Title: The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall
Author: Katie Alender
Length: 329 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★
After Delia Piven inherits her mysterious great-aunt’s house house, she and her family travel to Pennsylvania to get it ready to sell. They discover that the house is actually a former mental hospital for “troubled” women, nicknamed Hysteria Hall by the locals. Delia’s gut tells her something is wrong with the place, but her parents refuse to leave. She soon finds herself trapped there, charged by her late aunt to discover the root of the house’s evil and destroy it–before it destroys everything she loves.
Hey, Luthien, why do you keep reading books set in insane asylums if you’re so afraid of them?
Beats me, Reader. Maybe I’m just really brave.
The best thing I can say about The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall is that I did enjoy it and that it was considerably better than Asylum. No “spooky” pictures, no exploiting the grim history of mental health for thrills. Decent writing, so-so characters, mildly unsettling story…pretty middle-of-the-road overall. The worst thing I can say is that it was unoriginal–I kept feeling as if I’d read it before–but it wasn’t bad.
Almost none of the characters had any depth. They were mostly cardboard cutouts: Eliza, the restless-but-prim English girl; Florence, the pretty, flirtatious Southern belle; Maria, the mischievous and misunderstood child. Theo, the only man, would have been interesting had he had anything but a paltry amount of screentime. And the narrator-heroine, Delia? Well…she’s boring. But Special (like 95% of all YA heroines)! And her parents win Worst Parents of the Year award, hands-down.
Their interactions also left a lot to be desired. At one point, Delia grows seriously angry with Eliza and demands that Eliza stay away from her and her family. Then, maybe ten pages later, she forgives her immediately. Maybe this book should have been longer, or maybe it should have had fewer characters. I don’t know.
There’s also the paranormal aspect of this book. It’s supposedly “YA horror.” It isn’t horror. It has pretty eerie moments–Delia discovering restraints in the normal-looking beds, for instance, plus one particularly scary shadow-creature–and there was a lot of tension throughout. But little real horror. I’ve read many a more frightening creepypasta.
Now, I love ghost stories, but YA authors really seem to struggle with them. Ms. Alender defined rules for her ghost world, which I can appreciate. They didn’t make much sense, though–ghosts aren’t corporeal, so how can they be “injured” (and why can’t they subsequently heal)? What is it about salt that hurts them? Why can they manipulate writing instruments but not actually write messages?
One of the hardest things, I suspect, about ghost books is that it ought to be difficult for the living and the dead to communicate, right? Most real-life ghost stories you hear don’t feature a sit-down chat with full-body apparitions. But this is fiction, so sometimes you have to bite the bullet. I mean, there’s a reason that The Ghost and Mrs. Muir works so well, and that’s because Captain Gregg is an actual character who can interact with and speak to Mrs. Muir.
But I digress.
The book blurb declares that it’s also a tale about “the meaning of madness.” Um…not that I could tell. There are a few unstable characters, but only one could be called truly insane, and that’s revealed very late in the book. I don’t know. Maybe that’s the point. I appreciate that Ms. Alender makes it plain that not all of the “troubled” women at the Piven Institute were actually mentally ill, or at least not “insane” enough to be institutionalized. (She admits that it was treating its patients effectively for a brief time, though. Most of the women were released. Before the house “turned” evil.)
It’s true that, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many people–not just women–were committed who shouldn’t have been, especially considering the kind of treatment to which they were often subjected.
But I wonder if she realizes that even today, some people are in mental hospitals because they genuinely need therapy and treatment. They just need to be treated like human beings while they’re there.
Anyway, I found the end of the book quite touching and sweet (though maybe a tad saccharine). As a whole, despite its uninteresting characters and uninspired plot, Hysteria Hall was a very fast and decently entertaining, if mostly un-scary, read–the kind of books three-star ratings were made for.
Also that title? It’s bad, and Katie Alender and her publisher should feel bad.