The “final girl” at the heart of Goldy Moldavsky’s new YA horror novel, The Mary Shelley Club, is teenage Latina Rachel Chavez, who moves to Brooklyn with her mother after a home invasion leaves them fearful of the Long Island suburbs. While attending an exclusive prep school on the Upper East Side, Rachel discovers a secret society whose members try to terrify their classmates by staging scenarios inspired by scary movies and genre tropes. PW spoke with Moldavsky about her own inspirations and the origins of her love for scream-worthy cinema.
Your first two books, Kill the Boy Band and No Good Deed, are dark comedies. What made you decide to try your hand at horror?
I want nothing more than to just go down a straight path and find a dedicated readership who knows what to expect from me, but for some reason, my ideas are all over the place. I guess it’s just how I consume media. I like comedies, I like dramas, I like horror and thrillers and everything, and I just try to get it all down. Generally, even when I am doing a comedy, I try to see if I can put a dead body in there. That’s the way my mind works—to me, that will always make the story more interesting.
Do you remember when and how the idea for this book came to you? What inspired the premise?
Do you know the New York City Teen Author Festival that [YA author and editor] David Levithan throws? I had just gotten to know him when I went to the one in the main library on 42nd Street. I got there early, and it hadn’t started yet. Even though he was there, setting everything up, I’m so anti-social that I didn’t want to just hang out and say hi, so I ducked out and decided to explore the basement level of the library. And there was this room off to the side—a cute little windowless lecture room. There was a video being played on a loop, and it was the story of how Mary Shelley came up with Frankenstein, which I had never heard. She went to a summer getaway in a villa in Switzerland and she met up with all these contemporaries of her time, really fancy writer-types. They were trying to one-up each other, to come up with the best horror idea, and she basically won by coming up with Frankenstein in one night. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if I set this in modern times, with New York City teenagers trying to come up with a scary story? But I figured, I can’t make them writers, because writers aren’t that interesting, so if I can make their horror come alive outside of the page, if they can try to enact these horror stories, that would be really cool. That’s what I tried to do.
It’s clear that you have a deep and abiding love of horror and its tropes. What inspired that love, and when did it start?
It’s hard to say. But it definitely started when I was a kid. My sister and I used to go to the video store when we were kids in Brooklyn, and we would go straight for the horror section. I don’t know why. We probably just went picking movies that had kids on the boxes. And I guess we developed a horror movie obsession. I know that I watched The Exorcist and The Omen long before I probably should have, but here I am now with a book about scary movies, so it couldn’t have been that bad.
The really interesting thing about the horror genre is that so many times, it’s told from the girl’s perspective—usually a young girl, and in the end, she survives. She overcomes all the monsters in the story, she has that agency, where she takes hold of her own power in order to defeat all the bad guys. And I really love that about horror.
You say you watched these movies too young. How young are we talking?
My age must have been in the single digits, I know that for sure. But you know, I have a baby right now. He’s four months old. I also have a two-year-old, and my two-year-old’s favorite thing to do with the baby is to jump at him. The baby will flinch and get really scared, but like a second later, he’ll start laughing. And I recognize that. I saw that in me. Whenever I watch a scary movie, I feel that immediate comfort and relief after being scared, where I’m like, “I was really scared, but I went through it, and it was actually really fun. I know that I’m totally safe.” So how awesome is that? I think even as children, we kind of, on a surface level, love being scared. Some of us, at least. That’s the feeling I was trying to capture [with The Mary Shelley Club].
The protagonist of The Mary Shelley Club, Rachel Chavez, watches horror movies as a kind of exposure therapy—a safe way to try to work through her past trauma and master her fear. Do you think that’s the psychological appeal of the horror genre for most people?
Even if they don’t realize it, I think that’s definitely what’s happening. It was only after I started writing the character, when I was doing research into how fear plays a role in our psyche, that I realized there’s actually documented evidence of this. Experts in the field say it’s probably a good idea to watch scary movies and to learn how to control fear that in our real lives can often get out of control. When you watch horror movies, and you realize at the end that you’re safe—that you went through it, and now you’ve come out the other side feeling fine—that’s actually a great way of catharsis. My niece, she’s around 11, she gets nightmares, and she gets really scared. I told my sister, “Let her watch scary movies, see how that goes!” She didn’t like the idea, even though, as kids, we watched scary movies.
The members of the Mary Shelley Club have a near-encyclopedic knowledge of horror novels and movies, and the book is riddled with references. Did writing it require a lot of research?
They were definitely cinephiles, and they knew much more about horror movies than I did, for sure. I went online and I found lists of the best horror movies in certain genres and categories, and I decided to just write them into the story before I’d ever watched them. And that made me realize, “Oh, I don’t love horror movies as much as these kids do. I haven’t watched half of these things!” It was only after I’d written [about] them that I had to go back and find the movies and see if they were actually that scary, or any good. It took a lot of sitting and watching horror movies, which was great fun.
What are you working on now?
Speaking of not having a set genre that I work in, I went in completely the opposite direction and worked on a totally bonkers absurdist comedy that I will probably live to regret. After that, I’m hoping to start on kind of a dramedy rom-com, see how that goes. See if I can throw a dead body in there.
The Mary Shelley Club by Goldy Moldavsky. Henry Holt, $18.99 Apr. 13 978-1-250-23010-2