Because I'm Watching by Christina Dodd is a suspenseful thriller set in the quaint—and deadly—coastal town of Virtue Falls.
The isolated coastal town of Virtue Falls, Washington—the setting for Christina Dodd’s Because I’m Watching—seems like a perfect place for a ghost story. The ghosts, both imagined and real, are at work scaring the wits out of Maddie Hewitson.
By the time she arrives in Virtue Falls, life has already served Maddie a heap of heartache. She is the only survivor of a college dorm massacre, and is later accused of murdering her fiancé. In Virtue Falls, she is trying to hang on to her sanity while she writes horror stories about the monsters that slither through her dreams and imagination.
As Dodd notes in her Acknowledgments, her story is a mashup of Gaslight and Rear Window, with a “creepy” tale of “two broken people and the terrors that haunt them.”
Living directly across the street from Maddie is a wounded veteran, Jacob Denisov. He sits in his darkened living room and watches the world go by, his life a living nightmare. His guilt and nightmares eat away at his soul while he hopes for a time when his dreams will lead him to kill himself. Jacob’s demons arise from his memories of being witness to the torture of the soldiers under his command in a secret mission gone awry in North Korea.
Before arriving in Virtue Falls, Maddie had been living with Easton Robert Privet, a lawyer who loved her and cradled her during her nightmares, whispering to her: “The monster is gone. You were brave. You risked your own life to try to save them…because of you, the monster is dead.”
The vanquished monster was a janitor in her college who killed four of her friends while she hid under the bed. She later recounts the tale to Jacob.
“When he was done with the others. He counted bodies. He dragged me out. I saw then that he had grown one of his nails long and filed it to a point. The campus cop started pounding on the door. He—Ragnor—used that nail to slice me from my breastbone to my belly…Then he tried to stab me in the…in the uterus. I was kicking at him and screaming. The cop got the door open and shot him. His brains blew…they hit the wall. The splattered me. My face. Blood and brains and cruelty I could taste.”
Maddie writes at a desk stained with the blood of her dead friends “so every day as she wrote, she would touch the stain, acknowledge the passing of her friends, and try very hard to forgive herself for not dying, too.”
But, more than one monster wreaks havoc in Maddie’s life. Living safely with Privet—she thinks—she enters her kitchen to see a fleeing intruder wearing “a broad-brimmed black hat and a long, dark, businessman’s coat” and her lover splayed on the floor, his throat cut and a spreading puddle of blood surrounding him. For the next two years, that figure covered by a hat and long coat becomes Maddie’s constant nightmare.
Until Maddie Hewitson quite literally crashes her car through the front of Jacob’s house, stopping three feet short of giving him the death he so craves, Jacob doesn’t want to leave his dark haven. “Being out in the sunshine with people would break him…he had lost his faith in God. He didn’t care about his family. Food meant nothing to him. And he could never be healed.”
He now has a fifteen–foot-wide chunk ripped from his house, exposing him not only to the sun, but to a life he thought he’d lost. She crawls out of the mangled car and blithely introduces herself to Jacob. “Hi, I’m your neighbor Maddie Hewitson.” He begins to understand why some townspeople call her “Mad Maddie.”
Everyone in town thinks Maddie killed her fiancé and believes her to be crazy. Maddie, too, sometimes questions her sanity:
She did try to be brave. She really tried. She used all kinds of coping mechanisms. But she saw things that weren’t there. Of their own volition, pieces of furniture moved in her house. Bowls of rotting food appeared in her refrigerator or on her desk. Worst of all, her lights flickered; she was always afraid they would go off completely, and leave her at the mercy of the demon who took form and sustenance from darkness.
However, as Jacob watches Maddie, he recognizes a kindred spirit. In her books he sees himself.
The story spoke to the dark corners of Jacob’s soul, whispered of pain and false hope, shouted defiance and recognized him—his broken mind trapped in a life of desperate memories only death could end.
Jacob begins to suspect that Maddie is being “gaslighted,” even saying as much to a neighbor. He recognizes the systematic nature of the acts against her. He asks Maddie which of the two killers from her past she fears most, and she responds:
“It’s not that easy. The thing that hunts me now is not one or the other. He is both. Or neither. He is evil. He thrives on terror. My terror. I fear he will come for me. I fear he will come for anyone who knows me.”
Jacob might suffer from PTSD, guilt, and nightmares, but he knows one thing's for sure. Things that go bump in the night are more likely to be evil people than ghosts.
The story has lots of secondary characters, but other than Sheriff Kateri Kwinault, none of them are very interesting or seem to quite fit the role of villain. While lots of red herrings are thrown into the mix, it probably will not take readers very long to figure out who is responsible for Maddie’s terror.
That said, Jacob and Maddie are very appealing characters, and Dodd does a nice job of having their relationship build from wariness to attraction to ghostbusters in love.
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