Monahan, Hillary. Mary: The Summoning. Disney Hyperion, Sept. 2014
Horror isn’t usually one of my favorite genres, simply because too often it seems silly rather than scary or trite rather than original. And Mary: The Summoning could have easily fallen into either the trite or silly category, based as it is on the premise of the Bloody Mary urban legend/slumber party game. But it doesn’t. Instead, author Hillary Monahan takes her source material and weaves a tale that is genuinely creepy with characters who are authentic, interesting, and relatable. Mary is one of the most intriguing examples of young adult horror I’ve read in recent years.
Shauna, the story’s narrator, is a part of a group of four high school friends who are encouraged/cajoled/badgered by group leader Jess McAllister into attempting to summon the ghost of Bloody Mary in a bathroom mirror. Like Shauna, Kitty and Anna are somewhat reluctant but intrigued, and the attempt is made. And, to their great surprise, Bloody Mary herself appears in the mirror. Be careful what you wish for, they say, you just might get it.
But once isn’t enough for Jess. “It was supposed to be a cool thing,” Jess says later, “but it went weird.” Weird is an amazing understatement for the horror that Shauna’s life quickly becomes.
The next summoning attempt is both a success and a disaster. Mary appears again, but this time she is stronger and much more dangerous. Shauna is more than physically hurt when Mary escapes the mirror; she’s haunted now, by an angry specter that can appear anywhere there is water or a reflective surface. And she not only wants Shauna; she wants her to suffer…and everyone she knows is suddenly at risk. And Shauna is desperate for help, and answers.
But Monahan is careful to make Mary more than the villain of the piece. How did this young woman from nineteenth century New England become the monster in the mirror? And if Mary died in 1864, why do the legends of her hauntings not begin until the 1960s? Letters written by Mary to her sister, letters about a young girl bullied and abused by the church pastor and others in the church, offer glimpses of a sweet young heart driven to madness, perhaps even dreams of vengeance? But how did Mary die? And where does her power come from? Like Shauna, the reader needs the answers, needs to understand how this could come to be. Is Mary a demon or a victim? And can solving that mystery help Mary, and Shauna, find peace?
Mary is brilliantly paced; the story moves quickly as events unfold in a few short days. Supernatural horror mixes seamlessly with teenage relationship drama, family relationships, and negotiating high school. Shauna is an excellent narrator, an authentic teenage voice trying to hang on to sanity in the midst of a situation which makes no sense, but which must be endured and raged against if she wants to survive. The supporting cast – Jess, who is keeping secrets that may prove deadly; Anna, quick to blame and anger, but still willing to fight to help Shauna; Kitty, distracted by her on and off relationship with football hero Bronx but firmly on Shauna’s side; and Cody, the last girl/woman to successfully summon Bloody Mary, whose willingness to help is tempered by a fear of Mary reattaching to her own life – all surround Shauna with actions and opinions that both help and hinder her fight to find the answers that will free her from Mary’s bony grasp.
If I have a complaint about this novel, it’s the fact that it doesn’t end; it just stops. Yes, I realize that the Book 1 subtitle implies that it’s part of a series. I like series. But, I like authors who write series books like J. K. Rowling. I like books where each volume is both a complete story AND part of the larger story arc. As a reader, I need a sense of resolution, some kind of closure to feel the author gave me at least part of the answer. Cliffhangers annoy me on television, but they’re worse with books because book 2 may be a year or more away. That’s a long time to wait for resolution, especially since book 2 may lead to book 3…or book 7.
But, I confess I will be eagerly watching and waiting for Book 2, because I do want to know what happens next. Monahan convinced me to emotionally invest in her story and her characters, not merely Shauna and her friends but in Bloody Mary too. I want to know what happens next, and that, in my mind, is the proof of a story well-told.
ARC received from NetGalley.