There is a very annoying thing that happens when some people realize that they have unwittingly enjoyed a piece of horror fiction - they try to convince themselves and everyone else that it's not really horror. “It's really about a family struggling!” “It's about mental illness!” “It's about friendship!” It's horror. Those things are all horror. Like every genre, horror is the backdrop on to which a variety of different kinds of stories are told. However, horror is uniquely equipped to talk explicitly and ferociously about one thing in particular - what scares us. It's where we unabashedly explore the terror, violence and agony of family, friendships, technology, strangers, love, loss, trauma, you name it. And yes, high school is terrifying. Loving your best friend more than you've loved anything on earth is terrifying. And being a girl who dares to see things as they are, not as she's been told to, is quite possibly the most horrifying thing in this world.
Abby and Gretchen have been inseparable since the day Abby had a birthday party and Gretchen was the only one who showed up. It is the eighties, Satanic Panic and Reaganomics are the ever present background radiation of their world, and they are the upper crust of an elite Southern Catholic school. Abby is the poor scholarship kid and Gretchen the rich girl with uber religious parents, while their two other friends, Margaret and Glee, round out their high-achieving preppy girl squad. And then an experiment with LSD goes wrong. And then Gretchen begins dissolving and lashing out, and then changes entirely and then Abby is suddenly standing on the outside as her life as things begin spiraling out of control. Abby's only care in the world, outside of her social status and her own image, has been Gretchen Lang, and she finally realizes that she may have to give up everything to save her best friend from what has clearly taken control of her - a demon.
I am a big fan of demonic possession stories, but they typically fall into a particular pattern. This is because they depend heavily on certain mythology - that there are sentient, evil supernatural creatures that can take control of one's body against one's will, and that the only way to cast them out is by calling on a higher power. There's usually a lot of shouting involved. Exorcism movies often remind me of action films that inevitably end with muscly guys throwing buildings at each other. Like, is this the best we can do in the face of evil? Make loud noises and throw things? How come the best exorcism I ever saw on screen was in the opening scene of Constantine, and I have never seen anything like that again?
Without giving too much away, I can say that My Best Friend's Exorcism uses those known tropes while also drastically subverting them in exactly the way I wanted to see. The way Hendrix takes the idea of the exorcist and the hip youth pastor and smooshes them together into a Jesus-talking pop culture abomination that also serves also an commentary on religious institutions and toxic masculinity? Goddamn. And the moment Abby realizes the power she individually has to save Gretchen? It's perfect. It's absolutely on point. Because an exorcism is not just a religious rite - it's a spell. And as any witch will tell you - you can charge a spell any way you want. Even with The Go-Gos.
My Best Friends' Exorcism is not relatable teen content for teens (it's too hyperaware of what kind of people teenagers really are to really be appropriate, I mean I'm sure some will enjoy it, but I think it will mean more to adults), nor is it pure 80s nostalgia cash grab. It's an exploration of the horror of being a teenage girl. It puts a magnifying glass to our youth, our insecurities, the things we allowed ourselves to believe and turns it all into a paranormal nightmare. The pacing is so good its almost precise. I knew that when I sat down on my lunch break I would be able to read two chapters in twenty minutes and those two chapters would be barn burners. It takes the tropes of a horror movie - ticking off hapless teens until there is a final girl left - and again twists it. Instead of centering the narrative around a single person at a time, you are with Abby as she helplessly watches the systematic destruction of the people around her. Hendrix uses body horror, psychological horror, and straight up spooky demon shit to create a suffocating atmosphere that is pure genre. Yes, this book has pink details on the cover and 80s references and satirical humor, but it is scary as shit, make no mistake. It's scary because it does not look away. It does not look away from a body wasting a way, from a mind violated, from the oppression of not being believed, from having your life distorted to meet someone else's ends, from being in love and afraid you're going to fail.
I loved this. It's probably the best October selection I've made in years, and I'm glad I ignored the reviews that said “it isn't really horror.” This book is colorful and satirical and deeply touching, but yes it is horror. It is the definition of horror.