The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix (Berkeley, 2021)
Grady Hendrix’s latest novel wasn’t what I expected–it was even better.
Based on the subject matter, I figured the book would go heavy on the meta, with lots of character mentions of popular horror films. The slasher references, though, are woven unobtrusively into the narrative. The real-life final girls within the world of the novel have had film franchises made of their ordeals, and these series prove to be thinly-veiled versions of genre classics such as Friday the 13th, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream. There are ample parallels for readers to notice, but the postmodern playfulness never gets in the way of the story Hendrix is telling.
Secondly, given the author’s track record for publishing humor-laced horror, I cracked the covers of The Final Girl Support Group anticipating a continuous display of irreverent wit. Not that there aren’t fine comedic moments here, but Hendrix handles the figure of the final girl with admirable seriousness. His protagonist, narrator Lynette Tarkington, is still struggling with her near-death experience decades later. She’s paranoid and agoraphobic, has disconnected from others (she lives alone, save for a pepper-plant companion called Fine–short for Final Plant). Lynette is painfully aware of the trauma and trials that remain long after the physical wounds scar over:
I know what happens to those [final] girls. After the movie deals get signed, after the film franchise fails, after you realize that while everyone else was filling out college applications you were locked in a residential treatment program pretending you weren’t scared of the dark. After the talk show circuit, after your third therapist just accepts that he’s your Zoloft-dispensing machine and you won’t be making any breakthroughs on his watch, after you realize that the only interesting thing that’ll ever happen to you happened when you were sixteen, after you stop going outside, after you start browsing locksmiths the way other women browse the windows of Tiffany’s, after you’ve left town because you couldn’t deal with the “Why not you?” looks from the parents of all your dead friends, after you’ve lost everything, been through the fire, started knowing your stalkers by their first names, after all that happens you wind up where I’m going today: in a church basement in Burbank, seated with your back to the wall, trying to hold the pieces of your life together.
The book has an ingenious hook: the women who famously withstood slasher massacres are secretly meeting in a monthly support group organized by a therapist specializing in final girls. The sextet of respective survivors understand that they are an endangered species these days (the novel is set in 2010), a realization that grows more stark when a mysterious killer starts to prey on the group members. Hendrix’s plot sweeps the reader along, presenting numerous twists and terrifying set-pieces. Lynette goes through quite a character arc, faltering many times but ultimately rising above her fears and insecurities to obtain true final girl status. By delving into Lynette’s viewpoint, Hendrix supplies the critical element most often lacking in slasher films: complex characterization.
The structure of Hendrix’s book is also noteworthy. The chapters are all cleverly titled, echoing the syntax of horror-film identifiers (e.g., The Final Girl Support Group 3-D, The Final Girl Support Group’s New Nightmare, Final Girl Vs. Final Girl, Bride of the Final Girls). Bracketing each chapter are various faux documents (therapist notes, incident reports, interview transcripts, diary entries, newspaper clippings and magazine articles) that both supplement the main narrative and explore the cultural significance of the final girl. Unfortunately, an early interpellated piece insufficiently disguises a character’s identity, spoiling some of the mystery (count yourself lucky if you happen to gloss over the clue).
But that’s the only negative note I have on this wonderful, compellingly readable book. A feminism-conscious tribute to horror’s last girls standing, The Final Girl Support Group is an instant classic destined to stand as Hendrix’s greatest literary achievement.