Book Review: Dark Debts by Karen Hall
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Horror, Suspense
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (Revised Edition: March 15, 2016)
Length: 416 pages
Author Information: Website
Several weeks ago I received a book that I was unfamiliar with, a gorgeous hardcover with its page edges stained an ominous red. The title was Dark Debts by Karen Hall, which I quickly looked up to find out more. Turns out, what I held in my hands was a revised, new edition of an old cult classic theological horror/thriller, published again now by Simon & Schuster for its 20th anniversary.
According to an article I read though, this is not just a simple reissue, as some of the changes are pretty significant and extensive. Among them are a new major character as well as a reworked ending. The reason for these rewrites, the author explained, had much to do with how she has changed as a person in the last two decades, as well as updates to her knowledge on the Catholic faith. Since I’ve not read the original, there’s no way for me to compare the two editions, but knowing all this new information did make me even more curious. It’s a rare opportunity whenever an author gets to rework a previously published novel, and I was drawn to the themes and subjects of this book.
Gothic horror. Theological questions. Demon possession and exorcism. Mystery. Romance. Dark Debts is all of this and more. The story begins with a Jesuit priest named Father Michael Kinney testifying as a witness to a horrific crime involving a teenage boy and his two parents, appearing in court against the wishes of the church. In response, Father Michael’s superiors transfer him to rural Georgia immediately after the trial, forcing him to leave his old parish in Manhattan. Believing his exile to be a result of church politics, Father Michael is stricken when he discovers the truth about the dark, terrible secrets in his family’s past and that his transfer might in fact be no accident at all.
Meanwhile, a journalist in California receives some shocking news. Randa is informed that her friend and former lover Cam Landry, a man she had always known to be a kind and mild-mannered pacifist, is dead by suicide after robbing a liquor store and killing an employee. After promising to return Cam’s belongings to his brother in Georgia, Randa ends up meeting Jack Landry, the last surviving member of their notorious family. Everyone in town is familiar with the name Landry—the father Will was an abusive alcoholic who took out his awful anger on his wife and sons; youngest brother Ethan’s death was a suicide, though rumor has it that his father killed him; oldest brother Tallen went on a murder spree at a church during Christmas services and was then convicted and executed by the state; and their mother took her own life one year later. Now Cam is gone too, and friends close to him told Randa that he was acting strange and having bad dreams before he snapped. Jack is the only one left, and he is terrified of growing close to anyone, convinced that the Landry curse will claim him next and make him lose control.
If you enjoy experiencing the disturbing feelings of unease or creeping dread brought on by the atmosphere of old-school horror movies, then Dark Debts is for you. It is a very subtle novel, and those looking for more of the in-your-face horror elements will probably have to look elsewhere. There is a supernatural aspect to the story involving satanic cults and demonic possession, but at its heart this book reads a lot more like a slow-burn mystery-suspense rather than a straight up horror novel. There’s also a thread of romance woven in as a spark ignites between Randa and Jack, despite the latter’s reticence and fear to let anyone new into his life.
In particular, I really liked reading about the characters in this book. They are all wonderfully flawed and complicated, as evidenced by the prime example of Father Michael Kinney, a Catholic priest whose devotion to his faith often clashes with his progressive views. He has even broken his vow of chastity and is secretly carrying on a relationship with a woman in New York, and every day he fights an internal battle that challenges his relationship with God. This undoubtedly is the cause of some conflict as he is called upon to perform an exorcism, for how is he to vanquish others’ demons when he is still clearly dealing with his own?
If I had any complaints about this book at all, it would have to do with the story’s pacing. I gave a nod to the slow-burn effect, but I still felt the narrative took an inordinate amount of time to establish the two storylines (one featuring Father Michael, the other focusing on Randa and Jack) and the question of how they are related was not answered until much later. Also, I’d expected this book to be a lot more chilling and disturbing from its cover and the blurbs. While I certainly don’t mind that Dark Debts turned out to be more of a supernatural mystery with a greater emphasis on suspense than actual horror, I still can’t help the twinge of disappointment that this was not as scary as I had hoped.
I spent a lot of time thinking about this book after I was finished though, and realized that even in light of the pacing issues, Dark Debts kept me engaged from cover to cover. The research that went into it must have been tremendous. I didn’t even know until later that the downtown Atlanta fire at the Winecoff Hotel, which was central to Father Michael’s story, was in fact a real event, the deadliest hotel fire in US history claiming 119 victims back in 1946. I looked it up after finishing Dark Debts, and reading the details of the disaster sent shivers up my spine. It makes me wonder what else I might have missed.
Whether you’re new to this book, an old fan interested in seeing some of the updated changes, or just an avid reader of horror/mystery/suspense in general, I definitely recommend checking out this edition of Dark Debts if the story intrigues you. An impressive novel featuring great atmosphere, multilayered characters, and a number of complex themes surrounding the conflict of good versus evil.