My Darling Girl
Published by: Gallery/Scout Press
Release Date: October 3, 2023
The New York Times bestselling author of the “otherworldly treat” (People) The Drowning Kind and The Children on the Hill returns with a spine-tingling psychological thriller about a woman who, after taking in her dying, alcoholic mother, begins to suspect demonic possession is haunting her family.
Alison has never been a fan of Christmas. But with it right around the corner and her husband busily decorating their cozy Vermont home, she has no choice but to face it. Then she gets the call.
Mavis, Alison’s estranged mother, has been diagnosed with cancer and has only weeks to live. She wants to spend her remaining days with her daughter, son-in-law, and two granddaughters. But Alison grew up with her mother’s alcoholism and violent abuse and is reluctant to unearth these traumatic memories. Still, she eventually agrees to take in Mavis, hoping that she and her mother could finally heal and have the relationship she’s always dreamed of.
But when mysterious and otherworldly things start happening upon Mavis’s arrival, Alison begins to suspect her mother is not quite who she seems. And as the holiday festivities turn into a nightmare, she must confront just how far she is willing to go to protect her family.
“When your estranged, abusive, and dying mother comes to spend her final days at your house is only the start of the problems... My Darling Girl is a thrilling, heady mix of family dynamics/drama and one hell of a clever and page-turning possession story. And scary. Like I couldn't read it before going to bed scary. Good luck, reader.”
—Paul Tremblay, author of The Cabin at the End of the World and A Head Full of Ghosts
“Jennifer McMahon takes an all-too-relatable idea--who hasn't been driven a bit mad by their mother?--and deftly twists it into a tale of supernatural suspense and psychological thrills. My Darling Girl is the rare book that delivers both chilling scares and genuine emotion—I got goosebumps from both.”
—Chandler Baker, NYT bestselling author of Whisper Network and Cutting Teeth
Thirty years ago
"Ali Alligator?” my mother whispered as she crept into my room, slipped under my heavy quilt, cuddled up next to me on my twin bed. I was eight years old, a big girl, too old for mommy snuggles, but still, when she pressed her body against mine, I sighed with contentment and tucked myself tight against her.
We fit perfectly together, she and I. So perfectly that I wasn’t sure where I ended and she began.
“Are you asleep, my love?” she asked. “Or are you playing possum?”
I opened my eyes a tiny bit, enough to spy the numbers on the clock on my nightstand: 2:15.
My mother often worked late in her studio, stayed in there all night sometimes painting strange surrealistic landscapes: trees with eyes and ears, pools of water with faces hidden in the ripples. But every so often, she’d take a break, come into my room, wake me up, so eager to show off her latest painting that she couldn’t wait until morning. Some nights, she’d wake me up and ask if I wanted to bake cookies with her, or drive to the all-night convenience store for ice cream and root beer to make floats.
Now, she ran her fingers through my hair, down my back, bumping them along the knobby bones of my spine; my mother’s fingers, I knew without looking, were stained with paint. They smelled faintly of turpentine, like the rags in her studio—flammable, an accident waiting to happen.
She put her face up next to mine, cheek-to-cheek. “I know you’re awake,” she said, and then I smelled it, distinct from the faint turpentine scent. Her breath was thick with gin; a boozy, evergreen scent that reminded me of a forest of Christmas trees.
Her fingers worked their way over the back of my nightgown, tracing shapes, making letters to spell out words. It was a game we played, she and I. A can-you-guess-what-I’m- spelling game.
I felt the familiar letters:
I smiled, wriggled back closer to her.
“I do,” she said, her words slurred in a way that made my stomach start to hurt. “You’re my perfect girl. Too perfect for this world. Sometimes I think…” Her words were thick and strange. “I think I should have spared you. Drowned you at birth, maybe, not let you suffer the things that are to come,” she cooed into my hair.
My heart pounded so loud and hard that I was sure she could feel it, ringing like an alarm bell.
She pulled me closer, squeezing all the air out of my chest.
I couldn’t get away, even if I wanted to.
I imagined I really was drowning, being pulled under, holding my breath, lungs screaming for air.
I thought of the knife I had tucked under my pillow: It wasn’t just any ordinary knife; it was a magic knife, because I’d cast a spell on it, charged it by the light of the full moon, purified it with salt water and birch smoke. I called my knife Descender, because any evil beings I conquered with it would descend back into the dark and shadowy place they’d come from.
I believed in magic then. I believed that everything had a spirit and energy that I could listen to and draw from; that rocks and plants could speak to me, that the geese flying overhead carried messages and were harbingers of things to come. And I believed that there was good and there was evil and they were curled up around each other, intertwined like thick vines. Sometimes it was hard to tell which was which.
I did other things to keep myself safe, too. The ring of salt around my bed, the bible Aunt Frances had given me for my sixth birthday tucked under my pillow beside the knife. It was a children’s bible with pictures. Noah’s ark was my favorite page: all those animals boarding the big boat, two by two. I’d stare at the illustration, worrying over it, sure the lions would eat the goats, the horses would trample the rabbits; and where were the smallest creatures? The millipedes and the worms? How would they be saved?
I held still, listening to my mother breathing.
In and out. In and out.
If I held still and played possum, she might just go away. Or pass out beside me, maybe.
In the morning, I’d tell myself it was just a dream. That I’d imagined her coming into my room, whispering these things. It wouldn’t feel real anymore in the light of day when I was looking at her across the breakfast table. It would be impossible to believe this happened when my mother, all lit up with morning light coming through the kitchen window, smiled and asked if I would like raspberry jam for my toast (which she’d kindly cut the crust off of, just the way I liked it), if my brother Ben wanted extra peanut butter. If I dared ask her about her visit in the night, she’d call me a silly goose for making up stories. Then she might suggest some fun adventure for the day, like the time we took the train into the city just for chicken gyros, or the time we turned our living room into a circus and tried to get our poor cat Lucky to walk the tightrope.
But now, I just concentrated on holding still, kept my eyes clamped shut.
I imagined I was dead. Buried deep underground, dirt in my mouth, roots tangled in my hair. I told myself that maybe my mother really did drown me when I was an infant. I imagined her sitting there on top of my grave, shoulders stooped under the weight of guilt and sorrow, talking down through six feet of earth to her dead baby girl in a rotten coffin.
"I should have saved you from all of this,” my mother whimpered, crying. I could feel a warm salty tear drip onto my cheek.
She lifted the back of my pajama top.
Hold still, I told myself.
I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead.
"I have a secret,” my mother said, voice soft, confessional. “Do you want to know?”