“Who needs scary movies when you can live them?” Sebastian forked a piece of bloody meat into his mouth. He chewed carefully and swallowed. “Maybe I’ve seen my share of them already.”
Theresa Braun, Dead Over Heels
Frith Books. 2016.
Please note page numbers cannot be provided here as it was read in epub format. All the work is the property of Theresa Braun and I make no claims to it.
In Dead Over Heels, Veronica is looking for her soulmate, that special 'true love' who will change her life. So what do girls like her do when online dating fails them? She turns to witchcraft, creates a candle and asks the powers that be to grant her a man who will be 'the one'. But - to use the dog-earred cliche - you should be careful what you wish for! After many fruitless interactions, Veronica is in the middle of deleting her profiles when Sebastian, a fellow supernatural-loving loner, messages her. It turns out both of them are orphans. Sebastian's mother and Veronica's father both died in their children's adult lives, whereas their counterparts disappeared when Sebastian and Veronica were young. Both on Christmas Eve. Spooky coincidence right? While they are enjoying their first date at The River House Restaurant, the Veronica and Sebastian are startled when the older couple they had been admiring from a distance turn out to be ghosts. Laughing it off, they kiss goodnight and Veronica starts to believe her candle-wish may just have worked. On their one month anniversary, Veronica and Sebastian return to the restaurant and again spot the older couple at the other table. It is soon revealed that these are not just any ghosts but ghosts of their parents, who were having an affair. Veronica and Sebastian are thrown into a horrific chase to unravel the mystery of their parents disappearance and death - but will the past threaten the lovers' future?
What keeps this book going is Braun's wonderful skill at dialogue and human emotion. At the beginning of the book, we are introduced to the frustration many people feel when it comes to online dating: the cheesy lines, the photos-that-they-think-are-sexy-but-are-really-stupid collection, chats with weirdos, sex nuts and just plain idiots. Braun make it clear Veronica has been doing this for a long time, giving her protagonist savvy quips about the dating world and weird quiz answers. Following on from that, we are presented with a psychological analysis of what people do when they are truly introduced to the supernatural: Veronica wants answers, Sebastian wants to hide from them. I found this an enjoyable experiment on how people react to the truth. Even without the ghost-factor, both children discover their missing parents were brutally murdered, a truth no one is ever prepared for.
The dialogue is consistently excellent and real. I find dialogue can be quite a sticky point in horror, as writers tend to focus more on the action than the interaction between characters. However Braun manages it superbly and I was never once thrown out of the story world by a misplaced line. I find dialogue is one of the chief ways to get your character's personalities across without having to go into long tedious paragraphs about who someone is, rather we discover who they are from what they say and do. Actions speak louder than words. Show don't tell. Sebastian thinks of himself as a bit of a charmer and he isn't afraid to let his sexual side show, though he is always tasteful and respectful to Veronica. Whereas Veronica is honest and allows herself to be vulnerable in front of Sebastian, who is essentially a stranger to begin with, even going so far to say that “Well, I go around revealing my deepest psychological issues with everyone who will listen.”
Veronica is the first-person narrator of the story and her internal dialogue differs from her spoken dialogue, another sign of a skillful writer. She is actually smart, independent, witty and very self-aware, but she chooses to portray herself a certain way to Sebastian, gradually letting the sides of herself merge as they endure hardships together.
It is not easy to combine a witty, funny love story with a paranormal horror tale, but Braun manages to blend these elements together skillfully. The story has received 4-5 star reviews on Goodreads and on other review websites. I found this 38-page mystery enjoyable and I'm certainly interested in reading more of Braun's work. However, I do have some constructive criticism about this story. I was sent Dead Over Heels by Braun in exchange for an honest review and I would feel dishonest if I did not live up to that promise.
My criticisms angle mainly towards language and some plot points. Braun has a brilliant talent for providing specific juicy details, for example: "He cradled the small of her back, kissed her temple, and they were gone" and "I tasted the stew, the lamb’s marinated juices, with the slightest hint of Worcester sauce, was heavy on my tongue" (if someone can write about food in a way that makes me drool, they are doing alright by me!). Yet at some points I felt that the writing was trying to become too - in lack of a better word - unnecessarily 'fluffy'. I enjoyed the casual, chatty tone of the piece and the pacing matched this tone very well, as apart from one of the last scenes the story rolls out quite gently and - possibly one of the most important factors for me - Braun didn't try to shove the plot down readers' throats before allowing them to be fully immersed in the story world. So these brief dips into grandiose language that, for me, didn't match up to the rest of the book was unfortunate. Now what of course do I mean by 'fluffy' and 'grandiose'? Let me show you some examples:
"I’m no witch, but considered I might have gotten this one right as the flames jumped to heaven with my desires"
"My surprise melded into sympathy, then sorrow but I felt warmth emanate from my heart and spread throughout my chest."
"The scent of lavender oil permeated the air as I lit the wick. The fire bobbed and wavered. I mentally called in all of our angels and guides for help..."
"Burgeoning warmth flooded my chest"
Most of the fluffiness lies in the verbs. Phrases such as 'jumped to heaven', 'melded into sympathy' and 'emanate from my heart' are a little over the top of my taste, they pepper the story with a melodrama that just doesn't match the rest of the language. Simple language is always the best language. If you try too hard - unless it is a stylistic choice - then it becomes obvious and can throw a reader out of the book. Thankfully, this fluffiness wasn't overwhelming and didn't effect my reading of the story as a whole, but there was just enough of it for me to question it.
In terms of character and plot there were a few things I would have liked explained or perhaps highlighted. Why do Veronica and Sebastian never stop to consider that as The River House Restaurant is on the local ghost trail, the restaurant might have been behind the first ghostly encounter? Why does Sebastian's triquetra tattoo - a symbol of magic and protection - not protect him from a ghostly attack at the end (unless he was lying, but that was never confirmed)? Why is Veronica into magic? This last one particularly niggled at me: we have no connection between Veronica's magic dabbling and her past. It appears to have just been something she picked up along the way. I could presume she turned to it after her father chased all her potential boyfriends away, but that is never stated. Sebastian's motives for getting into magic and the supernatural are clear, as healing magic and the exercises involved calmed his ailing mother.
However despite these factors, Dead Over Heels was a highly enjoyable read and I look forward to reading more of Braun's work!
Theresa Braun was born in St. Paul, Minnesota and has carried some of that hardiness with her to South Florida where she currently resides. Traveling, ghost hunting, and all things dark are her passions. Her stories appear in The Horror Zine, inSchlock! Webzine, and by Frith Books, among others; upcoming work will be in Monsters Exist at Deadman’s Tome, Hardened Hearts at Unnerving Magazine, and “Lost Time” at Sirens Call.