Parents just don’t understand the number of the beast in Grady Hendrix’s sprightly horror novel ‘My Best Friend’s Exorcism’

December 13, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 13, 2019

Abby Rivers, the heroine of the comedic horror novel My Best Friend’s Exorcism, bonded with her new classmate Gretchen Lang in December 1982, when they were both fourth graders. The bulk of Grady Hendrix’s 2016 novel takes place during the fall of their sophomore year, in 1988. That gives the author, who seems to have grown up around the same time as his characters, an excuse to reference a whole bunch of 1980s pop culture that many readers may have forgotten, or never known in the first place.

An early chapter about Abby and Gretchen’s budding friendship reminds us, among other things, that Madonna’s early music and the miniseries The Thorn Birds were considered to be very scandalous at the time, at least in certain quarters. That’s not the only appeal to nostalgia here; in a clever touch, each chapter title is borrowed from period pop songs: “The Number of the Beast,” “King of Pain,” “Missionary Man” and so on.

This eighties homage will obviously appeal to members of a certain generation. But that needn’t limit the book’s appeal. Hendrix, a prolific author with a deep love of horror, trashy novels and Asian movies, has crafted an appealing story about teenage friendship that should resonate with people of almost any age.

Gretchen’s sophomore year goes awry shortly after it begins, when she, Abby and their friends Margaret and Glee take tabs of acid over a September weekend at Margaret’s family’s beach house outside Charleston. The drug doesn’t seem to have much effect, but Gretchen wanders off and disappears into the woods until dawn.

After she reappears, Gretchen is changed. She has trouble sleeping. She hears voices and feels hands touching her. There’s also a bout of projectile vomiting and a long period in which she can’t be troubled to bathe or change her clothes. This phase ends, but Abby finds that her friend continues to behave in strange ways — ways that cause turmoil in the ranks of the student body and faculty at prestigious Albemarle Academy.

Abby slowly comes to believe that Gretchen may have been possessed by a demon, but (understandably) she has trouble swaying anyone else to this point of view. The lone exception is a devout Christian bodybuilder who is almost comically eager to battle unholy forces, even as Abby harbors serious misgivings about his approach to the task.

‘My Best Friend’s Exorcism’ by Grady Hendrix.

Hendrix does a wonderful job of isolating his heroine from Gretchen, their two friends and even Abby’s own parents, who are decidedly less well-off than most of the families who have children enrolled at Albemarle. Abby is brave and determined, but she is also convincingly vulnerable, as in this scene where she investigates an abandoned building near the spot where Gretchen wandered off:

Abby jumped. Standing behind her was a big guy, cigarette burning in one hand, belly hanging out beneath a stained Polo shirt, wearing M. Dumas khakis frayed at the cuffs. His unbrushed blond hair stuck up, his nose was crooked, and his eyes were dull. Riley Middleton.

“I’m a friend of Margaret’s,” Abby said. She didn’t know what drugs he might be on. Then she wanted to laugh. The Langs thought she was some big time drug dealer, and here she was, scared of the real thing.

“I know,” he said. “You’re Glee.”

“Abby,” she said. “Glee’s our other friend. What wouldn’t you do?”

He took a step toward her and Abby stepped back. He had drugged girls. He had done things to them in the back of his car and no one knew she was out here. Riley stopped and took a showy drag off his cigarette.

“I wouldn’t go in there,” he said, exhaling a thick blue cloud of smoke. “If I were you.”

Abby tried to glimpse [her car] through the woods and realized that all she could see was more trees. All she could hear was the sound of frogs. She was alone with Riley. A plug opened behind her belly button and her courage drained away.

“Why not?” she asked, playing for time, trying to keep him talking, looking for an opening.

“Heavy shit went down there,” he said. “Devil worship, slave torture, murder.” He paused and smiled. “Rape.”

Abby took another step backward and stumbled over a chunk of tabby. She could hear the telephone junction box humming in the silence, she could feel it hissing through the ground. Riley smiled again.

“You’ve got a nice body,” he said. “How old are you?”

“Thanks,” she said automatically. She wanted to run, but Gretchen needed her. She packed her panic down tight. “Riley,” she said, “do you know if anyone was out here on Labor Day weekend? Like any guys partying in the woods?”

“Probably,” he said. “Why don’t you ask Margaret?”

“I should do that,” she said. Then, before he could react. “My mom’s waiting for me. Bye.”

She was moving before “bye” had even left her lips, walking as fast as she could, away from the buzzing junction box, away from Riley, around tree trunks and bushes and tangles of undergrowth. She started running when she emerged from the woods and saw the Dust Bunny. She fumbled for her keys, slid in, locked the doors, and slammed into gear, pushing the pedal to the floor…

This sinister building where Gretchen meets Riley turns out to be something of a red herring; disconcertingly, the book has a few of those.

To his credit, Hendrix attempts to deal squarely with some of the ugliness of the people of Albemarle Academy; for instance, the school’s spirit week features a “slave day.” Gretchen’s dad and Albemarle’s headmaster are also shown to be dyed-in-the-wool conservatives.

The publisher, Quirk Books of Philadelphia, adds some dashes of color to the ebook that I read. There are a few very authentic-seeming pages from the 1988–89 Albemarle yearbook, plus flyers promoting some of the events and organizations mentioned that boast period-appropriate graphic design.

But the story here stands up nicely on its own. Hendrix develops a couple of interesting twists when he gets to the titular ceremony, and the novel features a touching coda. My Best Friend’s Exorcism has a few gross and upsetting elements, but on the whole it makes for a fun spooky read.

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