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Talking with the Dead, by Shiloh Walker

Originally published by Samhain in November 2006, this novella length story by Ms Walker caught my eye recently when it was reviewed by the inimitable SBSarah here. Eagle eye readers will notice quickly that she gave Talking with the Dead a C-.

If you are familiar with the most irreverent Smart Bitches who love Trashy Books, you understand immediately why I would be moved to search for and read a story with such a grade. If you are not familiar with them… where have you been? Nevermind. Hie thee over to their blog posthaste, and edumacate yourself. (If you are truly pressed for time, you can see Ms Walker’s reaction to the grade here)

Either way, my review after the blurb:

Surrounded by death, a man with a terrible gift reaches for life.

A horrific tragedy blasted open a door in young Michael O’Rourke’s mind—cursing him with the ability to talk with the Dead. Nearly two decades later, Michael has moved from victim to survivor, using his abilities to seek out those who would go unjudged.

With his gift, he talks to those who’ve died violently and seeks out their killers. Only once he’s found the murderer, can the victims be at rest. After his last case, the only thing he wants is peace and he hopes to find it in the small town of Mitchell, Indiana.

But something is horribly wrong—the dead are waiting for him there, as well.

Small town sheriff Daisy Crandall is frustrated. The murder investigation she’s leading is going nowhere, the few leads she’s had haven’t panned out. She needs a break—this case is personal and when a stranger arrives, turning up where he shouldn’t be, she’s suspicious. Finding out that he is more than what he appears to be, should shock her but doesn’t. The fact she’s highly attracted to him at the worst possible time is a hindrance.

Unfortunately, teaming up with Michael is the only way.

Now it’s a race against time before the killer destroys the life of his next victim…

Now, before I start on the actual review, I have to give a shout out to Ms Walker, who knows I’m a fan of her work and was kind enough to take pity on Kindle-less*** me, sending me a copy of Talking with the Dead. Thank you!

The prologue sets the tone of the story by introducing us to a young Michael and his older (and very protective) brother Luke. In a few short pages the reader is hit with the very real anguish of these two young boys who are trapped by circumstances in a seedy and dangerous world, at the mercy of a woman who should never had children.

The story proper starts with Michael taking part in the hunt of a serial killer, exhausted and almost burned out by the constant barrage of despair, and sometimes uncontrollable rage, from the ghosts seeking to lead him to their murderers. Every so often, he feels the need to run, trying to escape these restless spirits. But of course, there is death everywhere, and all too often there is murder as well.

Michael’s wanderings take him to a small town in Indiana where the fourth body of a local woman has just been found. Like the previous three, the most recent victim had been raped, tortured, and then killed by exsanguination from multiple cuts—a slow and truly agonizing death. The local sheriff has no clues for any of the murders and is at the end of her rope when this mysterious and dangerous looking stranger arrives.

I love Ms Walker’s characters almost without exception, and that holds true for this story. Michael’s sadness and bone deep exhaustion are both evident and understandable, while his empathy and compassion for all the victims he has come to know through the years come through very clearly.

Dasynda (Daisy) is a very sympathetic and strong heroine, even though her past is only sketched in. I find myself very curious as to what made her return to her small hometown after working for a police department in a big city, as well as what makes her doubt her instincts at the beginning of the story.

Surprisingly, it was the character of Tanya, the ghost of the latest victim, who I enjoyed the most after Michael. Her initial fear, and thus her refusal to recognize her killer, followed by her rage over the waste of her life and the lives of the other victims, were very very appealing to me; they felt real—and yes, I’m talking about realism from a ghost 😀

In a sense, the supernatural/paranormal elements in Talking with the Dead steal the show. Not only do they get a major share of the pages, but their impact on Michael and Daisy, as well as on the investigation, overshadows the development of their relationship. And this brings me to the part where I disagree the most with SBSarah’s assessment. I liked Michael and Daisy together, mostly because I see this novella as a beginning for them. Whether or not it leads to the perfect happily ever after, it’s a very promising start, one I can believe in.

Now, I had some issues with the story. For example, there is a bit of repetition of some facts by the same character; this is both true of Michael and of Daisy. Also, the police procedures seemed a bit fuzzy to me; I would have thought that any small town wherein a serial killer has been proven to hunt/operate, at the very least state authorities would be notified, let alone the FBI.

Lastly, there were open threads, questions that are never answered, regarding Michael’s work for the FBI (foreshadowing The Missing, perhaps?) and the question of what exactly he can do other than hearing ghosts is left open after that last confrontation with the killer. I’m curious as well about Luke’s fate now that, presumably, his vow is fulfilled.

Talking with the Dead is a quick and interesting read, which gets a 6.50 out of 10.

***For those who are wondering… Samhain is offering free downloads for Kindle users—go check what, when and how here.

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