Author Nat Cassidy’s debut, Mary: An Awakening of Terror hits shelves this month and acts as a daring and defiant new voice in horror. Between those unsuspecting pages, readers are introduced to the eponymously named Mary, an unreliable narrator and a woman who has lived an unremarkable life full of abuse and grief. Living alone, Mary aims to be a good person, except something has happened… something strange. She fears her own reflection, suffers from nightmares—and there’s that voice in her head that she can’t silence, pressuring her to do horrible things.
Cassidy’s novel is among the most anticipated this summer and it was great to be able to chat with him about the books that both directly—and indirectly—influenced the penning of his powerful new book.
Nat Cassidy: I'm a lifelong horror junkie and Mary: An Awakening of Terror actually speaks to that personal history on a number of levels. It's a book I first attempted to write when I was around 13, so you can track what kind of books were formative to me as a younger reader/writer, as well as what informed the book along the way to its eventual publication.
Mary: An Awakening of Terror
NC: I've been a Stephen King obsessive since I was probably 8 or 9—I've read everything the man's ever widely published, usually multiple times, and Carrie was a particular favorite (I go into more detail as to why in my book's foreword, if you're interested).
When I first had the idea for Mary, the rhyming titles weren't an accident. I deliberately wanted to pay homage to King's classic by writing a horror story about, essentially, that *other* great hormonal rite of passage: menopause. I was raised by a single mom who was a huge horror reader, and she worked in medicine, so our bookshelves were always stocked with either medical textbooks or paperback genre novels; I think that's a big part of why I've always been fascinated about the mysteries of the body and the complicated feedback loop that is our physical and psychological selves.
NC: On the other hand, Ramsey Campbell's The Parasite influenced the more metaphysical aspects of Mary during its inception. It's a very trippy thriller about astral projection and possession and has one of the best, most dread-inducing opening chapters of any book of its era. I still have my copy of The Parasite from when I was 13 and the bookmark inside has notes about Mary scrawled all over it. (Campbell also wrote a hugely disturbing serial killer novel, The Face that Must Die, which was another big influence on Mary.)
If You Could See Me Now
NC: Peter Straub is another all-time author for me (I think his Ghost Story will forever be my go-to answer whenever I'm asked what my favorite horror novel is). His early novels Julia and If You Could See Me Now were both particularly formative for my book, but since Mary is also a story about going home again, I'm gonna give IYCSMN this particular shout-out, because it's a classic of that story trope.
NC: I grew up in Arizona, but for the longest time I thought you couldn't be a horror writer unless your stories were set in New England. The first version of Mary, in fact, was set in—you guessed it—Maine, a place I have literally never been once, even to this day. It wasn't until I started reading books by fellow Arizonan Bentley Little that I saw horror could work anywhere, including in the deserts that surrounded me. Plus, The Ignored helped inform my story about a woman who felt like she was invisible. It's one of Little's tamer stories, but it's still quite a ride.
The Vet's Daughter
NC: I love skewed coming-of-age stories and stories that combine dread and wonder. Comyns' short novel is a perfect example of that vibe. I consider Mary to be a coming-of-age novel, as well (...coming-of-middle-age?), and so when I was drafting the novel a couple years ago, I made sure to revisit Comyns' book for inspiration.
The Killing Gift
NC: I love '70s-era paranormal thrillers and so this was another book I touched base with while writing. I feel like Bari Wood is just itching for rediscovery. I mean, she wrote Twins (the book Cronenberg's Dead Ringers was based on), Dolls Eyes (the book Neil Jordan's In Dreams was based on), The Tribe (the best Jewish horror novel of the modern era), and also this weird, delightful thriller. It's a bit hilariously dated—it posits the titular killing gift is a mutation given to its protagonist because her mother *gasp* got an X-ray—but if you're in the mood for something that's in the vein of Carrie, The Fury, Scanners, Firestarter, or even Naomi Alderman's 2016 The Power, it's a great pick.
When Darkness Loves Us
NC: This is a two-novella collection that I first read around the time I began writing the first draft of the mature iteration of Mary (ie, the version that's actually being published). Engstrom's work is deeply humane, while also profoundly disturbing. Speaking as a horror writer, this is the sort of book that, no matter when you read it, you wonder where it's been all your life. But, at the same time, it's the sort of book that reminds you: there are always new classics waiting for you, no matter how much you feel like you've already read. (Same can be said for Ken Greenhall's Elizabeth and Hell Hound, which I read at the same time and which were similarly mind-blowing and influential for me.)
NC: This is one of the most important books in my life. Almost all of my stories are, on one level or another, about coming to terms with monstrosity—and Mary is very much no exception. Dunn's classic novel is an exemplar of that dynamic, and a work I come back to again and again for inspiration.