This is my ultimate favorite read for the entirety of 2021. And a lot of great books debuted in 2021.
The Final Girl Support Group explores a world in which the events in our most famous slasher films really took place before being optioned for media production. The survivors of several bloody massacres – the titular “final girls”, per the movie trope of one lone girl surviving a horror story – are left to find their way in a world where everyone knows what they lived through, and though many consider them a strange kind of celebrity, others would just as soon see their killers finish them off. Some of these girls, now women, have managed to capitalize on their fame and dictate the terms of their own lives years after the slaughters they all lived through, owning their strength. Others are barely hanging on, destructive coping mechanisms and constant fear haunting their every step.
Lynnette Tarkington is in the latter group. She lives like a ghost, as off-the-grid as possible, her apartment transformed into a panic room and with only two personal attachments: her houseplant Fine – short for “Final Plant” – and a ragtag therapy group made up of other final girls and the psychiatrist who assembled them all, Dr. Carol. The members are fierce and bitter survivors as likely to devolve into low-blow verbal warfare as to help each other actually heal. They’re in no shape to band together when the heart of their group, Adrienne King, is suddenly found murdered. Like falling dominos, outside threats in the form of leaked secrets, misinformation, and physical attacks begin to target each member of the group at once, stalking and isolating them. Lynnette finds herself fighting to survive once more as she is left to untangle the web of a psychotic mastermind, with few resources and fading credibility in the eyes of the public and the other final girls. Every contingency plan she’s made may not be enough to save her from a bloody fate this time.
Grady Hendrix’s stories are unique, twisted, highly energetic works anchored by characters who have what two-dimensional horror flick protagonists typically lack: emotional depth that grips the reader and renders them unable to put down the books and abandon the characters, because the only thing scarier than what’s stalking them in the dark is the thought of not knowing how it all ends. Within a week of finishing this book I was lucky enough to get my hands on and finish all of his other novels, and I’m now a diehard fan. I don’t normally go in for horror novels and can’t watch scary movies at all, but the premise of The Final Girl Support Group was just self-aware and campy enough that it seriously intrigued me. I won’t lie, there were moments and a handful of scenes throughout that I did find disturbing and scary (so horror-intolerants, beware…) because Hendrix is very good at his genre. But in the end the plot had the addictive elements of a fast-paced thriller and hooked me so hard I had to see it through. In my opinion sleeping with the hallway lights on for a couple of nights was more than worth an incredible story.
I knew that if Hendrix was really faithful to major horror tropes, certain character archetypes nodded to in the story (the single Black character in a group, the one gay character, the prima donna, the jock, the junkie, etc.) were likely doomed to meet a bad and/or gratuitous end, and to some extent he does play off some of those clichés. But he also uses each character’s varied circumstances to explore different themes about death so that for the characters who are killed, it’s the start of their conversation in several ways, not the end, because he puts in the work to flesh out each and every one far beyond the two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs slasher flicks often reduce characters to. When someone dies, in what ways do they live on? Is the strength of one’s legacy enough to triumph over death from beyond the grave? Which is preferable, a sudden, violent death or a slow and wasting one at the natural end of a life, and is there really a difference in the level of horror each invokes?
I wouldn’t host one book discussion group about this novel: I’d have to host a series of them to have enough time to discuss the nuances Hendrix gets down to his elbows in, even places where he could just as easily have left details unexplored or played them off as a gimmick. But this author is an artist when it comes to literary examination of the human experience: it would be obvious in any genre he chose as his canvas, but in my opinion we’re lucky he happens to prefer such a clever and fun one.
Speaking of which, and without revealing any spoilers, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite character in the entire thing, Dani. It’s rare as a queer reader that I encounter portrayals of butch women at all, let alone one that grabbed my heart like Dani, a member of the group who survived a Friday the 13th-style gauntlet of attacks and is just as much, if not more, of a badass as Lynnette. Lynnette mentions in her analysis of Dani that she already knew she was a lesbian when she experienced her attacks, and in a world that often judges LGBTQIA+ kids as inherently sexual and therefore no longer an innocent child, within a genre where only “innocent” girls who follow the rules and remain “pure” in contrast to their peers’ social behaviors tend to survive to the end of the story, I appreciated that little slice of acknowledgement of queer teens’ worth. The novel doesn’t spare Dani’s trauma: it explores every character’s nuances as their pasts are dug up and used to torment them one by one. But it also gives us a glimpse into this fascinating queer character who we see secondhand through Lynnette as a protector of her friends, a relentless warrior, and a clever and wise soul who loves so hard it nearly consumes her. I’ll be honest, I definitely have a crush on this character.
In my opinion, Lynnette is the perfect narrator for this kind of emotionally driven story – if any of the other “final girls” had been the focus, it would have been a very different story of a few days’ events, likely with a radically different conclusion. Lynnette’s decisions are all informed by fear, and from a first-person POV a reader can’t help but get excited and anxious along with her (which may make this book off-putting to readers who don’t like to get sucked into emotion that intense). Lynnette’s adrenaline is always kicked into high gear, focused on survival at every moment. She feels everything acutely, not just panic and suspicion but affection that borders on codependency; grief that almost swallows her up in despair; curiosity that nearly – literally – kills; and anger that powers her through moments where others might succumb.
The same excessive survival instincts that protect Lynnette also blind her in certain ways: readers may pick up on several details she misses, who she should or shouldn’t trust and even whether she’s chasing red herrings at times. Lynnette is incapable of pausing to examine situations without some level of bias (possibly a nod from the author to ways in which it’s been proven that PTSD, intense anxiety and other stressors can impact one’s brain over lengthy periods of time.) It personally pulled me into the mental space of watching a slasher movie, yelling at the characters on the screen (as if they can hear you) not to go into a dark basement, or to watch out behind them for a hidden killer, which in context of this genre was artfully done.
A breakout star in horror, Hendrix has already had several of his most popular works optioned for television with star-studded production teams. I was thrilled to learn that Charlize Theron will be an executive producer on The Final Girl Support Group TV series, since her portfolio of roles featuring battle-hardened women who have lived through various traumas and bashed their way out the other side had me picturing her as Lynnette in my mind throughout the book. Theron will bring a valuable perspective to the project and help it to fully realize its potential, having been inside the minds of multiple characters who could be profiled alongside this book’s blood-soaked heroines. I highly recommend plowing through as many of Hendrix’s novels as possible before the TV content starts dropping, because it’s all going to be extremely worth it to skip the library waiting list when every horror-tolerant person you know starts devouring this and Hendrix’s other works. I personally am glad to have found this powerful book now, both for the experience of a deeply impactful story…and so that when I sit down to watch the series through my fingers, I know exactly where to close my eyes.
The Final Girl Support Group falls in a niche where not every horror fan may find it terrifying enough to suit them and not every reader of tongue-in-cheek genre parody will find it cerebral or humorous enough. I’m personally unfamiliar with many other works that bring emotion and wit to horror the way this one does, except Stephen Graham Jones’ My Heart Is a Chainsaw – another clever, self-aware horror novel from this past summer – and of course Grady Hendrix’s other works. I would certainly recommend The Final Girl Support Group to fans of Charlize Theron films like The Old Guard and Mad Max: Fury Road where warrior women have marked character growth and autonomy amid a backdrop of over the top action and violence. If you enjoyed shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and aren’t put off by slasher movie-level gore, or films such as the Alien franchise (but with the ability to laugh at their own genre), I highly recommend making this your first 2022 read.
– Review by Sarah, Main Library