Throughout his supernatural thrillers, Grady Hendrix has demonstrated a remarkable facility for suspense. He writes page-turning action sequences that increase the momentum of his high-concept narratives. Whether it’s the nervy teenage face-offs of My Best Friend’s Exorcism or a race-against-time struggle with the undead in The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires, he excels at crafting passages where readers can lose themselves in the frenetic fun of just seeing what happens next. With his latest work, The Final Girl Support Group, he’s turned that talent into a nearly book-length workout, an exercise in go-go acceleration that steps on the gas soon after it begins and doesn’t stop until the final pages. It’s not the deepest, but it’s certainly his most exhilarating work yet.
The Final Girl Support Group draws its title from Carol J. Clover’s term, found in her book Men, Women, And Chainsaws, for the last one standing in many a horror movie—the “final girl” who survives to the end and defeats the killer, and usually serves as the audience stand-in. Hendrix, who clearly knows his way around the concept (to be expected from someone who’s written a history of ’70s and ’80s horror), peppers his new novel with excerpts from made-up research papers and fictionalized police transcripts involving final girls; in his story, these women not only exist in the real world but are also celebrities of a sort. The kinds of murder sprees that populate movies like Friday The 13th and Halloween actually happened in this version of America, and along the same timetable as their cinematic counterparts (think 1970s through the ’90s) before fading from the zeitgeist in the 21st century. The women who survived became household names for a time, their traumatic experiences fodder for tabloids pop culture.
From this universe comes protagonist Lynette Tarkington, whose experience with a deadly killer more than 20 years prior has left her paranoid and alone, her daily life a series of moves calculated to keep herself isolated and safe from any would-be threats. Her first-person account leads us to the titular therapy session: a monthly meeting of women who became final girls in the public eye, and who have coped with their psychological damage in very different ways. After dispensing with the basics (we get the briefest of sketches of the five other women, whose personalities only start to be filled out later in the book), it’s not long before Hendrix pulls the trigger on his plot: When one of the women misses a meeting, Lynette realizes someone is staging a well-coordinated attack on all of the survivors, trying to finish what their boogeymen failed to achieve the first time around. Hitting the road, Lynnette frantically tries to keep her sort-of friends safe, all the while struggling to expose the killer before it’s too late.
The wicked pleasure of Hendrix’s book comes from just how effectively he sets up the life-or-death stakes of Lynnette’s situation—and how clearly outmatched her and the other women seem to be. This means the tension and go-for-broke pacing never really let up, because even when Lynnette stops to get a much-needed night’s sleep or enters the heavily guarded home of a fellow survivor, the threat of an attack never fades. This is driven home in an early sequence when a hail of gunfire rips through the fortress that is Lynnette’s apartment, shattering her illusion of safety and upending the convention that killers require proximity in order to enact their death and destruction. Hendrix nicely conveys Lynnette’s panicky desperation and sense that she can’t trust anything or anyone she thought she knew, and he sustains urgency through a series of increasingly fraught sequences, en route to a showdown that both pays homage to the slashers that inspired this novel and offers a smart meta-twist.
That’s not to say everything about the novel works. Hendrix struggles in the early going to set the stage, with some clunky throat-clearing and telling, instead of showing, the themes of why we as a culture are fascinated by violence, and particularly violence against women. His attempts at tough talk can be dreadful; in his eyes, it seems, anytime women want to be rude and crude, they devolve into the puerile spewings of a middle-school locker room. (“I’ve dealt with some higher-level astral bullshit that would make you drop a log in your satin panties,” goes one unfortunate effort.) The oddest choice is basing all of the final girls’ experiences on well-known movies: One woman’s traumatic encounter is just a retelling of Halloween; another’s is a barely altered version of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Given that The Final Girl Support Group acknowledges the existence of all sorts of real-life pop culture, it’s jarring to encounter the thinly veiled plots of Scream and Scream 2 (among others) repurposed for his characters’ backstories, especially when movies like Alien not only still exist in the world of the book, but are referenced by name throughout.
Still, once the action gets going, these missteps fall by the wayside and the fast-paced excitement takes center stage. Hendrix sets aside his usual supernatural trappings; everything that takes place is firmly in the realm of the all-too-human, monstrous homicidal tendencies and all. The Final Girl Support Group isn’t necessarily scary—its thrills are of the action-packed, not nail-biting, variety—but it delivers its share of gore. People are eviscerated and dispatched in all manner of grimdark ways, especially in some of the more heinous histories of these tragic figures, so anyone looking for a little bloodletting will be rewarded. But far more rewarding is the artfully arranged nature of the story. This is a fine reworking of a genre exercise: pulpy without feeling trashy, conventional without feeling unintelligent, and always geared toward delivering maximum enjoyment. It’s about time we had another good slasher beach read.
Author photo: Albert Mitchell