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Review: My Darling Dreadful Thing - Johanna van Veen


Genre: Horror, Gothic

Published: Poisoned Pen Press, May 2024

My Rating: 3/5 stars


“It’s a dangerous thing, to try and give someone everything. One day, you might find you’ve given away things you should’ve kept. Some parts of us must remain inviolate if we are to survive as a person.”


Describing My Darling Dreadful Thing based on vibes alone, I’d say it’s The Haunting of Bly Manor, but instead of the F-F-romance being the heartwarming soul of the story, it’s actually part of the horror itself. As a Dutchy, I was very excited to immediately drawn to the idea of a gothic ghost story set in my home-country. In parts it delivered, in others it didn’t…


The Story:

Johanna van Veen’s debut novel tells a dark and gothic tale about 21-year old Roos, a woman with a deeply traumatic past, and a strange companion who helped her survive it all. Since her darkest moments in childhood, Roos has never been alone, joined by a spirit companion only she can see. Ruth, the centuries-old corpse of a bog-body that latched herself onto Roos has been the only good thing in her life. She protects her and keeps her company in her lonely days of working scam-seances with her abusive adoptive mother. That is until a wealthy widow takes attention to Roos and her spirit companion and takes her into her home. Roos is delighted to learn she isn’t the only one with a spirit companion. Yet delight soon turns to obsession and horror, and more corpses begin to appear than just the bog-bodies she knows…


What I liked:

Johanna van Veen knows how to set up a story; from page one, we know someone has ended up dead… Roos’s tale is presented through fragments of a psychiatrists journal, as they interview their latest “patient R”; a woman suffering from delusions of ghosts and possessions that lead to her involvement in a gruesome murder case. This narrative structure works perfectly for the story and creates enough distance between us and Roos’ character to leave you forever on uncertain grounds. Is what she’s telling true, or indeed part of a delusion…


The story maintains that sense of tension, atmosphere and unsettling-ness throughout, and reflects it in both its gothic language, its setting and its deeply flawed characters and their relationships. Incredibly dark topic are discussed in this story, so be aware of triggers before you go into it. That being said, I liked the discussion on trauma and coping mechanisms within this story. Van Veen strikes a good balance between showing flawed coping mechanisms with compassion, without romanticizing it, which is not a light thing to do.


What I didn’t like:

When it comes to the atmosphere, I was very disappointed in how this book never felt set in The Netherlands. The audiobook narration played a large role in this. I usually love Saskia van Maarleveld (she was great in Once There Were Wolves for example) and her performance was on par. However, I was disproportionately bothered by the mispronunciation of every single Dutch name and word. Everything is pronounced incredibly “Americanized” (the way an American would pronounce a Dutch word phonetically). This might have even been a deliberate choice; I understand that Dutch is a difficult language to pronounce, and even to listen to for foreigners. Yet, for a book by a Dutch author, with such an emphasis on the Dutch setting, and using typical Dutch names (Roos, Ruth, Agnes, Willemijn etc.), this is very immersion breaking.

There’s a pretty good conversation between Roos and Agnes, who’s part Indonesian, about Agnes’s desire to speak her own language, as a sign of cultural loyalty when this was taken away from her by colonizers. It’s a bit ironic when the literal next line contains the Americanized version of character- and placenames.


Another point of critique lies in the ending; although the set-up was great, the end was anticlimactic. I liked the idea that you know from psychiatrist comments at the start that something horrible will happen: it adds to the tension and build up. Yet the way we’re finally shown what we knew was coming didn’t feel like it added anything anymore. I could’ve basically skipped the 200 pages in between and ended up at the same point.


Overall: liked the style, liked the concept, but the immersion was lacking for me. I don’t recommend the audiobook if you actually speak Dutch.

You can find this book here on Goodreads.

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