Vega, Danielle. The Merciless. New York: Penguin Group, 2014.
Pretty Little Liars, please meet The Exorcist.
The Merciless follows Sofia Flores, army brat of a single mom, to her latest high school in the “tiny army town of Friend, Mississippi,” which “feels like the inside of an oven,” and is populated with more churches than grocery stores (6). Sofia’s first day of school introduces her to bad girl, tattooed and pierced, Brooklyn, who is the antithesis of the popular, beautiful, devoted-to-God, good girl group, Riley, Alexis, and Grace, who quickly claim Sofia as their own. Sofia falls easily to Riley’s flattery and allows the girls to baptize her in the girls’ bathroom at school, in order to seal her place in their clique. Sofia finds herself inducted into a world of sleepovers, red wine, gossip, and beauty talk… that is, until it becomes a night of red wine, butcher knives and an exorcism.
Vega’s novel opens with blood and visceral imagery. Sofia snags her “thumb on the lunch tray’s metal edge, and a crescent of blood appears beneath [her] cuticle. It oozes into the cracks surrounding [her] nail, then spills over to one side, forming a perfect red droplet, almost like a tear” (1). I was hooked and seeing red from page one, which boded well for a work of horror. I was not disappointed - The Merciless leaves one bloody bread crumb after another, filling the reader with suspense, disgust, and, well, horror, leading to a crowning act of violence through crucifixion. The pages beg to be turned and readers will be unable to turn away from the (in)humanity and darkness that lurks within the characters and their actions.
Despite the book’s breakneck speed and cinematic feel, it still leaves room for the contemplation of the power play between good and evil in humanity. The first chapter sets up the enigma of the girls working their ways into Sofia’s life. In Sofia’s first interaction with Brooklyn, Brooklyn offers Sofia a Band-Aid for her bleeding cuticle. Sofia acknowledges that she has “hung out with girls like [Brooklyn] before, the girls who skip third period to smoke cloves in the bathroom and pierce their ears with safety pins. It’s always exciting for a while, but they never become real friends,” but Sofia, being new, leaves her options open for making friends (5). Hanging out with the rebellious, angsty, noncormfist, though likely unfulfilling, is better than being friendless. On the other hand, Riley sneaks up on Sofia, who has just discovered a skinned cat, lying inside a pentagram. Riley, with her “brown curls [that] pool around her shoulders in perfect spirals” and immaculate blue dress, reveals no emotion regarding the cat; instead, she invites Sofia to sit with her friends at lunch (6). Sofia is skeptical, thinking that “pretty, popular girls form cliques harder to break into than a bank vault,” but she gives Riley the benefit of the doubt because she “seemed genuine when she made her charity announcement in the cafeteria” (9). Riley’s crew proceeds to share rumors of Brooklyn’s sacrilege, but Sofia has trouble believing that the girl “who offered [her] a Band-Aid would also kill a cat” (12). Does Riley’s absence of emotion toward finding the cat imply that she was involved in the ritual or was it actually Brooklyn? Questions spring from the opening of the novel. As the story progresses, when Brooklyn is tied up in a basement, and Riley, Alexis, Grace, and Sofia confess their own sins, the lines between right and wrong/good and evil become even more distorted. Are the “pretty little liars” ultimately the good girls, or are they the evil in the room? Or are they both or neither? Is it Brooklyn, who is possessed, or the others? What would it mean about humanity or morality if Brooklyn isOR if the girls are OR if no one is?
Danielle Vega has created a novel that will appeal to horror fans, as well as to the cult of readers and TV-viewers that follow the drama, trifling, and suspense of Pretty Little Liars. Riley, Alexis, Grace, and Sofia are Spencer, Hannah, Aria, and Emily hopped up on religious fervor and a desire to exorcise, instead of exercise.
Also to Vega’s credit, never has a cover so perfectly wrapped up and sold the contents within. The hot pink cover perfectly captures the bubblegum-chewing, superficial, beauty-obsessed, popular, girly-girl image, just as the textured, gold-embossed text evokes the Bible - only our text is The Merciless, accompanied by a pentagram, rather than a cross. The cover is so poignantly sweet and diabolical at the same time, so beautifully decadent that I almost can’t stand it but ♡ it instead.
So, The Merciless as the popular girl’s quintessential bible of good vs. evil? Or just evil?