Welcome to another installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be sharing various pieces of underappreciated scary books, comics, movies, and television to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.
If you’re a fan of Grady Hendrix, then you already know he’s a master of balancing humor, horror, and heart in a way that really shouldn’t be possible. He also has a knack for creating remarkable characters that are completely (and sometimes uncomfortably) relatable.
Hendrix’s latest novel, The Final Girl Support Group, features the author at the top of his game along with some wonderful pop culture/horror media commentary.
From Merriam-Webster: The “final girl” is a trope in horror movies, referring to the female protagonist who remains alive at the end of the film, after the other characters have been killed, when she is usually placed in a position to confront the killer.
The Final Girl Support Group revolves around Lynnette Tarkington, a real life final girl who’s still haunted by the brutal encounter she barely survived as a teenager. Decades later, she and group of women who experienced similar traumas meet every week in an attempt to put their lives back together.
When one of them goes missing, however, they realize that someone is trying to finish the work that their original tormentors started.
When I was younger, my mom didn’t allow me to watch horror movies. The closest I got was feverishly reading the VHS jacket covers in our local supermarket’s video rental section. I’ve done a lot of catching up since then, but there’s still plenty I haven’t seen yet.
The reason I point that out is because the more well-versed you are in horror media, the better Final Girl Support Group reads. That being said, the characters and surrounding narrative are so fantastically constructed that there’s still a highly enjoyable story to be had even by those with only a passing familiarity of the genre. I know there are references I missed, but I still loved every part of this book — starting with the characters.
Each woman in the group is a fairly obvious homage to a final girl icon. In this story, though, we get a raw and powerful look at how they’ve lived since their survival. There’s the predictable descents into depression, substance abuse, and agoraphobia, which are explored with Hendrix’s unique talent to make you want to laugh and cry at the same. But we also see examples of women owning their trauma in various fashions: Converting it into careers/fame, resolving to live a normal life, or going in a completely different (and horrifying) direction.
As far as the need for horror familiarity is concerned, it’s best shown in one of my favorite scenes from the novel. As Lynette describes the terror one of her fellow group members experienced, it quickly becomes clear she’s describing a composite of scenes from a well known horror film/franchise. In this retelling, however, the people slaughtered aren’t just slasher fodder. The character is wracked with guilt over how they died to keep her safe. It’s a passage that could absolutely stand on its own, but works even better if you previously watched the same events play out from your own detached perspective.
As far as the narrative is concerned, Hendrix takes many of the genre’s most well worn tropes and remixes them into a story that’s fresh, exciting, and (most importantly) scary. There are also some genuinely powerful moments in between the thrills that make it impossible not to become deeply invested in the characters — not just their fates, but their well-being.
In between many of the chapters, we’re given a glimpse into the novel’s world via interviews, news articles, movie reviews, and many other forms of fictional media that still manage to feel real. These sections are often played for laughs (especially for horror fans), but some are nearly as powerful as Hendrix’s narrative passages.
All of these factors lead the reader on a journey that keeps you guessing about both the plot and the characters driving it until the novel’s explosive and wholly satisfying conclusion.
What Doesn’t Work
Remember when I said that even folks with only a fleeting knowledge of horror media will enjoy The Final Girl Support Group? Well, if you don’t have that, then it’s still a good story, but there are some sections that might not make sense.
For example: One of my absolute favorite scenes involves a character who mirrors Nancy Thompson, the final(ish) girl from the Freddy Krueger franchise. Although I still haven’t seen any of those movies, there was a scary kid in my fourth grade class who would give us detailed plot breakdowns of each film. Combined with my VHS jacket reading and Wikipedia curiosity as an adult, I knew enough to not only realize how great the scene in The Final Girl Support Group was, but why it totally made sense.
If you don’t know anything about the franchise, however, then you’ll be completely lost.
There are a few other scenes like this in the book, although it’s nowhere near enough to ruin things. In fact, the story is so good/well-written that I’d have no problem recommending it to someone isn’t a horror fan. They just won’t get as much out of the narrative as was put into it.
The first book I read by Grady Hendrix was My Best Friend’s Exorcism. Despite thoroughly enjoying his work since then, it has continued to remain not only my favorite book he’s written, but one of my favorite novels of all time.
I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not I liked this one better and still can’t make a decision. I may never be able to choose, but I definitely know what I’ll be recommending to everyone looking for a spooky fall read. The Final Girl Support Group takes the B-movie horror material we love and gives it an A-list narrative and character work, all without ever thumbing its nose at the genre.
I still have no idea how HBO is going to adapt this one into a series (especially with all the various franchises that are referenced), but if they can do half the job Hendrix did crafting the novel, then it’s going to be phenomenal. In the meantime, make sure you can be one of those insufferable “I read the book first” people and add this truly superb tale to your Halloween reading list.
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