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Living Dead Girl

Tod Goldberg

Soho Press Inc.

US Hardcover First

ISBN 1-56947-284-X

Publication Date: 05-01-2002

190 Pages; $22.00

Date Reviewed: July 1, 2003

Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2003



Mystery, Horror, General Fiction

'Living Dead Girl' is an eerie, creepy story of the past, told in the present, in a schizophrenic style that's compelling, contradictory and unsettling from the start. Beginning with "I am haunted by a memory I can't recall", it promises a potent psychological tale that it fails to deliver. Instead, it collapses under the weight of illogical plotting and suspense-slaying repetitive narrative.

The story opens with Paul Luden, an archeology professor at a Southern California community college, driving to his former home on Granite Lake in Washington in search of his former wife Molly, who's disappeared. Accompanying him is Ginny, an embarrassingly young 19-year old student, nubile, sprightly and utterly naïve. It's immediately clear that Paul is not quite normal and that some spooky, possibly criminal things have happened at Granite Lake.

As initially presented, Paul and his former wife Molly were the ideal pair, he an accomplished scientist, she a talented artist, both deeply in love. But Paul is an unreliable first person narrator. He fails to mention Katrina, his 2-year old daughter with former wife Molly. Katrina died at Granite Lake. We learn of her not from Paul, but from the local sheriff who attended the death.

We experience Paul and Molly's subsequent spiral into insanity through Paul's flashbacks. We learn of Molly's prior abortion and Paul's guilty obsession with dead children. A scientist by training, he believes that given the right archeological time and circumstance he can bring these children back to life. We learn of Paul's disturbed childhood, his periods of therapeutic normalcy, his obsession with dissections, drawings and details, with death and with life. Paul is crazy, a manic-depressive with a fondness for self-mutilation and a well-honed ability to reframe, resort and redefine reality. As narrated by Paul, Molly is also on the wrong side of delusional.

Goldberg tells his story in a series of flashbacks, cutbacks to the present, rewinds and replays. The replays are always just a bit different the second time, different yet again in the third retelling, and the fourth and the fifth. Everything is to be questioned, nothing is to be trusted and the details essential to plotting are sparingly parsed out, then retracted, reworked and represented. It's an effective technique, building suspense and apprehension. But Goldberg loses himself in his character and loses control of his story. What begins as a series of interesting replays becomes boringly repetitive, what works to establish insanity fails to deliver the plot. What should be a suspenseful, chilling novel becomes predictably dull. I began skimming through the retellings, searching for the one detail I didn't yet know, for any bit of believable news, all the while wondering if I even cared enough to continue.

As a mystery, 'Living Dead Girl' fails miserably. Goldberg tries for an expectation-dashing twist at the end that would blindside only Ginny, the naïve 19 year-old. And he tries to top the twist with a surprise ending that I nailed early on but rejected as too trite and too illogical. I read the last third of the book faster and faster, not to savor, not spellbound, but simply to get on with it. Well, also to prove that I was right about the unsurprising surprise ending, which I was. There are only nine characters in this story, two of them already dead, one a sheriff, and one a lawyer whose raison d'etre is never clear. With such a small cast, you'd think Goldberg could have given the ultimate evildoer a bit more time on stage, a stronger motive and a better set up.

This is a bad book, but it's not a bad story. The choices Paul and Molly made for their lives and the life of their daughter are unique and morally engrossing, worthy of far better treatment. Unfortunately 'Living Dead Girl' suffers from self-absorbed writing and rookie plotting. A fierce editor could have taken this already wispy book and pared it into a truly sensational short story anchored around timely ethical issues and substantive moral dilemmas.