grady hendrix’s new novel is a fun, brilliant study of ’80s horror

The writer Grady Hendrix’s new novel Final Girl Support Group is violent and exciting and irreverent, as much a ‘40s film-noir as a ‘70s paranoia thriller as an ‘80s slasher, and its primary delight, as a horror fan, is found not in the humor, or the squigglesome plot, or the dozens of Easter eggs; the real delight of Final Girl Support Group is its introspection. That it manages to honor its source material while at the same time questioning it, dissecting it, and then turning that surgeon’s light and lens and blade on itself. Questioning why we love those horror movies to begin with. 

Then the plot takes shape in about twenty pages and then our characters are on the move. And it doesn’t stop moving. Even one of the heavier sections, in which a central character is held captive in a room for a couple days, becomes the platform for a violent elliptical flashback to the night when that character became a Final Girl.

The Final Girl concept was first discussed, at length, in a 1992 book called Men, Women and Chainsaws by Carol J. Clover that explores (and supplies the language for exploring) a particular horror movie trope that blossomed, for the most part, out of 1970s horror slashers like Texas Chain Saw Massacre (the two-word Chain Saw switches to Chainsaw in later installments) and Halloween. In these movies the Final Girl, usually a virginal female protagonist (often with a boyish haircut and name, little makeup, modest wardrobe), is tormented for the duration of a movie, subjected to injury and indignity and the murder of loved ones, until, in the closing shots, she kills the slasher herself (often with some penetrative act).

Hendrix and the new novel, courtesy of Barnes & Noble

It’s an overtly sexist and weirdly Freudian convention that, in retrospect, seems howlingly fraught with hostile, straight, male sexual demons. A violent sexual frustration.

But it persisted. 

Because we liked it. 

And any horror fan who wants to assess the Final Girl phenomenon today, from a perch of wizened hindsight, needs also to contend with the fact that when they, as a kid, first fell under the genre’s spell, they enjoyed that ugly stuff and probably didn’t think twice about how problematic it was. Maybe it even fed their own chaotic adolescent sexuality (Clover, in her book, conducts a casual survey of ~1990 video stores and draws up some findings that probably haven’t changed–mainly that the audience for slasher movies is overwhelmingly male, and overwhelmingly teen)

And that simultaneous introspection and analysis is what we get with Hendrix’s novel. It’s inherently critical of the Final Girl trope, and the story seems almost haunted by its author’s conflicted nostalgia (maybe even his enduring reverence) for the slasher movies in question; but the book doesn’t wag a finger. The novel owns up to its genre lineage and, without apologizing for having found so much joy in that misogynistic trope (wherein a woman could show strength only if she was chaste and, even then, only after suffering some violent baptism at the hands of a male monster), Final Girl Support Group addresses that problematic convention by soaking in it, absorbing it, and then, like a really big mule with a whole lot of carts attached, dragging that trope toward a smarter place. 

Maybe the convention’s natural end.

But the novel also trades in what feels like a distinctly 1970s paranoia about conspiracies. Jumps back and forth between the real concrete horror of a slasher in your living room, and some ethereal cabal of Deep State secret-keepers, working to keep you down, to suppress the truth, to gaslight the victim until she breaks, surrenders, throws herself into the killer’s clutches or the padded cell.

The novel is about a support group for Final Girls, now middle-aged, who 25+ years ago survived encounters with blade-wielding slashers–each of which is modeled after a cinematic icon: Adrienne, for instance, is the star of the group who survived a Jason Voorhees alter-ego (Jason, with his hockey mask and machete, has featured in more than ten Friday the 13th installments and is arguably the most famous slasher in the genre). Adrienne is also the center of a film franchise that’s gone in the same direction as Jason’s: including outer space (Jason X) and Hell itself (Jason Goes to Hell). Hendrix also gives us a facsimile of the Ghostface killer from Scream and a delightfully nebulous Krueger-like stand-in (if you’re not familiar: Freddy Krueger, the burn victim with the Christmas sweater and finger-knives, was a pedophile; he was burned to death by the parents of Elm Street and went on to kill their teenage children by invading their dreams from beyond the grave–Hendrix finds a way of incorporating Kruger into the book without taking it into some paranormal realm). 

Lynette, the most guarded and seemingly hardened of the Final Girls, is our traumatized, first-person, present-tense narrator who carries us swiftly, with agitated banter, through Los Angeles and a noir-like labyrinth of plot (including the genre staple of namechecking the streets). Lynette, unlike the other women, is the survivor of a killer with no single movie analog. 

She was subject, twenty-odd years ago, to a Christmas Eve slasher-killer encounter that calls to mind a few different influences: Silent Night, Deadly Night; Black Christmas; an early Tales from the Crypt episode called “And All Through the House.” 

OK so apparently that whole “All Through the House” episode is available on YouTube. Wonderfully 90s, and glossed with even more nostalgia when you hear HBO’s old Original Programming intro garbled with VHS sound quality.

The novel finds Lynette in the middle of what seems to be a conspiracy: the Final Girls, now decades removed from their respective trauma, are drifting apart. They’re considering an end to the meetings.

Invoking another staple of horror movies: Lynette, a Final Girl brought back for the sequel, is the only one who recognizes that–as Final Girls tend to say–it’s starting up again. The women are being picked off by persons unknown, brutally, and the clues are doled out by Hendrix almost like treats to a pet: here’s a clue to fuck with your sense of what’s happening, now here’s an action beat to tide you over til the next one. And a joke. Now a quick lucid meditation on the slasher genre. Have another clue. 

The novel is exciting and fun and curiously moving (there’s a diaper scene, I won’t describe it, but it’s kinda beautiful in a hard-nosed way). But it’s a particular delight for horror movie geeks. Not only because of the Easter eggs, the fan service strewn in like a spice for redder palates, but because it provides a kind of closure, I think, for those of us who revisit these movies and, from the vantage of a few decades’ remove, see them for how cheap they were, how silly, how poorly-acted and -written and -shot, but also how they managed to be both innocent and sinister, and the fact that we fell in love with them at too ripe an age to’ve not internalized some of it.

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