Tuesday, October 30, 2018


Title: The Dead House: A Novel
Author: Billy O'Callaghan
Publisher: Arcade Publishing
Pages: 224
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Dead House by Billy O’Callaghan is high on atmosphere and silent menace and manages to keep the tension high right up to the end.

The book is written from the first person past tense point of view of Michael Simmons, an art agent, married to Alison and the father of Hannah. Michael gets pulled into the drama of Maggie Turner, an artist-cum-friend, for whom he cares deeply.

Getting away from an abusive relationship, Maggie buys an old dilapidated house in a scenic locale and spends a fortune, borrowing heavily from Michael, in renovating it. Once done, she invites Michael, an art gallery owner-friend Alison, with whom she wants to set Michael up, and Liz, a poet, for the housewarming. That weekend, Liz brings out an Ouija board, and for the fun of it, summons spirits to get in contact with them. A spirit calling itself The Master asks permission to enter in Irish. Only their Irish language skills being weak, they mistake the question for permission to join.

Slowly the joy leaves Maggie as she lets the house go to seed, living with the stench of death and the real presence of the Master in the house.

Michael and Alison decide to drive down and make one big effort to save her. Will they succeed? Will the evil release its hold on Maggie? Or will it consume all their lives?

This, to me, was horror of the worst kind, the horror of watching a loved one lost forever to something inexplicable rather than just things going bump in the night. This book will really terrify you, once you imagine something as terrible as this happening to someone you care for.

The Dead House is not a typical ghost story. The book ends on an unsettling note. There is a sense of something terrible waiting to happen. The horror of it is like a sword dangling on our heads. We know it is going to fall. The question is when.

When the horror appears to want to take little Hannah into its fold, Michael and Alison realise that their worst nightmare has invaded the present. For us as readers too, this is a disquieting realization. The fact that the author makes no promise of an upcoming sequel in which the horror might be put to rest makes the situation even worse.

Part I shows us Michael in the present, telling us of his friendship with Maggie. Part II takes us to her obsession with the house and the summoning of the spirit. Part III is back in the present, 9 years later.

The physical descriptions of that part of Ireland are hauntingly beautiful, and reading these passages gave me gooseflesh. It’s almost as if the place doesn’t exist on the same plane as the rest of us do. In a city with its crowds and traffic noise, reality is a sheet of thick glass… Out here, just like the ocean, it pulls to tide and current. And, just like the ocean, its surface can be easily broken.

The descriptions give us a glimpse of the generations that have existed, centuries ago, never knowing of other lives. Of places where time stood still, where nothing had changed, where rocks, ocean, sky, wind and rain were the only things that weren’t fleeting.

Michael is a pragmatic man, who comes from a belief system that doesn’t subscribe to anything not of this world. The stains of skepticism are just as hard to scrub away as those of faith. But living through the horror that engulfs Maggie, he changes his mind. We glimpse or experience something that defies explanation and we either accept the stretch in our reality or we choose to turn our heads away.

In a book beset with bad men such as Maggie’s abusive ex-boyfriend Pete and Alison’s ex-husband Laurence who modelled the term ‘selfish bastard’ at professional catwalk level, Michael comes across as an inherently good man.

But even he admits that he could have done more to save Maggie, to prevent the nightmare that happened to her, or even to make some attempt, futile though it may have been, to rescue her. We all think that we’ll walk through walls for the people who matter most to us, that we’ll willingly push ourselves against the muzzle of a gun for them. But we can’t know. Not until the moment arrives.

His experiences give him a new perspective on places that are supposed to be haunted, an explanation that he clings to because the alternative would drive him crazy. People talk all the time about haunted places… But I’m not sure it has much to do with ghosts. I think it just means it’s held tightly by the past in ways that other places aren’t.

We receive no clear answer about what happened to Maggie or to what the Master did to her. We can only imagine how horrible the consequence may have been, given that the reveries summoned to Maggie’s mind during the Ouija session are so deeply disturbing. We are reminded of issues such as mortality and the beyond and what reality is, and how much of the other world presses down on us.

The Prologue seeks to introduce the subject to us in a philosophical vein. By the end of the book, neither Michael nor we have much use for the philosophy. So strong is the sense of terror conjured up.

(I read this book through NetGalley.)

Wednesday, October 24, 2018


Title: The Lies We Told
Author: Camilla Way
Publisher: Berkley
Pages: 336
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

It’s been a long time since I read a book that I couldn’t wait to pick up and read again, no matter how many interruptions showed up. The Lies We Told was that kind of a book for me. I couldn’t read this book in one sitting, obviously because I no longer have the luxury of switching off the world and reading away. But I found myself returning to this book, every chance that I got. And that’s not something that I can say for many of the thrillers I’ve read in the past.

It was the character of Hannah that nabbed my attention. I haven’t encountered anyone like her within the pages of a book. Outside the pages of a book, I hope never to bump into her.

Beth and Doug Jennings become parents to Hannah after several miscarriages. From the beginning, it seems as if there is something off about her. Hannah lacks empathy and although still a child, shows a predilection towards committing violent actions when her will is thwarted.

Clara Haynes and her boyfriend, Luke Lawson, are quite happy living together when tragedy strikes. Luke disappears from his workplace, and Clara has no idea where he might have gone. Police investigations fail to uncover any clue, and Clara as also Luke’s parents, Rose and Oliver, and his best friend, Mac, are totally worried.

Luke’s disappearance is the second tragedy in the lives of the ultra-perfect Lawson family. Luke’s older sister, Emily, had walked out of their home at age 18, seemingly of her own will, and was never seen again.

Over the next few days, Clara wonders if Luke had truly loved her as much as she loved him. She learns from Mac that Luke had had an affair with a colleague. She also learns through her own investigations that he wasn’t the perfect gentleman she thought he was, that he had not treated the previous women in his life well. On sifting his mail for clues into his disappearance, she finds over 500 threatening mails from a woman.

Even as Clara becomes determined to do everything in her power to find Luke, for his parents’ sake, if not her own, she wonders if Luke will ever be found. And we readers wonder what are the secrets that Beth and Doug are hiding.

The book is written in the first person past tense point of view of Beth Jennings in Cambridgeshire in 1986, and the third person past tense point of view of Clara Haynes in London in 2017. Both points of view show up in alternate chapters.

From the beginning, it becomes evident that Beth’s account is being written not in the here and now, but with Beth looking back. These chapters have the air of a confession, as if there were something that Beth needed to come clean with.

Beth’s account, in particular, was so good, that I found myself being more than a little afraid of Hannah. I had similar feelings about Alison, Clara’s neighbor.

The viewpoints of Beth and Clara were so utterly distinct, showcasing the author’s skill. Even halfway through the book, I was unable to see how the two narratives were connected. Nor could I gain any clue through an attempt to tally the timelines.

There were many moments that raised the book for me above the level of a thriller. When Amy, Luke’s first serious girlfriend, tells Clara about how Luke and later her husband treated her, she says, Funny…how it’s always us women who are left to deal with the shit men leave behind.

We are also reminded about people who have difficult children, about how some men have a sense of entitlement, how they force themselves upon women and then dump them later.

Clara came across as naïve, getting into situations she could have avoided if she had only used her common sense. One thing I shall never understand is why characters in thrillers, particularly women, will drink heavily, especially when they’re alone, feeling vulnerable and in danger?

Clara’s idolising of Luke tells us of the tendency to place those we love on a pedestal, disregarding their faults. It was a little tedious to see her so enamoured with Luke’s parents that she just couldn’t fault them for anything. In contrast, we get to see almost nothing about her own folks.

Mac provided good support to Clara in her efforts to uncover the truth behind Luke’s disappearance. Tom was one character that deserved a little more space. We don’t get to know much about what happened to his character at the end of the book.

I also felt that this book could have made a bigger impact if it had ended two chapters earlier. But then the author would have missed the chance to announce a sequel, which, I must admit, I’m more than a little intrigued by.

(I received an ARC from First to Read).


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