My Darling Dreadful Thing by Johanna Van Veen horror book reviewsMy Darling Dreadful Thing by Johanna Van Veen horror book reviewsMy Darling Dreadful Thing by Johanna Van Veen

Johanna Van Veen’s My Darling, Dreadful Thing (2024) is a gothic horror love story set in the 1950’s Netherlands. Lush descriptions and an original, creepy take on spirit companions made this story a seductive, engaging read.

Roos Beckman has had a spiritual companion named Ruth since she was a little girl, when she was first pressed into service by the woman she calls Mama to help fake seances. Crouched in a cubby under the floorboards, Roos pulled ropes and pushed levers to create the effects of spiritual visitation. It was there that Ruth, a desiccated body, brown as wood, with the remains of a noose around her neck, first began to appear. The two grew close, and Roos determined that Ruth was a “bog-body,” a prehistoric human who was sacrificed and thrown into a bog, where the cold fluid and the lack of oxygen kept her from fully decaying. From Ruth’s story, Roos gleaned the concept that ghosts form only when the body is kept intact in some way.

Now Roos is the star of the seances. With Ruth’s help, she impersonates the spirits of the departed, fleecing the gullible.

Soon the notorious young widow Agnes Knoop comes to the house for a séance. Agnes is a victim of bigotry because she is Indo; born of a Dutch man and his native Indonesian mistress. She married into a prominent family, but her husband Thomas died under mysterious circumstances a year earlier. Roos tries to imitate Thomas and fails, but in the process learns a secret about Agnes, a secret that brings the two of them together. Soon Agnes whisks Roos away to the family estate, where Agnes lives with her bitter sister-in-law Willemijn, who is dying of tuberculosis.

Roos’s first-person narrative is interspersed with a “present-tense” storyline told as transcripts by a psychiatrist charged with judging Roos’s competence to stand trial for murder. People in the house have died, and Roos is the likely candidate for the deaths. Dr. Montague is kind, but he’s a man and a Freudian, and it’s 1954. Even if Roos were somehow exonerated, I feared from the beginning that she would be institutionalized for the rest of her life. More seriously, when she is medicated, she loses the ability to interact with Ruth.

Johanna van Vleen

Johanna van Vleen

Van Veen’s expert depiction of an unreliable narrator drives this tale. Roos is a person who was abused as a child, so her world view is already distorted. The restrictions of her life meant she was sheltered and doesn’t see when she is being manipulated. The rest of the book’s power, for me, came from the descriptions of the estate and the lands surrounding it; a moldering mansion that Agnes can’t afford to keep up, a neglected family cemetery, an abandoned chapel filled with plaster statues of saints. (Genuinely creepy.) The memory of Thomas is never far from the minds of Agnes and especially Willemijn, although Roos never gets a clear sense of what kind of man he was.

Roos wants the sad, glamorous Agnes to be happy. Agnes, victim of discrimination and belittlement, keeps secrets. Willemijn hates Agnes. These factors lead Roos to an act that brings disaster down on everyone.

The prose lavishes on the gothic flourishes; peeling wallpaper; overgrown gardens, paths and graves, and a long, harrowing scene that involves digging up a body and moving it into a bog. It also shares wonderful real-world touches. Agnes steals pepper, a spice grown on Dutch plantations in Indonesia. In this way she extracts a tiny, personal revenge for the people of her homeland who were pushed off their farms to enrich the Dutch spice traders. In the present tense, Dr. Montague dismisses Roos’s experiences as various forms of madness. When Roos tells him that Agnes was bullied in a boarding school run by nuns, he earnestly explains that he called the nuns and they told him that never happened. He is keenly aware of the power differential and frequently polices Roos’s behavior, telling her not to take that tone of voice with him, even while he’s sincerely trying to help her. While he tries to be an ally, he is an emblem of a tone-deaf, unseeing establishment.

Ruth and a secondary character Peter Quint (named after a character in The Turn of the Screw) are interesting and novel. Ruth shows no jealousy of Agnes, although she turns on Agnes when she thinks the widow has betrayed Roos. Ruth has her own ideas and little hobbies—and at least one of them is frightening.

The book kept me pinned while I was reading, and even though I did think the ending was a little too easy, it worked. For all the bog-bodies, decaying mansions, lies, betrayals and vicious ghosts, this is a love story, and I bought the love all the way through.

Published in May 2024. Spirits are drawn to salt, be it blood or tears. Roos Beckman has a spirit companion only she can see. Ruth―strange, corpse-like, and dead for centuries―is the light of Roos’ life. That is, until the wealthy young widow Agnes Knoop visits one of Roos’ backroom seances, and the two strike up a connection.  Soon, Roos is whisked away to the crumbling estate Agnes inherited upon the death of her husband, where an ill woman haunts the halls, strange smells drift through the air at night, and mysterious stone statues reside in the family chapel. Something dreadful festers in the manor, but still, the attraction between Roos and Agnes is undeniable. Then, someone is murdered. Poor, alone, and with a history of ‘hysterics’, Roos is the obvious culprit. With her sanity and innocence in question, she’ll have to prove who―or what―is at fault or lose everything she holds dear.


  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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