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“MY BEST FRIEND’S EXORCISM” (Book Review)

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Though we are steeped deep in gloriously gonzo unorthodoxy for more than 100 pages before the musclebound 20something self-described practitioner of “puke and rebuke” de-demonization turns up in Grady Hendrix’s MY BEST FRIEND’S EXORCISM, it is nonetheless hilarious just how absurdly far from the Father Merrin tree the character falls.

In Hendrix’s evocative, subversive, fun and legitimately disquieting MEAN-GIRLS-meets-HEATHERS-meets-Pazuzu multigenre mashup (coming May 17 from Quirk Books), this character talks supernatural strategy with the novel’s flawed teenage heroine at a mall Hot Dog on a Stick:

“The exorcist was huge…and the plastic table stretched across his lap like a napkin. He wore a gray sweatshirt that he’d cut the sleeves off himself, and his pants sported a busy neon-green and pink pattern and an elastic waistband. A hot-pink fanny pack was strapped around his waist and a pair of Aloha Surfer sunglasses hung from a strap around his neck.”

“Corn dogs,” he tells young Abby Rivers, “are all the proof I need that there is a God.”

MYBESTFRIENDSEXORCISMREVAn interesting, if perhaps not all that reassuring, approach to apologetics. On the other side of the scale, however, Abby doesn’t need any battered and fried packages of pulverized offal and gristle to prove the existence of God’s dark counterpart. She’s been living through the devil’s malevolent manifestations ever since she joined her girl posse for an LSD-enhanced too-far-off-the-grid skinnydipping session, and one of them—Gretchen, her best friend since fourth grade—emerged from the water with a nasty, invisible demon mollusked onto her soul.

Alas, it turns out that while a malicious manifestation encased in the corporeal housing of a pretty young woman stands out amongst a private-school student body possessing AMERICAN PSYCHO levels of brand loyalty, it isn’t in the way you might suspect. Soon Gretchen is Queen Bee of this circa-1980s school hive, and Abby is on the outs for trying to save the suffocating spirit of her displaced friend from outer darkness. This proves to be a very rocky, winding road indeed, and the ensuing tale is just as much about the temptation of power and upper-class security amidst the stark vulnerability and budding responsibility that is adolescence. The path to perdition, Hendrix seems to suggest, is paved with the need to belong.

MY BEST FRIEND’S EXORCISM is an interesting follow-up/companion volume to Hendrix’s 2014 dark-lit breakthrough HORRORSTÖR. That book pondered what manner of viscera-festooned nuttiness might transpire if the terrors of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL and POLTERGEIST were reimagined through a gonzo JOHN DIES AT THE END-esque prism and transported to a very Ikea-like monolith to wreak havoc on a (mostly) unsuspecting gaggle of bickering graveyard-shifters. Here, the ennui and dashed life expectations of retail workhorses a few years removed from high school transmogrify into a legitimate existential crisis when a portal to hell opens up beneath their feet. Hendrix’s latest, meanwhile, invites us to empathize with a group of kids stressed and, paradoxically, limited by the expectations of privilege who might never get the chance to transcend the parental and educational desires projected upon them…when a portal to hell opens up beneath their feet.

Hendrix’s horror, in other words, hangs its shingle in bizarro alternate realities within the same weird, beguiling neighborhood as classic works by Joe R. Lansdale and John Skipp. But the pitch-black implications in his narratives of tailor-made, inescapable damnations uniting humanity in more beatific ways cannot help but call early Clive Barker to mind. That’s an intricate, wonderful mix—which leads to one more note of caution/encouragement. Hendrix revels in making insane, improbable, sometimes ludicrous premises and sequences believable, yet neither HORRORSTÖR nor MY BEST FRIEND’S EXORCISM are pure carnival slapstick. The horror and gore are legit, as one might expect from an author who not only brought fantastically brutal J-horror to stateside audiences as a co-founder of the New York Asian Film Festival, but also sneaked one of the greatest quotes ever into the prim and proper pages of The New Yorker. “People in San Francisco are generally weak-willed sissies,” he replied when asked if he was worried whether New Yorkers would walk out of Hideyuki Kobayashi’s MARRONNIER the way their West Coast counterparts did. (The title of this 2004 profile? “Gross and Grosser,” of course.) When Hendrix decides to take an eviscerating swipe at your gut—especially during a few choice nightmarish scenes in MY BEST FRIEND’S EXORCISM—the author has the background and institutional knowledge to ensure it is both extreme and extremely difficult to forget.

Don’t let cool gimmicks built into the presentations—the Ikea-catalog mimicking of HORRORSTÖR, the yearbook scribbling and ads interwoven into MY BEST FRIEND’S EXORCISM—fool you. They’re trapdoors over a richly imagined, hypervisual literary abyss. And unlike the characters in Hendrix’s books, horror fans will want to take this plunge. With GOSSIP GIRL/O.C. creator Josh Schwartz currently translating HORRORSTÖR into episodic television, a confluence of events could very well bring MY BEST FRIEND’S EXORCISM to an unusually wide non-genre audience. And few writers are better equipped to find imaginative ways to serve as a gateway author between a mainstream readership and full-on, boundary-exploding horror fandom than Hendrix. His ability to fuse the fantastic into the familiar recalls the heyday of Stephen King—a revitalizing tide that genre fiction, teeming with such amazing new voices just below the surface, could surely use.

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About the author
Shawn Macomber http://www.stopshawnmacomber.com
The ravings of noted South Florida pug wrangler Shawn Macomber have appeared in Decibel, Magnet, Reason, Maxim, Radar, Shroud, and the Wall Street Journal, amongst other fine and middling publications. He also hosts the podcast Into the Depths and pens the metal-lit column Tales From the Metalnomicon for Decibel magazine.
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