Betty Anne and her husband, Anthony, are rolling in money. To show off their wealth and status, they invest in the latest rage: a ghost room. For just a few thousand dollars, a company will install a special room in their house that will contain a real ghost. Elitist to the core, they cannot refuse. Once the deed is done, it’s Betty Ann’s idea to invite her brother, Bryant, and his husband to Wisconsin from Arizona—for the bragging rights.
When the invitation to visit Betty Ann arrives, Bryant is less than thrilled. Clarence, however, is willing to give his sister-in-law the benefit of the doubt. A road trip to Wisconsin, possibly burying the hatchet with their homophobic relations, and a few days in the scenic mid-west during the fall just might be an excellent escape. Stocked with a cake lovingly prepared by Clarence’s own grandmother, they set off for an adventure.
Except when they arrive in Wisconsin, they quickly realize Betty Ann and her husband are just as bigoted as ever. Despite the palatial show home, Bryant and Clarence are forced to stay in a tiny cubby of a room packed with old junk and a bed barely large enough for one. Even the ghost room they’ve come to see isn’t living up to the hype. Bryant feels a curious draw towards the ghost of a small child—and it frightens him. What’s worse, he starts thinking he’s seeing and hearing things. Like claws clacking on his sister’s marble floors and red lights in the ghost child’s eyes. Even as Bryant tries to convince himself it’s just a trick of the light or a figment of his imagination, the compelling urge to go to the ghost’s glass enclosure is overwhelming.
Clarence quickly realizes his husband is behaving oddly and tries to get them out of the house. He and Bryant decide to leave post-haste after Bryant suffers an accident that surely involved the ghost somehow, even if Bryant can’t remember what exactly happened. Except Bryant and Clarence have been drawn into a plot far more devious than they ever imagined. A vengeful ghost is one thing, but this child residing in his sister’s glass house is more than just the lost soul of a little girl. And it’s got help from the outside.
Soon, Bryant and Clarence are fighting for their lives as an evil ghost uses all its might to try an eat the souls of everyone in the house.
I wanted to read some good ghost-y type stories for October, to get into the season. Part of the draw for Speak with the Dead was clearly the fact that it’s a ghost story. There’s an added bonus in that the two main characters hail from AZ and travel to WI—I’ve lived in both states and thought it would be nostalgic fun to read a story about characters from both places. Unfortunately, this is about all the story has to recommend itself.
For as much on-page time we get with Bryant and Clarence, I could keep them straight. One of them is obsessed with Star Trek, one of them has a horrible sister in Wisconsin, one of them has an awesome grandmother—but none of it gelled into two distinct characters. (For the purposes of writing the review, I can now report that Clarence is obsessed with Star Trek and Bryant seems to go out of his way to intentionally mangle the name of the series; Bryant has the horrible sister with a homophobic husband; the grandmother is Clarence’s, but she considers herself the grandmother to both men equally.) The fandom thing is worked in here and there, but I never cared enough about Bryant or Clarence to sympathize with Clarence’s resignation that his husband will never “get” the fandom or anticipate the next pun Bryant may try to make with the name Star Trek.
The horrible sister and her heinous husband don’t help build up Bryant or Clarence, but they add interest. The ghost is clearly the main villain, but Betty Anne and her husband also give the reader a pair of “love-to-hate” characters. Initially, it gave me hope that one of the takeaways from this story would be a reconciliation between Bryant and his sister—that she’d see how her cruelty was unjust. There is plenty of fodder for the “Betty Anne is a bad human being” file. It’s actually Clarence who has to convince Bryant to even make the trip to Wisconsin—appealing to Bryant by telling him that people change. Betty Anne hadn’t changed by the time Bryant and Clarence showed up, and she doesn’t change in the book. Her husband is perhaps even more odious, but he’s more of a pawn for the plot than a developing character.
There’s the grandmother character, too, who ends up playing a significant role despite having such a minor bit in the beginning. But the way she’s thrown in at the end feels forced. For one thing, there has been zero communication between her and the husbands since they get to WI (due to ghostly intervention). So when she rocks up at Bryant’s sister’s house (again, she is Clarence’s actual grandmother, not Bryant’s), I didn’t know how she knew where to go. The way she figures into the climax also isn’t well explained. Rohrbach takes pains to give some credibility to the idea of rich people having ghost rooms in their houses, setting the stage for Betty Anne’s ghost room. But this grandmother’s supernatural threads are wholly unknown until, well, they splash across the page.
One of the strongest point in the book is the horror element. For all that the human characters are a joke, the evil ghost actually felt scary to me. I liked how she was described, how she evolved. I got the creeps as I read how she treated the human characters in the book. There was a bit of a sense of sweet comeuppance when Betty Anne and her husband’s master plan for getting rid of the ghost by using Bryant and his husband as pawns backfires on them. I also liked the hopelessness of the situation—but optimistically hoping for a positive resolution.
As well as the ghost is handled, it annoyed me that Clarence and Bryant can’t get help from the outside. It didn’t bother me that the ghost has the power to interfere with the house’s electricity and electronics. Rather, when they finally ARE in a position to use a phone to contact the police, they are wary of doing so for fear the police will think they are crazy. I could not understand why, in a universe where ghost rooms are commercially available, the police would be entirely unaware of their existence.
Overall, I found this book to be sort of a disappointment. The writing lacks polish; the husbands sounded like teenagers rather than an established married couple. Sometimes, the things Bryant did while stuck at his sister’s house didn’t make any sense (like he wanted a glass of water, but instead of going to a bathroom to drink from the tap, he goes downstairs in the pitch dark to get a drink from the filtered water in the kitchen—even though he’s already been super creeped out by the ghost). The ghost bits feel truly scary, but its well tempered by the pettiness of the human cast.