July 29, 2013

The Muse and the Madness: a review of Sandy DeLuca's "Messages from the Dead"

Messages from the Dead
Sandy Deluca
DarkFuse (2013)
ISBN 9781937771928

If you were placing bets on what places in your town were haunted, I'm pretty sure the community college would be about the last place you'd put money on. My community college had all the haunting atmosphere of a telco call center. Castell Community College, on the other hand, is about as creepy as any institution of higher learning could be.

Donna's life was been one heartbreak after the next. As a child, her father abandoned her and her mother. Then her mother was killed by a boyfriend while Donna slept in the adjacent room. Now Donna's married to Jonathan, a good man, but a man she doesn't love anymore. She wants to leave him, but can never bring herself to walk out the door for the last time. Her plan is to hone her skills as a painter by attending the art school at Castell Community College, while saving the money she makes from her artwork to pay for a proper education in New York. But, while Donna might be tormented by guilt in relation to her crumbling marriage, the true torment is building within the walls of the school as spirits seemingly awaken, calling to her.

Messages from the Dead had a very well-designed, modern gothic atmosphere, as Sandy DeLuca presented Donna's tumultuous personal life in juxtaposition to the increasingly morbid hauntings at Castell. With the author also an accomplished painter, that aspect of Donna's life was brought out to full vibrancy. And while DeLuca may not share in Donna's cheating heart or clairvoyant abilities, those were also wrung for all they were worth.

Castell felt utterly ominous, once serving as a children's hospital and site for some atrocities against the children, and more than one mysterious death. If not for Donna's innate ability to see spirits, I might be left to wonder how so many people could attend the school without incident, while Donna's attendance incrementally reveals such a malevolent presence creeping through its corridors. Her instructor, her classmates, the kindly security guard, just about everyone of flesh and bone in the place feels like they could just as easily exist as specters--and perhaps some do--keeping Donna off-balance at every turn.

The novella was really hard to put down and had that subtle tone reminiscent of Sara Gran's Come Closer and Sarah Langan's Audrey's Door. The dread comes slowly like a rising tide and you have to ask yourself as you read what will do in Donna first: the ghosts or herself.


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