If you are pining for 1980s tribute fare like Stranger Things, and you love books that focus on friendships between women, and you can tolerate some gross content, then I highly recommend My Best Friend’s Exorcism. It is not a romance, but it does have a great, though platonic, love story between two teenage girls who battle occult forces in 1988. And yes, the paperback cover is a perfect facsimile of a beat-up VHS tape.
Abby and Gretchen become friends after Gretchen is the only person to show up to Abby’s tenth birthday party. Gretchen’s parents are rich and Abby’s are not (her father is clinically depressed and her mother works long hours), and over time Abby spends more and more time at Gretchen’s house. Abby helps Gretchen experience all the parts of pop culture that Gretchen’s over-protective parents forbid, and Gretchen provides Abby with a shelter from Abby’s emotionally desolate household.
By the time Abby and Gretchen are in high school, they are part of a group of four friends. All four are academically high achieving and popular. Margaret, Glee, Gretchen, and Abby seem to have it all together until one day they try taking acid. Nothing happens. The LSD is a complete dud. The only person affected is Gretchen, who claims to keep having hallucinations long after taking the acid, and whose behavior becomes more and more alarming over the following weeks. Gretchen is surrounded by inexplicable events like breaking windows and bird attacks, and she goes from self-harm to manipulating her friends into hurting themselves and others. In desperation, Abby joins up with a bodybuilding priest to save her best friend from what surely must be demonic possession.
This is a horror novel from the writer of Horrorstör, which is the only book I’ve ever read in which a person has to escape death by quickly disassembling a piece of furniture with one of those Allen-wrench things. My Best Friend’s Exorcism has less humor than Horrorstör but on the other hand the characters, especially Abby, are better developed. The book is packed with references to the 1980s and largely revolves around the obsession in the 1980s with drugs (Just Say No) and with Satanic ritual abuse. While the book includes a lot of fun references to 1980s culture, it also includes darker elements, such as slut-shaming, victim-blaming, homophobia, and Reagan Era class dynamics and economic realities.
There were a lot of things I liked about this book, but I found it painful to read because so much of it involves the real-life horror of high school and of toxic dynamics. There are many creepy moments but nothing sucked the air out of my lungs like the moment in which Abby realizes that Gretchen has turned against her and turned Margaret and Glee against her as well. It’s a mundane moment of horror and betrayal that many of us have actually experienced without having the dubious comfort of being able to blame it on demonic possession. I can read about demonic barf and never flinch but the scene in which Margaret, Glee, and Gretchen refuse to let Abby sit with them is excruciating, and Abby comes to the following conclusion:
Turning eighteen doesn’t determine when you become an adult in Charleston; neither does registering to vote, graduating from high school, or getting your driver’s license. In Charleston, the day you become an adult is the day you learn to ignore your neighbor’s drunk driving and focus instead on whether he submitted a paint-color change to the Board of Agricultural Review. The day you become an adult is the day you learn that in Charleston, the worse something is, the less attention it receives.
At Albermarle [the high school], everyone was suddenly being very adult about Gretchen.
The book is excellent at describing class dynamics and at showing the difficulty involved in exposing hidden evil when everyone is obsessed with maintaining surface decorum – both in high school and in the very class-conscious community of adults in the town.
The other thing that sets this book above and beyond many others is its wonderfully feminist ending and the celebration of female friendship. It’s frustrating, because even with spoiler tags I don’t want to spoil how this book is resolved, or what’s revealed in the epilogue, or the lovely last line of the book. But without spoiling it, how can I tell you how awesome it turned out to be? I can’t. You’ll have to trust me. This particular horror story is a love letter to the 1980s and to the power of friendship between women. The ending is very awesome. But also very gross, so be prepared.
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