Ashley Kalagian Blunt is a remarkable writer – she can turn her hand to fiction, creative non-fiction, essays, comedic writing, with the appearance that each has been her strength all along. But it is her novel Dark Mode (Ultimo Press 2023), a deeply disturbing psychological thriller, which seems to have been spun from gold, revealing Kalagian Blunt’s true calling (and true love) as a crime writer.
The crafting of this book is no accident. I know that the author set herself a mission to write the perfect psychological thriller and that she worked extremely hard to make that happen, studying writing techniques, authorial styles, plot devices, thematic narratives, characterisation, authentic dialogue, the beauty of the slow reveal, the sleight of hand of red herrings and a range of suspects and how misunderstandings or purposeful deception can lead a reader (and a character) astray. Kalagian Blunt has used every tool at her disposal and created a story that is page-turning, eye-opening, frightening, suspenseful and unputdownable. If you love crime, or psychological thrillers, this is the book for you. If you have never really ‘got’ this genre, Dark Mode is a great place to start your crime-reading addiction.
The planning and thought that has gone into the creation of Dark Mode is not however something you will see while reading; any writer will know it is there, but to a reader, the result is a smooth and readable thriller that works on many complex levels.
There are so many themes and plot lines woven into Dark Mode that it’s hard to know where to begin, but let’s start with Reagan Carsen, a young woman with a troubled and traumatic past who has, as a result, kept her entire life offline. No easy task in today’s world. She doesn’t use social media or post photos or chronicle her life digitally in any way. She doesn’t even have a smart phone. She remains anonymous and invisible, except to those closest to her.
That is, until she stumbles across a shocking murder in a laneway near her home and realises the victim looks very much like her. It’s a coincidence, surely. But as more murders of similar-looking women put her city on edge, she is forced out of her safe space and is horrified to discover that despite all her care, she has been found. Recurring references to the real-life Black Dahlia killing in LA, America over 70 years ago inform this part of the plot.
One obvious theme of the book is the casual disregard most of us have for the darker forces of the internet, preferring to think of it as innocuous and fun. But in Dark Mode, ‘the price we pay for surrendering our privacy one click at a time’ is driven home like a stake through the heart. Every post. Every photo. Every email. Somewhere, someone could be watching. And that’s just the normal pedestrian internet. This book goes a step further, into the rabbit hole of the Dark Web, home to not only illegal drug sales and plans for bomb-building, but forums and chat rooms dedicated to misogyny, hate, violence and abuse. A place where like-minded people meet to discuss deeds so dark and extraordinary, so depraved and despicable, so disturbing, that we can barely stand to think of them, let alone explore their repercussions. In a clever structural way, the author uses chat room excerpts and conversations verbatim, separate to the main narrative. They are chilling. Sobering. Terrifying.
Another theme – and rather a wonderful and clever one – is the use of plants, specifically unusual, rare or dangerous plants. Plants known for the danger they pose to humans. Plants that historically or mythologically represent harm, disease or trauma. Reagan Carsen operates a nursery specialising in these plants and Kalagian Blunt’s research into voodoo lilies, cobra lilies, carnivorous trumpet pitchers, doll’s eyes, black bat flowers and rare orchids adds a level of malevolent meaning to the narrative that is woven throughout. Reagan loves these rare plants and their scientific names roll off her tongue. Even if you’re not overly interested in the power of plants, I can guarantee you will be by the time you finish this book!
Perhaps the main theme is that of misogyny and violence against women, and how online groups can foster and encourage this behaviour until it erupts into the real world. This is not a new theme, nor an unusual one, but Dark Mode explores it in a way that is at first subtle and unprepossessing, gradually dragging us as readers deeper and further into the suffocating reality of acts of violence enacted in the name of truths and beliefs and prejudices held up by isolated individuals who gather together online and encourage truly criminal and immoral behaviour. Some of the language and opinions will disgust and shock. They are meant to do so. The book makes us question our own naivety or wilful (blissful) ignorance of the darker side of humanity. I suspect that for most of us, it is not until depravity or abuse visits our own doorstep that we are completely aware of its horrors. Dark Mode will open that door and you will not be able to close it. It is uncomfortable, unflinching, chilling, riveting, compulsive, disturbing.
Dark Mode offers the page-turning suspense of a thriller, the anxiety-inducing plot of a psychological maze, the unexpected twists and turns of a great crime book. It will keep you guessing. It will keep you up at night. It will make you question your online presence, and ask what might return from your past to haunt you. It will make you second-guess every stranger you meet – what dark secrets might they be hiding? What ill-will might they harbour? What explicit urges or depraved ideologies might they turn to in the privacy of their homes, in the screens of their computers?
The ending is satisfying but also creepy and terrifying. We are left with many answers, but also a dark question; how that question will resolve will leave you full of panicked anticipation.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt set out with a specific purpose in writing this book, a purpose I believe she has achieved, and then some. This is a well-crafted crime novel that ticks all the boxes. It is so well done that it’s hard to believe it’s her first in this genre (although of course she has other writing credits to her name). I look forward to where she takes this discovery of her crime-writing, thriller self, and what devious plots and characters she might be dreaming of for her next book.
(And if you’re interested in a non-fiction companion read, I highly recommend Ellis Gunn’s ‘Rattled: A rare, first person account of surviving a stalker’, published by Allen & Unwin Books.)