Every now and then a book will come along that will make you stop and say, “Now that’s a great idea.”
That was my immediate reaction to a brief synopsis I read for “The Final Girl Support Group” (Berkley, $26), the latest novel by charming horror author Grady Hendrix. From these few sentences that exposed the concept to me, I knew that this would be a book that I not only liked, not only lovebut made me a wee bit jealous that I didn’t come up with the idea myself.
It’s a clever, self-aware narrative, which does one of the cleanest jobs you’ll see combining subversion and affinity for tropes of a genre. It embraces some of the lowest impulses in the horror world and subverts them by endowing them with verisimilitude. It looks beyond the stories we’ve always seen, and in doing so uncovers a much deeper – and in some ways more chilling – story to tell.
Namely: when the credits of a horror film roll, what happens to the one who lives?
Lynnette Tarkington is a recluse, paranoid and ever-vigilant since she was the sole survivor of a horrific massacre. Once a month, she drives to a secret location – a church basement – and attends the same meeting she always attends. For years, Lynnette and five other women – other lone survivors of different but equally bloody and deadly incidents – meet with a therapist to overcome the kind of unique emotional trauma that only the women in the room truly understand.
You see, this is a world in which the slasher movies that terrorize and titillate audiences are based on true events. These women have each survived their experience, whether it’s a vengeful, machete-wielding lunatic at summer camp or a family of inbred cannibals in the Texas desert or a sociopathic teenager with a erection for metanarratives or even a possibly supernatural monster that may or may not be able to invade dreams. They’ve all been through it…and they have to live with it.
And in this world, these last girls are celebrities of sorts. They are objects of fascination for the public, and although most people are content to watch the interviews, read the books and yes, see the films, there are always a few who take their fascination into a much darker place.
When one of the women fails to show up to the group, Lynnette is convinced that something bad is afoot – something that puts them all in danger. They keep the group a secret for a reason, and if a stranger finds out, no one is safe. Lynnette thinks the monsters keep coming; even if you stop one, there will always be another to replace it. Maybe now one of those monsters is looking to finish the jobs that its predecessors failed to complete.
Like I said – great fucking idea.
“The Final Girl Support Group” wears its affinity for the slasher film on its bloodstained sleeve. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the genre will grab the analogs created by Hendrix – nods to “Friday the 13th” and “Halloween” and “Scream” and “Nightmare on Elm Street,” yes, but also offers more obscure ones that made me laugh even as the implications of their reality-based storylines made me wince (in a good way).
It’s a simple twist on the nearly ubiquitous concept of the “last girl,” this idea that survival means that these people have to wake up the next day and every day and face the shattering dark reality of what happened to them. He explores the trauma of this notion with admirable delicacy, even as the narrative grows wilder and wilder. Their suffering is never treated disrespectfully or as a joke; Hendrix’s commitment to this gives the book a heartbeat it otherwise wouldn’t have had.
There is a foundation here that really elevates the procedure. Hendrix strives to offer details that illustrate how our culture might handle (and ultimately adapt to) living in a space where this sort of thing actually happens. Once the basic premise – that the big bad guys in slasher movies are real – is accepted, the rest seems extremely plausible. A culture of celebrity admiration? Sure. A dark undercurrent of this culture populated by disturbing weirdos? Uh-huh. Academic research? Cinema franchise? Yes and yes. Thanks to the conscience of the author, you buy everything.
There are also aspects of the book that dig into the sociosexual nature of society’s relationship to this type of story. What drives these men – they are still men – to commit these heinous acts? And what drives so many people to consume these stories when told? The final girls are survivors, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t also victims – where is the line when it comes to the possible exploitation of their trauma? Ultimately, this trauma is theirs and theirs alone, however it might be shared.
Hendrix isn’t afraid to get bloody either – an obvious must for telling a story like this – and he really leans into the fundamentals to great effect. And he juxtaposes that violence with moments of emotional engagement and dark humor, giving us a book that always keeps us a little off balance, like we’re wandering down a dark hallway or a forest path and not quite sure we we are alone.
All of this, plus it’s a damn good story, a propelling narrative carefully advanced and featuring genuine and well-deserved surprises.
“The Final Girl Support Group” is a great concept well executed. Grady Hendrix proves himself to be a master craftsman here, bringing together encyclopedic knowledge and genuine affection for his blood-splattered inspiration to create something surprisingly thought-provoking, deftly funny, and undeniably weird. Read this book.