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.)

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