Last year, Rachel Chavez survived a home invasion. In an attempt to provide her with a new start, her mother, who teaches at Manchester Prep, an affluent Manhattan high school, moves them from their Long Island house to a Brooklyn apartment and enrolls Rachel at Manchester Prep.
Since the attack, Rachel has found comfort in watching horror movies and become a horror fan. Being the new girl, the survivor of a violent attack, and a horror fan are not typically a winning combination for fitting in at a new school. But her observation of an anomalous act at a party leads her to discovering the Mary Shelley Club.
A secret club made up of her Manchester Prep classmates, the Mary Shelley Club, meets up to watch and discuss (and sometimes argue about) horror films. They do not interact with each other on campus and do not talk about the club with non-members, or when others are present. They also plan and execute what they call “fear tests”. Each member of the club selects a target and plays a “prank” that is meant to terrify the person. Often these pranks are reminiscent of or based on scenes from movies. No one is supposed to get hurt and the test ends when the target screams.
At first, the Mary Shelley Club seems exactly like what Rachel needs: real connections with her classmates, shared interests and experiences, and a chance to truly belong to a group, even if it is small and secret. But how far are her friends willing to go to pull off the perfect scare?
Goldy Moldavsky assembles a novel that skillfully combines different parts: a contemporary YA romance, a thriller, an exploration of the cultural and economic barriers present in our culture, and a love letter to horror films. The resulting creation is a wonder, worthy of invoking the titular author, her most famous creation, and the running references to both, throughout the novel.
Moldavsky has created an interesting and diverse cast of characters, illustrating the broad, and often difficult to clearly define, appeal of horror films and literature, which seems to cut across gender, economic, and cultural boundaries. Each character has their own reasons for belonging to the Mary Shelley Club and for welcoming, or resenting, Rachel’s entry into their private group. By setting the novel in an institution populated primarily by those who have no financial concerns, Moldavsky not only allows herself to comment on economic and racial disparities, and how those are felt particularly sharply by teenagers, but also allows her characters an almost free rein in the planning and execution of the club’s “fear tests,” which are elaborate and terrifying.
Rachel is the perfect character for telling the story of The Mary Shelley Club. She is brimming with horror trivia and insights, and is filled with the typical self-doubts that plague most, but clearly not all, teens (as Moldavsky illustrates with some of the more well-to-do students at Manchester Prep). Rachel is a likable and relatable young woman who has already survived one trauma, and facilitated her own coping mechanism by watching other young women in peril in horror films (which is a fascinating idea in and of itself). Readers will be anxious to learn if she will again be the “final girl” in her own horror story.
Filled with thrills, trivia and tightly wound tension, The Mary Shelley Club will keep readers turning the pages until the slightly disturbing end, because there are no happy endings to a horror story. More insights about the novel and its author can be read in this interview.