Original Publish Date: May 20, 2016
Like good horror films, good horror literature is hard to find. So when I found Grady Hendrix’s book Horrorstörin a St. Louis bookstore, I decided to give it a try. Its design parodying an IKEA catalogue, the snarky characters, the terrifying descriptions of torture and depravity – it made my heart race like good horror should. I knew I had to read his next book, and lo and behold, it appeared less than a year later. With such a high standard to live up to, does this tale of prom and possession measure up?
Let’s take a look at My Best Friend’s Exorcism.
A review copy of this book was provided by NetGalley
Abby Rivers is white trash in Charleston, a town full of affluent families in the 1980s, the strangest of all the decades. But that doesn’t keep her from befriending Gretchen Lang, the only girl who came to her E.T. themed birthday. The two are inseparable until something weird starts to happen to Gretchen. She feels someone touching her neck, whispering in her ear all day, before attacking her at night and in the shower. Soon, Gretchen knows things she shouldn’t and her physical state begins to suffer. Abby does her best to figure out what is killing her pal when suddenly, Gretchen is fine…well, except for the dark streak causing her to destroy everyone around her. But rather than see the monster she’s become, everyone blames Abby and conspires against her. What’s a girl to do when her best friend has been taken over by a devious demon? They never covered that in the pages of Seventeen.
The book spends a lot of time developing the friendship between Abby and Gretchen in part to highlight the drama about to occur, but also the biggest political and class differences between the two. Gretchen’s conservative and hovering rich parents present very different challenges to Abby with her hard-working mother and disengaged father. Later we meet Margaret, a tall mean girl obsessed with being small, and Glee, a passive snob whose loyalty sways with the wind. It is on a trip to a summer home that Gretchen is attacked by a mysterious force in the woods who present the other disbelieving pair. Since the book follows Abby, we can only really see the external changes. But it is not Gretchen descent into physical, emotional, and mental hell but her transformation under the “watchful” eyes of her parents that is the most chilling.
There is a lot of the “parents just don’t understand, they are blind to what’s really happening, their cynicism keeps them from knowing the truth” which is something I cannot stand in most novels. However, in Hendrix’s case, that’s one of the big horrors – rather than dealing with the real problems, Gretchen, and later Margaret’s, parents would rather blame something easy like drugs or the influence of bad friends than look for the real issues and their more complicated solutions. In fact, more so than devilish trickery, it is their negligence and unwavering positions that allows the demon in Gretchen to get away with most of her deeds. Whether this a commentary on class or inhabiting the perspective of a teenager, it does add to the inescapability of the horror for Abby, whose lacks the power and mobility needed to run away.
The Gretchen-demon is rather frightening as well, coming up with torments large and small for various people, even going so far as to kill a dog in order to spark a fight between neighbors that could end in death. The demon blends mean-girl tactics with truly sick plans and manipulation to get what it wants, which only goes to show how cruel girls can be to each other when Abby wonders who is really in control. It would have been easy to make these torments hyper-feminine and catty to fit the high school setting, but Hendrix pulls no punches. There is even a scene where a girl has a huge tape worm pulled from out of her mouth. It manages to be upsetting and gross without tipping into distasteful and done for shock.
Hendrix has a sharp eye for detail and so he is able to set up a scene perfectly to deliver the chills or laughs. There is an underlying tension throughout the book, only alleviated when the two friends can be themselves together, which is never for long. It’s clear he understands the dynamics of friendship and of the parent-teenager relationship. The wit is dry and sharp, and the little ironies mixed in with the heavy 80s nostalgia gives it a unique feeling of sepia-toned flashbacks and gripping high-definition color.
The book, however, is not perfect. The end is more cheese than emotional punch and if you’re much older than the main character, you might find it more difficult to believe that adults would be so heavily in denial. At times it reads like The Heathers meets The Exorcist, both without the sarcastic underpinnings of the former and the high stakes of the latter. Abby goes above and beyond the call of friendship to save Gretchen, which can be frustrating at times, though it deftly stays away from the cheesy “friendship is forever” speech in favor of a more realistic commentary. Additionally, the Kindle version is weirdly formatted, so get it in hard copy if at all possible.
To give credit where it’s due, this book is one of the very few about teenage girls and horror that is not: a) everyone is mean to me so black magic and PMS abound, b) a boyfriend trying to save his missing/possessed/haunted/otherwise terrorized girlfriend/love interest, c) banal high school bullshit with a “spooky” tint surrounding sex, or d) the damsel turned ultra-perfect hardass. It’s very much a story about two friends who confront something otherworldly and incomprehensible, who talk about sex and boys and music but never lets it take away from their bravery, kindness, vulnerability, cunning, etc.
While I still think Horrorstör is his best work, Hendrix shines in this heartfelt and gripping possession love letter to the decade of leg warmers and Phil Collins. The unnerving nature of the demon mixed in with the confrontation of uncaring, unbelieving adult world is compelling. A solid horror read for anyone looking for some supernatural summer lit.