“All the best ghosts are girls…”
I was on a Young Adult “Horror” kick when I purchased this book. I’m working my way through my towering TBR pile (with the help of the blog – it’s actually working!) and I thought I’d give this Kristen Miller novel a shot. Spooky yet trendy cover, large print and short chapters. I finished it in a strange and rather anti-climactic two days. But we’ll get to that later.
Trigger warning: this book (and post) contains mention of SA and drug use.
General warning: possible spoilers.
Don’t Tell a Soul by Kirsten Miller (2021) appealed to me for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I am an avid fan of Young Adult fiction. This point is important in the context of this article because, unfortunately, I was not the biggest fan of this book for reasons stemming from the fact that the book is bound to the limitations of Young Adult fiction (more on this later). The second reason I chose this book is simple – I love ghost stories. Period. The third and final reason is because of all the great things I’ve heard about the author.
Kirsten Miller is nothing if not an accomplished and talented storyteller. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and boasts three novels (though there are more slated for 2022) and a series co-written with author Jason Segel. Judging by her website (linked below) she’s contributed to various other projects and believes in the existence of Bigfoot (as should we all).
Don’t Tell a Soul follows the story of seventeen year old Bram after she drops out of high school following an attempted sexual assault and subsequent drug addiction. Once released from rehab she flees her expensive New York City life to stay with her estranged uncle in a manor he is renovating into a small-town inn. Bram has overcome so much in her short seventeen years – the death of her father and aunt, the estrangement of her beloved uncle that followed, and the SA that led to her drug addiction. She wants to distract herself with life at her uncle’s manor, for she knows there is a mystery to be solved there.
After the strange carbon-monoxide poisoning death of her father and aunt, Bram’s beloved uncle James disappeared. Several years later he reappears at the manor with a new wife and stepdaughter, Lark. Tragedy strikes, however, when half of the manor burns down, resulting in the death of James’ second wife and the alleged descent into madness of Lark. Lark is institutionalized for babbling about a ghost. The ghost of the manor. The ghost of a girl named Grace, whose father built the manor, who drowned in the river on the edge of town over one hundred years before.
Bram is determined to solve the mystery of the ghost of the manor despite her uncle’s strange behavior and the unwelcoming attitude of everyone in the town. They aren’t fond of city-folk in the small town of Louth, and turning the “cursed” manor into an inn is sure to bring hoards more. Are the angry townsfolk responsible for the fire? Or was it a ghost? Or was it truly a tragic and deadly accident?
That’s the thing with this book. It’s not really a ghost story. It’s a mystery. Several mysteries overlapping, actually. There is the mystery of Grace, drowning in the river (Did she actually drown? How did she escape the manor? Why did she kill herself? Or was it an accident?). There is the mystery of another “Dead Girl” of the manor, one who mysteriously died in the 1980’s (Was that an accident? Was she murdered? Who is responsible?). There is the mystery of Lark and the manor fire that killed her mother and sent her into madness. Even the death of Bram’s father and aunt is a mystery, because no one can figure out just how it happened.
There are so many interesting and exciting ideas to explore – the damsel assumed to have drowned herself in the river revisits the home in which she was imprisoned to take revenge on her horrible father – an unassuming bookish girl is lured into the woods in the middle of winter and dies of unknown causes – the “Dead Girls of Louth” might not actually be dead, after all – and just not enough time to explore them. There are also several important subplots regarding the refusal to believe trauma victims, the impact substance abuse can have on familial relations, and how money can buy innocence in the corrupt American justice system. The shortcoming here, again, is not enough time to explore all of these subplots to their fullest.
The underlying plot thread of every woman from the manor being a righteous feminist and getting revenge on the men who have wronged them is generally a badass concept, but reads as incredibly simplistic with only so much emphasis to go around. Moments that are designed to be the “big reveals” of the mystery are swallowed by the myriad of subplots and half-baked characters (illegitimate children, evil business partners, organized crime, oh my!).
There is also an incredibly important message about speaking out against your abusers even if they are more powerful than you, or have more money than you, or you are afraid that you will not be believed. This message, too, is drowned out by the spoon-fed mystery of the first Dead Girl and the misfortunes that all girls of the manor have suffered while trying to solve it.
In short, Don’t Tell a Soul is full of intriguing ideas with just not enough time to explore them. If this had ten or fifteen more chapters there could have been so much more built upon the original mystery, and the “big reveals” could have been impactful and highly anticipated, still with time to explore the impact of substance abuse and trauma and/or PTSD. Or if more time was put into crafting Bram and Jame’s relationship before it crumbled, it would be one thousand times more heartbreaking when – well, spoilers.
There is much potential to be intricate and multi-dimensional and terrifying but, unfortunately, the story falls a little flat. However, the book might be thoroughly enjoyed by fans of Riverdale or Pretty Little Liars.
As this one is Young Adult, I’m not rating it for scares on the same scale as I would an Adult horror, as the same parameters do not apply.
3 stars overall, 1 on the scare scale.
Do you have any Young Adult horror favorite you want me to try? Is this one of your favorites and now you hate me? Let me know in the comments below!
Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.
Book cover art is used Pursuant to 17 U.S. Code § 107 under the “fair use” defense.
All other images are certified public domain.