“She and Gretchen were best friends, and then came that fall.
And they fell.
And the exorcist saved her life.”
So it turns out that possession novels are a niche of horror I particularly enjoy, and this one was amazing. My Best Friend’s Exorcism is a brilliant mix of eighties-throwback, adolescent angst and terrifying life-destroying demons. Abby and Gretchen have been best friend’s since they were children, despite Gretchen being effortlessly rich and Abby being a scholarship student with struggling parents, nothing gets between them. They tell each other everything, they call each other every night…so when Gretchen starts acting oddly, Abby is the first to notice. We see everything unfold through Abby’s eyes and honestly this tugged at the heart strings a lot for a horror novel. From the moment nobody showed up to Abby’s birthday party, I adored her and wanted her to be happy, so to see her put continuously through hell was painful.
“Now it’s all coming back in an unstoppable flood. The sound of screaming on the Lawn. The owls. The stench in Margaret’s room. Good Dog Max. The terrible thing that happened to Glee. But most of all, she remembers what happened to Gretchen and how everything got so fucked up back in 1988, the year her best friend was possessed by the devil.”
Despite being about demons, this book is also an excellent piece of social commentary on how the troubles of adolescent girls are ignored, written off as stress or kept forcibly silent to protect their family’s reputations. Then there’s Riley, a character who epitomises the privileged rich white boy stereotype and despite being caught drugging and sexually assaulting young women, gets away totally free. Why? Well:
“The judge encouraged the girl’s parents not to press charges because Riley came from a fine family and had his whole future ahead of him.”
Now does that sound familiar at all? Hmm?
We see sex education assemblies telling girls to protect their ‘greatest treasure’ or risk throwing away their futures, we see extreme weight loss being praised even as it kills, and most upsettingly at all we see a girl reach out to her parents for help, scared and traumatised. In response, they take her to a doctor she has never met and get him to check if she is still a virgin.
“Invisible hands had been touching her all night, she’d told Abby. Touching her face, tapping her shoulders, stroking her chest…When she woke at dawn, she was excited that she’d managed to sleep for two solid hours. Then she felt a hand brush up against her stomach and she ran into the bathroom and threw up.”
Possession narratives oftentimes focus on women, girls and their existence as sexual beings. The Exorcist horrified us all with the sudden sexuality of a young girl, Come Closer follows a woman in an unhappy and unfulfilling marriage as the demon in her mind engages in murderous, lustful acts – and these are just the two I have finished. In another that I’m working through in audio a young adolescent girl undergoes a mental transformation alongside the changing of her body. Is she mentally ill, acting out, or something far worse? In each case, these girls and women have something strange and terrifying invading their body without their consent, so the idea that demon possession and sexual assault may have similar effects isn’t too unrealistic. Perhaps this is because to many women, our bodies being invaded by something that wants to hurt us is a very real fear from early in our lives. Gretchen appears to stop caring about her appearance, to become shrunken inside herself, to be causing herself harm – and when Abby tries to get adults to see, to help, when she suggests that Gretchen may have been assaulted, she is violently rebuffed, shunned and ostracised. Is Abby really the only one to see the sudden change in Gretchen’s behaviours, or is she simply the only one willing to acknowledge the elephant in the room? Surely a girl of Gretchen’s good standing and reputation wouldn’t be so stupid as to let a thing like that happen? No, much easier to blame the trust fund friend who doesn’t fit in than entertain the idea that those nice rich boys may not be so nice.
“He tricked me…he switched places with me and now I’m here and he’s there.”
“Who?” Abby asked.
“I think I’m dead,” Gretchen said.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism achieved what all horror books aim to achieve – it physically affected me, and it has stayed with me since I finished reading it. Once scene in particular involving Margaret will haunt me for the rest of my days.
Never trust a ‘diet shake’.
This book managed to be horrifying without gore, it was a creeping, insidious thing and Grady Hendrix is a tremendous writer. Casting aside for the main part the religious connotations of possession narratives, this book instead focuses on the power of teenage friendship – when nothing in the world matters so much as your best friend at school, and how far you will go to help them, because nobody in the world will ever understand you the way they do. If you’re looking for an original horror story that pays homage to the possession genre while still being a fresh take on it, this is a definite recommendation from me!
Overall rating: 📖📖📖📖📖 5 books out of 5