If you’ve read Horrorstör, Grady Hendrix’s 2014 horror-comedy about a haunted IKEA-type furniture store, then you’re aware of the author’s ability to skew the parameters of genre, and to do it well. My Best Friend’s Exorcism follows suit. Sure, you’ll find it on the horror shelves, but beneath its sinister surface is a tale of a resilient friendship—just basted with blood and vomit.
Abby Rivers and Gretchen Lang have been friends since they were 10 years old. Now high school sophomores at a prestigious Catholic academy in Charleston, South Carolina (where the author was born—fun fact!), their friendship is tried by hellfire after an experiment with bad LSD; Gretchen gets lost in the swampy woods, and when Abby and her clique finally find her, she’s, well, different. During the succeeding weeks, Gretchen’s appearance starts to sag; she goes from a beaming beauty to a sallow shell. Her behaviour is irregular. She can’t sleep. She misses school. Contrary to her friends’ suspicions, she’s not having acid flashbacks. Gretchen’s fighting a demon.
As it is in novels like William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, the full effect of possession takes time to develop, much like the son of Satan in Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby. The shredded-wheat-face and pea-soup-puke side effects are never immediate. And it’s this gradual descent to Hell that’s the most taxing for the victim’s loved ones—in this case, Abby, as well as the reader. Hendrix prolongs Gretchen’s transformation to darkness, focusing on Abby’s concern and heartbreak as her best friend recedes from her for reasons she can’t understand. When she finally decides to take action, everyone she speaks to about Gretchen’s condition won’t take her seriously. The people a teenager should be able to turn to—parents, parents of friends, counselors, principals, even her own friends—penalize her for her accusations. Seemingly helpless, Abby has to move Heaven and Earth (and Hell) to not only stop Gretchen’s scheming agenda to hurt everyone around her, but to rescue her friend’s soul from the fiery claws of evil.
In addition to two well-rounded main characters (and though it’s Abby’s story, Hendrix has nicely created a sort of duel protagonist), My Best Friend’s Exorcism is splattered with supporting characters, and Hendrix does a good job of making each unique without tapping too deeply into the well of high school archetypes. Even the flattest ones are entertaining and easy to imagine as the kind of bizarre individuals only a teenager would be forced to interact with. However, at times the characters are overdrawn; some similes and analogies are too exaggerated and had me unconvinced. A body-building exorcist, for example, isn’t that far-fetched given the already over-the-top context of the story, but am I expected to believe that each of his fingers is really the size of a spatula? A bratwurst, at largest, I’d think.
A few other details had me put me off as well: Hendrix’s frequent use of the chapter cliff-hanger; the telling statements he at times uses to signify a milestone (“And that was the moment Gretchen started to pull away”); editing errors such as a surname typo here, a grammatical slip there. At one point a character is mistakenly referred to as another, a type of blunder I’ve never encountered in a published work.
Still, My Best Friend’s Exorcism is an enjoyable read about friendship and the hardships of being a 16-year-old: trying to self-identify within a student body of hormonal cliques, being misunderstood by one’s parents, being policed by school faculty. Also, it’s set in 1988, so cultural references are fun and plentiful, but never distracting. Mostly, though, it’s a character study; for Hendrix, the real devil is in the details. From Abby and Gretchen’s first encounter at Abby’s failed, E.T-themed 10th birthday party, Hendrix drip-feeds warm, fuzzy anecdotes about the two’s history throughout the novel’s pages—memories built on Big League Chew and Phil Collins sing-alongs. But don’t let me give you the wrong impression. This novel isn’t all roses and puppy dogs. There’s enough horror to go around, and while most scenes mirror the kind of campy frights you’d find in a stack of old VHS films, some are downright disturbing.
Whether or not you grew up with big hair, Mickey Mouse phones, or blazers with shoulder pads, My Best Friend’s Exorcism is a feel-good time, even if horror isn’t your cut of meat. It’s also a reminder that solid friends don’t come along often, and the best will stick by your side—especially when all hell breaks loose.
Chris Campeau is a writer and lover of all things horror and strange. He has studied both Small Business and Professional Writing at Algonquin College and is now shooting for communications gold. When he’s not writing, he spends his time singing in punk bands, drinking a hop-heavy IPA, or lounging with his two Maine Coons—sometimes all simultaneously.
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