The Girls Are Never Gone Has A Mostly Well-Worn Premise
The Girls Are Never Gone is an interesting blend of concepts attached to a traditional ghost story. From The Twisted Ones to Horrid to even aspects of Harrow Lake, I already knew this story’s bones. A story of generations, hidden pain, and young women facing something supernatural. But that’s not to say that this book is formulaic or unoriginal. Horror often employs stock openers as an efficient way to get a character to a spooky location so it can do its own thing.
And The Girls Are Never Gone uses that premise to explore, among many other things, horror podcast culture. Despite my glowing reviews of Pseudopod and The Magnus Archives, I’ve never listened to a real-life ghost-hunting or true-crime podcast. But, from what little I know (mostly gleaned through parodies, snippets, and a brief stint of listening to The Black Tapes), The Girls Are Never Gone successfully captures the rhythm. Descriptions are often a little flowery and dramatic, in exactly the way a host might linger on locations to lend more tension.
Unfortunately, this stylistic approach also seems to break down after a while. I’ve read many YA horror books at this point—and horror books in general—and there’s a standard flow of events. A spooky thing happens, then there’s a lull for character interactions or mystery solving, and then another scare. It’s naturalistic. And The Girls Are Never Gone does initially follow that pattern, right up until around a party scene. Then it gets gradually more formless. Then it doesn’t have pacing so much as a chaotic staccato. It’s nowhere near how distinctly Dark Harvest handled things, and linguistically The Girls Are Never Gone doesn’t break out the thesaurus or become distractingly abstract, but it’s still structurally distinct. Things keep happening with little breathing room or reflection. Emotions rise, then fall. Characters are in one place and then another. I actually almost stopped reading. I liked the characters and the plot, and I wanted to know the ending, but I was struggling.
But what kept me going was that this trick sometimes worked really well. Ghosts, like zombies, are old hat. It’s hard to do anything new with them or even make them that scary when described. But this book, no joke, freaked me out. There’s a subplot about messing with perceptions—about personalities, memories, and emotions fluctuating under the strain of the paranormal, and by God, does that come across. People’s bodies move without them noticing—and drowning is a constant danger. The chaotic prose thus effectively smashes into horror scenario after horror scenario to a nightmarish outcome. The story holds in place for pages that sensation of waking up from a bad dream and not recognizing the room you’re in. It escalated too quickly, but it certainly did its job. Books like The Nothing That Is and The Luminous Dead got deeper emotional reactions out of me, but this one got the frantic fear of a well-done jump scare. I can tell you this book nails the grosser sides of water damage and flooding, the inherent nervousness that comes with houses late at night, and the way strange noises and fleeting sights feel when you’re alone.
The Novel’s Unique Style Elevates Its Many Scares
It also helps that the main characters are likable; you don’t want anything bad to happen to them. Our main character, Dare, is a hardcore skeptic who also wants to find something real—and will put herself in danger to do so. I’m no ghost hunter, but that desire to find something supernatural is something I think a lot of people experience. She’s also a character with type 1 diabetes, which over a million Americans have—including the author (who raises awareness for it). And that’s representation I’ve rarely seen in any genre. I learned lots of things I didn’t know about the disease.
As to the other characters, The Girls Are Never Gone thrives on its core three’s interactions. Because of the book’s increasingly hopping plot structure, you don’t get to enjoy it much, but there’s a cute love story (although it inches toward uncomfortable territory since they’re both—if memory serves—under eighteen) between Dare and Quinn, one of the other girls staying at the haunted house. Quinn feels like a main character from another book that Dare happened to run into. I would’ve enjoyed a split narrative style, where we got to be in her head more. Quinn has deep connections to the plot, and there are several unanswered questions about how much the ghosts are affecting her throughout.
And, finally, we have Holly—who’s also full of personality but gets a lot less “screen time” because of various plot reasons. There are many mysterious things about her, from her parents to her rapidly declining health to a creepy doll subplot that’s left somewhat ambiguous and even more besides. None of this is bad—horror thrives on unknowns—but I would’ve happily had some of the novel show us more of her thoughts and perspectives.
Really, The Girls Are Never Gone has everything you would want from a YA ghost story. Interesting characters (alive and dead), spooky events galore, and a unique-enough spin on the subgenre. The book has its rough patches, between its weird structure, plot points that don’t seem to go anywhere, and an admittedly rushed ending confrontation, but it’s never boring, and it is actually scary sometimes. I’d call that an even split with a strongly positive leaning. If you like YA horror, it’s an easy addition to a TBR pile.
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