Monday, September 29, 2014

What ... was that? The Merciless leaves me speechless.

As we inch further into fall (egads!), publishers practically start throwing horror novels at the market.  It's as if October is the only month of the year people wish to read scary stories.  This is, of course, not true, but publishers bank on Halloween and the whole autumn-as-death symbolism to bring us more horror stories.  Or should I say, "horror" stories?

The two novels that I reviewed earlier, Welcome to the Dark House and Creed, released this month.  I honestly can't complain about a surge in creepy books, because as a librarian who has to fill up displays of teen books, I appreciate the extra material.  It makes my life a million times easier.  As with any book, though, the fact that it's been published doesn't mean it's the best thing ever written.  The majority of the books I read for review purposes (as opposed to something I personally love or that's been on my Read Before Death list) don't end up wowing me (exceptions: The Girl from the Well, Blackbird, and The Walls Around Us).

One of the big problems in the horror/thriller/mystery genre is that everybody wants to be the next Stephen King.  Rather, publisher's blurbs want to make you think that this author is the next Stephen King.  This puzzles me, because a) Stephen King is not the only person to have written really good horror, and b) I honestly don't feel like Uncle Steve is that terrifying.  What I appreciate about his novels (confession: I haven't read a lot of them) is his attention to character development and atmosphere.  He explores humanity, and that's why his books are so scary: humanity is monumentally horrible.

This leads me to The Merciless, by Danielle Vega.  I first heard inklings of this book at C2E2 2014.  Penguin had a small book booth with ARCs.  I snagged an adult dystopian that I still haven't read (oops), and as I was putting it into one of my numerous geeky totes, I listened to the Penguin rep pitch The Merciless to a teen girl beside me.  She said it was super scary and about witches.  I thought, "Nope, not for me."  Plus, the ARC itself was massive--it's almost like they printed it on legal paper--and heavy.  When I have to schlep ARCs, nerd tchotckes, prints, t-shirts, and signed comics back to my hotel, I am going to be very selective about what I put in that tote.  The Merciless stayed behind, and I honestly never thought I'd hear of it again.


Flash forward about four months.  What do I see popping up in journal reviews but The Merciless?  It now has a minimalist pink cover with gold embossing, and one review actually said this might need a warning label.  Did I order it for the library?  Duh.  If nothing else, it would be a provocative choice.

After reading the reviews, it was clear that the Penguin rep was probably a bit confused.  Or she might have been overwhelmed by seeing a Mystique cosplay walk past.  That gets me every time.  The Merciless is not about witches.  Fundamentally, it's psycho Mean Girls who have a serious fundamentalist Christian addiction.  And that massive ARC that I saw has been slimmed down to a novel that I read in one day.  Maybe too slimmed down ... but we'll get to that in a moment.  What could have been a really interesting character study is instead a series of horror vignettes enacted by extreme stereotypes.

To put it another way, bad and gross stuff happens pretty much nonstop to people who are boring.

Sofia Flores moves around the country approximately every six months because her mother is an Army medic.  They bring along her Grandmother, who had a stroke a few years back and now only sits and says her rosary.  Sofia loves Grandmother dearly, and has wonderful memories of her stories and their time together in Mexico.  Sofia's mother suffers from that YA book syndrome called Absent Parent Syndrome, because she's conveniently missing and disengaged from her daughter.  She doesn't seem to know that Sofia suffers at each new school she attends.  The last time was particularly bad...

But that's all behind her now.  She can start out again at a new school in this ultra-conservative Southern town.  Right on the very first day, she's invited to sit with the cool girls.  The Plastics, if you will.  Riley, the leader, makes Sofia feel warm and loved almost right away.  Alexis (Lexie) is a pale blonde paragon of Southern girlishness, and Grace is a funky ex-Chicagoan.  Riley and her friends take Sofia under their wing, letting her into their secret place--a half-finished house in a subdivision that tanked when the economy did.  There, they drink wine and talk about boys and condemn Brooklyn, a vaguely punk/emo/goth girl at their school.

Riley, Lexie, and Grace are convinced that Brooklyn is evil and that her soul needs to be saved.  Sofia isn't so sure.  But hey, she's got friends now, right?  What wouldn't you do for your friends?

Well, Sofia becomes an accomplice in the kidnapping and torture of Brooklyn.  Hooray friendship?

From this point on, I had to struggle through a litany of torture and the main character's bad decisions.  Or rather, lack of decisions.  Riley decides that they need to exorcise Brooklyn, which is really a laugh (a sad, mocking laugh) because they don't know what they're doing.  All of their religious-speak is totally unconvincing.  There's a scene where they "baptize" someone and Riley and Lexie say you have to "accept Jesus into your heart" or something like that in order to be baptized.  In the name of Research, I'm trying to find a source for Lexie's "exorcism" speech, and I keep finding all these websites screeching, "Warning, to be performed by a priest only!"  Ladies, should have paid attention to the warning!

Except it's not really about exorcisms or demons.  It's about hatred, pure and simple.  Riley is a psychopath who hates Brooklyn.  Brooklyn also has some major issues and hates ... well, most everyone.  In an ultra-religious town, what better way to revenge yourself on someone than to do it under the guise of religion?  Most wars in history were fought under the banner of "religion."  Riley is almost like a cult leader, with her friends/minions Lexie and Grace doing whatever she says.  Although Sofia claims that she's trying to escape and help Brooklyn, she doesn't try very hard.

All of the different tortures that Riley inflicts on Brooklyn seem straight out of a Chiller channel original movie, and seem to have no purpose other than to shock.  I think that if an average teenage girl were to undergo what Brooklyn does, she wouldn't be conscious after the first few minutes.

So, there's like 130 pages of blah blah blah, run around, hide, plot, try to escape, fail, blah blah blah.  Suddenly there's a ta-da moment and everything that happens after that is even more unbelievable than the preceding pages.  I guess the ending was supposed to be provocative or something but it had been foreshadowed from a million miles away.

The Merciless tries really, really, really hard to be edgy, but just comes off as desperate.  However, it was a quick read, and I was mildly amused by the one-upmanship of straight up crazy.





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