With the overwhelming success of the Netflix series Stranger Things and the return of Stephen King’s It to theaters with the children’s storyline bumped forward by nearly thirty years, the 80s are having another major moment in horror—and My Best Friend’s Exorcism, by Grady Hendrix, is no exception.
This horror novel has been on my radar for a hot minute, both because I was a fan of Hendrix’s Ikea-catalog influenced work Horrorstor (review here), and because it’s been making its rounds on bookstagram for some time now, which only intensified by temptation to read it.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism tells the tale of Gretchen and Abby, best friends since 4th grade, as they grow up and come face to face with evil itself. One night while at a sleepover at a friend’s house, Gretchen takes off to go skinny dipping and seemingly disappears into the woods. After hours of searching, the girls finally find her, wandering naked in the woods and acting very, very strangely. The strange behavior only intensifies—and gets totally out of control—as it comes to light that Gretchen has apparently been possessed by a demon, and Abby is left to handle the situation.
There are quite a few things to like about this book, but also some to dislike, as well. I’ll go ahead and start with the things I liked, partially so I don’t frontload negativity and partially because the things I liked contain no spoilers at all, whereas the things I disliked may contain a few spoiler-ish comments (but don’t worry, I’ll warn you when they’re coming).
I think for me, one of the most likable things about My Best Friend’s Exorcism—and also one of its big selling points—are the major 80s vibes. I can really go in for that sort of kitschy, saturated type of theme, and Hendrix does it well (as we saw with Horrorstor, where he committed to the shtick so hard that the entire book is laid out like an Ikea catalog, which, as you may recall, I loved). If you’re into pop culture references, this book is laden with them, including every single chapter title being the title of a popular 80s hit from the likes of Madonna and Bonnie Tyler, which had me bursting into song at the turn of a page (luckily I was never reading it in public).
Another thing I really liked was the friendship between Gretchen and Abby. It was nice to see how they met and how they were always there for each other. The friendships between the other girls were questionable, but seeing how Gretchen and Abby were together was pretty cute. I mean, you have to really love your friend to go to bat against a demon for them, right?
I also really liked that this was a slightly different take on possession. Horror fans know that a lot of possession type stories go down similar to The Exorcist—puking, head spinning, speaking in tongues…the usual. But Gretchen’s demon manifested itself in a bit of a different and more interesting way. Though the book definitely had its share of gross moments from Gretchen, the evil inside of her mostly manifested itself through her destructive actions. Once possessed, Gretchen turned into what was basically a downright diabolical mean girl and set about destroying the lives of her friends and acquaintances—and we’re not talking Regina George level destruction. We’re talking coaxing girls into suicide or giving them tapeworms. It was crazy, but it was cool to see the possession manifest itself in a little bit of a different way than we typically see in these sorts of novels. Watching the stages of possession was interesting too, as Gretchen progressed from sickly to reigning Queen of Chaos, essentially.
Though the writing itself, for me, isn’t the main draw of the book, there were definitely some good bits of writing throughout. Hendrix is especially strong in his gruesome descriptions, making some of the gross moments even grosser by bringing them to life on the page.
“Abby forced herself to look at the dead bodies. Their skin was covered in bristles and their toenails were thick and yellow. Their dusty gray skin was peeled back to reveal layers of beef jerky muscles and a fruit basket of internal organs. Mottled gray lungs, dark red hearts, glistening links of lavender intestines, brown livers, a cornucopia of meaty fruit piled up inside.”
“It was sticky, gelatinous, and alive—a blind white worm, thick as a garden hose, and it was hauling itself out of Margaret’s stomach with single-minded intent.”
I mean…a fruit basket of internal organs? Awesome. Gross. But awesome.
There were also some truly just funny moments in this book, despite its dark and grisly content, like the appearance of The Lemon Brothers, a Christian strong man act who puts on an assembly at the girls’ school and seem to have no idea exactly how much innuendo their act contains, or the little quiz questions scattered throughout the book that seemed to emulate the personality quizzes in the backs of the teen magazines that Gretchen and Abby are so obsessed with.
The book wasn’t all home runs though, and there were certainly a few things I disliked as well. To begin with, the book seemed like a bit of a slow starter, and took me a little while to get into. It seemed like there was a lot of lead up and I was just waiting for the action to start. I totally get that the author wanted to let us get to know the characters a bit first so we could see what they were really like before the possession and the changes began, but the pacing just seemed off to me. I’m not sure if anyone would agree with me on that, though, or if it was just the way I perceived it because it took me a little while to really get into the book.
Then, once we actually get to the possession stage of the novel, we didn’t really get to know much about the demon itself or how the possession happened, which I found a bit disappointing. Being that it’s a possession story, I would have liked to know a little bit more about the initial possession, but we never learn anything about what happened to Gretchen in the woods, why she was possessed, how she came into contact with a demon, how it happened so suddenly—nothing. We only get to see the after effects. In possession stories, I am super interested in how it happened or how exactly the situation came about, so I was let down by that. There’s even a conversation between Brother Lemon and Abby at one point that totally brushes over it, where Abby asks why this happened to them and Brother Lemon basically just says I don’t know, and the whole conversation felt like an afterthought to the situation, when in reality, that seems like a big thing that would be at the forefront of your mind if you were going through something like this.
HERE LIE SPOILERS for those of you who are planning on reading the book…they’re not super spoiler-y spoilers, but they will reveal some pretty big things, so I thought I’d let you know ahead of time.
One of the other things I disliked about this book was the ending. Not necessarily how the possession ends or how the exorcism itself ends, but everything that came after that. The author basically tries to sum up the rest of the main characters’ lives in the closing chapters, and I just found it totally unnecessary. It went on forever and to me, just wasn’t very interesting. I would have liked to see more of that tendency for explanation toward the beginning of the book when Gretchen gets possessed, so that we could find out more about the demon and her possession! Instead, I felt the ambiguity was misplaced and we got a lot of exposition where we really didn’t need it at all. I would have liked it a lot better if it had just ended with the resolution of the court case, and that was all. I didn’t think it needed to be turned into this lifetime biography that the author seemed to have going on.
And finally, the biggest thing I disliked about this book is that the author committed the CARDINAL SIN of horror (and of all fiction, really): he killed the dog
OH. HELL. NO.
As soon as a dog turned up right at the beginning of the book, I was already wary of where it was going (as I am in any work of horror, really), and it went to the worst possible place, basically. It wasn’t just that the author killed off the dog that was so upsetting, but the fact that it kind offff seemed like the dog wasn’t even killed off for any good reason. Though to be fair, in my mind there’s really never a good reason to kill off a dog in fiction, but at least sometimes it is a really impactful and relevant moment (think Age of Adaline, for example). This wasn’t that. This seemed more like the dog was killed for shock value, and I just wasn’t having it. It seemed like it was just to be like “look, you know she’s possessed because she killed the dog so it must be bad, right?” And I got it without that. She didn’t need to kill the dog. She was trying to kill people. I understood how bad it was without the canine murder. UGH.
Okay, spoilers end here! So if you’re looking to skip by them and get to the conclusion, it’s safe now. J
So, was this my new favorite book? No, but it was still a pretty good read! It is a lot of fun and it’s got the 80s vibes that so many people love (right down to the cover design looking like an old school VHS tape, which I adore), and as mentioned, it’s a bit of a different take on possession overall, which was refreshing. Like Hendrix’s other work, it’s strength is largely in its kitschy-ness, so if you go in for that, I’d recommend it. It could definitely be a fun read for the upcoming Halloween season. Star-wise, I’d probably rate it a 3.5/5 stars.
So, has anyone else read My Best Friend’s Exorcism? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments! You know I’d love to talk. <3