The Stepford Wives meets Rosemary’s Baby in Anne Heltzel’s adult debut Just Like Mother.
On a GoodReads list, “Get Creeped Out With These 33 New and Upcoming Horror Novels,” I discovered Just Like Mother.
Heltzel’s novel became a haunting, inescapable image in my brain, with a wonderfully lurid cover featuring…. a baby doll. The creepy doll trope is one I’ve loved ever since submerging myself into The Conjuring Universe and love to come across it in reading. And on that eerie front, Heltzel doesn’t disappoint.
It all started on Maeve’s eighth birthday. With the candles lit and each of her “mothers” circling her, Maeve grabs the only boy child, a fungus amongst the girls in the cult confine, and runs. Soon after, law enforcement brings down the cult altogether.
Or, so they thought.
Maeve learns that she never truly escaped the Mother Collective cult; instead, it hid in plain sight and kept tabs on her in a sickening sense that parallels the invasive tone of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic.
When Maeve reconnects with her childhood via her long-lost cousin, Andrea, another child born into the cult, she learns of her bizarre, abject obsession with motherhood, specifically her loss of a child. *Cue the creepy dolls*
Andrea’s start-up company creates an effigy of her deceased daughter, Olivia. Not to mention, there’s a room with a tower of “failed Olivia models” — fragments of dolls: arms, legs, heads — that may be one of the most disturbing scenes in the novel. However, Heltzel doesn’t spare readers, and the narrative feels like an infinite string of nightmares.
One central element that I would’ve loved to see Heltzel include is the operation and inner working of the cult. We see traces of it, but I’d like to see how it began, how it existed under the radar for so long, and how it thrived despite the supposed end of it all.
Additionally, I would’ve loved to see a slower build of Andrea’s character — really submerging readers in that dread and unease.
One of the standout elements of the novel is the commentary on society’s expectations of women regarding motherhood. Heltzel highlights how the connotation of women and children can become a roaring, radical beast.
Just Like Mother is a devilishly clever, creeping narrative, with all the intelligence and relevance of literary fiction, but with grit, blood, and obsession to please horror and suspense readers alike.