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Slash(er) fiction – ‘The Final Girl Support Group’

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Every once in a while, a book will come along that makes you stop and say to yourself: “Now THAT is a GREAT f—ing idea.”

That was my immediate reaction to a brief synopsis I read for “The Final Girl Support Group” (Berkley, $26), the latest novel by the delightful genre-bending horror author Grady Hendrix. From those few sentences that laid out the concept for me, I knew that this was going to be a book that I not only liked, not only loved, but made me the tiniest bit jealous that I hadn’t come up with the idea myself.

It is a smart, self-aware narrative, one that does one of the cleanest jobs you’ll ever see in combining subversion of and affinity for the tropes of a genre. It embraces some of the basest impulses of the horror world and turns them on their head by endowing them with verisimilitude. It looks beyond the stories we’ve always seen, and by doing so uncovers a much deeper – and in some ways scarier – tale to be told.

To wit: When the credits roll in a horror movie, what happens to the one who lives?

Lynnette Tarkington is a recluse, paranoid and ever-vigilant ever since she was the lone survivor of a horrifying massacre. Once a month, she drives to a secret location – a church basement – and attends the same meeting she always does. For years, Lynnette and five other women – other lone survivors of different, but equally bloody and deadly incidents – meet with a therapist to work through the kind of unique emotional trauma that only the women in the room truly understand.

See, this is a world in which the slasher movies that terrorize and titillate audiences are based on true events. These women each survived their experience, whether it was a vengeful machete-wielding madman at a summer camp or a family of inbred cannibals in the Texas desert or a sociopathic teen with a hard-on for metanarratives or even a possibly supernatural monster who may or may not be able to invade dreams. They all lived … and they have to live with that.

And in this world, these final girls are celebrities of a sort. They are objects of fascination to the public, and while most people are content to watch the interviews, read the books and yes, see the movies, there are always a few who take their fascination to a much darker place.

When one of the women fails to show up for group, Lynnette is convinced that something bad is afoot – something that places all of them in danger. They keep the group secret for a reason, and if an outsider knows about it, no one is safe. Lynnette believes that the monsters never stop coming; even if you stop one, there will always be another to take its place. Perhaps now, one of those monsters seeks to finish the jobs that his predecessors failed to complete.

Like I said – great f—ing idea.

“The Final Girl Support Group” wears its affinity for the slasher movie on its blood-stained sleeve. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the genre will grasp the analogues that Hendrix has created – nods to “Friday the 13th” and “Halloween” and “Scream” and “Nightmare on Elm Street,” yes, but also more obscure offerings that made me chuckle even as the implications of their plots being reality-based had me wincing (in a good way).

It’s such a simple twist on the nigh-ubiquitous concept of the “final girl,” this idea that survival means that these people have to wake up the next day and every day and confront the grimly shattering reality of what has happened to them. It explores the trauma of that notion with admirable delicacy, even as the narrative gets increasingly wilder. Their suffering is never treated disrespectfully or as a joke; Hendrix’s commitment to that gives the book a heartbeat that it wouldn’t otherwise have had.

There’s a groundedness here that really elevates the proceedings. Hendrix goes to great pains to offer up details that illustrate the ways in which our culture might deal with (and ultimately adapt to) living in a space where these sorts of things actually happen. Once the baseline premise – that slasher movie big-bads are real – is accepted, the rest feels extremely plausible. A culture of celebrity admiration? Sure. A dark undercurrent of that culture populated by unsettling weirdoes? Uh-huh. Academic research? Movie franchises? Yes and yes. Thanks to the conscientiousness of the author, you buy it all.

There are also aspects of the book that dig into the sociosexual nature of society’s relationship to this type of story. What is it that drives these men – they’re always men – to commit these heinous acts? And what is it that compels so many to consume these stories when they’re told? Final girls are survivors, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t also victims – where’s the line when it comes to the possible exploitation of their trauma? Ultimately, that trauma belongs to them and them alone, regardless of how it might be shared.

Hendrix also isn’t afraid to get gory – an obvious must when 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 just the slightest bit off-balance, as if we’re wandering a dark hallway or forest path and not entirely sure that we’re alone.

All that, plus it’s one hell of a good story, a propulsive narrative thoughtfully advanced and featuring some genuine and well-earned surprises.

“The Final Girl Support Group” is a great concept well executed. Grady Hendrix shows himself to be a master craftsman here, bringing together an encyclopedic knowledge of and genuine affection for his blood-spattered inspiration to create something surprisingly thought-provoking, deftly funny and undeniably weird. Read this book.

Last modified on Tuesday, 20 July 2021 07:22

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