Anyone who’s been around here for any length of time knows that I’m a big fan of Grady Hendrix; I’ve read and reviewed a handful of his books, including The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, and Horrorstör, and even though I didn’t review it for this series because it’s nonfiction, I also read and highly recommend his outstanding and visually beautiful 2017 opus, Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction. Overall, I’ve found Grady Hendrix’s work to be the most consistently fun and entertaining of all the modern horror authors I’ve read, and I will not hesitate to pick up and read whatever the dude puts out, because I know I’m gonna be in for a bloody good time.
His 2021 novel, The Final Girl Support Group, is no exception to this rule, and though I went into it expecting more of a slasher-type narrative, the story actually surprised me with how intricately constructed it is. Like most of his other work, it’s fairly high-concept and features some cool mixed media elements (in this case, intermittent insertions of supposedly real excerpts from research papers, police interviews, magazine articles, and so forth), but the real meat of the story is in the evolving mindset of the main character, who grows more complex as the story goes on.
I read that the book has been optioned for a TV series, which I’m cautiously excited about; I did see the film adaptation of Hendrix’s 2016 novel My Best Friend’s Exorcism, and while I didn’t love it because I thought it was trying too hard to go the PG13 route and thus pulled its punches somewhat, it was a pretty solid little movie that partially captured the spirit of the novel. As an aside, I also love this little bit of trivia that I discovered: the audiobook of The Final Girl Support Group was narrated by none other than Adrienne King, the “final girl” from the first Friday the 13th movie, a whole meta synergy that just warmed the cockles of my horror nerd heart.
Anyway, the whole conceit of Final Girl is that all those iconic slashers that we know and love—The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; Silent Night, Deadly Night; A Nightmare on Elm Street; Scream; My Bloody Valentine; and the aforementioned Friday the 13th—were essentially based on true stories, though their titles aren’t mentioned outright in the novel’s universe and it’s not clear if those specific movies exist, because all the titles have been changed, even though it’s obvious what movie is being referred to. The events of 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night, for example, are repurposed as the backstory of the main character, and the movie made about her in the novel was actually called Slay Bells. It’s also mentioned that the one final girl whose backstory is based on the events of Scream had a series of movies made about her case that was called Stab, which of course calls back to the movie within the movie in Scream, in which the characters in Scream had a movie based upon what happened to them in the universe of that movie. Also, the characters in the novel are all named after the actors who portrayed the final girls in the movies their backstories refer to. So it’s meta piled upon meta, and there are a TON of other, more obscure slashers referenced in the text; it’s a lot of fun for horror fans to pick out all the Easter eggs.
The book isn’t simply an exercise in geekery, however, even though all that stuff is like a delicious garnish on top of the bloody roast of the story. The entire tale is told from the first-person perspective of Lynnette Tarkington, who survived the massacre of her entire family in 1984 in events that, as mentioned, mirrored Silent Night, Deadly Night. There’s also a recurring theme, by the way, that most of these final girls had their respective attackers (or other people associated with their attackers) return later to try to finish the job, leading to their real-life stories having “sequels,” just like a slasher movie would.
For a while, following the slasher heyday, all of these women (as well as their attackers) were celebrities, but time has moved on, and no one cares all that much about them anymore since the crimes were so long ago. Each of the final girls—Lynnette, Adrienne, Heather, Marilyn, Dani, and Julia—has been coping with the lingering trauma in their own way, and they all still meet faithfully for their support group meetings, overseen by sympathetic psychiatrist Dr. Carol Elliot, though each of the women seems to cling to the group for their own reasons.
For her part, Lynnette has chosen to deal with her past by shutting everyone out of her life (other than a pepper plant she treats like a person, nicknamed Fine for Final Plant) and becoming completely and obsessively aware of her surroundings at all times in order to keep herself safe. She lives in an apartment with a reinforced cage just inside the door, for instance, and has elaborate, varying routes she takes whenever she has to go out to prevent herself from being followed. She has no social media, and has backup plans upon backup plans, involving cars filled with cash and guns stashed in obscure parking garages. It’s not an entirely healthy way to live, but it seems to be the only way she knows how.
The other women each have their own thing going on; Heather turned to drugs, Marilyn married a wealthy guy and lives the life of a high society matron behind reinforced walls and phalanxes of security guards, Dani moved to an isolated ranch to spend time with her dying wife, and so on. There’s also a final girl no one speaks of named Chrissy, who they all see as a turncoat for reasons that become clear as you go through the story. The women’s personalities are all vastly different, and whenever they meet for the support group—which they’ve been doing for sixteen years at this point—the whole session usually devolves into petty squabbling, with some of the women questioning why they even still need to do this, since none of them get along all that well and they figure that if the group was helping them at all, it would have done so by now.
But at one particular group, Adrienne is a no-show, and nobody can get hold of her to see what’s going on. Some of the women aren’t concerned, but Lynnette’s heightened paranoia suggests that something terrible might have happened, and indeed, she turns out to be right. As the story goes on, it starts to become clear (initially only to Lynnette) that someone (or someones) is targeting the final girls for elimination, for motives that are not entirely obvious. And whoever this person is, they seem to know everything about each of the final girls, even information that the women thought was inaccessible. So the bulk of the narrative, told from Lynnette’s POV, is the unfolding of a very intricate conspiracy designed to wipe out the final girls, and Lynnette’s desperate efforts to convince her fellow survivors that they are all in danger, even though they seem to think the only danger comes from Lynnette.
This is a wildly entertaining ride that pretty much hits the gas from the first page and never lets up, building up to a violent and fast-paced climax. I had a blast reading it, and got invested in the story straight away, especially the character of Lynnette, who is damaged but intriguing, and makes mistakes that a lot of real people in her situation would make. If I had any criticisms, I would note that many of the other characters are sort of shallowly sketched (not surprising, given how many of them there are) and some of the third-act twists came and went a little too quickly for me to get a good handle on them, but other than that, I found this book just as fun as all of his other ones. Even though slashers aren’t really my favorite horror subgenre, this one basically just took the concept of a slasher and deepened it, focusing more on what would happen in the aftermath, and what effect the trauma would have on the survivors of these famous and horrific crimes. But it’s also a sort-of slasher in its own right, as the final girls are hunted down one by one, so it’s a smart, nominal satire that also serves as a gripping example of the thing it’s satirizing, if that makes any sense.
If you like Grady Hendrix, I can’t see why you wouldn’t love this book as well, though I will say I think My Best Friend’s Exorcism is still my favorite of his that I’ve read so far. But The Final Girl Support Group is a page-turner for sure, and has lots of gore if you’re into that, plus it also features an interesting examination of the culture’s relationship with slasher movies in particular and violence against women in general, subtly alluding to our propensity to find entertainment value in gruesome murder. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the book had a “message” per se, but there are some fascinating philosophical concepts in there if you want to dive into them. I’m actually curious to see how this translates to a series, because I think the concept is really tailor-made for it. But the book is pretty great in its own right.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.