There is a right way and a wrong way to summon her.Another week, another mediocre horror novel. This time, it’s Mary: The Summoning, which had a lot of interesting elements and potentially cool bits of story that were unfortunately assembled in the most predictable and boring way possible.
Jess had done the research. Success requires precision: a dark room, a mirror, a candle, salt, and four teenage girls. Each of them–Jess, Shauna, Kitty, and Anna–must link hands, follow the rules . . . and never let go.
A thrilling fear spins around the room the first time Jess calls her name: “Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary. BLOODY MARY.” A ripple of terror follows when a shadowy silhouette emerges through the fog, a specter trapped behind the mirror.
Once is not enough, though–at least not for Jess. Mary is called again. And again. But when their summoning circle is broken, Bloody Mary slips through the glass with a taste for revenge on her lips. As the girls struggle to escape Mary’s wrath, loyalties are questioned, friendships are torn apart, and lives are forever altered.
A haunting trail of clues leads Shauna on a desperate search to uncover the legacy of Mary Worth. What she finds will change everything, but will it be enough to stop Mary–and Jess–before it’s too late?
The premise is pretty simple: one girl who obviously knows more than she’s letting on convinces three of her friends to get together and summon Bloody Mary. They literally accomplish this on page one, and just as you’re wondering how we’re meant to get a novel out of this, Mary mauls the shit out of our MC, Shauna, which marks her as Mary’s victim, doomed to be stalked and eventually killed by the ghost. From there the book follows the standard scary movie formula: the girls spend most of the book investigating Mary’s life and past victims in an effort to find a way to free Shauna from the curse whilst dodging Mary’s attacks, the gimmick being that the ghost can only harm them physically via some sort of mirrored surface.
PSST: THERE BE SPOILERS PAST THIS PART
Eventually we tread water long enough to trigger the revelation of a twist that’s been pretty blatantly telegraphed all along: Jess, the one girl who was suspiciously well-informed about Bloody Mary from the beginning, instigated the whole thing, and has been pointedly distant since the incident, is actually a biological descendant of Bloody Mary, and has become obsessed with contacting her for thoroughly unexplained reasons.
To temper the predictability of this particular revelation somewhat, Jess isn’t mustache-twirlingly evil, and in fact the climax of the novel centeres around her efforts to remove the curse from Shauna, her best friend, by transferring it over to one of the other members of the group that she doesn’t care about as much. Our MC thwarts her efforts, in the process managing to transfer the curse over to the Jess herself, and Shauna and her one remaining, non-evil friend decide that they need to find a way to banish Mary once and for all, if not for their Jess’ sake, then for the next group of girls who decide to call up Bloody Mary for a laugh. Our novel ends with Shauna reading a centuries-old letter written by Mary, that reveals her penchant for murdering foolhardy teenage girls comes from a wildly misplaced misogyny borne of trauma in her human life. But we’ll get to that.
Right off the bat, what drew me in to Mary: The Summoning and kept me coasting fairly amiably throughout was that this book is super girl-centric. Not only do we have a female MC, but all of the most important secondary characters are women: all three of Shauna’s bffs are basically co-protagonists for most of the book, our antagonist is the rotten ghost zombie of a teenage girl who’s given a semi-sympathetic backstory, the creepy wise side character who has all the answers is totally a lady, and shockingly, mother-daughter bonds are both present and kind of important. Boys feature in a very limited capacity in the overall narrative and not at all for our heroine, because there there is no!! romantic!! subplot!!, and a lot of the conflict and tension comes from the friendship between our core group of characters.
For like 80% of the book, I was really pleased with this. I wasn’t thrilled with the way the rest of the book was playing out, but at least there were girls, you know? Girls being supportive, girls having different personalities, girls fighting amongst themselves, but making up eventually. Girls going to any lengths to protect one another, girls sharing the spotlight…honestly that’s like the #1 easiest way to get in good with me, and it’s one of the few things that’s managed to set Mary: The Summoning apart from the rest of the ghosty horror crap I’ve read this season.
If only it had just…done something with the landing.
So, I love the idea that we have a character whose face-heel turn is motivated by an extreme desire to protect her female bff. That’s awesome, and that’s a great idea to build conflict around. I really think Jess, the traitor, has the potential to be the most interesting character in the book, because her path has to be wildly full of conflict. She’s driven, for whatever reason, to connect with her ancestor, and she’s totally reckless in her pursuit of this goal. She knows it’s dangerous, but she’s still willing to put her friends at risk, to lie and manipulate them into helping her. However, when her machinations put her best friend’s life on the line, she turns that ruthless determination outward, to save her even if it requires sacrificing someone else.
That is approximately a thousand times more interesting than what our actual main character ends up doing, and I’m kind of disappointed that this wasn’t Jess’ story to begin with, because wow would that put a different spin on things. But anyway, the point is that you have this great conflict between Shauna and Jess that comes to a head at the climax – Jess is totally willing to throw someone else under the bus, but Shauna doesn’t want anyone else hurt because of her, so they fight, with Mary serving more as a ticking clock than a primary antagonist. While I really like this idea, I have a few problems with the way the whole last act played out.
For one, I had to fucking guess about all of that stuff I said two paragraphs ago. You know why? Jess gets absolutely no fucking development, and the relationship between her and Shauna is paper thin. We’re told that they’re best friends and have been since grade school, but we only get a single chapter’s worth of a look at their lives pre-Mary, and none of Jess’ characterization in that chapter relates to that. It all revolves around her temper and her obsession with Mary, and in fact, she almost completely ignores Shauna, so we have no idea how or why that friendship works. Post-Mary, Jess gets shunted to the background to idk, protect the twist I guess, and what little we do see of her shows her to be belligerent and secretive and kind of an asshole, even when she’s trying to save her. By the end, I don’t know why Jess and Shauna are friends, just that they are, and Jess is dedicated to saving Shauna’s life despite the fact that she didn’t seem to care much about putting her in danger at the start of the novel because…I dunno, she just is, ok?
For two, despite a fairly positive and girl-hate-less first three-quarters, they throw around the b-word like it’s nothing in the last fifty pages. This doesn’t seem super-relevant at first, but it really impacts the way I get a read on a novel. Basically, “bitch” is a loaded, lazy term, and when you have female characters throw it around all willy-nilly with like zero apparent awareness of how problematic it is, my willingness to believe that there is a method to this novel’s rapidly emerging misogynistic madness takes a huge nosedive.
Coupled with the whole twist towards the end about how Mary specifically targets “mean girls” (but not really), I was side-eyeing The Summoning hardcore. On the one hand, the sheer absurdity of Mary zeroing in on women to kill when the guy who abused and (probably) eventually murdered her, was you know, a guy, seems waaaaay too…misaimed to not be thematically significant in some way. Granted, the teenage girl who tormented her and coined the name Bloody Mary was totally a monster, and I don’t want to downplay that, but she was not the one who murdered Mary’s mother and ruined Mary’s shit. That was a dude, a terrible, adult dude, so I’m sort of hoping that further books might expand more on this…weirdness.
On the other hand, they didn’t go anywhere with that shit in this book, so I could tooooooootally be overthinking the this, and Mary and/or this book could just be a misogynistic piece of crap. I suppose only time will tell.
Compounding the issue is the fact that, for all the brief whiffs of feminism, girl-power, and solidarity, this is 75% straight, white cast. Only one of the four core girls is not white, and guess which girl is the only girl to actually die protecting the (white) heroine? Basically, Mary tanked/failed to develop any of the character things that made it stand out to me in a positive way, which means that it had then better have a stellar fucking ghost story to back it up, buuut it doesn’t.
Not only is the ghost plot predictable as fuck, but it’s not scary. I know I keep saying that about these Halloween Spooktacular books, but I just, I can’t help it. It’s not scary to me. And I mean, I don’t think I’m THAT hard to freak out. I feel like I’m actually ridiculously easy to creep out, thanks internet, but the type of horror that these books keep going for is just the wrong way to do it for me. There’s no subtlety, it’s just like RARGH BLARG OOGA BOOGA BOOGA, and then a skeleton popped out! We get a lengthy description of how gross the ghost is and how bad she looks, and how she totally walks like that girl in The Ring, like that’s totally scary, right? Well yeah, it is when you’re watching it, but I’m not watching it now, I’m reading about it. So sure, I think it’s gross, but gross isn’t inherently scary, it’s just gross.
I mean, the least scary part of any horror movie is when the monster finally reveals itself and the protagonists have to come out and fight it, right? The scariest part is way before that, when they know something is there, creeping up on them, stalking them, but they don’t quite know what it is or where it’s coming from. It’s the fear of the unknown, when your imagination conjures up a million options that are infinitely scarier than whatever it actually is. That’s the kind of scary that works for me, and I feel like that’s the part of the story that these books spend the least amount of time on. There’s no suspense, just violence.
I just was not wild about how this book turned out. It’s not, like, loathsome, but despite the presence of lots and lots of girls, the story was boring, the horror was lacking, and I spent most of it wishing we were seeing it from a more interesting character’s perspective. I’ll probably check out the sequel to see if they make anything interesting out of it, but unless that one’s utterly spectacular, you can probably give this one a miss.
TWO ****AND HALF**** STARS