Published by Quirk Books on May 17 2016
Grady Hendrix has done it again. A couple of years ago, I fell hard for Horrorstör, a horror tale set in an IKEA-like retail store, and I’ve been waiting anxiously for his follow-up novel ever since. My Best Friend’s Exorcism has much of the same type of horror/humor mash-up that I loved in Horrorstör, with the addition of a heartwarming story about a life-long friendship. Even better, for those of us who fondly remember the 80s, Hendrix takes us back in time to the era of cassette tapes, big hair, the AIDS scare and many more iconic 80s moments. But don’t let that fool you. This is a horror story with some very creepy and unsettling moments. Hendrix has toned down the over-the-top crazy horror in his first book and given us a much subtler terror this time around, the kind that ratchets up slowly until the suspense is nearly killing you.
The story is set in 1988 and mostly takes place at a small private high school in Charleston, SC. Abby and her three closest friends—Gretchen, Margaret and Glee—are sophomores at Albemarle Academy, and life is pretty much status quo. Their lives are full of school work, boys, the latest fashions and hair styles—all the normal things girls their age are focused on. But one evening, after experimenting with acid, Gretchen wanders into the woods and disappears until the next morning. When the others finally find her, she refuses to talk about what happened during her long night in the woods.
Almost immediately, Abby notices a change in her best friend. Gretchen’s personality goes from happy-go-lucky to mean girl, and little by little, her appearance changes as well. She stops bathing, wears the same clothes day after day, and is barely eating or sleeping at all. Gretchen tells Abby that someone keeps touching her on the back of the neck, but when she turns around, there’s no one there. Before long she’s skipping classes, and worst of all, she dumps Abby as a friend. Abby knows something is wrong, and all she wants to do is help her best friend, but no one will listen to her.
After a presenter at a school assembly tells Abby that he can see a demon inside Gretchen, Abby knows she must do whatever she can to save her friend, even if it means participating in an all-Hell-breaks-loose exorcism.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism is a story about demonic possession, but mostly it’s about two girls who are determined to remain friends, even when life gets really hairy. Hendrix begins his story by describing how Abby and Gretchen became best friends, during Abby’s tenth birthday party (an E.T. themed roller skating party, ten-year-old Abby’s movie obsession at the time). Abby is the unpopular poor kid at school, and Gretchen lives in the rich part of town with her conservative Republican parents. Their friendship blossoms over the years into one of those unbreakable relationships—until Gretchen becomes possessed by a demon, and that friendship goes straight to hell. I loved the way Abby doggedly tries to fix her, even as Gretchen starts to do horrible things to Abby. The friendship theme carries all the way to the end of the story, after quite a few bumps in the road, where readers may be tempted to look up their own lost friends after reading Hendrix’s nostalgic conclusion.
Oh, how we love to hate the 80s, right? Hendrix has clearly done his homework, and I felt like I was right back in the era of bad fashions and cheesy television shows. He may have gone a tad overboard with the 80s references, however, since I’m pretty sure he mentioned just about every single movie, TV show, and pop song from that decade, LOL! I haven’t thought about things like the United Colors of Benetton and Bartles and Jaymes wine coolers for years, and I’m not sure I want to! But I loved the nostalgic feeling Hendrix evokes, even though he dredges up memories that some readers may want to forget. (Also, the chapter titles are the names of 80s songs!)
I’m not spoiling things by telling you that all the events lead up to the exorcism in the title, and even though it takes most of the book to finally get there, the author builds the tension little by little, drawing things out until the reader is nearly at a breaking point. Abby is the most honest character in the story, and unfortunately this leads to her being blamed for all kinds of horrible things she didn’t actually do. All these misunderstandings about what’s really wrong with Gretchen make for a fast-paced story, and even though the word “exorcism” is right there in the title, I found myself wondering just what the heck was going on, even though I knew what was coming.
Hendrix is clearly channeling The Exorcist, as some of the things that are happening to Gretchen seem to come straight out of the movie. The demon inside Gretchen is making her do and say awful things to her friends and family, and I thought her behavior, as well as the bad behavior of just about every adult in the story, was far more horrific than the actual exorcism, when we finally get to it.
Unfortunately, the “main event” was the story’s weak point, for me at least. The quick pacing throughout most of the book suddenly screeches to a halt when Brother Lemon, the exorcist, and Abby finally figure out what to do about Gretchen, and I felt as if the ritual would never end. The resolution, after lots of drawn out drama, seemed to come too quickly.
But despite that minor complaint, I had so much fun with My Best Friend’s Exorcism. Grady Hendrix made it to my “auto buy” list after I read his first book, and it doesn’t look like he’s giving up that spot any time soon. If you like your horror mixed with humor, nostalgia, and a story about how powerful friendship can be, you don’t want to miss this book.