I have a rule. If I’m at the halfway point of your book and I still don’t give a crap about the plot or characters, I’m giving up. Dark Debts by Karen Hall (originally published 1996) is four hundred pages long, and at page two hundred I had to give up. This review will talk about why, examining how the plot, the characters, and the narrative failed to engage me. This may sound like some hoighty-toighty whine-bit, but I firmly believe there is value in analyzing why something fails to do what it’s supposed to do. That is how we learn and progress after all, and Dark Debts should be able to teach us as much about writing as Pride and Prejudice or 1984. There will be spoilers, at least up to the halfway mark of the book.
One of the major problems with the book is that it takes way too long setting up the mystery and not enough time making us care.
The book starts off with Michael, a priest of a local sect in a big city. He’s on trial testifying in a certain case, putting his career within the Church in hot water, but he’s noble, and goes through it. Somewhere along the way a news reporter flirts with him and he turns down her advances.
In chapter one we jump to Randa, and here on out the plot drags on and on. First we learn her ex-boyfriend (Cam) has killed himself right after committing armed robbery, two things that seem completely out of character. She is given Cam’s old family album, and is tasked with delivering it to Cam’s brother, Jack.
The book alternates between Randa’s and Jack’s perspective. What we get from Jack is that his family has a history of mental illness and strange disturbances. The book spends a great deal of time following Jack around as he tries to live a normal life but is unable due to his family’s history.
When the two meet there’s sexual tension that comes out of nowhere (like a pair of horny rabbits pulled out of a hat) and Randa and Jack end up trying to solve the mystery of Cam’s behaviour and subsequent death.
And that’s it. That’s what happens in a little under two hundred pages. The only point of interest is Cam’s death, and Jack’s family history, but Hall spends two hundred pages teasing us and dropping only a hint or two. The rest of the space is used to show how shitty Randa and Jack’s lives are, probably setting up their inevitable romantic feelings for each other, because from the moment they see each other it’s obvious that’s what’s going to happen.
If you want something evil lurking behind the shadows, have the plot do something to the characters. Randa and Jack face zero adversity throughout the first half of the book, except for self-inhibitions and trying to be nice to each other. That’s boring. If your book is about demonic possession or malevolent spirits, have them do something that affects your protagonists! But none of that happens.
Since very little effort is made at foreshadowing or even just outright stating what the book is going to be about, the books fails to be engaging as it doesn’t provide us with any substantial promises, and thus we have no real motivation to continue reading, unless if you really wanna find out if Jack and Randa end up married happily ever after or something.
Even worse, halfway through the book it jumps back to Michael just as Randa and Jack are making some headway into Cam’s death. I’m sure Michael dealing with a case of demonic possession will somehow end up being tied to Cam’s affairs, but as a reader going through this the first time, why would you switch perspectives right when I’m actually starting to care (even though it’s just an ounce’s worth) about the main story, especially to a character I’ve forgotten about and is seemingly dealing with something completely unrelated? There might be some awesome plot twist waiting for me in act three, but the author’s choice of what she’s telling me and the pace at which she does so renders it moot. The interest and curiosity to find out that all-revealing plot point is bogged down by the slow narrative and one dimensional characters with cardboard cut-out backstories.
It was the realization that I didn’t care about the characters that made me stop halfway. Something that helped me realized this was the fact that the most interesting person was a dead side character: Tallen, who is Jack’s older brother. Throughout the story we kept hearing things about Jack’s family, how they were all misfits and miscreants, but suddenly we learn that Tallen did the things he did not out of volition, but perhaps something more sinister. This made him interesting because that’s a serious juxtaposition between what everyone (including the reader) thinks of him and what he’s actually like. The revelation also has intriguing implications upon Cam’s death.
So why isn’t Tallen the main character? Or why not make Jack more Tallen-like? As is, I want to know more about a character who only gets mentioned every now and then more so than the characters in front of me. Randa is boring. She has no personal stake in this story; the only reason she’s involved is because she was the dead guy’s ex-girlfriend and is now the love interest of the dead guy’s brother…
(Let’s pause here for a moment, because this seems crazy to me. Aren’t we supposed to be “progressive” and have women characters with purposes in the story other than romance? Or is it only okay when female authors do this? On top of this politically correct bullshit, imagine if Randa’s character was male. We would have a guy who loved a girl, and after she dies he is now hitting on her sister. What a fucking scumbag, right? And since I’m all for equality, Randa is a fucking scumbag too.)
…which means she’s not really after anything for her own sake. She has no individual goal, or ambition, and that makes her uninteresting.
Jack is also difficult to care about because his character is so inconsistent, and this inconsistency highlights the author’s lacklustre narrative. The technical aspect of this is discussed in the section below, but as a character Jack merely becomes a plot device. Chapter to chapter Jack’s mood alternates like a pendulum in whatever direction is convenient to keep up the artificial tension of the plot. Nothing going on? Let’s make Jack angry at the world in order to have something (anything) active on the page. Time to foreshadow? Let’s make Jack confused or scared. This forces Jack to swing back and forth between sympathetic loner to crazy psychopath, and it becomes hard to take the character seriously when we see the author using him as a blatant tool for the story. He has no life or personality of his own. How can he switch back and forth so quickly between believing and not believing in supernatural causes for the events around him? When he first meets Randa he denies to her that anything fishy is going on, that there must be a logical explanation for Cam’s death. But then it’s revealed later that he knew all about the suspicious and strange circumstances surrounding Tallen’s death. If he had that knowledge all along, why is he so skeptical about Cam’s death?! The answer is that the author didn’t know how to simultaneously keep up tension while filling in plot holes. This was just one example, but Jack’s character is so flimsy and paper-thin we can see the plot right through him.
The dialogue in this book is mechanical and contradicts the impression of characters given by their descriptions and thoughts. Consider the following passage. Randa is the female lead and has finally tracked down Jack, an ex-convict recluse who has trust issues. We know that Jack is like this because the author spent the previous five chapters showing us that Jack flinches away whenever someone gets too close, and gets pissed off easily at those who persist:
‘Forgive the obvious question, but why don’t you live here?’ Randa asked, as they emerged from the car. (“Here” being Jack’s old home)
‘Too many bad memories, I guess. As trite as that must sound.’
‘Then why don’t you sell it?’
‘Partly because I don’t want to deal with all that.’
‘What’s the other part?’
‘I have this fantasy of striking a match to it.’ He didn’t smile when he said it. ‘Burn it to the ground, just sit here and watch.’
‘So why haven’t you?’
‘I guess some other part of me needs proof that it all really happened.’
So which is it? Is Jack attached to house because it haunts him, or because he can’t be arsed to sell it, or because he really wants to destroy and purge it (and all the things associated with it), or is it because he actually loves his family? Jack responds with four different answers, each of them containing different emotions and implications. Perhaps Hall was trying to make Jack a ‘complicated character’, but this method (one line answers that contradict each other) is artificial, and in trying to say too much she ends up saying nothing about the character.
Furthermore, ‘As trite as that may sound’ is totally out of character, given what we know about Jack so far. He isn’t sarcastic in that way, nor is he so sensitive to what others think of him. His interactions with Cathy prior to meeting Randa demonstrate this, so why is he so open and self-critical with Randa all of a sudden?
The answer, of course, is to push the romantic relationship, and there are two major problems with this. (ONE) Sacrificing characterization and making a character contradictory amounts to bad writing, and romance as a plot point is a poor excuse for bad writing. I know book sales will prove me wrong here, but fuck, if I don’t stand for what’s right and what’s “good writing”, who will? (TWO) This is pushing for the “Love at first sight” story, which is both a terrible plot device and a terrible life choice. Jack and Randa know nothing about each other, their only connection being that Randa dated Jack’s dead brother. But upon meeting each other Randa takes a fancy for this bad boy from the South, and Jack, the hardass who got beaten as a kid and was raised by a psychotic mother, and who couldn’t even return the feelings of his high school sweetheart (Cathy, who really is a sweetheart who takes care of him), suddenly becomes a softie and opens himself up to this stranger. His pretense is that something supernatural is going on, but a couple of pages later he denies it all anyway, so WTF?! So many terrible cliches are being propagated here: love at first sight, good girl falling for bad boy, and douchebag who needed the “right woman” (whatever the fuck that means) to come along and open him up, like he’s some twisted and broken jack-in-the-box. This is all on top of the mechanical and unconvincing writing, which is the main point. The dialogue just doesn’t work, and when these things are stacked on top of that, it’s difficult to read and to take the narrative seriously.
From my understanding the version I picked up from the library is a heavily edited 2016 version (changes made by the author herself). I have no idea what changes took place, but now I have no interest in finding out. Perhaps the book was made with fans of the original in mind, but the fatal mistake here is that new readers have been left out. As such, this book cannot be recommended, not as a horror story, not as a love story, nor as an example of engaging writing. Don’t waste your time, and let us jump into the slush pile once more.
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.