High School Horror in the late 1980s

My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

Horrorstor_final_300dpiGrady Hendrix’s novel Horrorstör (reviewed here) was a triumph of style – a straight-forward but enjoyable horror story presented as a parody of an IKEA catalogue. This was such a brilliant conceit, it made my list of books of the year in 2014 for its amazing design. What would he do next?

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best friends exOn his own website Hendrix describes his new novel as “Beaches meets The Exorcist”.  You may recall the weepie movie starring Barbara Hershey and Bette Midler as childhood friends who meet up again later when one of them is dying – it’s an apt comparison with the central friendship between Abby and Gretchen in MYBFEX.

There is a quirk in the styling again too, although this time it is limited to the endpapers which are clothed as a High School Yearbook. There are messages written from classmates, inspirational quotations, well-wishing adverts from local businesses and sponsors, and the author’s bio written as if he was the editor. These pages make entertaining reading in themselves, but this isn’t carried through into the main story itself bar questions from a quiz on best friends.

The action is set in 1988 in Charleston, South Carolina at Albemarle Academy, the premier high school in the city. In the prologue Abby looks back at that year…

Abby still remembers high school, but she remembers it as images, not events. She remembers effects, but she’s gotten fuzzy on the causes. Now it’s all coming back in an unstoppable flood. The sound of screaming on the Lawn. The owls. The stench in Margaret’s room. Good Dog Max. The terrible thing that happened to Glee. But most of all, she remembers what happened to Gretchen and how everything got so fucked up back in 1988, the year her best friend was possessed by the devil.

First, however, we jump back a few years to the day that Abby and Gretchen meet properly and become best friends. We’ve heard it all before, but we need the set-up. Abby invites the whole class to her tenth birthday E.T. themed party at the roller rink. Rich classmate Margaret also invites the whole class to her plantation to go horse-riding and only one girl turns up at Abby’s party – Gretchen, the new girl. Abby is a scholarship girl from a working class home, and Gretchen comes from a better off, but rather straight-laced family. Hendrix builds up their friendship from that first meeting over the years in the next couple of chapters.

By 1988, Abby and Gretchen are now friends with Margaret and her best friend, Glee, to make up a foursome. They’re at Margaret’s, and she has some acid – they’ve not taken it before. Abby’s not sure, but Gretchen says she’ll do it, “But you have to promise I won’t get brain damage.” They all taken it and wait for the effects to kick in, hours later it’s not really working – for Abby, Margaret and Glee, but Gretchen runs off into the woods where she spends all night until they find her, naked and scared, in the morning.

From hereon-in, the novel starts to get darker and darker as Gretchen starts to change. She takes no care with her appearance, and starts to smell. Outside school, she rejects Abby and retreats into her room. Abby is convinced that something happened to Gretchen in the woods, but no-one will listen to her, and Abby gets the blame for the acid and everything else – her status at school is really threatened.  Just when you thought they were both doomed, Gretchen suddenly appears back at school as if nothing had happened, all clean, dressed up and smelling of United Colours of Benetton perfume. She’s become a Mean Girl, rejecting Abby again. Abby is left with no choice but to contact the exorcist…

Hendrix injects some quite nasty moments into the story of Gretchen’s demonic possession and exorcism, taking The Exorcist as his horror reference point and then running with it. It’s truly creepy but, always, there is a sense of affectionate parody under the events, however awful they get, which gives the whole a sense of humour. It shouldn’t work, but it does!

Due to the elements of parody, all the characters may be intentional stereotypes – the four girls: rich, poor, weird and gullable; Margaret’s jock boyfriend; the nasty head teacher; Gretchen’s straight-laced parents etc – but Hendrix actually captures the girls’ friendships and relationships really well, you do care whether they’ll come through all the ordeals.

This novel is absolutely steeped in the 1980s too. Each chapter is given the title of a hit pop song from the era, and Phil Collins looms large as Hendrix references all the teen mores of the time, remember The Breakfast Club?  This made what would otherwise be a YA horror novel for older teens (it has drugs and sex references) a nostalgic read for an adult – Hendrix’s real intended audience. This was great fun. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher via Amazon Vine

Grady Hendrix, My Best Friend’s Exorcism (Quirk Books, May 2016) Hardback, 400 pages.

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