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The Final Girl Support Group: Grady Hendrix – a book review

This book considers what happens to the people who survive trauma.

I have often wondered (perhaps like Hendrix) when the sole survivor of a spree killing rides away in an ambulance, or on the back of a truck, drenched in blood, whether they will ever heal. The credits roll now the violence has ended and the monster is dead (at least for now), but what happens next?

That’s the premise of The Final Girl Support Group. Six women (who survived horrors so terrible that they’ve inspired entire movie franchises) meet once a week and talk about their lives to each other and a therapist for a spot of group counselling. There used to be seven, but one was a traitor. Now, after another massacre at Red Lake, a new final girl has emerged. Will there be seven again?

“Dying isn’t the important thing. It’s nothing more than the punctuation mark on the end of your life. It’s everything that came before that matters. Punctuation marks, most people skip right over them. They don’t even have a sound.”

The story is told from the first-person perspective of Lynnette Tarkington. I love an unreliable narrator and Lynnette is one of the most compelling ones I’ve read in recent years. Her PTSD makes her hyper-vigilant, and her life has shrunk to a tiny high-security apartment and these weekly meetings, but as a final girl who is frequently stalked by fans of her would-be killer, will she ever be safe?

“Will there always be someone out there turning little boys into monsters? Will we always be Final Girls? Will there always be monsters killing us?”

 Hendrix has written a high-octane thriller. Lynette’s narrative ensures we are constantly looking over our shoulder, distrustful of everyone, jumping to conclusions, and convinced the killer is stalking every step. The eponymous final girls are wonderfully flawed with an often toxic interrelationship, but they are there for each other when it matters most. In many ways they are defined by the ways they have dealt with their traumatic experience – to what extent have they moved on? Can anyone in their position be expected to move on?

“None of us have to be defined by the worst thing that ever happened to her. Unfortunately, those things have a bad habit of coming back and trying to kill us again. After a while, you start to realize that your life isn’t the thing that happens between the monsters, your life is the monsters.”

There’s a lot of action, intrigue, anxiety, mental illness, addiction, and red herrings in this novel. There is also, between the chapters, a discussion about the dangers of the final girl trope. My personal view is that horror reflects the reality of a very dangerous world for women rather than causing those dangers. Alterative points of view are included in the book – some do sound compelling, while others seem wild (especially Chrissy’s theory).

But there are issues with the way the story is told. While you’re reading the book, especially if you’re a horror fan, they might not bother you. But when you have finished and take some time to think about the novel, they probably will. To what extent is it possible to challenge a trope by repeating it? It is not only the final girl trope that is present – because despite his best intentions, Hendrix’s female characters are portrayed more as types than people.

Heather: the drug addict, Marilyn: the social climber (albeit with a heart), Dani: the survivalist lesbian, Lynette: the agoraphobe, Adrienne: the mother.

The only Black final girl we encounter, Adrienne, is written in a very problematic way. She dies before we meet her – the Black character always dies first, right? And the way Adrienne has dealt with her trauma is by fighting for the rights of all final girls and providing safe spaces for them, putting the needs of others (normally white women) before her own.

So, the book has three tropes from the get go, and incorporates rather than subverts them in ways that seem uncritical.

The two characters who don’t fit quite as neatly into types are Julia: a disabled intellectual, and Chrissy: the (possibly insane) traitor.

The male characters are similarly types rather than individuals. I cannot think of a single one who isn’t presented as self-serving, manipulative, abusive, and violent.

“You don’t want someone angry at you, especially a man, so you say yes to things you don’t want to do because there’s no road map for where you are, nothing to guide you except a neon sign in your head that says Do not make men angry.”

Perhaps all this is intended on Hendrix’s part, because between the chapters as well as within them there are touchstones from horror movies, true crime stories and academic work on horror by feminist writers. In short, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of The Final Girl Support Group is its intertextuality, the conversations it has with slasher movies and the articles written about them.

If one of your favourite aspects of the Scream movie franchise was the way it dissects and examines horror tropes while re-enacting them, you are likely to love this book. To me, anyway, there are two fascinating insights put forth by Chrissy (the traitor) and Stephanie (the most recent Final Girl) both of which made me consider the genre in new ways.

“Murder is man’s attempt to steal birth from women […] We make children, they kill them. We create life, they create death. It’s the way it’s always been.”

Chrissy was once a member of the Final Girl Support Group, but her way of dealing with her trauma was to embrace it as a rite of passage. She makes her living finding and selling murder memorabilia; she curates a murder museum, and she keeps a monster as a pet and encourages him to kill for pleasure. As she sees it anyway, the point at which the final girl kills her monster is an act of self-actualisation, the climax of the hero’s journey.

“You say tomato and I say shamanistic vision quest that uses an ordeal to lead us inward on a journey of spiritual discovery and eventual synthesis and peace.”

In contrast, Stephanie asks why the killers always use ridiculously archaic weapons when an automatic rifle would get the job done in half the time. The answer Hendrix’s narrator suggests is that each murder has to be up close and personal for their death to matter. But it got me thinking, and I have a theory that it is more likely to be because a mass shooting doesn’t have the fetishism or sexuality of stabbing or strangulation.

Despite its problems, The Final Girl Support Group is an interesting and compelling read, and one I’d recommend to horror fans, but probably not to anyone else.

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