When I first heard about Grady Hendrix’s novel My Best Friend’s Exorcism, marketed as a cross between Heathers and The Exorcist, I just knew I had to read it. I love 80s nostalgia as much as the next person (since I am just barely a child of the 80s). I also love making fun of the 80s, what with the awful clothes and hair, the rampant and self-conscious conservatism, and the general tackiness.
And sure enough, My Best Friend’s Exorcism pays homage to this decade as much as it pokes fun at it. More than that though this novel is heartfelt and creepy, treading into the well-worn territory of fraught adolescent relationships. The result is a book whose nostalgia runs deeper than the pop culture references it deploys throughout.
Ever since Abby’s ill-fated 10th birthday party, Gretchen and Abby have been the very best of friends. They’ve seen each other through crushes, bullies, sleepovers, overbearing parents, acne, and school drama. Now, at the beginning of their junior year of high school in 1988, Abby is convinced that she and Gretchen are going to be friends forever, and everything is going to rock. But one night, as the girls are hanging out with their friends Margaret and Glee, the quartet decide to experiment with LSD. Gretchen ends up lost in the woods for the entire night, and once she emerges, Abby knows something horrible happened to her. Soon, Gretchen’s strange and erratic behavior threatens not only their friendship but the lives of the people around them.
Before I read My Best Friend’s Exorcism, I was worried that the setting and 80s pop culture references would feel unnatural and forced. With the success of Stranger Things, a lot of films and tv shows have made cynical grabs at replicating that kind of nostalgia. Often it reads hollow, a cheap attempt at relevance.
But instead of tacking on its nostalgia, My Best Friend’s Exorcism makes its 80s setting and references integral to the plot and character development. Instead of a checklist of throwbacks, these details provide robust worldbuilding that provides a very good idea of it was like for teenage girls in the 80s. From working at TCBY to watching Geraldine Ferraro on TV to crimping hair, these details lend the narrative weight and texture.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism is particularly adept in its treatment of the Satanic Panic, a real-life mild hysteria that flowed throughout the decade on a nationwide scale. The fear of millions of black-mass-holding, baby-eating devil worshippers plagued righteously conservative Americans. In doing so, they betrayed a telling anxiety about their organized, orderly, sanitized existences. This is a significant theme in the novel, and while it gets a little heavy-handed at times, one has to remember that the 80s were heavy-handed all the time, so it’s probably fair.
It’s against this keenly rendered backdrop that Abby and Gretchen’s relationship unfolds. It is the novel’s strength, the narrative’s anchor. Having once been a teenage girl, I loved the portrayal of their friendship. It seemed very real. The fun times, the sad times, the awkward times, the God-I-hate-my-parents times—I could clearly imagine these two characters who built a friendship based on convenience but also genuine affection.
Their relationship also felt very real because of how Gretchen uses Abby’s weaknesses against her later on in the story. Again, having been a teenage girl, those moments were painful to read, yet compelling. I cringed. I remembered former frenemies. I felt transported back to a time when friendship break-ups could be the worst thing ever.
Additionally, My Best Friend’s Exorcism used detail to up and enhance the creepiness. The book is very visual and sensual, rendering the smell of decaying food or the spread of acne across a face with remarkable accuracy. (The novel also includes several pictures of Just Say No fliers and pamphlets about teen Satanists, which is awesome.) Not to give too much away, but while the book isn’t the scariest I’ve read, Hendrix’s unflinching portrayal of the gross and nasty events delivers pervasive unease. One scene, in particular, involving a sick girl and dog did make me nauseous.
However, as much as I enjoyed the details and the pop culture references and the girls’ relationship, the writing felt too rushed. My Best Friend’s Exorcism is a fast, breezy read, which has its drawbacks. Mainly, between the quick pace and loads of evocative details, certain elements don’t get a chance to breathe, and as a result, those elements feel a touch forced. The characters don’t have much time to ponder the story’s events or their feelings about what’s happening, which would have added further emotional depth.
Additionally, the pace undermines Hendrix’s exploration of 80s nostalgia. For example, the reactions to Abby’s claim that Gretchen was raped could have been one of the more compelling parts of the book. It’s all too familiar that her own conservative, image-obsessed parents would reject such news not out of concern for their daughter but because it’s a thought too unpleasant to bear. But because the novel zips through it, the moment feels shallow and fails to examine their cognitive dissonance fully.
This fast pace also sacrifices some of the emotional gravity of the climax. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the way Abby resolves the titular exorcism is meant to be a moving culmination of her friendship with Gretchen. I LOVED the meaning behind Abby’s improvised approach to the exorcism. But the same shallowness undermines what should have been a bittersweet and powerful moment. There needed to be a more systematic and careful approach to the magic of the pop culture references that characterize Abby and Gretchen’s relationship, especially since these references were shown to have more power than conventional Christian symbols. That scene was the culmination of the various thematic threads, and I wish it had done more work to create a genuinely resonate moment.
At any rate, I enjoyed My Best Friend’s Exorcism, and I recommend it. It’s good for genre fans, especially those who love possession stories, just as it’s good for readers who don’t typically read horror. That’s because My Best Friend’s Exorcism is a story about a friendship tested by growing up and growing apart, and everyone can relate to that.