By Diane Hoh.
Kit Sullivan’s freshman year at Salem University gets off to a roaring start. Within a month she has a close knit circle of friends which includes a great-looking new boyfriend, Brownie. Despite being polar opposites, by autumn, they’re in love. But Brownie’s lust for adventure brings a tragic end to their relationship when he dies after saving Kit from drowning during an ill-timed canoe-jaunt. Wracked with guilt, Kit tries to suppress her grief by taking on an entirely new personality. She becomes Katie, an outrageous, irresponsible party-animal; everything Brownie used to be and Kit never was. Her high school bestie, Allan; her roommate, LuAnn; Brownie’s sister, Callie; and Callie’s boyfriend, Davis, are all worried about her, but Katie won’t heed their warnings to slow down. Because when the partying stops, the painful feelings of loss and guilt start to creep in, and she’s not ready to confront those yet.
But someone has decided it’s time for Katie to face the music, and it’s clear they share her conviction that she’s guilty. First, her things start to go missing. Then she hears Brownie’s voice accusing her through the darkness of her dorm room. When Katie is attacked in the popularly named ‘Nightmare Hall’, and again in the university pool, she realises her persecutor hasn’t just pronounced a ‘guilty’ verdict, they have also passed sentence – and they’re willing to carry out the execution themselves.
Kit/Katie definitely deserves a bit of sympathy. We know she’s not to blame for Brownie’s death, and to witness her negative personality transformation, and the self-punishment she inflicts, is to feel truly sorry for her. However, when it comes to the loss itself, surely Callie, the dead boy’s sister, with whom he was clearly very close, is more deserving of our pity than a girl who dated him for about a month? Especially when you consider the hints, dropped throughout, that Brownie was far from perfect, and that he was a moody, domineering, possessive boyfriend to Kit?
Still, whatever Katie’s true depth of feeling for Brownie, her sense of guilt and isolation in the aftermath of his death really come through. She experiences two near-fatal attacks (and that’s after almost drowning at the beginning) yet no one believes she’s in mortal danger. She only has us on her side, and that makes her an easy character to empathise with, and even to like. It also says a lot about her good nature that she doesn’t accuse any of her friends, even in her own mind, of being the culprit until very near the end. Whilst the usual PH whodunit element is there, the revelation of who is behind the attacks is actually secondary to their motivation. This makes for an intriguing final twist, and elevates Guilty to a really worthwhile read.
Despite the number of times Katie almost dies, the sense of danger doesn’t really come through until the exciting, highly fraught finale. It’s her psychological deterioration as well as her increasing alienation from both her friends and her own true personality which stoke our fear, and these are deftly woven throughout the narrative. If anything, the violent episodes detract from this more effective style of horror, and had a better balance been achieved, Guilty would be a much scarier entry.