There are a few things that I am a sucker for. One of them is anything related to The Eighties. I can’t help myself – I spent most of my childhood (including some of my teenage years) in them and I have fond memories of the decade. To this day I still hold the music, TV and films in high regard. Imagine my delight when I sat down to watch Stranger Things for the first time!
The other thing that is guaranteed to reel me in every time is an eye-catching book cover.
I know…. Never Judge A Book and all that, and I’ve been bitten once or twice (see my review of Margaret Bingley’s Village Of Satan) but on the whole this policy has served me well. None more so than Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism.
I had been vaguely aware of this book for a while, having seen it with a cover which looked like the inside of an American yearbook (which was never really a tradition hear in the UK when I was at school – so I was only familiar with them through shows like Degrassi Junior High and the films of John Hughes). I had seen it before and read the blurb on the back. I have to admit that while I liked the sound of it and marked the book as a possible future purchase, the cover art did put me off a little.
However, when I saw it a second time, with this new paperback cover it was a different story! Maybe it was the fact that it looked like an old VHS slipcase (complete with Please Rewind sticker) or perhaps it was because of Hugh Fleming’s gorgeous artwork, so reminiscent of those giants of 80s film posters, Drew Struzan and John Alvin (Fleming himself is no stranger to film-based art, having produced a number of covers for Dark Horse’s Star Wars comics as well as the Australian promo poster for last year’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi). Either way, I picked it up and purchased it immediately! A novel’s cover art is important to Mr. Hendrix. This is often mentioned in his follow up to MBFE, Paperbacks From Hell – a non-fiction look at pulp horror novels of the 70s and 80s.
Later that night I settled down with my bedside lamp on to start it. I had to put it down when my wife woke up to let me know that it was two in the morning and I had work the next day! That’s always a good sign!
The first thing (on the inside of the book) to grab me was the use of 80s song titles as chapter headings. I love that! Especially since a number of pop songs from the 80s are integral to the plot. The story starts off like a classic school drama with two reluctant friends (the poor Abby and the rich and privileged Gretchen) eventually bonding during Abby’s poorly attended birthday party at a roller disco.
After two or three hours of reading there was no sign of any of the supernatural shenanigans as promised by the title – but that didn’t matter because, much like the novels of Stephen King, this story is primarily about people and relationships. By giving us a detailed account of the Abby and Gretchen’s journey from shy, E.T obsessed pre-teens up to the latter years of their High School education, and along with a supporting cast of friends, teachers and parents, Hendrix presents a believable friendship.
Perhaps this gelled so well with me because I am of a similar age to the protagonists. I remember the excitement of E.T. arriving at the cinema and the buzz it brought with it. I even remember my 8th birthday party where my gift from Grant Plunkett was an E.T. action figure (complete with extending neck, moving arms and a little Speak & Spell accessory). I also remember what it meant to start high school and make the kind of friends who I am still close to (even if I don’t see them as often as I’d like) twenty five years later.
Not to mention that soundtrack! Publisher Quirk Books have created a Spotify playlist of the songs mentioned in the book – I’ve had it on repeat during my commute for a good few weeks!
When the inevitable does happen at about the halfway point in the book, the tone changes suddenly. Hendrix really pulls no punches with the creepy atmosphere. In fact when I was writing The Grey Path I was struggling to finish it off. Something was missing and the whole passage with Abby getting lost in the woods looking for Gretchen really gave me the inspiration to round the tale off (with an 80s flashback no less). It also kept me awake for a bit longer than I’d like to admit that night!
The second half of the book is very much about the destruction of the friendship as the demonic entity which may or may not have manifested in the woods that night begins to take over and ruin the lives of all those around it. Due to the building of character in the first half, it made this all the more heartbreaking.
The so called Satanic Panic of the late 80s was never really as prevalent in the UK as America (or I was never really that aware of it) but nonetheless Hendrix’s explication of the phenomenon provides a window to the insecurities parents of the time held over issues such as economic decline, drugs, premarital sex, AIDs, nuclear proliferation and many other social ills which probably led to the moral panic. As we are reading from a child’s perspective the adults seem unreasonable but maybe approaching the same story from their point of view would provide a different experience as these were all things adults worried about in the 80s (and indeed still do).
Overall, I rather enjoyed this book. It had well rounded characters that I cared for, the scary and gory moments (and there is one in particular which will stay with me for a long time) were sparingly yet effectively used but most of all it is inspired by the pop songs and films I love from my childhood.
If you like The Lost Boys, Pretty In Pink, E.T., Stranger Things, The Exorcist, Heathers and Fright Night then you will most likely love this!