The Dead House by Dawn Kurtagich book review

Conventional narrative is thrown out of the window in Dawn Kurtagich’s horror tale

Fans of unconventional story structure will want to pick up Dawn Kurtagich’s debut novel, The Dead House.

Told through a series of diary entries, transcribed videos and recorded police and psychiatric interviews, it explores the events that led to ‘the Johnson incident’, a fire at a school that left three students dead and one missing.

But it’s not just the novel’s epistolary nature that makes it unusual. What’s really weird is that large chunks of it are told from the perspective of someone who may not really exist.

Carly and Kaitlyn Johnson are sisters, of a sort: the two personalities share the same body, with Carly active in the day and Kaitlyn at night. According to her therapist, Kaitlyn is Carly’s alter ego, created when her parents died in a horrific accident.

Kaitlyn doesn’t agree. When a girl from her school goes missing, she’s a prime suspect – and when her friends try to use magic to help her out, everything goes horribly wrong.

Every diary entry and transcript is dated, with the number of days until the incident marked. But even without that device, it’d be pretty clear that nothing good was going to come of a bunch of teens helping a mentally ill girl avoid her doctor.

Though it’s suggested that Kaitlyn’s woes might be magical rather than psychological in nature, it’s hard to buy that line of argument while reading Kaitlyn’s increasingly disturbed diary entries.

The whole thing is distressing rather than scary, and older readers may find themselves wishing for a responsible adult to step in and stop these kids from ruining each other’s lives. But because of the book’s structure, you know that no one will.

As a literary experiment, it’s interesting; as a story, it’s too depressing to enjoy.