Hillary Monahan: Five Things I Learned Writing Mary: The Summoning

There is a right way and a wrong way to summon her.  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?

1) Scary is personal.

What scares me doesn’t scare you. Or the person next to you. Or the person next to that. There is no one novel, no matter how well written, that will absolutely get under an audience’s skin. There is no penultimate monster that will send people scurrying for bibles, holy water, and a nightlight. While people can respect how well-crafted a horror book is and appreciate relatable characters, original premise, and perfectly staged monster scenes, sometimes the scares just won’t scare. Fear is steeped in psychology.

I find this premise fascinating. For example, I have a friend who can watch any zombie or ghost movie without issue. The Exorcist made me climb the walls, he could not grok why it was such a big deal. However, we watched The Strangers — a movie about a home invasion — and he was scarred for weeks. The fantastical will not bother him. Realistic horror will get him every time.

Another friend loves zombies movies/fiction, but if you put a ghost in front of him he can’t stomach it. “If I can’t physically attack it to save myself, it scares me.” A horror author doesn’t know the audience’s push buttons. She can only go forth with what she sees as scary and hope others share her particular flavor of twitchy.

2) Scary is pacing dependent.

You can argue that all stories are pacing dependent, but to me, horror will fall flat quicker than other genres if tension is not maintained. Every one of my favorite horror novels starts small and snowballs into hideous by the end of the story. THE SHINING delivers a nibble of creepy at the beginning and escalates to some ghost activity, then major ghost activity. By two hundred-and-something pages in, Danny Torrance is being chased by an army of topiary animals and I’m trying not to vomit with fear because HOW DID WE GET HERE? WHY, STEPHEN KING, WHY?

The seed of dread needs to be planted early and steadily nourished so it can flourish into a Pee-Your-Pants Tree over the course of the pages. If the book stagnates and dips, the reader loses that uncomfortable tingle at the base of her spine. Without a foundation of creep to build upon, the mood is shot and the book fails.

The pendulum can swing the other way, too, though. Too much gore and people will see it as splatter porn. While some folks appreciate viscera dripping from the ceiling, it can desensitize the audience to the atrocities. After a while, they all blend together and will no longer evoke those much sought after trauma stares.

3) Horror tropes are plentiful. Use with caution.

Tropes exist in every genre, but horror tropes are particularly prominent. The creepy music box, the thing in the mirror reflection that wasn’t there the moment before, the haunted doll. These tropes, when spun on their heads, are fun. Horror lovers appreciate a good tip of the hat. They love fresh takes on old themes. However, using too many tropes? Or using them the exact same way someone else presented them? Derivative and stale. The audience gets that corpses look like corpses and there aren’t too many variations on the theme. What will differentiate the good piles of walking rot from the bad are the less-explored details.

The smells. The sounds. The odd tics.

And then there are the problematic tropes. The promiscuous girl who is murdered after she’s shown us a whole heaping helping of her bouncing sweater parts. The person of color who is never, ever allowed to make it to the end of the movie/book (or, if he does, is then shot right before the credits roll because Screw You, Night of the Living Dead.)  Yeah. If these tropes died in a fire, I’d be okay with that.

4) Kissing and horror go together, but not always well.

This seems to be more of a YA thing. When a protagonist is fearful for her life but spends more than ten percent of the story thinking about kissing, there’s something weird going on. I don’t care if I’m holed up with RDJ, Sofia Vergara, and Tom Hiddelston. If there are zombies coming, my girl parts have to wait a damned minute. All the makeouts in the world won’t matter if a dead thing’s munching on my spleen.

I readily recognize that having a relationship in horror can up the stakes. The potential loss, the fear of not only losing your own life but the life of a partner. I hate using another King example, but he’s the grandpappy of horror for a reason—Fran and Stu in THE STAND? Okay, I can deal with it. It worked. But remember that THE STAND had a trillion pages so King had the space to pull that off. In a shorter book, too much focus on DOES HE LIKE ME and not enough on HOLY GOD THE TENTACLE BEAST JUST ATE CHARLIE detracts from the danger. It also borders on illogical.

5) Urban legends and local lore are fascinating.

Bloody Mary came to prominence in the 1960’s. Over in England, she was a toilet bogey associated with the dead queen. In the US, her story got wonky. She’s not always Bloody Mary—sometimes she’s Mary Jane. Sometimes she’s a mother mourning for her children (a more traditional Lady in White type ghost.) Sometimes she’s associated with the Salem Witch Trials. Sometimes she’s a student who died in a school and wants to torment the living for having the audacity to breathe. The only common thread is a blackened bathroom, a name said three times, and a ghost in a mirror.

When writing MARY, I did a lot of research on the legend and found myself studying the Hockomock Swamp in Massachusetts (which is where the fictitious town of Solomon’s Folly is located.) It’s a marshland in southeastern MA that spans four or five towns and considered one of the most haunted places in New England. Not coincidentally, it’s where King Philip’s War was fought back in the 1600s and thousands of people died.  All sorts of weird claims have been made about the place, the most entertaining of which is the whole yeti thing. Like, there have been enough yeti sightings in the swamp that I’m pretty sure the yeti have built condominiums and play golf in there. Ghosts, phantom swamp gas, old gods, Indian curses—all part of the local lore and it’s amazing.

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At night, when the lights are dim and the creepy crawlies scuttle around in the dark, Hillary Monahan throws words at a computer.  Sometimes they’re even good words.  A denizen of Massachusetts and an avid gamer dork, she’s most often found locked in a dark room killing internet zombies or raging about social injustice.

Hillary Monahan: Website | Twitter

Mary: Indiebound | Amazon | B&N


  • Love this! Written quite a bit of horror and it’s so fickle for readers! Some think my stuff is uber dark when it’s just reality in part! Others think it’s just a gut check about humanity. Like there is a message 😀 I like that, makes me sound smart and stuff. All good points!

  • I’m all over this! I remember the tales of Bloody Mary as a kid. Have you see those Scare U videos on the sociology and psychology of fear? Fascinating. http://www.scarehouse.com/about/the-study-of-fear

    Also, I think a lot of these lessons can be applied to other genres as well. I write romance, and was nodding my head to your lessons on pacing and using tropes with caution especially…Though of course I agree that these are two different genres, and don’t really mix well. Zombies generally aren’t very conducive to sexytimes.

  • I had never heard of Bloody Mary but my daughter had a friend over a few months ago and they did the ritual in front of her bedroom mirror which totally freaked her out. She had to have a blanket draped over the mirror for a few days. Why do ten year olds do this to themselves?

  • I’m like your one friend. “I fear nothing that bleeds. If it bleeds, it can die. If it can die, I can kill it.”* Ghosts… not so much.

    Home invasion stories/realistic horror per se doesn’t bother me either, but stories about things like serial-killer cops freak me the fuck out. If Joe Chill breaks in my house, I can put a hole or five in him and I’ll probably be okay. If Officer Chill does, I can either tolerate whatever he does or go to jail (or get shot) for defending myself. That scares me.

    *(Insert joke about why men are afraid of women here. If you’ve never heard it, the punchline is, “Never trust anything that bleeds for four days straight and doesn’t die.”)

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