Mary, Nat Cassidy (Nightfire 978-1-25026-523-4, $21.99, 416pp, tp) August 2022.
Nat Cassidy’s Mary is an outstanding debut horror novel. It’s also a novel that shouldn’t work. Take, for example, just a few of the elements present in this novel’s wild mix of ideas: ghosts, anxiety, serial killers, an abusive aunt, depression, reincarnation, and insects that aren’t really there. Might sound like too much but, in Cassidy’s capable hands, it all works together beautifully. There’s more. It shouldn’t work because it’s the kind of book where the book dies and the main character suffers a lot and there are deep, dark secrets that you think you have figure out by the time you’ve read a third of the book, but then you learn that you were very wrong. However, and inexplicably, all of those things add up to the kind of debut that will surely help establish its author as one of the best new voices in horror.
Mary is a quiet, lonely middle-aged woman who’s obsessed with being Good (yes, capital G). She’s happy with her quiet life working at a bookstore and talking to her little figurine collection at home. She enjoys being invisible to the world. However, not everything is going great. Mary has been seeing things lately. Every time she looks in the mirror or looks at a woman her age, the face she is looking at decomposes and crumbles. She’s also been suffering from hot flashes and strange body aches. Then there are the voices in her head that tell her to do bad things. Mary’s worried, so she goes to the doctor, but just like throughout her life, the doctor gives her some pills and dismisses her. After all, says the doctor, things are weird for women experiencing perimenopause. Then she loses her job at the bookstore. Broke, confused, and without options, Mary accepts an offer to leave New York and go back to her hometown to take care of an old aunt she never got along with. Sadly, the move doesn’t improve anything. In fact, things get worse. Mary starts auto-writing creepy messages she can’t decipher, her aunt is as awful as she remembered, her dog keeps attacking her or leaving nasty surprises for her on her room’s floor and even on the bed, and she begins to see mutilated ghosts of women that seem to know she’s there. With the help of a young coworker, Mary learns the specters she’s seeing are the victims of a serial killer that preyed on the town long ago. Then the killings start again, and Mary is in so deep she knows the only way out is to keep digging.
Mary is a fun, creepy, strange read. Mary is a sad character with a lot of self-esteem issues and a dark past that bubbles to the surface one fragment at a time. She hates herself, and that makes readers develop empathy for her almost immediately. Then, the series of events she goes through are so relatable that by the time she finds the first ghost in the bathtub, we are already on her side, and that makes the novel work really well as the story moves forward.
While Cassidy does many things well here, two of them deserve special attention. The first is the way the small town Mary returns to becomes a character. The town is full of colorful characters and it clearly has a very dark past it refuses to acknowledge. Also, the people Mary runs into include some of the women who used to bully her mercilessly, which brings to mind the concept of all small towns being big hells.
The second element that merits attention is Mary’s voice. There’s a lot happening here, including many bizarre elements, but Mary’s voice carries readers through all of it with immediacy and even a dash of humor. The worse things get, the easier it becomes to like Mary and want her to solve the mystery, and that eventually turns into something entirely different… and that’s something I won’t talk about here because it’s one of the many reasons fans of good horror fiction should check this one out.
Lastly, Mary is, in many ways, a novel about abuse and misogyny. Sometimes it’s subtle and sometimes it’s in your face, just like in real life, and that makes this the kind of horror novel that entertains while also delivering a message and showing how sometimes women can be made invisible by almost everyone around them.
Nat Cassidy has written an impressive debut in which supernatural horror collides with real horrors, and that makes Mary the kind of novel you keep thinking about long after you’ve turned the last page.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, professor, and book reviewer living in Austin TX. He is the author of Zero Saints and Coyote Songs and the editor of Both Sides. His work has been nominated to the Bram Stoker and Locus Awards and won the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel in 2019. His short stories have appeared in a plethora of anthologies and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and CrimeReads. His work has been published in five languages, optioned for film, and praised by authors as diverse as Roxane Gay, David Joy, Jerry Stahl, and Meg Gardiner. His reviews appear regularly in places like NPR, Publishers Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, Criminal Element, Mystery Tribune, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other print and online venues. He’s been a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards twice and has judged the PANK Big Book Contest, the Splatterpunk Awards, and the Newfound Prose Prize. He teaches creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University’s online MFA program. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.
This review and more like it in the October 2022 issue of Locus.
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