Author: Grady Hendrix
Publisher: Quirk Books
Published: 17 May 2016
Abby and Gretchen have been best friends since fifth grade, when they bonded over a shared love of E.T., roller-skating parties, and scratch-and-sniff stickers. But when they arrive at high school, things change. Gretchen begins to act different. And as the strange coincidences and bizarre behaviour start to pile up, Abby realizes there’s only one possible explanation: Gretchen, her favourite person in the world, has a demon living inside her. And Abby is not about to let anyone or anything come between her and her best friend. With help from some unlikely allies, Abby embarks on a quest to save Gretchen. But is their friendship powerful enough to beat the devil?
After experimenting with acid for the first time, Abby’s best friend Gretchen disappears into the woods. She is missing for one night and when she returns she has changed; initially she appears depressed, losing interest in school and her appearance, but she confides in Abby that she feels tormented by invisible hands. Their other friends are quick to dump Gretchen before her social fall drags them down with her, until Gretchen again transforms overnight into an even more attractive, bright and athletic but very different version of the girl she was before.
The social hierarchy peculiar to high schools is explored through its complicated, conformity-based popularity politics – anyone who stands out too much risks their social status, and there is no harsher jury than one made up of teenagers. Gretchen’s abrupt turnaround leaves Abby, the only one who stuck by her, as the odd one out; ostracised by her former friends and bullied by her former best friend, her new place as a social outsider leaves her in a prime position to see the terrible chain of events as they unfold, while being powerless to prevent them. Gretchen’s behaviour swiftly escalates from the merely nasty to full on horror which threatens to damage or end the lives of those around her, while Gretchen herself delights in rubbing Abby’s face in her inability to stop her.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism also deftly uses Gretchen’s behaviour to explore classism. Abby is a scholarship girl from the wrong side of town, so when she does buck teen tradition to try to talk to authority figures, she’s written off as a delinquent drug addict and bad influence. In the meantime, her friends’ parents use a combination of affluence and influence to sweep incidents under the town’s plush middle class carpet and inadvertently enable Gretchen to continue her reign of chaos and tragedy.
However, perhaps what My Best Friend’s Exorcism does best is a slightly nostalgic but nonetheless clear eyed look at the kind of incredibly close friendships that teenage girls can form. Usually such tight bonds between teenage girls in fiction result in toxic relationships, so it’s refreshing that My Best Friend’s Exorcism is really about how much Abby is willing to sacrifice for the love of her best friend; it’s great to have a story which centres on the relationship between two such strong and complex girls and which acknowledges that platonic friendships can be the most powerful and enduring relationships we form in life.
The 80s setting works particularly well here; having come to the conclusion that Gretchen is possessed, and without the support of her other friends or parents, Abby knows she is entirely on her own. She can’t Google for symptoms or cures, and she can’t search for online experts who might be able to advise her. Abby therefore tries to take matters into her own hands, with devastating consequences. While cleverly paying homage to classic The Exorcist, My Best Friend’s Exorcism neatly side-steps the tropes you might expect and subverts them in a way which not only avoids being derivative but results in a very modern story for an audience which is likely to be more spiritual than religious, and is ultimately and unexpectedly very touching.
Don’t be fooled by the slightly schlocky title or the YA label; My Best Friend’s Exorcism contains some chilling supernatural and visceral body horror while at the same time being an intelligent look at how far is too far to go for someone you love. Compelling and eerie with an 80s vibe so strong you can practically smell the hairspray, My Best Friend’s Exorcism is a story about how important it is to have faith in yourself and what it really means to be best friends forever.
GS rating: 4/5
GS Blogger: Michaela Gray (@bookiesnacksize)