I first learned of Katie Alender by fluke. I was in Paris on my yearly backpacking trip, holed up with a cold in a Hausmannized apartment in Montmartre, a few blocks away from the infamous Moulin Rouge. I’d chosen an AirBnB rental without much of a view, but the apartment had a hammock in my room, a comfy bed, and two sets of double-door balconies that, at the time, I thought were cute. Equipped with cheap French wine, a baguette, hard cheeses, and several delicious French pastries, I gave up on trying to be a tourist after my first bateau mouche trip down the Seine and attempted to heal myself by taking some time off and reading.
Stationed in the hammock, a cup of wine in one hand, and my iPad in the other with multiple tissues shoved into my pockets, I loaded the iBooks store and landed on a book called Bad Girls Don’t Die.
Bad Girls deals with the possession of the protagonist’s little sister. I’ll be straight about this: for a book that sits between middle grade and young adult, as an adult (and granted I may have been addled by my cold at the time) it was actually scary. It was published by Disney. Clearly, I thought to myself as I finished it and moved onto its sequel (while still lying in my Paris hammock), I wasn’t made of the strong stuff I thought I was. I polished off From Bad to Cursed in short order, and concluded the series with As Dead as it Gets just as quickly.
I loved Alender’s portrayal of the protagonist, Alexis. She’s described as being a little anti-conformist; she marches to the beat of her own drummer. Add to that a haunted doll, a creepy possessed little sister, and parents who are clueless, and I was hooked.
When The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall was announced a few months ago, I put in my pre-order and waited for it to arrive.
Delia inherits a “house” from her dead aunt, and surprise! It’s a former insane asylum. P.S. It’s haunted. P.P.S. Delia doesn’t survive a night in the former hospital. She wakes up to her body splattered on the ground outside the building, and her parents absolutely losing it. So begins the search for her killer, because Delia knows she didn’t commit suicide.
The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall in Review:
By premise alone, the book holds a lot of promise: a cast of interesting characters, a play on the lapse as time as the story’s told from the perspective of a ghost, and multiple generations of women from different eras — some with sordid backstories, and others who are connected to the family.
If this reads as an ambitious project, that’s because it is. It held a lot of promise, and regrettably, it didn’t quite hold up.
Dead Girls has a few loosely tied ends that have the rushed qualities of too big a cast in too small a story. Too big a house with too many dark corners to explore and not enough time. It relies on a monster that, while given a reason, lacks a motive but because by nature it was once human, I hoped for more out of it. Again, lots of potential with too few words in the count to work with.
Delia doesn’t emote very well, and the experience of dealing with a teenager coming to terms with her own mortality is far too brief. The trauma of dying is condensed to a window where she sleeps away six months, and when she expresses herself, the story only lightly treads over the potential for her to become a threat to those around her; her family, her friends who are still alive, and the other spirits who inhabit the Institute. I wish that the conversation — internal or not — of what defines a person in life might be moot in death altogether. You have the potential to be good or bad when you lose your mortal moorings.
This is not to say that what we’re offered isn’t entertaining: Dead Girls is a short, quick read that tickles the interest but doesn’t gouge away at the soul. I didn’t find the same calibre of scare in Dead Girls as I did in Bad Girls, which is unfortunate because Dead Girls doesn’t speak to Alender’s scope as a writer. It was fun. If you like fun hauntings — to each their own taste, of course — you will like The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall, and it may very well open the door to some other haunted buildings or artifacts of interest.
My overall vote: a decent gateway book to the darker stuff that’s out there. Not too serious, and not too scary.