The Short Version: Abby and Gretchen have been inseparable best friends since elementary school. Now sophomores in high school, they (along with two other girls) pretty much rule the roost. But after Gretchen disappears in the woods during a rowdy party weekend, she comes back… different. Soon, things start changing in town and Abby’s the only one who notices that Gretchen has changed too – she’s not herself…
The Review: Grady Hendrix’s first book, Horrorstör, was a visual object as much as it was a novel. Crafted to look (and read) like an IKEA catalog, the tale of a haunted IKEA knockoff company and the employees who stayed the night to discover the truth was fun but ultimately fleeting. I remember it more for the illustrations and the way that my friends would occasionally mistake it for the real thing on my coffee table. But it turns out Hendrix isn’t just a cannily imaginative goof: he’s a skilled and heartfelt writer, too. He is also, crucially, a child of the 80s and a big horror fan – both of which will be important, later.
The thing that won me over right off the bat about this book (aside from Quirk Books’ continued excellence in book design – this one is loosely designed like a high school yearbook, complete with activity pages and tons of scribbled endpapers) was the way that the relationship between Gretchen and Abby played out. Even the way that their meet-slightly-pathetic (a birthday party gone definitely south) then develops elementary-school-nemeses into their two other best friends feels genuine. It feels genuine in the way that ’80s teen comedies still feel genuine while modern-day ones are at best a flash in the pan: there is a sense that, yeah, this is what life was like in high school. Parents are mean or don’t understand or are well-meaning but clueless, teachers are mostly just tired and grumpy but sometimes deeply invested, and the most important thing in the world is your relationship with your best friend. Who among us, at least who has been through an American educational system, hasn’t felt all of those things deeply at one point?
And this is what I mean, too, about the importance of Hendrix being a child of the 80s. I was born in the 80s, but he was a kid then – which means he understands a little more clearly about the Satanic Panic of the late 80s, because he was there. Parents were scared that kids were going to be given diseases or apples with razor blades by crazy people on Halloween, Geraldo Rivera hosted a two-hour special about the presence of Satanic cults in America, and Dungeons & Dragons was considered the most corruptive of influences. Most of these things seem baffling to us today – although perhaps a little less so in the last year, what with creepy clown sightings on the rise – but Hendrix captures the particular mise en scene of that time with ease, here. I can see the John Hughes-directed adaptation of this book so clearly, it’s as though I watched it on a VHS rented from Blockbuster one day while home sick from middle school. This book evokes a time that is forever lost and one that, even though I barely could be said to’ve lived it (the 90s and early 00s were my time), lingers in my consciousness – and it does it with aplomb.
It also manages to be scary as hell. Some have levelled the criticism at this book that it is a slow burn in the beginning – and that’s most certainly true, but I don’t think that that’s to the book’s detriment. In fact, I think that’s one of its great strengths. Spending as much time understanding the average lives of Gretchen and Abby (and Glee and Meredith) as we do is what makes the terror grow so insidiously: we’ve seen the relatively perfect lives that are, almost undoubtedly, going to be ruined forever. And ruination comes in all forms, not just the head-spinning terror you’d expect from an exorcism story. I was reminded instead of films like Jennifer’s Body – where the more “ordinary” of the best-friend-pair is the one who nobody believes in the face of the more “popular” one’s sudden and significant changes in behavior. We see some proper gaslighting by the demonically possessed Gretchen and the subtle way that things start to go bad does leave open the question of whether or not any of this is true. Sometimes friendships end, sometimes (in high school especially) people act strangely, and sometimes people do weird things after they drop acid. It’s true!
Of course, we all know that it’s none of those things and as Hendrix turns up the horror dial, the book becomes almost impossible to put down. The exorcism itself is definitely the stuff of nightmares (and it spins on a lovely twist – Hendrix’s love of the 80s comes clear here again) but scenes leading up to it are the ones that I’ll likely remember longer: Glee atop the tower, the confrontation between Abby & Gretchen & the dog, and the truly horrifying scene in Meredith’s bedroom. If some of Hendrix’s more nuanced character development begins to fall away in these later scenes, so be it: the book has done more development than it certainly “needed” to (by the prescription of the genre) and plus, that’s not what we’re here for by the end of the book… we’re here for the thrills. And boy does Hendrix deliver.
Rating: 5 out of 5. It’s not only a delightful ode to the best parts of the 80s (the chapter titles are all classic 80s songs, by the way, and the whole thing reads like the inspiration for a John Waters film) but a truly scary entry on a well-populated shelf of exorcism stories. Grady Hendrix is too well-versed in horror (and too generous a writer) to just deliver the jump-scare nonsense that floods our movie screens this time of year, though: instead, he brings real heart and friendship… and haunt-your-nightmares scares. But he earns those scares, because they aren’t just about the devil. They’re about high school, too. And that combination, well… sweet dreams are made of this.