The Merciless

mercilessThe Short Version: Sofia has just moved to a new town and her new high school is as thorny as any. Somehow, though, she falls in with the popular girls and meets a cute boy – so maybe things will be okay. But when the clique kidnaps the weird rebellious Brooklyn and sets out to exorcise her, what seemed like Mean Girls gets a whole lot darker and devilish.

The Review: I’m intrigued, personally, by having read this book and The Hellbound Heart in relatively short succession. Danielle Vega’s novel is for teens and Barker’s decidedly for adults – but there are similarities and counterpoints worth noting, because they illuminate both books all the better. The violence in both is deployed with unsparing vigor and both plots are a relentless roll down the slopes of Hell. And both books elide detail, rely on the reader to fill in some blanks and make the horror more personal. Except that Barker’s book does that with a masterly flourish (you get the sense that he could write the description but wants the reader to invest and bring the horror that much further into their own imagination) while Vega’s book does it seemingly unintentionally, oblivious of its own weaknesses.

The first six chapters (comprising just over 80 pages) are straight out of the teenage high school dramedy playbook: a little Mean Girls, a little 10 Things I Hate About You, and so on. There’s creepiness at play, but nothing out of the ordinary or unexpected if you’ve ever visited Fear Street or if you paid the slightest bit of attention to the upside-down pentacle on the book’s bright pink cover. And this is where Vega’s rough edges show the most clearly: we’ve not only heard this story a hundred times before, but every single one of them was better. It’s impossible to see a clique of girls and not think of Rachel McAdams and young Lindsay Lohan, you know? A story, at this point, has to do something new with the clichés of the rebel, of the good girl who’s torn between a potentially authentic friend and being popular, of the cute and slightly dumb guy who’ll end up coming around as love interest, the teacher who asks a question like “so what did you all think of The Divine Comedy?” just before the bell rings (ed. note: seriously, what is up with that trope? Teachers are better than that with time management, authors. Everyone is.) – and all the other ones we’re both thinking of. And Vega does nothing but what’s absolutely expected. It’s almost like many of these scenes existed in a traditional high-school-comedy and were plucked out and placed here, massaged at the edges to make the character development all line up with what comes later.

It’s what comes later that makes this book an intriguing, if still flawed, blast of horror. The girls kidnap Brooklyn, the sassy tattooed punk who’s just a little too weird, and intend to exorcise her. There’s a lot of religious misunderstanding in these girls, something I wish had been explored a little further – but that I also bought completely, regardless. I was reminded of Erica Schmidt’s production of Macbeth done at Juilliard last year, where four actresses did the whole thing: three girls lying in wait to entrap and murder a fourth. All of this seems born out of the sensational story of two young girls who murdered their playmate because, as it seems, Slenderman told them to do so – but even these moments of fantastical extremes are rooted in the fact that teenagers are horrible to one another. Physical violence is only one angle of it and Sofia is both victim and perpetrator of psychological violence – as are all five of these girls, in fact.

But Vega loses sight of the psychological games in favor of a swift descent into some Lord of the Flies madness: Riley, the ringleader of the populars, is her own kind of twisted sister. The ‘exorcism’ goes awry pretty quickly and the girls fall to torturing Brooklyn. There’s no other way to put it: a butcher knife is deployed, fingernails are popped off, people are half-drowned, pushed off a roof, and so on. And Vega doesn’t spare the reader – in fact, the violence seems again to’ve been lifted from an adult book and cleaned up just a smidge around the edges to make it more palatable. This amount of blood on the periphery isn’t exactly run-of-the-mill for the teen set.
This violence is both a good and bad thing for the novel. On the one hand, the depravity keeps the tension high and the reader uncomfortably compelled to keep reading. On the other, it increasingly comes to feel like a cop-out. The tantalizing idea of four girls torturing a fifth because they believe her to be possessed is all you need – especially if you can keep the reader questioning. But again, Vega splits things pretty clearly from the start and while she keeps Sofia’s loyalties in flux, it’s never too hard to see the next few moves and to know just where the pieces will land at the endgame, where the hint of the supernatural gives way to the actual supernatural in a moment of rushed sequel-bait that holds echoes of, among other stories, Joe Hill’s Horns and Stephen King’s Carrie.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5. Scary stuff, for any age of reader. The violence here is stark and ubiquitous – a strong stomach is recommended. Unfortunately, the rest of the book doesn’t hold up to the intensity of the physical descriptions, relying on high school clichés as well as horror ones. Vega’s interesting story dissolves into the predictable before too long and a reader will have to ask whether or not it’s worth it to keep going on. If you need a violent, scary treat… why not, it won’t take you long. But if you have any other desire, best to steer clear.

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