Book Review: Brother by Ania Ahlborn

Bloody horror in the Appalachian wilderness. Groovy.

Have you ever seen the Wrong Turn movies? That fun-to-binge horror film franchise with 10 sequels about a cannibalistic family in the hills of West Virginia? Those films have nothing on the mind of Ania Ahlborn, and the bloody Appalachian horror she created in 2015’s Brother.

Ahlborn hails from Poland but currently lives in South Carolina with her family. She’s a prolific horror and thriller writer with an impressive bibliography – her 11th title is soon to be released. Other popular works of Ahlborn’s include The Bird Eater, I Call Upon Thee, and Within These Walls. She began her career as a self-published author with 2011’s Seed, which eventually reached #1 in Horror on Amazon and landed the author a multi-book deal. And thanks to that deal, we were given Brother.

The Morrow family lives a simple life in rural Appalachia – if you consider kidnapping, dismembering, and eating young women as ‘simple’. Michael is a normal teenager, wondering if there is more to life than his gruesome reality. Movies, girls, Big Macs. His overbearing, tyrannical mother and domineering bully of a brother make sure he rarely sees life beyond their personal hell. His attachment to his little sister Misty Dawn makes him weary about running away to see for himself… if he could outrun his brother, that is.

Michael’s been told time and time again that there’s nothing in the world for him outside of the Morrow way of life. No one wants him but the Morrow’s – and even with them, he’s on thin ice.

Why does Michael’s brother Rebel hate him so much? Why is he such a relentless bully, reminding Michael of how worthless and unloved he is? That’s one of the greatest mysteries of this family story, and Ahlborn expertly plants the seeds leading to the reveal of why Rebel has hated Michael for the majority of his life. When the truth of Michael’s origins and Rebel’s disdain for him is revealed, the shock is palpable. The reader is left breathless, hopeless, utterly disheartened. But, don’t worry. It gets better. Rebel takes Michael out into town. Rebel lets Michael talk to girls, see a movie. Get a Big Mac. And then, things get worse. Oh, holy hell, do they get worse.

If you want to feel dirty, grimy, hopeless and lost, this book is for you. Sick and bloody imagery aside, it’s a roller coaster of emotion right up until the insane, movie-worthy finale. Dread truly drips from every page as you wait for the other shoe to drop. What will be Rebel’s breaking point? When with the Morrow’s killing end? Will Michael ever find happiness away from the only wretched life he has ever known? Only one way to find out.

If I’m being 100% honest (which I always am), I almost DNF’d this book because of the overwhelming despair alone. I love horror movies (even the Wrong Turn franchise), and I love horror books, but Ahlborn paints such a gruesome and tragic picture of a rural hellscape that truly left a rotten taste in my mouth every time I closed the book. I had to talk myself into finishing it because I was rooting for Michael, silently begging for him to escape his miserable existence. It’s also toeing the line of splatter horror (think torture-porn films like anything Eli Roth has ever made, Hostel, etc.) which is totally not my gig, at all. Most of the gore is subtle but Ahlborn throws in a sick detail every now and then that just makes you say “ew”, or “Oh my God”, or “time to read Goosebumps to cleanse my palate and fend off the nightmares”. And, when I finished the book, the rotten taste in my mouth remained. For days. But… no spoilers.

Horrifying, thrilling, and truly mind-blowing when all of the nasty pieces come together, Brother showcases the depths of human depravity and just how thick blood is when compared to water.

3 stars overall, 4 stars on the scare-scale.

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

xo Allison

SOURCES:

https://www.aniaahlborn.com/novels

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.

Continue Reading

Book Review: A Head Full of Ghosts

Another day, another exorcism.

Hello, friends and foes! Today we’re reviewing Paul Tremblay’s 2015 novel A Head Full of Ghosts. And this should come as no surprise. If you’ve been kicking around the blog for a while, you know I love exorcism horror. Movies, books, television – anything about the Devil himself. (You can read my review of Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism here: http://www.littlebookblogofhorrors.com/2021/08/book-review-my-best-friends-exorcism/). Plus, the reviews for this book are killer. “A Head Full of Ghosts scared the living hell out of me, and I’m pretty hard to scare.” – Stephen King. “… A Head Full of Ghosts generates a haze of an altogether more serious kind: the pleasurable fog of calculated, perfectly balanced ambiguity.” – New York Times Book Review. ‘Ambiguous’ is the perfect word for this book. Confusing, foggy ambiguity. And it’s absolutely amazing.

I’d heard the name Paul Tremblay around the horror literature world for a while before I picked this book up. And, turns out, that was for good reason. He’s won a Bram Stoker Award, British Fantasy Award, and a Massachusetts Book Award. His bibliography boasts seven novels and numerous anthologies, essays, and published short fiction. Fun fact! He has a master’s degree in mathematics. Now there’s a horror story. His first published novel was The Little Sleep in 2009. Right now, his 2018 book The Cabin at the End of the World is all over horror lit social media; it won the 2019 Locus Award for Best Horror Novel. I’d love to see this guy’s trophy case. And, both A Head Full of Ghosts and The Cabin at the End of the World are in film production.

Trigger warning for potential readers: this book is rife with discussion of mental illness and self harm. Now, let’s dive in.

First we meet a grown-up Meredith (who goes by Merry) as she’s being interviewed by a writer in her abandoned childhood home. You know something catastrophic happened there – but you don’t know what. Then, we meet Karen and her pop culture blog. She’s making commentary on a documentary TV show, The Possession, that was made about Merry’s family; particularly her older sister, Marjorie. Finally, we meet eight year old Merry, living through her sister’s… sickness, and the eventual filming of the TV show in real time.

These three intertwining narrators tie the story together as they tell it, each with their own personal anecdotes and additions. I think the addition of the blog-style commentary is one of many things that sets this book apart. To watch the events unfold through the eyes of eight year old Merry, then to be given an unabashed and seemingly impartial recap of the TV show episode recreating those events does an exceptional job of casting doubt upon the narrators – all three of them. And it does my favorite thing when it comes to exorcisms – it debunks them. Well, not entirely. Some things just can’t be explained.

Karen does an exceptional job of addressing the hypocrisy of a monetized exorcism and the exploitation of “possessed” (or mentally ill) persons for capital gain. To get that take smack dab in the middle of a story about the horrors of possession and exorcism is unequivocally self aware. And, in my opinion, necessary.

Marjorie is 14 when she starts acting strangely. She’s withdrawn, moody, and seeing and hearing terrifying things. The bedtime stories she creates with Merry grow increasingly bloody as the visions and voices overwhelm her. Her father jumps to possession before her mother does, but eventually a priest is involved, and then an entire camera and production crew. I mean, how does that happen? How is a young girl tortured and exploited on television? That, reader, is the worst horror of all.

Even the “possessed” Marjorie knows that exorcisms shouldn’t be a spectacle (literally – the Pope said so), and the priest ignores her. Her father ignores her. Everyone ignores her, as men have ignored young women for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. And they all pay dearly for it.

You don’t know what to believe between young Merry, grown Merry, and the blog posts. Even Merry admits that it gets fuzzy and embellishments slowly turn to truths, even though she lived through it all herself. It’s a disorienting account that leaves a pit in your stomach as you’re desperately trying to decide what happened, what was real, and why dozens of adults sacrificed a child for greed.

A Head Full of Ghosts is as heartbreaking as it is horrifying. It speaks to the confusion and mystery of mental illness, and the lengths one might go to in order to appear sane – or the opposite. It’s a hate-filled homage to the media’s obsession with exploiting people in need and while they’re at their lowest. A psychological thriller and religious think piece, at times bloody and at others downright gruesome. It’s not the Devil that leaves you scared – it’s the exorcist. The “good guys”. If you ask me, they’re damn near evil.

5/5 stars overall, 4/5 on the scare scale.

Am I biased because I love exorcism stories? Who cares! It’s my blog, and I can do what I want.

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

xo Allison

SOURCES:

“Home.” Paultremblay, http://www.paultremblay.net/

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.

Continue Reading

Book Review: The Grip of It

A haunted house with a twist!

Hello, friends and foes! Today I’m reviewing Jac Jemc’s 2017 horror novel, The Grip of It. The grip of what, exactly? Well, I read the book in a day (literally one day – I could not put it down) and I’m still not quite sure. This little book took me on an anxiety-ridden roller coaster ride that I’m still recovering from, days later. An unassuming young couple, the perfect house, a quiet town… until all Hell breaks loose. Let’s talk about it.

There’s not much to find online about Jac Jemc. She seems to be as mysterious as this little book. Her website is streamlined and offers some updates and bits of info (linked below). Her works follow everyday people experiencing everyday horrors, most with terrifying, breath-stealing twists. Her first novel, My Only Wife, was published in 2012 and won the Paula Anderson Book Award. She has also released two haunting story collections; A Different Bed Every Time in 2014 and False Bingo in 2019, both critically appraised. She’s also the author of an abundance of short stories published in various magazines. Currently, she teaches creative writing at UC San Diego.

Refreshingly, Jemc has a page on her website for her story rejections – short stories she’s submitted to publishers that were turned down for whatever reason. She has received four as of her latest post in July, 2021. As a querying author, I’m familiar with the sting of rejection and find it endlessly charming that Jemc is transparent with what it means to be an “author”. It’s not all easy once you have a successful book out (or, in her case, four – and one more slated for 2022).

In The Grip of It, we meet young couple Julie and James. They flee their old life in the city for a quiet home in a small, peaceful town. James’s gambling addiction and lack of impulse control seemed to spur the move, and Julie is trying her best to forgive him and rebuild the trust in their relationship. They find a house near the forest and a lake on a quaint street, with a mysterious and grouchy elderly man in the home next door. As their fractured relationship begins to heal, the very home they are living in insists on tearing it apart.

It starts off small; a leak here, a strange noise there, a black mark on the wall that definitely wasn’t there when they moved in. Then Julie starts getting strange bruises, mirroring the black, graffiti-like marks along the freshly painted walls. The house becomes unfamiliar, shifting and re-shaping itself, doors leading suddenly to nowhere and staircases missing from where they once stood. The noises turn from whispers to groans to shrieks. And then, in the most terrifying moments, there is nothing at all- leading Julie, James, and the reader to wonder if it ever happened in the first place. Julie and James experience different phenomenons within the house and sometimes struggle with understanding and believing each other. Often, this leads to lying. Gaslighting each other while the house is gaslighting them both.

When Julie and James turn to neighbors and townspeople, asking for information about who lived in the house before them, they get no straight answers – more often, no answers at all. Julie’s bruises draw attention and judgement from those outside the house, and there are only so many lies you can tell before people begin to suspect something awful is going on at home (and their minds don’t go straight to haunted house).

The lingering distrust from their fractured relationship, coupled with lying to each other about what they’ve seen or found or experienced in their ever-changing home, begins a slow and diabolical descent into madness for the once lovely young couple. Their once so beautiful relationship is crumbling due to factors they can’t control, and this is arguably one of the most terrifying aspects of the whole book.

On top of the horrors within their haunted house, Julie and James are sucked into a strange family mystery involving their perpetually grouchy neighbor and a disappearance that was never solved. They try to work together to solve the mystery while simultaneously lying to each other about everything… because they don’t even know what’s real.

I definitely shouldn’t have read this book while house hunting. The Grip of It had me on the edge of my seat, waiting impatiently until I could turn the page to find out what happened next. It left me wondering about the strength of a loving marriage and what lengths one is willing to go to to believe the other, or to be believed themselves. Overall, it was a tantalizing and terrifying read, though I wasn’t a big fan of the ending. Despite that one blip (that’s entirely subjective, anyway), I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone that loves haunted houses and gripping, psychological terror.

Was it scary? Yeah, I think we’ve been over that. It’s stomach-twisting, anxiety-inducing, waiting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat scary. You’re side by side with Julie and James, angry when they find no answers and disturbed and disgusted when they do. It’s a disorienting ride through a haunted house with no haunting – there’s no murderer, no vengeful ghost. Just pure evil. It’s chaotic and confusing (in a good way). A true whirlwind of haunts, gripping fear, and a strange, moldy mystery…

4/5 stars overall, 4/5 on the scare scale.

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

xo Allison

SOURCES:

https://jacjemc.squarespace.com/books

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.

Continue Reading

Book Review: Imaginary Friend

“Old people and kids are invisible to the rest of the world… It makes us unbeatable at hide-and-seek.”

There’s a typo on the first page of this book. At least, that’s what I thought. I thought, “How weird that there’s a typo on the very first page in the very first line of this New York Times bestselling novel”. I kept reading, and there was no immediate answer. I even Googled it. “Imaginary Friend misprint”. Nothing. So, I kept reading. And, eventually, it all came together. But before it came together, it fell terribly and tragically apart.

This is the front cover art for the book Imaginary Friend written by Stephen Chbosky. The book cover art copyright is believed to belong to the publisher or the cover artist.

I bought this book after seeing it in a book TikTok. A BookTok, if you will. The reviews were all incredibly promising; TIME, New York Times Book Review, and Emma Watson all sang its glowing praises. Though I haven’t read Chbosky’s smash hit The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I know enough about it through osmosis to know that Imaginary Friend is an epic (and terrifying) departure.

Stephen Chbosky is arguably best known for his 1999 coming of age novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. He also wrote and directed the 2012 film version, starring Emma Watson (remember her from the book reviews earlier?) and Logan Lerman. He wrote the screenplay for 2005’s film adaptation of the musical Rent and the 2021 film adaptation of the musical Dear Evan Hansen. I was also surprised to learn that he wrote the screenplay for the live-action remake of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. I was surprised because, well, 2019’s Imaginary Friend is nothing like anything I’ve listed above. It’s not perky, it’s not a musical, and it sure as Hell isn’t Disney.

Imaginary Friend introduces us to a wide cast of characters, each with their own struggle in life. We meet the main character Christopher, a young boy with dyslexia and a hard time making friends, and his mom Kate. They are on the run from Kate’s abusive boyfriend and eventually take refuge in a quiet-seeming town in Pennsylvania. Kate gets a job and enrolls Christopher in a good public school, where he makes a small but loyal group of friends. Then we meet Mary Katherine, a devout Christian high schooler trying to juggle her faith and emerging sexuality. And Ambrose, an elderly army vet whose eyes are being “taken by clouds” (cataracts), and whose kid brother went missing a long, long time ago. And the sheriff, plagued by nightmares of a young girl he could not save. There are other POV’s, too- not as in depth as those listed above, though just as important. That’s a big theme with this book – everything and everyone are connected, no matter how seemingly brief or unimportant.

One day, Christopher goes missing in the Mission Street woods. He’s gone for six days. When he returns, Christopher claims “The Nice Man” saved him and helped him escape the woods, though the sheriff can find no sign of anyone else being involved. As Christopher adjusts back to life as he knew it, he knows at once that he has changed. He knows things. Awful things. Most importantly, he knows he must build a tree house in the Mission Street woods before Christmas, or the world will end. Through the tree house, Christopher can access another world- like ours, but different. It is terrorized by a monstrous woman Christopher calls “The Hissing Lady”. The Nice Man tells Christopher that he must defeat The Hissing Lady before the end of the world.

There’s a lot going on in Imaginary Friend. Much more than I can succinctly summarize (and, as a querying writer, I shudder to think of the synopsis and query letter Chbosky had to put together for this!). Multiple POV’s entwine in different plots and subplots and character arcs, and everyone’s actions effect the rest. It’s a whirlwind of nightmarish imagery and secret messages and hidden worlds that culminates into an extravaganza of tear-jerking endings (yes, I cried), horrors, and the redemption in new beginnings.

And damn, did this book hurt. It hurt my heart and soul. It made my skin crawl, it made my heart ache, thinking of helpless children in horrific nightmare sequences, facing truths and fears they should never have to face. And everything is important! How amazing it is, how the smallest actions can have the largest chain of consequences. Things you read and don’t think twice about are suddenly the most important thing that’s happened over the course of the 600+ page book. You second-guess yourself, you second guess what you read, and it’s achingly chaotic and bizarre and beautiful. There’s a confrontation of the loneliness of being too young and too old. You’re young and you want to know everything, then you’re old and you forget and you want to know everything you used to. And the power of imagination and wonder that we lose when we grow up. “Adults are bad at remembering how powerful they can be because somewhere along the line, they were shamed for their imagination.”

Underneath all the horror of this book is the pulsing strength of a mother’s love, and the perfect way children see their parents, even with all their faults. Could a mother’s love defeat The Hissing Lady, or the end of the world, or God and the Devil and everything else? Only one way to find out…

Speaking of God and the Devil, Imaginary Friend packs a bit of a religious punch. Despite it’s nightmarish imagery and body horror and general terror, there’s an underlying theme of Christianity, and what it means to have faith, and what it means to believe. “To kill in the name of God is to serve the devil.” It’s not overwhelming, though it becomes more prevalent in the last quarter of the book, and it’s thought provoking for someone like me, who was raised in religion and is now… well, this isn’t about me. Chbosky tackles big, human issues through the lens of a child stuck in what seems like a never-ending nightmare. When I finished reading, I sat and stared at the ceiling and wondered what I believe. And I’m still wondering today.

Anyway, anyway, anyway. Was this book scary? I’d say absolutely yes. It has gore, body horror, and nightmare sequences that made my skin crawl and toes curl. Children with their eyes and mouths sewn shut, literal Hellish punishments inflicted unto sinners for all eternity, torture, etc. The tension of the building plot among the different POV’s, then when they overlap and the codes become clear, the puzzle pieces align – I couldn’t put it down until I knew the end. And even then, I wanted more.

“Everyone gets an ending. Whether or not it’s happy is up to them.”

Five stars overall, three 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.

Continue Reading

Book Review: Don’t Tell a Soul

“All the best ghosts are girls…”

I was on a Young Adult “Horror” kick when I purchased this book. I’m working my way through my towering TBR pile (with the help of the blog – it’s actually working!) and I thought I’d give this Kristen Miller novel a shot. Spooky yet trendy cover, large print and short chapters. I finished it in a strange and rather anti-climactic two days. But we’ll get to that later.

Trigger warning: this book (and post) contains mention of SA and drug use.

General warning: possible spoilers.

Don’t Tell a Soul by Kirsten Miller (2021) appealed to me for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I am an avid fan of Young Adult fiction. This point is important in the context of this article because, unfortunately, I was not the biggest fan of this book for reasons stemming from the fact that the book is bound to the limitations of Young Adult fiction (more on this later). The second reason I chose this book is simple – I love ghost stories. Period. The third and final reason is because of all the great things I’ve heard about the author.

Kirsten Miller is nothing if not an accomplished and talented storyteller. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and boasts three novels (though there are more slated for 2022) and a series co-written with author Jason Segel. Judging by her website (linked below) she’s contributed to various other projects and believes in the existence of Bigfoot (as should we all).

Don’t Tell a Soul follows the story of seventeen year old Bram after she drops out of high school following an attempted sexual assault and subsequent drug addiction. Once released from rehab she flees her expensive New York City life to stay with her estranged uncle in a manor he is renovating into a small-town inn. Bram has overcome so much in her short seventeen years – the death of her father and aunt, the estrangement of her beloved uncle that followed, and the SA that led to her drug addiction. She wants to distract herself with life at her uncle’s manor, for she knows there is a mystery to be solved there.

After the strange carbon-monoxide poisoning death of her father and aunt, Bram’s beloved uncle James disappeared. Several years later he reappears at the manor with a new wife and stepdaughter, Lark. Tragedy strikes, however, when half of the manor burns down, resulting in the death of James’ second wife and the alleged descent into madness of Lark. Lark is institutionalized for babbling about a ghost. The ghost of the manor. The ghost of a girl named Grace, whose father built the manor, who drowned in the river on the edge of town over one hundred years before.

Bram is determined to solve the mystery of the ghost of the manor despite her uncle’s strange behavior and the unwelcoming attitude of everyone in the town. They aren’t fond of city-folk in the small town of Louth, and turning the “cursed” manor into an inn is sure to bring hoards more. Are the angry townsfolk responsible for the fire? Or was it a ghost? Or was it truly a tragic and deadly accident?

That’s the thing with this book. It’s not really a ghost story. It’s a mystery. Several mysteries overlapping, actually. There is the mystery of Grace, drowning in the river (Did she actually drown? How did she escape the manor? Why did she kill herself? Or was it an accident?). There is the mystery of another “Dead Girl” of the manor, one who mysteriously died in the 1980’s (Was that an accident? Was she murdered? Who is responsible?). There is the mystery of Lark and the manor fire that killed her mother and sent her into madness. Even the death of Bram’s father and aunt is a mystery, because no one can figure out just how it happened.

There are so many interesting and exciting ideas to explore – the damsel assumed to have drowned herself in the river revisits the home in which she was imprisoned to take revenge on her horrible father – an unassuming bookish girl is lured into the woods in the middle of winter and dies of unknown causes – the “Dead Girls of Louth” might not actually be dead, after all – and just not enough time to explore them. There are also several important subplots regarding the refusal to believe trauma victims, the impact substance abuse can have on familial relations, and how money can buy innocence in the corrupt American justice system. The shortcoming here, again, is not enough time to explore all of these subplots to their fullest.

The underlying plot thread of every woman from the manor being a righteous feminist and getting revenge on the men who have wronged them is generally a badass concept, but reads as incredibly simplistic with only so much emphasis to go around. Moments that are designed to be the “big reveals” of the mystery are swallowed by the myriad of subplots and half-baked characters (illegitimate children, evil business partners, organized crime, oh my!).

There is also an incredibly important message about speaking out against your abusers even if they are more powerful than you, or have more money than you, or you are afraid that you will not be believed. This message, too, is drowned out by the spoon-fed mystery of the first Dead Girl and the misfortunes that all girls of the manor have suffered while trying to solve it.

In short, Don’t Tell a Soul is full of intriguing ideas with just not enough time to explore them. If this had ten or fifteen more chapters there could have been so much more built upon the original mystery, and the “big reveals” could have been impactful and highly anticipated, still with time to explore the impact of substance abuse and trauma and/or PTSD. Or if more time was put into crafting Bram and Jame’s relationship before it crumbled, it would be one thousand times more heartbreaking when – well, spoilers.

There is much potential to be intricate and multi-dimensional and terrifying but, unfortunately, the story falls a little flat. However, the book might be thoroughly enjoyed by fans of Riverdale or Pretty Little Liars.

As this one is Young Adult, I’m not rating it for scares on the same scale as I would an Adult horror, as the same parameters do not apply.

3 stars overall, 1 on the scare scale.

Do you have any Young Adult horror favorite you want me to try? Is this one of your favorites and now you hate me? Let me know in the comments below!

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.

SOURCES:

https://www.kirstenmillerbooks.com/

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading