Book Review: My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Quirk Books (May 17, 2016)
Length: 336 pages
Grady Hendrix is an author who first came to my attention a couple years ago when I picked up his book Horrorstör, a fun and creepy and slightly eccentric horror novel about a haunting at a big box furniture store. The book really stuck in my mind, so my interest was immediately piqued when I found out about the humorously titled My Best Friend’s Exorcism. Knowing more now than I did before about Hendrix’s style though, I had a sneaking suspicion that it’ll be a lot more terrifying than the publisher blurb lets on, and that I’ll be getting a lot more than I bargained for.
On at least one account, I think I got it right: there’s no doubt that My Best Friend’s Exorcism fits squarely in the horror genre, and I also thought it was much creepier and psychologically jarring than the author’s previous novel. The story, ostensibly about friendship and exorcism, follows the lives of two besties named Abby and Gretchen, two teenage girls living in the 80’s who have been inseparable since the fifth grade. One night while staying over another friend’s lake house, the girls experiment with LSD and Gretchen ends up having a bad reaction, running into the nearby forest and disappearing overnight. When Abby finds Gretchen the next morning, she finds her best friend acting different and very strange. Chalking it up to the effects of the drug and the trauma of being lost in the cold and dark, Abby isn’t too concerned, thinking that Gretchen just needs some time in order to get better.
But Gretchen doesn’t get better. She starts coming to school looking tired and wan. She stops washing and bathing. Then come the mysterious scars up and down her arm. The bizarre behavior only gets worse as Gretchen starts being nasty to everyone at school and at home, manipulating them towards harmful and destructive habits and driving a wedge between Abby and all her friends. Abby knows deep inside that something is very wrong, and will not accept that the real Gretchen is behind all these cruel acts. However, no one seems to be listening to her, and so it is no surprise either when no one believes Abby when she tells them what she really suspects: that Gretchen is possessed by a demon.
It would be accurate to say I had pretty high expectations for this book. The novel’s description is a bit sparse, but owing from my experience with Horrorstör, I figured we could be getting another story mixed with humor and horror. In this, I felt like I was a little off the mark. In the end, I didn’t really find it to be all that humorous—darkly or otherwise—but it was definitely horrific. If I had a problem though, it wasn’t because of that. In fact, I loved the horror elements in this book, but, as it so often the case with “exorcism type” stories like these, I simply found the lead-up to the titular main event to be too long, too drawn-out, and way too monotonous.
To be fair, Abby and Gretchen’s friendship is meant to be the theme of this story as much as the actual exorcism itself. I really enjoyed this element of the book, reading about the how the two girls met at a roller skating rink and the way they bonded over a shared love of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, teen magazine quizzes, and Phil Collins songs. The 80’s references were plentiful and fun without going overboard, even though most of them probably went over my head. Abby’s devotion to her best friend was also touching, the way she never gave up on Gretchen in spite of the awful things that happened.
The bulk of the book, however, felt like it was mostly made up of high school drama. Granted, it’s creepy, disturbing high school drama, but at the end of the day…it’s still high school drama. It takes a long time for the possibility of demon possession to even come up, and until then we have to sit through a whole inventory of the things that go wrong with Gretchen and how she goes about methodically ruining everyone’s lives. For all the good grades she pulls in, Abby can also be a bit dense. No rational person would immediately jump to the conclusion that their best friend who is acting strangely must be possessed, so I don’t blame her for not acting sooner. I do, however, blame her for the really dumb mistakes she makes, in some ways bringing about her own downfall even without the help of Gretchen’s machinations.
This book also commits a major pet peeve of mine: Stupid grown-ups. While I don’t think My Best Friend’s Exorcism is really a Young Adult novel (or at the very least, I’d exercise discretion before handing this one to a teen, considering its frightening subject and some of the nauseatingly graphic scenes) it features the trope of painting every single adult figure in this story as an incompetent boob. Parents are either emotionally absent or too conservative and narrow-minded to listen to reason, teachers and school staff are condescending and corrupt, and basically every authority figure who should have been in a position of trust (and responsible for supporting a student in need) are either too obtuse or self-important to do their damn jobs. Aside from being very annoying, this stereotypical approach also made everything feel predictable and unconvincing.
Don’t get me wrong, because I did enjoy this book; however, I also couldn’t ignore some of the issues that cropped up, and even the final exorcism itself felt a little anti-climactic after all the build-up. It’s probably fair to say I liked this one substantially less than Horrorstör. That said though, I certainly wouldn’t dissuade anyone from picking this up, especially if you are a fan of horror. For some, the healthy dose of 80’s nostalgia would also be a nice bonus, plus the “High School Yearbook” motif was clever and inventive. The best advice I can give to the prospective reader is to just dive in while keeping in mind the kind of elements Exorcist-like stories typically come with, both the positives and the negatives.