Courtney Gould’s debut novel, The Dead and the Dark, is one of several late-summer releases that bring some serious spooky season vibes to our August reading lists. A thoroughly creepy ride from start to finish, with a story that involves everything from possession and ghosts to serial killers and hate crimes.
Gould has a gift for supernatural storytelling and The Dead and Dark has a distinctly tense and unsettling vibe throughout. (Even when the story’s dealing with very real-world horrors.) It’s clear that something is wrong here – both in terms of the potentially paranormal events taking place and the more human failings of its characters.
The novel’s depiction of the suffocating and often unforgiving nature of small-town life is right on the money – whether we’re talking about the ways prominent families can feel shackled to the places they were born or how those who are deemed too different struggled to be accepted for who they are.
The story follows seventeen-year-old Logan Ortiz-Woodley, the daughter of two popular paranormal investigators. She’s grudgingly agreed to spend the summer in her adoptive dads’ hometown of Snakebite, Oregon, an insular ranching community that has never had much use for outsiders. On the surface, they’re there scouting locations for the family show, ParaSpectors, but when local kids start disappearing – and turning up dead – it’s clear that something’s very wrong in Snakebite.
Ashley Barton is the daughter of Snakebite’s most influential family, who always believed her town was perfect. But now that her boyfriend is among the missing, and she’s seeing strange visions, she’s desperate to find answers. She and Logan join forces to try and discover the truth about what’s haunting Snakebit – and how both of their families are connected to it.
The story is fast-paced and quick-moving – it’s easy to find yourself lost in its pages and finish the book in just a day or so. (I mean, at least that’s what I did.) Ashley and Logan’s parallel explorations of family history are compelling in completely different ways, and though I wish the supporting characters were a little more firmly sketched out – particularly Ashley’s group of friends one of whom is shockingly violent with little explanation for his behavior – their interactions feel real and realistic.
Your mileage will inevitably vary on how you feel about the book’s big reveals at the end. Shocking, sure, but for me, they didn’t entirely work — simply because The Dead and the Dark doesn’t bother to explain how any of them are possible and basically handwaves the biggest twist involving Logan away as the consequence of a sort of blandly generic yet ridiculously powerful evil.
That said, even though some of the explanations within the narrative itself are weak, The Dead and the Dark is a propulsive thriller with some genuine shocks and a choking sense of dread woven throughout. And, as an author, Gould is really willing to “go there,” so to speak, from the horrible ways some of the Snakebite teens treat one another to the grisly deaths of multiple teens.
On the happier side of things, the slow-burn attraction that develops between Logan and Ashley is an intriguing twist, particularly given the generally toxic environment in which Ashley has grown up, and the dreadful history Snakebite has when it comes to anyone who is gay. And Logan’s complex relationships with her fathers – the distant Brandon and warm Alejo, who both have their own Snakebite-related secrets – are well done.
The Dead and the Dark is available now. Let us know if you’re adding it to your August must-read list!