somerset, England. The school was destroyed by fire. In order to unravel the story they have gathered police interviews, personal diaries, notes and video tape footage which has been transcribed (although it might have been cool to include links to a site to watch the tape). The incident happened over twenty years ago and as the report statement reveals “little was revealed about the tragedy.”
The incident has been something of an urban legend connecting Kaitlyn Johnson, “the girl of nowhere” to the blaze. When her diary is found in the rubble, it spurs a new investigation into what actually happened in the days leading up to the fire.
Readers will know they’re not in Kansas anymore from the book’s opening pages. First of all, we’re at the Claydon Mental Hospital. Kaitlyn has written in her diary:
I am myself again.
Carly has disappeared into the umbra, and I am alone. Ink on my fingers – she’s been writing in the Message Book.
Good night, sis! she writes. We’ll be back at school soon. I can’t wait.
Turns out Kaitlyn and Carly are one and the same. Carly, sweet and shy, inhabits the day and Kaitlyn, a little tougher around the edges, inhabits the night. Dr. Lansing, their psychotherapist, says that Kaitlyn is a product of trauma, a personality born of a personal tragedy. The two personalities communicate via a message book. They remind each other of people they’ve met, food they’ve eaten and the minutiae of daily life. Their separate lives happily co-exist.
But then Carly seems to go ‘missing’ and that’s when things take a decided turn into the weirder. Dr. Lansing considers the disappearance of one personality a breakthrough. She tells Kaitlyn, “Carly is letting you go. It has to happen. It will feel like abandonment, it will be so hard. But, eventually, you’ll find peace. You’ll integrate. Absorb.”
Kaitlyn is convinced that that is not what is happening. She thinks Carly is trapped in the “dead house” and she has to rescue her. Kaitlyn isn’t alone. Naida, Carly’s best friend, is also sure that something sinister is going on – something to do with powerful dark magic.
Whichever way you read The Dark House, as a novel about mental illness or a supernatural horror story, Kurtagich’s novel is unusual and compelling, if not always comprehensible.