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When 16-year-old Delia Piven learned that her great-great-aunt died and left her some property, she assumed said property was a cluttered little cottage. In reality, though, Delia inherited a ginormous creepy stone building that, until the 1940s, housed The Piven Institute for the Care and Correction of Troubled Females. That’s right, a former mental institution — and a haunted one, at that.
If Delia had known the truth about the place before she agreed to help her parents prep it for sale, she might have refused to make the trip. And if she’d done that…well, she might be alive today.
I read a lot of young adult horror, so I thought I knew what to expect when I cracked the cover on Katie Alender’s THE DEAD GIRLS OF HYSTERIA HALL. At first, the book was exactly as anticipated; the dialogue was sharp, the narrative voice was engaging, and the requisite story elements — creepy setting, snarky protagonist, exasperated parents, annoying younger sibling — were all present and accounted for. Come the end of chapter three, though, I began to realize that while the trappings were familiar, I was in for a very different kind of ghost story, indeed.
Delia may be alive when first we make her acquaintance, but she doesn’t stay that way for long; the bulk of THE DEAD GIRLS OF HYSTERIA HALL takes place after her death. The notion of a ghostly protagonist may sound like a gimmick, but Alender pulls it off with aplomb, and the spirits who populate the author’s fictional world (Delia, included) are every bit as fully realized as the flesh-and-blood characters.
The book’s strong feminist slant also helps set it apart. The title comes from the locals’ nickname for The Piven Institute; as Delia’s mom explains to her daughters, once upon a time, hysteria was a “blanket diagnosis applied to women for everything from schizophrenia to having too many opinions.” It’s only fitting, then, that the cast is replete with strong, smart, fearless female characters of all ages and stages of mortality — and men who are determined to put them in their place. Touches like Delia’s sister being clueless as to how to dress like a housewife for Halloween and Delia’s mom being a women’s studies professor underscore the theme.
THE DEAD GIRLS OF HYSTERIA HALL isn’t perfect; the pace lags a little in the middle, and the climax features one heckuva convenient deus ex machina. Its flaws do little to detract from the fun, though, and if you like coming-of-age tales that feature elements of romance, horror, and mystery, then Katie Alender’s latest will suit you just fine.