I finished this book in one sitting.
But I wasn’t a huge fan. Why?
Well friends, in this house we deduct major points for a book that spends all of its time queerbaiting its readers.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, and as glaring as it is this isn’t my only problem with the book. So let’s start at the beginning.
Our story opens with Abby Rivers, now a successful adult with a generic job in a nondescript office, discovering that the exorcist has died. This isn’t really relevant to the rest of the story, but provides a convenient excuse to pretend that Abby had either forgotten or repressed everything that had happened during her sophomore year of high school, which, given the rest of the story, I find very hard to believe. This completely useless first chapter essentially triggers the flashback that is the rest of the story.
And that story itself isn’t that bad. The next two chapters track the growth of Abby and Gretchen’s friendship through elementary and middle school before jumping again to a weekend at another friend’s boathouse where Gretchen becomes possessed. There is no how or why to her possession, which, okay. It’s not exactly necessary information, but reads like weak world building. But whatever. Gretchen is possessed, and this is when the story actually starts. From here it’s a pretty typical exorcism story, with enough forward momentum and just enough lack of substance that once I started I kept reading till the end.
The most important part of the story is Abby and Gretchen’s relationship. When Gretchen realizes something is wrong and is still fighting the demon for control of her body, she comes to Abby for help. Abby is convinced that Gretchen has been raped (there are a lot of parallels between the violation of possession/exorcism and abuse anyway, so there’s an argument to be made that she actually was but I won’t make it here). Abby does what she can to help by going first to Gretchen’s parents and then to the principal. Oh, and I forgot to mention that this takes place in a particularly “proper” neighborhood in Charleston, South Carolina, so prepare to be infuriated by the southern aristocratic attitude that the keeping up of appearances is more important than actually dealing with your shit. So yeah, going to the adults gets exactly nothing done.
Sidenote: I actually really like the way Hendrix sums up this phenomenon on page 176: “The day you become an adult is the day you learn that in Charleston, the worse something is, the less attention it receives.”
So Gretchen is left alone believing that no one can help her, not even her best friend. And that’s when the demon fully takes over. Suddenly Gretchen is more popular, smarter, better, and no one but Abby can tell that something is still very wrong. Of course she would know, being the one closest to Gretchen. But not like, in a gay way, apparently.
Anyway over the course of the next dozen or so chapters, all your demonic things happen. People are manipulated to hurt themselves, animals die in weird ways, there’s a hurricane, and a general shitstorm ensues. What’s important is that eventually, Abby attempts an exorcism. It’s pretty slow at first as Abby and the exorcist attempt a traditional Christian exorcism until the exorcist bails and Abby realizes she has to do this alone. Sitting alone in a room with Gretchen and Gretchen’s demon, Abby has an epiphany: the exorcism wasn’t working because she was invoking the power of things she didn’t actually believe in, so instead she invokes the power of their friendship and everything that brought them together. Cheesy, I know, but I actually really like the idea of it. I say the idea of it because I can’t fully get behind a story mechanic that results in this: “By the power of Phil Collins, I rebuke you! […] By the power of Phil Collins, who knows that you coming back to me is against all odds, in his name I command you to leave this servant of Genesis alone.” Yeah, that’s a thing that happened, and I know this is the climax and I know it’s supposed to be the basis of their friendship but I can’t take those lines seriously. I’m sorry, I just can’t.
But let’s backtrack for a minute. Earlier in the book Gretchen and Abby have established what’s basically their own version of “no homo”: I love you DBNQ, or just DBNQ. Dearly, but not queerly. Despite all the hints that Gretchen at least has stronger feelings for Abby, we always come back to DBNQ. But during the exorcism, after invoking the power of Phil freakin’ Collins, Abby confesses that she loves Gretchen, and it’s the best part of the whole damn book:
“I love you, Abby shouted into the storm. “I love you, Gretchen Lang. You are my reflection and my shadow and I will not let you go. We are bound together forever and ever! Until Halley’s Comet comes around again. I love you dearly and I love you queerly and no demon is bigger than this! I throw my pebble and it’s name is Gretchen Lang and in the name of our love, BEGONE!!!”
So at this point I’m feeling pretty triumphant that these two ladies finally get their fucking moment. And yeah, high school relationships rarely last (the same can be said of high school friendships), but at least they have this fucking moment.
But then everything was ruined.
The next couple chapters outline the consequences since Abby and the exorcist literally kidnapped Gretchen to perform the exorcism. We see Gretchen and Abby running to each other and reaching for each other as they are separated. But what ruined the whole book was the last four pages. Apparently, four pages is all it takes to completely undo a whole book’s worth of dropped hints and one phenomenal scene of confession and tensions broken. Because the last four pages outline the 70 odd years of Abby’s life, and how she and Gretchen kept up, then didn’t keep up, then got in touch again, then fell out of touch again, then life gets in the way, blah blah blah. Like I said, high school relationships rarely last.
But then we get this gem:
“She loved Gretchen, but what really lasted? Nothing was strong enough to stand against the passage of time. But Abby was wrong. When she died at the age of eighty-four, there was one person holding her hand. There was one person who sat with her every day. Who made Glee leave when she got too loud and who made Devin, Abby’s ex-husband, visit even though he hated sickness with a phobic intensity. There was one person who read to her when she could no longer see the pages of her book, who fed her pumpkin soup when she got too weak to feed herself, who held up a glass of apple juice when she could no longer raise it to her mouth, and who moistened her lips with a sponge when she lost the ability to swallow. There was one person who stayed by her side even after Mary got too upset and had to leave the room. There was one person with her, all the way down the line.”
Surprise, it was Gretchen.
And if we can just pretend that the paragraph after this one doesn’t exist, then this ending is sums up a wonderful story of two friends turned lovers who overcame it all and made it back to each other after years of hiding from themselves. But even after this loving, delicate, beautiful scene, Hendrix writes: “Abby Rivers and Gretchen Lang were best friends.”
And I fucking lost it.
Sure, there are stories of best friends like this. Sure. But what the fuck is the point of queerbaiting all your readers only to snatch it away on the LAST. FUCKING. PAGE.
Over the course of the story, we have parents calling their relationship “inappropriate,” kids teasing them about being queer, pre-possession Gretchen building up the courage to make a major confession to Abby that we never get to see, Abby unable to let go of the fact that Gretchen just suddenly doesn’t care about her anymore when anyone else would have assumed that this shit just happens sometimes and sometimes people change. Gretchen’s imaginary boyfriend named Andy for fuck’s sake.
It’s all there, and if one of them were a dude, I find it very hard to believe that they wouldn’t have hooked up at some point. I find it hard to believe anyway, given everything and all the time they spent together.
“But why can’t they just be friends? Why can’t this just be a story about a beautiful friendship?” Sure. I hear you. But when people say all the time things like: “I married my best friend,” when labels like “life partner” are becoming more common stand ins for husband/wife, when people are breaking down the whole dating/courting game in favor of spending their lives with people they actually care about, why is it so hard to believe that two best friends might transition into a romantic relationship?
Wait wait wait! I know this one. It’s cause they’re gay.
I, and many people I know, are all too eager to devour stories like these, stories that despite all odds might actually just be a gay high school horror. Too often, we leave disappointed. And even though we will jump on any hint that everything’s not all straight, this is not an invitation to tease us, to take advantage of our desperation for representation only to yank away any promise of it because you’re afraid of alienating your straight audience. Fuck that. There are plenty of straight romances for anyone who wants them, and all you accomplish is ruining a very promising story like this one. And I’m really fucking tired of begging for scraps and being told I’m asking too much.
Overall, the beginning felt crafted. The middle was fine. The ending was very rushed. So if you plan on reading this book, skip the first chapter. Enjoy all that the story has to offer. Skim the last two chapters, and try to pretend that 90% of the last paragraph doesn’t exist (the bit about Halley’s comet is worth reading though). You might end up disappointed like I did, but hey! that’s what fanfic’s for right?