Mary: Unleashed by Hillary Monahan

Mary: Unleashed by Hillary Monahan
Mary in the mirror.
Mary in the glass.
Mary in the water.

Mary lurks in the emptiness, in the darkness…in the reflection. That is, until Jess unleashes her into the world. Now Mary Worth is out and her haunting is deadlier than ever.

No one is safe.

Shauna, Kitty, and Jess must band together to unearth the truth about Mary’s death to put her soul to rest for good. Their search leads them back to where it all began-to Solomon’s Folly, a place as dangerous as the ghost who died there a century and a half ago. Quick sand, hidden traps and a phantom fog are the least of their worries. To stop Mary, they need to follow a dark string of clues and piece together a gruesome mystery that spans generations.

But time is running out.

As chilling facts come to light, Mary inches ever closer to her prey. Can Jess, Shauna, and Kitty break Mary’s curse before it’s too late? Or will history repeat itself until there is no one left to call her name…?
Mary: Unleashed is the sequel to Mary: The Summoning, which I read for the Spooktacular a couple of years ago, and found just kind of okay. The Summoning scored points with me for being all about the ladies, and lost some for killing its only non-white character, leaning a bit hard on internalized misogyny, and lacking in scares.

I’m happy to report that Mary: Unleashed has improved quite a bit on one of those things, and…kind of stagnated on the rest.

The plot of Unleashed centers around an element that was left mostly unexplained in the first novel: the antagonist(ish) Jess’ family history with Bloody Mary, and her motivation for summoning the ghost in the first place. It’s a welcome direction to take, because Jess’ lack of clear motivation for her reckless actions in the first book was a pretty huge omission for me. Thankfully, Unleashed delves deep into exactly that, and in doing so manages to flesh out both the characters and the setting in interesting ways.

The primary thing that positively distinguished Mary: The Summoning for me from the other horror novels I read that year was its focus on women. The leads were all girls, the antagonist was female, the important side characters were women, and there was a positive emphasis on mother-daughter relationships. It struck me as pointedly woman-as-the-default, and I was happy to see that Mary: Unleashed carried this through, and expanded on it with the new characters it introduced.

Two of the three major new players in this novel are women, and older, disabled women at that. Former Mary victim Cody, who showed up briefly in the last book, gets bumped up to series regular and transitions from advice-giver to badass get-shit-done-er. Jess’ battle-worn 70-year-old Aunt Dell steps in to fill the wise-older-woman-who’s-tangled-with-Mary-before gap, and the two of them, plus Shauna and Kitty – our returning teenage leads – make a formidable team.

Jess is back too, though mostly on the periphery thanks to everything that happened between her and our protagonist(s) in the last book. Still, the specter of her friendship looms large for Shauna, and provides the primary emotional conflict: Jess is cursed, but Jess is also an asshole. Shauna is furious with her, but worried for her. She wants to find a way to forgive this girl who’s been her friend since they were children, but Jess keeps fucking it up with her selfish disregard for the people around her.

I really liked that! One of my biggest issues with The Summoning was that Jess and Shauna’s relationship was woefully undeveloped, so I was happy to see it get more direct attention here. It was complex and real, and developed both Shauna and Jess quite nicely. Props to Shauna for not rolling over, and holding Jess accountable for her actions.

I also thought the book was generally pretty fair to Jess. It could have come down on her a lot harder, because wow did she do some selfish shit, but through Shauna and Dell’s emotional attachment, it was able to stay at least marginally sympathetic to her plight.

See? I don’t need to have women love each other 100% of the time, I just need them to not hate each other for fucking arbitrary reasons, ok?

Speaking of, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the irritating 19th-century mean girl character from the last book was given some depth and backstory, as was Mary’s previously dubious decision to focus her wrath on young girls, even when an adult man was her murderer. The explanation felt a little hand-wavey, but there was clearly an effort to humanize the girls involved, which I appreciate.

So yay, ladies having complex relationships with one another and doing things! After the misogynistic misery of The Merciless, Mary: Unleashed was like a bottle of cool water on a hot summer day: super refreshing.

Well, maybe a bottle of cool milk, because this thing is white as fuuuuuuuuuuck.

Yeah, our one woman of color got bumped off in the last book, and Unleashed didn’t make any huge strides in diversifying the cast with this installment. Unless I missed something in the descriptions, all of the main ladies are white, and while I don’t want to assume straight as the default, nobody explicitly identifies as LGBTQ+ either, though I HAD MY HOPES.

The only non-white characters featured in this book are a biracial brother and sister that the girls stay with about halfway through, but neither they nor their mother do much in this story, despite being weirdly emphasized.

That being said, a good portion of the novel feels like set-up/setting development for a potential spinoff. It’s implied that the town that Mary takes place in, Solomon’s Folly, has a history of bloodshed and supernatural dealings, and the family that our protagonists stay with seem to have their own monster the way Jess’ family has Mary. The girl, Lydia – who it kinda seemed like Shauna was making eyes at – felt particularly like a Featured Cameo, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see her show up as protagonist of her own novel.

It’s not an unwelcome development, though. I liked the Shadyside-esque vibe, and it could be interesting to see Monahan move on to explore other characters with their own creeptastic problems. Especially if the protagonist were, say, a queer black girl *o*

BUT. While I’m interested enough in the character/setting aspects to maybe come back for another installment, once again the weakest aspect for me was the horror. Dem scares. I didn’t find the first book terrible scary, but in retrospect, I appreciate the ghostly gimmick: the weirdly specific danger of Mary only being able to appear in reflective surfaces, even silly ones like sunglasses or doorknobs. At least it’s something.

About halfway through Unleashed, Mary is, well, unleashed. Jess accidentally makes it so that Mary is free to walk the earth in corporeal form, and it completely undermines any threat she ever might have posed, despite the book’s insistence to the contrary.

With the reflective surface gimmick, you were never completely safe, you know? Mirrors, glasses, doorknobs, water, you never knew where and when Mary might show up, because it’s fucking magic and she can be in any damn reflective surface she pleases.

Now? Mary’s just a zombie. A super-strong, fast, resilient zombie, but still a shambling, corporeal body. No longer able to teleport from mirror to mirror, Mary spends the last half of the book presumably just walking from place to place, which is gloriously hilarious to imagine. But even in the worst case scenario, if you’ve got a ghoul barreling down the road in your direction like the fucking roadrunner, at least you know she’s there, and not, say, waiting to pop out of the rim of your glasses.

The characters try to sell Mary’s freedom like it’s some sort of terrible danger, since it means that she’s able to physically encounter other people and wreak havoc, but I’m like, how is that not just a lot more helpful? Now you can concretely prove that Mary is a threat that needs to be taken care of! Plus, she’s confined to one body! You have a mess of unexplored options! Try setting her on fire, or burying her in salt, or dismantling her piece by piece, or hell, just putting her in a glass case and leaving her there! With the power of the police and/or an angry mob on your side, the possibilities are endless!

Seriously though, I get not wanting to tell the exact same story with the exact same scares again, but the route Mary: Unleashed took just did not work for me.

TL;DR there is less of a misogynistic edge this one. It’s clearly actively trying to be (white) girl-positive and push back against inter-girl conflict, which I appreciate. I also enjoyed the effort to develop the setting, and I wouldn’t mind reading another, more diverse book set in this world.

But…it wasn’t all that scary. If anything, Mary was even less frightening in this than she was in the last one. Unleashed leaned hard on gross and gore when the scares came a’callin’, but that’s just not the kind of horror that I’m looking for, especially in a ghost story.

three stars


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