Book Review: The Dead Girls Club by Damien Angelica Walters

OUT DECEMBER 10th! Thank you to Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley for providing me with an advance review copy in exchange for an honest review.

Image from Goodreads

Every year I usually end up picking up a book I know little about and then get my socks blown off by how exciting and entertaining it is. Last year it was A Noise Downstairs by Linwood Barclay. This year, it’s The Dead Girls Club by Damien Angelica Walters. Wow, this book was a complete blast! A wild ride from beginning to end!

Heather is a successful therapists who works with troubled children. This might seem ironic, considering her own childhood holds an extremely troubling and traumatic event that begins to come back to bite her. Her best friend Becca died the summer they were twelve. More accurately, Heather killed her. But it wasn’t just Heather…The Red Lady was there too.

I loved this book. I loved the “kids going on an adventure during summer break” vibe it had. I loved the constant ramping up of action, and I loved the paranormal elements. Coming of age stories will always suck me in, and as a child who grew up in a small town where I was constantly running off with my group of friends to play a town-wide game of manhunt, build forts in the woods, and tell ghost stories in the graveyard, books like The Dead Girls Club and IT really click with me. That depiction of youthful nostalgia will get me every time, and Walters does a great job of it here.

Walters’ uses alternating timelines to great effect in this novel. Sometimes that technique will really pull a reader out of the action and slow a narrative down, but Walters uses it to increase the suspense, turning The Dead Girls Club into a binge-worthy read you’ll be staying up past lights-out to finish!

Something else I really need to applaud Walters on is her depiction of young girl friendships. They can be messy, confusing, hurtful, and yet the strongest most beautiful relationships ever. They are powerful, and Walters did them such justice in this book. Remember when you were twelve and your best friend in the whole world stopped talking to you? Or how about when they told you a secret you didn’t know what to do with? Remember how your love for that person collided with the messiness of the situation and you felt like you were going to explode? Man does this book bring you right back there. I would like to formally request more books that come at tween girl friendships with this amount of complexity and truth. Thanks.

The Dead Girls Club makes you think a lot about what is real, what is fiction, and how fragile our perception is, and how much truth even matters when it comes to helping your friends. It really got me thinking about urban legends, too. The terrifying character of The Red Lady felt a lot like a combination of Bloody Mary and the Slender Man. As kids, Becca would tell fantastical stories about The Red Lady to Heather and their friends Rachel and Gia in the basement of an abandoned house they would sneak into, and each time the group of girls began to believe a bit more. Eventually, they start doing rituals to summon The Red Lady, and they have good reason to believe the ritual worked. They start having nightmares and strange occurrences happening to them. And eventually, Becca takes the legends all the way.

Urban legends are successful because they affirm world views and biases. They are appealing because they combine just the right amount of shocking information with familiar settings to be tantalizing. And the human brain is just thirsting to be shocked and disturbed (there are actual studies that show we prefer more disturbing information over less disturbing information, we believe it more, and we like it best when in concerns our social relationships and structures). And the problem is, if that information isn’t true, which a lot of the time it isn’t, we don’t care. Even after we learn the truth, we still cling to the more salacious information as the truth. This psychological process plays a big role in Heather and Becca’s lives that summer, and it continues to toy with Heather thirty years later.

As an adult, Heather starts getting anonymous packages, emails, and phone calls that leave her disturbed and paranoid. It all starts when Becca’s half of their Best Friends Forever necklace shows up at Heather’s office, the necklace Becca was wearing when she died. Becca’s body was never found…how could the necklace have reemerged? Who could have sent it? The action gets more extreme from there, as secrets are revealed and Heather’s stability rapidly declines.

Walters is excellent at building suspense and executing twists. Nothing feels so outlandish it pulls you out of the story: it all fits. What is most impressive is how she crafts the Red Lady. The stories are truly scary, but they remind me of telling ghost stories with my girl friends at sleepovers. The girls in the book start by swapping serial killer stories, hence the Dead Girls Club name they give themselves, and play games like light as a feather, stiff as a board. I mean, how nostalgic can you get!? It’s so fun! And then things get real. Or do they? That’s the beauty. Walters writes The Red Lady scenes with such creativity. They feel visceral and terrifying, but you still wonder if they actually happened.

I did have some issues, however. For one, the end felt a bit shoehorned in. It suffered a bit from “wrapped in a big shiny bow” syndrome. I’m not sure it did the characters or the rest of the book justice. It worked well enough, but I felt something lacking in it. The other issue I had is a larger issue I have with multiple books: I dislike it when characters are unable to simply talk to someone about what’s going on in their lives and instead compound the issue by taking major risks and making stupid mistakes. Of course, without this character trait a lot of suspense novels wouldn’t get as interesting as they do, but that doesn’t stop it from being incredibly frustrating to me.

But none of those things stopped The Dead Girls Club from being a truly fun and exciting read for me. I highly recommend it for folks looking for a binge-worthy novel, and I doubly recommend it for those who enjoy a nostalgic, coming-of-age, summer feel.

As an aside, reading this book  felt like a lot of synchronicities happening at once for me. The Dead Girls Club mentions The Dark Half by Stephen King, a book I was listening to on audio at the same time. That novel has an eerily similar plot to the French horror tv show I was watching at the time, Marianne. ALL MY MEDIA HAS ALIGNED. Terrifying.

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