Man, oh man. Maybe it's goodbye to the age of the zombies and hello to the age of demonic possession.
Seriously. This stuff is popping up everywhere and it seems to be culturally relevant again. Well, "again" probably isn't the best way to put it. I think exorcism plots have always been relevant, at least since The Exorcist thrust its ugly head onto the scene in 1973 and scared the living bejesus out of everyone. I think we all know why it's scary.
But the reason for the continued relevance? These movies (and books) tend to revolve around children and can usually be read as a metaphor for puberty, that changing status from child to adult that cannot be stopped. Like a force of nature, it consumes the child and often spits out this unrecognizable, sometimes violent, and often difficult creatures that are so hopped up on their own hormones and spite they don't know what they've turned into.
A true coming-of-age narrative to warm your soul, right?
But, oddly enough, that's exactly what Hendrix has pulled off here. It's nothing short of a heartening and rewarding story of true friendship despite strange circumstances and daunting barriers—not unlike Spielberg's E.T. which coincidently figures prominently in how Abby and Gretchen became friends in the first place in Hendrix's book. I gotta re-watch that movie. The ending gets me every time.
But I don't think that raging hormones are the only fear that exorcism narratives bring up. There is also the fear of the children going astray by way of drugs, sex, rock-n-roll, or whatever the equivalent of the day might be. My Best Friend's Exorcism is set at the end of the 80s, and I don't think that's by accident.
The 80s were a time of great furor about a variety of things that kids were dipping their toes into. Of course, there were drugs and music, both of which feature in this book. Heavy metal music (although that's not what our heroes are into that, they are more the "Total Eclipse of the Heart" variety) especially was seen as devilish, and I'm sure you've heard of the Satanic panic, yep, that swept the nation in the 80s. People worried that hordes of devil worshippers high on drugs were out to kill indiscriminately. Of course, exorcisms are innately religious, so the duality between God and the devil is an important one to keep in mind.
Other scares: the game Dungeons & Dragons was heavily protested by religious parents and institutions for having demonic characters—some even thought it might play a part in occult initiation. Poor nerd kids. Violent video games (that we would probably just laugh at now) were also under fire. Parents were worried that these games would tell kids it's okay to kill and that they would bring on murder sprees.
(Unfortunately, that is something we've seen in recent years with other media: James Holmes at the Aurora theatre premiere of Batman, the girls who stabbed their friend for Slender Man, and more recently, a horror graphic novelist who drained his own girlfriend's blood, similar to a serial killer in his own book. Look if up if you don't believe me—or don't... But the continuing debate is, are violent movies and video games and other media really to blame for this?)
Teenage Suicide (Don't Do It) did actually have an uptick in the 80s, in the form of cluster suicides (later parodied in the brilliant Heathers, if you didn't already catch that reference). Kids weren't dropping like flies or anything, but the fact that it so saturated the media and pop culture shows that it was something we violently feared and didn't know how to control.
Most importantly (to me), the 80s brought the golden age of the slasher film. These films weren't really protested as much as dismissed and denigrated. Oh, sure, they had plenty of hate-mail, but as long as the blood-n-gore conformed to the MPA ratings, all you could do was ban your kid from seeing them, and hope they wouldn't find a way to sneak behind your back. But they sculpted a generation of horror viewers and creators and continue to define what we think of as horror, for better or worse.
Sorry for the history lesson, though I hope it was interesting! That stuff isn't represented per se in the storyline of My Best Friend's Exorcism, but it is all there in the undercurrent and so culturally relevant that I think it's worth bringing up. All that was to say that horror was brewing in the 80s and the time was ripe for poor, sweet, innocent kids to get sucked in, some way. And exorcism narratives represent that loss of innocence.
Abby is our narrator throughout and her best friend Gretchen begins acting strange after she gets lost for a night in the woods. Abby knows Gretchen like she knows the back of her own hand, so she knows something is wrong, but no one else seems to share her concern. At least, they don't seem to think that something else has taken over Gretchen's body. Her other friends drop Gretchen like yesterday's gossip and somehow Gretchen's parents think that Abby is the cause of the change in their daughter and ostracize her.
It's an intriguing, witty, and often tense mix of Mean Girls and Scream where you don't quite know who to trust, cliques are reorganizing daily, and you aren't sure who is going to make it to the end of the story.
Abby is determined to figure out what's going on with Gretchen and drag her back from whatever hell she's writhing in, even if it means that Abby is going to have to make some sacrifices along the way.
Beyond totally nailing the high school world without making it cliche, Hendrix also throws in a lot of other complex situations. Class structure, for one. Abby's family is poor in comparison with all her friends at her private school, including Gretchen. It doesn't take long for them to pick Abby off the social ladder once things start going downhill—like a bug they always wanted to squash, like the "which of these doesn't belong?" in the picture.
Hendrix also takes on parental relationships with their teens. Though parents (and adults in general) are mostly absent from the book, when they show up, they show up strong and you can see shades of where they have been and their own horrors and demons that they've lived through.
Though Abby is not possessed, she goes through a trial and transformation all her own. One that would make anyone grow up. I found her a strong, sharp-witted, humorous main character with a compelling voice and an interesting battle. You thought high school was hard, but you never dealt with demonic possession!
I almost didn't pick up this book because although I really liked the idea of Horrorstor--Hendrix's debut, a haunted house narrative set in an IKEA knockoff type store—the execution was less than solid and I felt that the writing needed a lot of work. Hendrix has grown a lot since then and is really playing on this modern cultural thread of horror that people are really into, as shown by the phenomenal Scream TV show on MTV and Ryan Murphy's (of American Horror Story) answer to that, Scream Queens. I even dug the new Ash vs. Evil Dead TV show—a great updated homage with all the same Bruce Campbell joie de vivre and gore.
All those shows have this modern irreverence, this clear flippant attitude: Yeah, they live in the twenty-first century, so what? Killers can adapt too, so why keep making the same shlock over and over? Why shouldn't the same apply to books?
That's what Hendrix is thinking, and I'm right there with him. If you're interested in more modern exorcism books, check out my previous post on the great Paul Tremblay's book, A Head Full of Ghosts, now in paperback.
As I said, the age of exorcisms has come upon us. There's plenty to be terrified about our teens getting into right here in the modern age, whole worlds on the internet where they can grow up in their bedrooms without ever having to sneak out the window. And that's a scary thought.
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Find out more about the author, Grady Hendrix
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Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.