The Final Girl Support Group, Grady Hendrix (Berkley 978-0593201237, $26.00, 352pp, hc) July 2021.
With his fiction and non-fiction, Grady Hendrix has spent the last five years analysing and redefining the tropes that made horror fiction so popular during the ’70s and ’80s. His “Freaky Fridays” column, which he wrote for Tor.com back in 2017, was Hendrix’s hilarious look back at the out-of-print, garish paperbacks that I’m sure many of us consumed in our teens while waiting for the next Stephen King novel (on that note, Hendrix’s “Stephen King Reread” series, also for Tor.com, should be required reading for anyone with a modicum of interest in King’s work). While “Freaky Fridays” is no more, Hendrix’s love letter to paperback horror has found a second life in his email list, “Paperbacks from Hell” (borrowing its title from Hendrix’s 2017 history of the horror paperback boom of the ’70s and ’80s). Parallel to all this goodness, Hendrix has been redefining the familiar staples of horror – exorcisms, heavy metal rock bands, vampires – not by subverting them (though there’s a little bit of that) but by using these tropes to explore complex social and political issues. For his seventh novel, The Final Girl Support Group, Hendrix has turned his attention to video nasties and slasher films to shine a light on victimhood, trauma, and male toxicity.
Whether deliberate or not, the conceit of The Final Girl Support Group builds on Jamie Lee Curtis’s portrayal of “final girl” Laurie Strode from 2018’s Halloween. In the movie, she is depicted as a paranoid survivalist who has spent 40 years planning an inevitable confrontation against Michael Myers. Likewise, Hendrix’s protagonist, Lynette Tarkington, is a final girl who, two decades prior, survived the Santa Claus killer and has since turned her tiny apartment into a veritable fortress, her only true friend a pot-plant she calls Fine. When Lynette does leave her bunker, it’s to attend a monthly support group consisting of five other final girls and their psychiatrist Dr. Carol. While the meetings are less therapy sessions and more an excuse for the women to yell at each other, their shared experience of unspeakable violence means despite being politically and economically misaligned, they have continued to show up for 16 years. As Lynette puts it, “we’re the women who kept fighting back no matter how much it hurt, who jumped out that third-story window, who dragged ourselves up onto that roof when our bodies were screaming for us to roll over and die. Once we start something, it’s hard for us to stop.” When Adrienne, the founding member of the support group, is murdered in a killing spree, Lynette believes it’s part of a larger conspiracy to take out all the final girls. The problem is no one, including the support group, believes her.
As an ardent horror fan, I’ve watched my fair share of gore-tastic slasher and serial killer films, including most of the instalments of the hallowed franchises: Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street. And while I’m sure I didn’t pick up every Easter egg or reference scattered throughout The Final Girl Support Group, what I did recognise brought a knowing smile to my face. I laughed out loud at the revelation that Bruce Volker, the Mrs. Voorhees analogue from the Friday the 13th films, “never had a son who’d drowned at Red Lake. In fact, he didn’t have a son at all. Bruce Volker was just a lonely old man with a fixation on kids and a good swing.” I also enjoyed how the action sequences are as violent, coincidence-packed, and over-the-top as what we’ve come to expect from this genre of film (although notably, the climax brilliantly subverts this). I was also impressed with Hendrix’s world-building. I love how in Lynette’s reality, the slasher franchises exist, but they are (loosely) based on actual events; or how there’s a non-supernatural analogue for Freddy called “The Dream King,” whose acts of violence are more twisted than anything conjured up on Elm Street; or how there’s a huge market for “final girl” memorabilia, including a truly disturbing museum that honours, rather than admonishes, the killers.
For all the winks to the audience, The Final Girl Support Group makes no bones about the misogyny laced through these movies. Early in the novel, Lynette observes that “men don’t have to pay attention [to the world] the way we do. Men die because they make mistakes. Women? We die because we’re female.” This simple, shocking truth is emboldened by the fictional film reviews and academic articles inserted between each chapter that deconstruct the “Final Girl” genre, with one essay describing these franchises as an opportunity for “slavering male fans” to play out their “violent sexual fantasies.” It’s not Hendrix’s intent to ruin anyone’s adoration for the slasher genre. As I note above, he is clearly a fan. But as Hendrix has frequently displayed in his fiction and non-fiction, he can love horror in all its modes and narrative forms while being cognisant of its flaws. The Final Girl Support Group is the most recent example of this, a novel that pays homage to the slasher genre while recognising that mainstream views have changed over the last four decades, that those who did so can no longer ignore the sexual and physical violence perpetrated on women; that these movies, as much as we might adore them, can no longer be viewed as just harmless, gory fun.
This review and more like it in the July 2021 issue of Locus.
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