Horror is arguably the only genre defined by an emotion, a sensation. And good Horror, whether it be supernatural, psychological or otherwise, must make us feel. Of course, all good writing should make us feel something, but with Horror, there is a particular import to this. The burden of eliciting emotion in the reader falls heavily on a Horror-writer. The writer’s success or failure is entirely defined by whether they can freak us out, make our skin crawl, make us gag with the grossness. But it isn’t just the emotions we associate with fear that a Horror-writer needs to bring to the table. That’s the trick, almost, of all good Horror. Stephen King has been a master of the genre for thirty years, and at the heart of all his scares is an emotional core that, at its best, can shake you to the foundations. His writing brings catharsis, an unravelling of the pain of human experience. The Horror, really, is secondary to this ability to make us feel for his characters and their journeys.
You see, a problem I’ve been encountering time and again is that a lot of modern Western writing is very cold nowadays. It’s removed, arch, the characters nothing more than pawns to make political points or devices to create shocking scenes. I’ve written articles and articles about this before, but what it boils down to is that I see a lot of writing that is very clean, well-edited, really quite faultless, but ultimately without any individuality or feeling to it. As the originator of a new publishing venture, I’d rather read a manuscript that’s got a few errors in it, a few moments where the style is over-the-top, than something heartless but without faults. It’s scary that the homogeneity of Hollywood film and frankly everything else is even taking a hold of the artistic world. I’ve no idea the origin: whether it’s in response to our sterilised world, or lack of authentic human experience (very little toiling in the dirt these days), the fact that we are so bombarded by news and information. I’m not nearly wise enough to fathom it. But, what I can tell you, is that there is hope. A few weeks ago I sat down and began to read a book called My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix. When I finished it, I put the book down on my table, sat there in silence for a full twenty minutes (a real twenty minutes). For the first time in a long old time, I’d read a Horror novel that shook me to my bones.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism is a story about Abby Rivers and her best friend, Gretchen Lang, who is seemingly possessed by a demon during their high-school years. It’s a story about friendship, perhaps first and foremost. ‘Think where man’s glory most begins and ends / And say my glory was I had such friends’, so said the great William Butler Yeats, and Grady Hendrix captures at once the glory and beauty of true friendship and the heartbreak of losing it. Though a Horror novel, the first third of My Best Friend’s Exorcism reads more like a loving bildungsroman: a coming of age story, building up the relationship between Abby and Gretchen, and their two other friends Glee and Margaret. Though, it should be noted that in typical teenage style, Abby and Gretchen are very clear they are best friends, a higher echelon. This slow build up works to the advantage of the novel as a whole, because when things do start to turn, and the horror begins, it is felt so much more deeply because we have come to care, had almost begun to dream that the title of the novel was just a red herring and these two endearing lovers would end up riding off into the sunset. Think again. My Best Friend’s Exorcism might be drenched with all the sweetness of an 80s coca-cola, but its also lathered in the paranoia, Satanism, Evangelical spirituality and abuses manifold, behind the glamour.
It taps into a lot of modern Zeitgeists, but in fresh ways. There’s a hunger for that-which-is-old at the moment. Synthwave music has become extremely popular, a resurgence of 80s musical technological revolution. Bands like Gunship and Kavinsky are dropping albums steeped in 80s sound. Films are being scored with cyberpunk throwbacks. We love the past and view it as inherently superior to our present and future. My Best Friend’s Exorcism follows this trend, setting its main action in 1988; but boy, does Grady Hendrix do a better job than most of conjuring that miraculous time-period. Everything from the details of what music is playing on the radio, to the character voices, to attitudes to mental health and children, is spot on. But what’s really powerful about this device is that our protagonist, Abby Rivers, whose perspective we glimpse through third person indirect discourse, is a slave for nostalgia. Grady Hendrix cleverly puts us in the shoes of Abby before we even realise it’s happening. Her obsession with the past, and how good it was before the terrible events of 1988, is mirrored in us as we stare in wonder at the resurrected ghost of the 80s.
And speaking of narrative voice, the prose is nothing short of spell-binding. Having recently been ploughing through a lot of very self-aware or ‘heightened’ storytelling, ornamented with asides to the reader and self-analysis (a pet peeve of mine in writing: when the author decides to insert essays on the meaning of their own work within a novel) it was a refreshing, frankly mind-blowing, to see Grady Hendrix attack a novel of such emotional complexity and depth with simple, powerful third-person prose. It shows us that it can still be done. You don’t need gimmicks to write a narrative that is heartbreaking and thrilling. This concrete prose renders every setting real, and the horror arises from the reality of this American town of Charleston and the people in it. Where a novel like Void Star dazzles us with the beauty and elegance of its prose, My Best Friend’s Exorcism dazzles us with the story itself, because that story is made to feel so real we can touch, taste and smell it.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism is full of surprises, so it’s hard to review without ruining many of these elements which creep up on you unexpectedly. Suffice to say, there are so many aspects: the high-school culture of popularity as currency, Abby’s battle with her deforming acne, supernatural elements, body-Horror, the hint of subverted hetero-normality, sex, and they’ve been blended so well they form a perfect smoothie. Oh, and speaking of which, it will probably make you never want to drink a smoothie again after one particularly vivid scene (now imprinted on my cortex forever-more). You care about all of it. Most importantly, you care about Abby’s friendship with Gretchen, which is one of the best portrayed friendships I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a long old time. You believe that it’s worth saving, worth going to the utter limits of human endurance to save it, sacrificing everything to save it. Abby could be described as shallow in so many ways, and yet, she is prepared to destroy herself in the eyes of parent, society and friend for someone else. My Best Friend’s Exorcism is full of healthy ambiguity like this. We are told the story, and are allowed to ask questions. Is Abby and Gretchen’s relationship more than friendship? Is Gretchen literally or figuratively possessed? Coming out of the novel, you will have a strong opinion either way, but that opinion might be counter to what someone else thinks. It has depth that can be studied, but doesn’t require study to be understood, or, more importantly, felt.
So let’s talk about feeling. There are many moments in this story which are touching, nuanced, emotive, but there are two in particular I need to mention (hopefully without giving too much away) that stand above the rest as outstanding. The first of these two occurs quite near the end of the novel, when the exorcist explains to Abby his interpretation of what God is and what an exorcism is. This speech, quite apart from being one of the most profound modern insights into faith, is possibly the very heart of the story, the distillation of what it all means: ‘You burn away your parents, and your friends, and everything you ever cared about, and you burn away personal safety, conventional morality. And when all that is gone, when everything is swept away in the fire and everything around you is ash, what you have left is just a tiny nugget, a little kernel of something that is good, and pure, and true.’ (p.286). It continues for over a page and a half, this speech, and brought me to tears. Even for a die-hard atheist, I think, it will have deep meaning, because it’s as much about the harrowing of existence, of life itself and how it causes us to doubt, as about God in the literal sense. The exorcist is a brilliant character (if anything, there’s not enough of him in this novel) and through his character Grady Hendrix shows us an immense insight into people, life, hell – the bloody universe. This is what writing is all about.
The second moment comes right at the end. In fact, in the last paragraph. This final segment could almost be a flash fiction story in and of itself, except of course that it culminates and draws together everything we have experienced over the course of this novel in what is a startling moment of narrative omniscience. We fast forward in time, to the very end of a long life. And if you don’t weep in this final scene, then perhaps I’m wrong and there’s no hope after all.
Ultimately, this is not just one the best Horrors I’ve read in some time, but one of the best novels I’ve read in some time. It achieves nostalgia, not just through its invocation of 80s pop-culture and the beauty of a time soon becoming forgotten, but also through its sheer simplicity. It proves that as much as we can be dazzled by intelligent writing, its writing that speaks to the heart that wins every time. I’ll be looking to Grady Hendrix’s, and Quirk’s, next book with great interest.
Grady Hendrix is a writer and journalist and one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival. A former film critic for the New York Sun, Grady has written for Slate, the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Playboy, and Variety.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism was published by Quirk Books on 17th May 2016
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Review by Joseph Sale
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