Book Review: My Best Friend’s Exorcism

What if The Exorcist was funny?

I’m not going to lie, I bought this book because of the cover. It’s like an ’80’s VHS tape sitting front row on my bookshelf, not only reminiscent of days gone by but aesthetics that are getting a second wind (think Stranger Things, Glow, American Horror Story: 1984). I couldn’t resist. I picked it up, rolled home on my thrift-store roller skates and read it in two days flat.

Plus, the reviews were hilarious. Scary Sixteen Candles, Mean Girls but with demons, if The Exorcist was written by Tina Fey. And the reviews of author Grady Hendrix are similarly impressive. This is the first book I’ve read of his and it made me want to read everything he’s ever written. As soon as I finished it, I skated my way back over to Barnes & Noble with Pat Benatar blaring on my Walkman and bought two more of his books.

Hendrix shot to fame with his debut novel Horrorstör in 2014. The book is stylized as an Ikea catalogue and is honestly one of the coolest books I’ve ever seen. Hendrix has been publishing various works since 2012 and shortly after Horrorstör came an onslaught of instant best-sellers; My Best Friend’s Exorcism in 2016, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires in 2020, and The Final Girl Support Group in 2021, just to name a few. He won a Bram Stoker award in 2018 for his non-fiction study Paperbacks from Hell (2017) and just about every book he’s ever written has been or is currently being adapted for TV and film (including this one!). Anyway anyway anyway. Enough about him. Let’s get to the good stuff.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism follows the unlikely friendship of ’80’s teens Abby and Gretchen, two girls from wildly different backgrounds just trying to survive bullies, boyfriends, and demonic possession. Ah, high school. Their relationship begins in elementary school, bonding over roller skating and E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial“If you want to have a normal life, you have to see E.T. People are going to think you’re weird if you don’t.“… and experimenting with LSD… “Because I want to know if Dark Side of the Moon is actually profound.” It’s in the aftermath of this experimentation when Gretchen begins to act differently. Nightmares lead to insomnia lead to paranoia and terrifying outbursts of violence toward her friends and… well, you can read the title of the book.

The story unfolds to a synth-heavy 1980’s soundtrack and neon backdrop, a stark contrast to the horrific events that take place, all tied together with a pink sequined scrunchie. Trigger warning for potential readers: this book contains explicit and detailed discussion of sexual assault, suicide attempts, and eating disorders.

It’s clear the story revolves around found families and young friendships and the sometimes surprising strength of those bonds, even in the hardest and darkest of times (you know, like when your BFF is possessed by a demon and ruthlessly tormenting you and your other friends). Beneath the ’80’s song lyrics and lingo and hairspray is a heartwarming tale of sisterhood. In the book’s most touching moments, I found myself thinking about my best friend and our bond and what it might withstand. Without hesitation, I would say it could withstand anything. This book, however, made me wonder. Could our friendship defeat the Devil himself?

There are several laugh-out-loud moments peppered throughout the building terror – drunken banter between a group of high school girls, for example. But then the switch flips, and in the course of one summer night, everything changes. Drunken nights between a group of friends unravel into a hellish nightmare. Hendrix describes Gretchen’s descent into madness in horrifying detail, from her cracking skin to her matted hair to her rotting, sour smell. It’s a haunting image, and one you’re not going to easily forget.

This book was rightfully sold and marketed as adult horror (and that’s where I stumbled across it at my local Barnes & Noble). Profanity and mature themes abound. Haunting and at times straight up gory images unfold rapidly as the plot thickens and builds to the epic showdown at the finale. The fate of one of Gretchen’s friends (left unnamed here due to spoilers) left me feeling particularly squeamish. Though I might not recommend it to those with a weak stomach, it’s not unbearable.

Despite the overwhelming pop-culture references and religious trauma and demonic possession, the undercurrent of the story is clear: the power of friendship. The power of love and sisterhood binds this whole terrifying mess together like a neon trapper keeper and leaves even the most terrifying bits palatable and easier to digest. Somehow, Hendrix wove a touching and honest portrayal of friendship into this tale of demonic possession and did a damn good job of doing it. It’s fascinating how the two main themes are so drastically different and yet weave perfectly together in this Heathers x The Exorcist mashup. Totally tubular.

Abby and Gretchen made a pact as kids to still be friends by the return of Halley’s Comet in 75 years. Despite the gore and violence that took place by Gretchen’s hand (or was it the Devil?), I really wanted them to get to see that damn comet. Right up until the very last page. Do you think they make it? Only one way to find out…

My Best Friend’s Exorcism really ticked all my boxes. Found family, ’80’s music, religious trauma, and girl vs the Devil. It also gets bonus points for making me cry. Twice.

5 stars overall. 3/5 stars on the scare scale.

Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.

xo Allison

COPYRIGHT DISCLAIMER:

Book cover art is used Pursuant to 17 U.S. Code § 107 under the “fair use” defense.

All other images are certified public domain.

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Horror: Who Started It?

Hello, friends and foes! For my first-ever blog post I thought it would be fun to do a brief timeline of horror literature and try to figure out who might have planted the horror family tree. Without further ado, let’s dive in.

Horror: who started it? There are several obvious contenders; H.P. Lovecraft, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe. When I dove into this research rabbit hole I began as any self-respecting researcher would – I Googled it. The answer might shock you.

While this search result is hilarious, it’s not exactly what I was looking for when I set out on this quest for an answer. So I, living my armchair anthropologist dreams, decided to dig (read: Google) a little further.

The encyclopedia Brittanica defines a horror story as “a story in which the focus is on creating a feeling of fear”. This definition is important because, for the sake of keeping this a brief timeline of horror literature, I won’t be delving into the different branches of the family tree (i.e. gothic horror, paranormal horror, body horror, etc.). With this simple definition in mind, who do you picture of when you think of horror? Stephen King? Anne Rice?

Stephen King’s reign of terror began in 1974 with the publication of the now-classic Carrie. Since then he’s published over 80 books so, sure, I’d consider him as a contender for Father of Modern Horror. (For the record, R.L. Stine has published over 300 books. Just sayin’.)

Anne Rice rose to fame around the same time as King, as Interview With a Vampire was published in 1976, a whopping 26 years before Stephanie Meyer published the insanely popular vampire series Twilight. Since 1976, Rice has published over two dozen books, including both Christian and erotic literature. She even cites Stephen King as an inspiration for her work (Billboard interview, March 11, 2016). The 1970’s saw an upswing in horror literature that has led all the way to present day, but that’s not where the genre began.

Let’s talk about Shirley Jackson. You know The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix? Yeah, she wrote the book back in 1959. It’s often cited as one of the first haunted house novels in America. She also wrote We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Even before that, Jackson published her short story The Lottery in 1948. If you’re anything like me, you’ll remember this as being the single most traumatizing piece of assigned reading in your middle school English class.

Jackson was also a general badass, regarded as incredibly witty, confident, and successful in a field that did not grant easy access to women at that time. She also read tarot and allegedly practiced witchcraft. Spooky. I read her biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, and you should, too. While she didn’t cite a specific author of literary influence, Jackson seemed to be inspired by the darkness of every day – sometimes hidden, sometimes right under your very nose.

I’d say it’s typical for horror writers to be drawn to and inspired by the dark intricacies of life. Take a look at H.P. Lovecraft, for example. A fellow New Englander and anti-anthropocentrist (anthropocentric: regarding humankind as the central or most important element of existence, especially as opposed to God or animals). Lovecraft’s claim to fame is widely regarded as his short story The Call of Cthulu from 1926 which eventually became the staggering Cthulu mythos that most horror (or in Lovecraft’s terms, “weird”) literature fans have come to know. Lovecraft’s first known writings began in 1897, a staggering 77 years before Stephen King’s Carrie. His legacy in the literature realm is abundantly clear, as his Cthulu mythos has been adapted into film, TV, board games and more. And, while 1897 seems like a really long time ago, I wanted to know who inspired Lovecraft. So I kept digging.

Lovecraft’s influence is another pretty obvious contender for starting the horror genre as we know it: Edgar Allen Poe. Another New Englander (I blame the gloom) that became an instant success with the publication of The Raven in 1845 but had published horror shorts since the early 1830’s. Poe was a student of cosmology, another influence of Lovecraft’s work (cosmology: the philosophical study of the origin and nature of the universe). Poe is widely regarded as a pioneer of “gothic” and “gothic horror” literature. An interesting anecdote about Poe’s history that I might do a whole post on in the future (would you be interested? Leave a comment below!) is the case of Lizzie Doten in the 1860’s. Doten was an imitator of Poe’s poetry after his death and claimed to hear Poe’s spirit dictating new poetry from beyond the grave.

Anyway, anyway, anyway. Let’s get on with it.

Poe was a popular (and ultimately very tragic) figure in horror literature, but not the first. Before him came another one of our obvious contenders: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and her 1818 classic Frankenstein. Shelley ushered in the age of science-fiction and horror during what can certainly be called a “Golden Age” for spooky literature. The early 1800’s saw the Brothers Grimm collection of short stories for scaring your children and other classics, like Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

At this point in my research, I truly thought I was nearing the finish line. A big boom of horror literature in the early 1800’s meant someone had started the genre in the not-so-distant past, and I was determined to figure out who it was. I made it back in time to 1764 with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. FINALLY. Several sources claimed this to be the first gothic horror novel. And it was quite controversial at the time of its publication; it was initially published under the guise of being a romance story.

Finally, I had reached the end. Or… the beginning. I made it to the first ever horror story ever written!

Just kidding. Common sense tells us that horror has its roots in folklore, superstition, and myths from all over the world for as long as history has been recorded. Even real life events have been inspiring terrifying works of literature for hundreds of years. A serial killer inspired 1697’s Bluebeard, and noblewoman Elizabeth Bathory inspired 1729’s Tragica Historia and the character Madame Delphine LaLaurie in American Horror Story: Coven, portrayed by horror film icon Kathy Bates. And although we didn’t talk about Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic Dracula, it’s thought that his inspiration came from the Prince of Wallachia Vlad III who terrified all who knew him in the 15th century.

It wasn’t just vampires back then, either. Werewolf literature was popular as far back as the 12th Century, way before Leitch Ritchie wrote The Man-Wolf in 1831. If you want to get technical, there was a werewolf in The Epic of Gilgamesh and that dates back to 2100 BC. Werewolves were also prominent figures in ancient Greek and Roman horror stories.

Now, here’s the thing. Horror stories as we know them go back basically forever. I’m talking before the year 1000. Hell, maybe even before the year 100. Euripides wrote stories about ghosts and necromancy that inspired Mary Shelley. Pliny the Younger wrote about a haunted house in Athens over 1800 years before Shirley Jackson was even born.

I guess the conclusion is that there is no conclusion. At least, not one I could come up with on my armchair anthropology expedition into the roots of horror literature. Horror’s roots are ancient, tying back to the oldest superstitions, folklore and ghost stories from all over the world. You can give Walpole credit for the first gothic horror novel, and Shelley for the first sci-fi horror, and H.P. Lovecraft for being straight-up weird, but it’s impossible to find a single originator of horror. And, I think I like that answer better. Ghosts, witches, vampires and demons have haunted humans for as long as we’ve been able to tell stories about them. And reading a good ghost story never gets old.

Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.

xo Allison

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Meet Me!

Hello, friends and foes!

As you can see, I’ve finally started my book blog. This is something I’ve been considering for a few months but was too nervous to go through with. Nervous about what? Nervous about putting myself out there when I’ve been a fool on Twitter for over a year now? Nervous to talk about books when that’s almost 100% of my personality already? Nervous about over-analyzing the things I enjoy? Probably all of the above. That being said, I figured I would start it anyway because, as Beyoncé once said, “Nervous is good. Nervous means you care.”

Anyway, anyway, anyway. Let’s talk about me.

My name is Allison and I live in gloomy, small-town New England. I’m an aspiring author (currently in the querying trenches, cross your fingers for me), I have a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and a black cat named Sabrina. I’ve always had an affinity for the spooky, superstitious, and supernatural. It could be from having a near-Halloween birthday. It could be from staying up too late reading Goosebumps as a kid. It could be from having cable and unlimited access to horror movies not meant for my little-kid eyes and ears (lookin’ at you, Chiller TV). In any case, I’m an adult now and I can consume scary media any time I want. Even if I have to sleep with the lights on every now and then.

I’m hoping to use this blog as a platform to review and discuss horror books, poetry, films, and more. I’ll post every Friday and on the occasional Monday, as a treat. I’ll even let you (or, those of you on Twitter) choose what I read and write about sometimes. Because I value your input, and I might run out of ideas. If you have any burning questions or suggestions, let me know in the comments below.

Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.

xo Allison

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