Book: “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” by Grady Hendrix
Publishing Info: Quirk Books, May 2016
Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.
Book Description from Goodreads: Abby and Gretchen have been best friends since fifth grade, when they bonded over a shared love of E.T., roller-skating parties, and scratch-and-sniff stickers. But when they arrive at high school, things change. Gretchen begins to act…different. And as the strange coincidences and bizarre behavior start to pile up, Abby realizes there’s only one possible explanation: Gretchen, her favorite person in the world, has a demon living inside her. And Abby is not about to let anyone or anything come between her and her best friend. With help from some unlikely allies, Abby embarks on a quest to save Gretchen. But is their friendship powerful enough to beat the devil?
Review: As a child who was born in 1984, I have vague memories of the 1980s and the cultural amazements that this decade had to offer. Much of my pop culture influences from my early years were solidly 1980s fodder, as my favorite childhood movies were “Ghostbusters” and “Bill and Ted”, I have memories of my nanny subsisting on a soundtrack of Madonna and Prince, and definitely remember a lot of shades of neon in the wardrobes of those around me. I also remember washing my Mom’s car in our driveway using a rag with Reagan’s face on it, because ‘we like wiping mud onto Reagan’s face’, as my Dad put it one day. So I have enough awareness of the decade to have at least a little bit of nostalgia for it. This means, of course, that when I heard about “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” I practically jumped out of my skin in pure, unadulterated excitement. A horror novel that drips of 1980s nostalgia?
True, sometimes the 80s factor was laid on pretty thick, but the good news is that our protagonists, Abby and Gretchen, stand well enough on their own that they aren’t 80s stereotypes walking around on the pages. Hendrix did a really good job of creating a believable and complex girl friendship, so well that I was kind of surprised by it. Not to say that a guy can’t write this kind of thing, but it felt pretty true to life, ups and downs and all, without feeling like it was pandering to the audience. Abby is a girl from a lower income family (during a time when greed was so good) who is desperate to live the upper class life that Gretchen has, even if it’s vicariously and even if Gretchen’s parents are pretty wretched people most of the time. Gretchen’s family life is very representative of this egomaniacal Reagan’s America, and the setting of Charleston, South Carolina adds the racist and sexist and repressive attitudes of Dixie into this already gross recipe. The tension of the hierarchical culture is always present, as Abby is at a prestigious private school on scholarship, surrounded by rich kids (and administrators) who act like friends, but always see Abby as The Other because of her family income. The privilege reeks off of the kids in this school, and Hendrix brings it up through various situations and scenes that not only show the monetary privilege, but racial privilege as well. This is not an idyllic Charleston by any stretch of the imagination, as racism, misogyny, and Satanic Panic are always beneath the surface.
To me I was incredibly fascinated with Gretchen’s possession, and the ways that it manifested. For one, Gretchen’s place in society is one that a stereotypical exorcism story may not place her in. Instead of the daughter of a single parent whoring around actress a la “The Exorcist”, Gretchen’s parents are no doubt the kind of people that William Peter Blatty thought to be the ideal parents. They are conservative, they are religious, and they are strict to be sure that Gretchen has no improper influences in their home. One scene that stuck out in my mind was when Abby and Gretchen were caught listening to Madonna, and when Gretchen’s mother catches them she beats her daughter pretty violently with a hairbrush. A very, very interesting choice of family for a demon to target, in my opinion. It was as if Hendrix took that old chestnut exorcism story theme of ‘if you accept God and Jesus into your life, bad things won’t happen to you’, and spits in it’s face. Bold move, Hendrix, and I feel like it paid off. It was also a cool choice to make Abby, the girl whose family isn’t religious and doesn’t necessarily believe in this stuff, the person to cling hard to the possession theory. Satanic Panic was prevalent in the late 80s and early 90s, where lots of otherwise rational people believed that Satanists were conspiring against the country, so Abby was a good representation of that. I also liked that I was left questioning just what was going on in this story. Hendrix threw enough red herrings and misdirections in there that I was questioning what was the product of a demonic possession, and what was the product of trauma, or really just the fallout of mean girls doing mean things to each other.
And since it wouldn’t be a horror story without some horrific moments, I am happy to report that there are a fair number of decent scares in “My Best Friend’s Exorcism”. Hendrix is pretty solid and taking a concept that could be seen as light hearted and tongue in cheek, and then make it into something very unsettling and disturbing. While I’m not really one to be scared by possession stories in general, there were some moments in here that had me on the edge of my seat, just as there were moments that really grossed me out. One moment in particular. I won’t give it away, but let’s just say that a certain fad diet urban legend was used to the most disgusting degree as a means of demonic torment towards a frenemy of Gretchen’s and Abby’s….
There were some things about this book that made me a bit uncomfortable. I understand that Hendrix was setting a place and time and doing so with certain attitudes. But some of the casually thrown about racist and sexist and homophobic things thrown around, while no doubt prevalent to 1988 in Charleston, made my modern sensibilities very uncomfortable. I get what he was trying to do, but I also think that it sometimes fell flat and came off as tone deaf. I cringed a bit more than I wanted to at times.
Overall, however, I tore through “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” and greatly enjoyed the ride. It isn’t for the squeamish at times, but those with an affection for the 1980s and strong girl friendships may want to give it a try. Just…. you know, prepare yourself.
Rating 8: A fun and scary book that puts a very complex and real girl friendship at the center. Sometimes it felt a bit fumbling when it came to social issues, but overall it was a good read.
“My Best Friend’s Exorcism” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Upcoming Books of Note: Horror”, and “Book Titles That Give You No Choice But To Check Out The Books”. I would also say that if you liked this, give “The Exorcist” a try if you haven’t already. Lots of influence comes from it, obviously.
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