Review: My Darling Dreadful Thing by Johanna Van Veen

cover of My Darling Dreadful ThingMy Darling Dreadful Thing by Johanna Van Veen
Poisoned Pen Press (May 2024)
384 pages
Reviewed by Haley Newlin

My Darling Dreadful Thing by Johanna Van Veen exceptionally invokes gothic tropes such as unearthing buried secrets at a dire cost, and relics of her predecessors to craft a chilling, sapphic love story that is possessive, haunting, and beautiful.

Roosje (“Roos”) isn’t like others. She reluctantly assists her mother in seances, pulling twine to make a biscuit tin fall on the piano or a lamp levitate. Never mind Roos’ bloodied hands or weeps of fright, for she had to await her mother’s cues in the dark beneath the floorboards, biting herself to withhold her screams.

Soon, a woman who smells of wet leaves and has a dislocated jaw befriends Roos so she’ll never have to be alone in her agony. She finally had a protector, a sense of safety.

We are wedded now, you and I.

Only no one else can see Ruth.

After repeatedly scolding Roos for speaking about Ruth, Mama suddenly finds an even greater position for her: spirit medium. She’s no longer in the dark but is scared more than ever as she’s exposed to vile men, Mama’s worsening abuse, and wicked schemes.

A few years later Doctor Montague, a psychologist, is tasked with assessing Roos to determine if she is mentally fit to stand trial. Many found her story, naming a spirit the culprit of her alleged crimes, complete “lunacy.” Van Veen painted a grim image of the reality of women in this era, which spotlights stark comparisons to the modern day.

Once people believed you’re mad, anything you do will convince them more.

The conversations between Doctor Montague and Roos contain some of the most compelling moments in My Darling Dreadful Thing and aid the pacing. For a genre known for slow burns, Van Veen wastes no time getting to the gritty, creepy, and bloody as Roos proclaims her innocence to the doctor.

From there, Van Veen holds readers’ hands through tremendous trauma with incredible empathy.

Yet, readers still get the chance to determine Roos’s integrity themselves. Did Roos create a fantasy to cope with the trauma? Does she genuinely believe a spirit did these horrific things? Or is she taking them all for a ride to avoid confinement in jail or an asylum?

With such lush language, readers also grapple with a possibly unreliable narrator. One naive to the world outside her home with Mama and her brief home with a widow, Agnes, at the Rozentuin. The characterization of this mansion is complete with a gothic-styled chapel, scenes of damnation carved into furniture, and a trail of murder and madness that conjures whispers, too quiet to distinguish words but unsettling all the same. The setting alone would make this reviewer pick up My Darling Dreadful Thing once more.

Poignant. Poetic. My Darling Dreadful is not to be missed. I devoured this book.

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