I’ve been a huge fan of Damien Angelica Walters ever since I first discovered Paper Tigers, which left one hell of an impression. Damien takes a traditional horror set-up of hauntings and ghosts and reinvents it with an imaginative story that is captivating and one of my favorite novels in that particular subgenre. The less I describe of the plot the better, but I can’t recall another horror tale that takes the same angle as Paper Tigers. Also, Damien creates one of the genre’s most memorable protagonists in recent memory. Damien is a gifted writer and storyteller that I honestly feels way more recognition in horror circles. Her prose is so captivating that you’ll find it hard to pull away as Alison ventures down a path of terror and evil loaded with inventive scares. I also recommend diving into her short fiction. “The Floating Girls: A Documentary” and “On the Other Side of the Door, Everything Changes” are two of my all-time favorite short stories and you can check those out in her Apex collection Cry Your Way Home, which was on my “Best of” list last year. So, when I first heard about her second novel The Dead Girls Club, it shot straight to the top of my “Most Anticipated Reads of 2019.”
The Dead Girls Club opens with child psychologist Heather receiving a mysterious package that arrives at her office with no return address. She opens and it and sees there is no letter inside it, but she does notice something tucked into the corner of the envelope. It’s a small, weathered half-heart pendant that Heather hasn’t seen in nearly 30 years and seeing it, impossibly, in her office makes her panic. She begins reflecting on what the pendant represents and makes a shocking confession to the reader: She killed Becca. Before you curse me out for spoiling the story, it happens in the opening chapter and is even part of the synopsis. I promise, I would never knowingly spoil a book for you, but I digress. The arrival of Becca’s half of the best friend pendant is the inciting incident that kicks off The Dead Girls Club, a novel full of dark secrets, paranoia and a compelling mystery.
One of the many strengths of Walters’ work is her ability to create fully realized characters with personalities that leap off the page and that is true of The Dead Girls Club. The titular Dead Girls Club is comprised of Heather, Becca, Gia and Rachel, a group of tight-knit friends that formed the group the summer they turned 12-years-old around their fascination with serial killers. They would often get together and read books about them, discussing the brutal details of their crimes and looking at the pictures of crime scenes. Sometimes, they told scary stories. Well, Becca did. She was the de facto leader and storyteller of The Dead Girls Club. She often dictated the meetings, brought the group new details about the serial killers. The girls often didn’t care for Becca’s stories, instead preferring stories that originated in the world around them. That all changed the day Becca gathered them in their unofficial club house and began to share the story of the Red Lady. The rest of the girls were captivated by the dark history of the Red Lady, though Heather was a bit more skeptical. She was Becca’s best friend, but knew she had an active imagination and didn’t want to buy into the stories. Especially as the Red Lady began taking over every aspect of Becca’s life. She used her artistic gifts to draw vivid, terrifying portraits of the Red Lady. At first it was just a few, but over time, Heather began to notice them taking up more space on her friends walls. This obsession with the Red Lady is driving force in the development of Becca’s character and the overall narrative and leads to some unnerving scenes.
I also loved the way Walters handled Heather’s character. As her past comes back to haunt her through increasingly frequent references to that summer, she finds herself slowly descending into paranoia. She begins to distance herself from her loved ones and becomes obsessed with uncovering the source of the mysterious packages.Her role as a psychologist also gives her a level of self-awareness, as she often speaks about the malleability of our memories, which adds another layer of mystery to The Dead Girls Club. She’s also incredibly resourceful as proven multiple times throughout the course of the book in terms of her investigation tactics. It’s impressive, but also seems cold and calculated. I can’t get too deep into specifics, but it does raise some interesting questions about Heather, and I’m curious to see if other readers have similar reactions.
It’s an interesting tactic, but a lot of the narrative is driven by her inner thoughts, whether its adding context to the events that occur during the present day or her reflecting on the events of that fateful summer during her adolescence. At times, it’s like she’s speaking to the reader, sort of like the narrative approach of shows like Fleabag or Peep Show. I thought this was an interesting way to approach the narrative, because it creates a sort of fragmented approach where it assumes the reader has the same knowledge and memories as Heather. It easily could have been confusing and muddled the story, but Walters is able to avoid those pitfalls by using parallel narratives – one set in the present and the other from the summer when Becca died. The initial mysteries hook the reader and get them invested in the story, allowing their imagination to run wild about what happened between Heather and Becca. Then, throughout the different narratives, answers are slowly revealed as the reader joins Heather in revisiting the memories of that summer.
I loved the way Damien portrayed their friendship of The Dead Girls Club and the morbid basis for the group. The focus on the group in the flashback chapters creates a realistic portrayal of their friendship and a “coming of age” story-line that is both engaging and unique. This isn’t just a group of friends that stay tight knit throughout the hardships they face. They fight and the nature of their relationship is constantly in flux. Those shifting dynamics plays a large role in what ultimately leads to the girls becoming estranged. The Dead Girls Club is a fast-paced read and Walters does a masterful job of cultivating a growing sense of dread throughout the novel. Right from the opening chapter, Walters grabs the readers attention and makes it damn near impossible to put The Dead Girls Club down. Trust me, I know from experience.
I’ve mentioned numerous times that I love horror novels that bring elements of other genres in and Walters does that expertly. Make no mistake about it, The Dead Girls Club is a horror novel through and through and parts of it reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe. The depiction of the Red Lady and her backstory is pure nightmare fuel and her presence is felt throughout the entire narrative, even when the characters aren’t talking about her. That being said, it’s also a well-crafted thriller that toys with the reader’s expectations of whats real and what isn’t. How much of what happens is because of the Red Lady? Is the Red Lady even real? Part of the fun is trying to figure out those mysteries as the novel unfolds. There’s just enough ambiguity there to keep the reader off-kilter but without frustrating them. I have my own opinions on the Red Lady, but you’ll get no spoilers from me. You’ll have to read for yourself and see what you believe.