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The Dead House: A Novel (original 2017; edition 2018)
by Billy O'Callaghan (Author)
The Dead House by Billy O'Callaghan (2017)
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Atmospheric and eerie, “The Dead House” is a slow-burn that relies heavily on setting to instill an unsettled feeling in the reader. This is a beautifully written and, at times, introspective and poignant novel about a tainted cliffside home and the woman who falls in love with it. Tortured artist Maggie needs to escape her day-to-day; is in search of solitude to reconnect with her art and resume painting. When she invites two friends (one of which is her art dealer who has helped bank roll the purchase of said home) to see the progress on her rehab, things take a spooky twist.
From that visit forward, the friends don’t visit at much as they should or call to check in on Maggie, too caught up in their own blossoming romance to be concerned with someone who seems to want privacy. But, upon a later visit, it becomes clear that something terrible has happened. The home, and Maggie, are in a state of disrepair. Has Maggie taken to drugs? Psychosis? Or is there something in the home with her?
Shortly thereafter, a last visit reveals the final mystery. I will be careful not to give too much away here, because it was the “What happened at the house and to Maggie,” question that got me through to the end of what was thankfully a rather short read. A bit short on excitement and substance, this is a book to savor rather than a page-turner. If I’m honest, this is not a “horror” book as claimed. It’s a supernatural mystery, at best, and I can’t help wonder how much more intriguing the book might’ve been had the story been told from Maggie’s point of view rather than from the outside looking in. What happened at “The Dead House?” Sadly, the reader never really gets to know.
Billy O'Callaghan’s debut novella is literary horror in the vein of Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House set on the windswept shores of his native County Cork, where history is “a stew of fact and fable”. It is not the jump-in-your-seat horror that we have come to expect from movies but a slow-moving sense of dread that haunts your dreams and stays with you long after you have set it down. This kind of horror comes in large part from a deep drilldown into the hearts and minds of the story’s characters combined with a mysterious setting, something this prize-winning shanachie has nailed, deftly pulling the reader across oceans to a cottage on the shores of the Atlantic. “Here the world had simplified itself down to rocks, ocean, sky, wind and rain; these because everything else was fleeting, and you felt overwhelmed by such a sense of permanence all around, by the realisation that what you could see in any one moment and in any direction had always existed and always would. Holy men built monasteries in places like this, trying to capture part of the alchemy that coaxed time into standing still.”
O'Callaghan’s tale is woven throughout with strands of Irish gods, Irish legends, and Irish history, but in essence, it is a ghost story and he uses his mastery of the storyteller’s art from the start to pull us out of our comfort zones by posing a simple question at the outset.
”Do you believe in Ghosts?
“Because that’s really where it begins, with belief. 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. It’s a question that torments even philosophers: Do you believe? There is little about life as we have come to know it that can’t be explained away on some basic scientific level. Yet when the wind howls, and we find ourselves alone with only the yellow pool of a guttering candle to hold back the darkness, our instinct, perhaps our innate need for something above and beyond, still screams otherwise.”
If this book has a flaw, it is one that is common for short story authors making the switch to novels. At times it seems as if there is not enough happening to justify the additional word count. It also seems to lack some of the resolution that readers of novels have come to expect. In the end, though, I see a lot of promise in this author’s work and look forward to reading more of his books.
*Quotations are cited from an advanced reading copy and may not be the same as appears in the final published edition. The review was based on an advanced reading copy obtained at no cost from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. While this does take any ‘not worth what I paid for it’ statements out of my review, it otherwise has no impact on the content of my review.
FYI: On a 5-point scale I assign stars based on my assessment of what the book needs in the way of improvements:
*5 Stars – Nothing at all. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
*4 Stars – It could stand for a few tweaks here and there but it’s pretty good as it is.
*3 Stars – A solid C grade. Some serious rewriting would be needed in order for this book to be considered great or memorable.
*2 Stars – This book needs a lot of work. A good start would be to change the plot, the character development, the writing style and the ending.
*1 Star – The only thing that would improve this book is a good bonfire.
Truly frightening spirits in a remote part of a country with an ancient history that is not a stranger to dealing with an often-frightening past.... welcome to Ireland. It’s a love story as well as a ghost story. Above all it’s an intriguing story that lingers in the mind of the reader long after the book is closed. The backstory tells of the years of famine in Ireland ….an era so horrendous that even the nonfiction accounts are scary. This is Billy O’Callagham’s first novel, but you can tell right away that he is an extremely talented storyteller that can give the reader vivid, chilling, descriptions of inescapable doom. Anyone that loves a good ghost story or as good horror filled story, will very likely like this one as much as I did.
The Dead House by Billy O'Callaghan is a suspenseful novel with supernatural elements.
Nine years earlier, now retired art dealer Michael Simmons and his wife, Alison, attended a house warming party at client and friend Maggie Turner's newly renovated cottage in Ireland. Also joining them is Liz, whose suggestion to mess around with a Ouija board eventually leads to some eerie and sinister happenings for Maggie and quite possibly, Michael and his family.
Maggie is an extraordinarily gifted artist whose abusive relationship leads to the discovery of the dilapidated cottage in the Irish countryside. Michael becomes very concerned about her after the housewarming party and what he discovers when he returns to the cottage greatly worries him. But with Maggie unwilling to leave her new home, Michael has no choice but to go back to his regular life. But are the things that happen to him and his family several years later related to the housewarming party?
Written from Michael's point of view, the events that occur during Maggie's housewarming party are revealed through flashbacks. The novel is a bit meandering with a little too much emphasis on things that do not really have much to do with the main storyline. While there are supernatural elements such as (possibly) ghostly sightings and a sinister presence conjured through the Ouija board, the main focus of the novel is Michael and his life. The ghost story falls flat and is not overly frightening since this part of the storyline is rather vague and lacking details.
The Dead House is a short novel with an interesting and imaginative storyline. Billy O'Callaghan's descriptive prose brings the Irish countryside vibrantly to life. The supernatural aspect of the novel is intriguing but the abrupt and ambiguous conclusion might frustrate readers.
"This best-selling debut by an award-winning writer is both an eerie contemporary ghost story and a dread-inducing psychological thriller. Maggie is a successful young artist who has had bad luck with men. Her last put her in the hospital and, after she's healed physically, left her needing to get out of London to heal mentally and find a place of quiet that will restore her creative spirit. On the rugged west coast of Ireland, perched on a wild cliff side, she spies the shell of a cottage that dates back to Great Famine and decides to buy it. When work on the house is done, she invites her dealer to come for the weekend to celebrate along with a couple of women friends, one of whom will become his wife. On the boozy last night, the other friend pulls out an Ouija board. What sinister thing they summon, once invited, will never go. Ireland is a country haunted by its past. In Billy O'Callaghan's hands, its terrible beauty becomes a force of inescapable horror that reaches far back in time, before the Famine, before Christianity, to a pagan place where nature and superstition are bound in an endless knot"--
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)823.92Literature English & Old English literatures English fiction Modern Period 2000-
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It is as the description says, “a compelling modern ghost story from a talented writer” but it got lost at the end and failed to deliver a satisfying finish. Is there a sequel in the wind? If not, then I would have to rate this a 2.5 star as so many questions were left unanswered, and not in a true “ghost story mystery way”.
Spoiler Alert !
I could live with not knowing what really happened to Maggie as that is what a ghost story is all about but why would a ghost (Maggie, the Master?) visit Mike after ignoring him for 9 years? And it didn’t really haunt him in the first place, only when he was at Maggie’s cottage.
This reads more like a very long short story – maybe this explains the abrupt ending??????????? ( )