When Esther Hoffman arrives at Dr. Jennifer Webb’s mental health facility to do a story on the notorious researcher’s strange new therapy methods, she brings a lot of personal baggage. Esther’s own backstory involves a tragedy involving supposed repressed memories being brought to light, and Dr. Webb’s strange method rings too close to this for comfort. However, as she learns while the two methods share surface level similarities, Dr. Webb’s technology and approach are rather different. Dr. Webb’s technique involves putting patients into pods to monitor their conditions, apply appropriate levels of drugs, and to manipulate their dreams. The method she proposes for psychological health improvement is based on shock, since those dream manipulations are essentially nightmarish scenarios.
The session occurring when Esther arrives involves a pair of sisters who are looking to build a relationship following the deaths of their parents. The scenario they play out together involves escaping a town besieged by scarecrow golems. Afterward, when asked about their successes, the sisters are warm to one another. Their victories do not seem to involve brainwashing but Esther is not quite convinced.
“You ran them through a horror movie, and now they are supposed to be loving sisters,” said Esther flatly.
“We ran them through a horror movie and now they are loving sisters,” said Dr. Webb. “They have three more sessions planned—sequels if you will—but when their course of treatment is finished, they’ll have the sort of strong emotional bond they should have had all along. They may have nightmares, but there won’t be any lasting damage in the waking world, because the scenarios we’re using are too unrealistic. That’s the beauty of what we do here. We change lives without ever creating a situation that could be taken for real.” (21-22)
If this sounds a bit familiar, the argument follows the same sorts of lines folks offer up for such “antisocial” acts as telling scary stories, watching violent movies, reading fairy tales/folklore, or even playing roleplaying games. The healing power of catharsis is often offered up in a kind of apologetic way. It’s like a kid scuffing her toe in the dirt, trying to assure authority figures that “While these things might seem less than socially acceptable on the surface, they really do play an important role!” As though weird fiction/movie consumption/game playing/hobbies/etc. really need to be excused to anyone but the busiest of busybodies. In the context of the story, I can understand the grilling: Revolutionary medical procedures need to be thoroughly vetted before human beings are exposed to them. However, the possible metaphoric echoes of the world I live in make me grin and shake my head. Have you ever had to explain yourself to folks who just don’t get you? It’s a lost cause more often than not.
Dr. Webb suggests having a go at a session to better understand, and Esther grudgingly agrees to give it a go. She does not lose her combativeness, however. Even after signing the waivers and taking the initial sleep meds, Esther states quite bluntly:
“I’m a tourist,” said Esther.
Dr. Webb looked faintly uncomfortable. “You can’t think of yourself that way. No one is a tourist once the scenario begins. Whether you intend it or not, you’re going to receive the full therapeutic experience. We’re not set up for anything less.”
“I don’t have anything to fix,” said Esther. She yawned. “Damn. Those pills work fast.
“They have to, if they’re going to be effective,” said Dr. Webb. “And everyone has something to fix.” (36)
Esther is confident she will be able to maintain her sense of objective reality, keeping her head outside of the nightmare scenario Webb and her lab techs can devise. After she is already under, Dr. Webb joins her in the scenario for a little morale boost (and possibly to manipulate Esther into feeling a bit of serotonin warm and fuzzies toward the doctor once the scenario ends), and all goes well until the lab gets crashed by a bloody minded IP spy. The little bullying scenario Esther is experiencing turns far more thrilling, with Esther and Jennifer ultimately running for their lives from a curse and monsters who aren’t wearing Halloween costumes.
Mira Grant’s FINAL GIRLS is a science fiction/horror blend that packs a lot of detail into its short page count. The story feels like a less gritty and more fantastical flip side to David J. Schow’s works (particularly his short novel ROCK BREAKS, SCISSORS CUT, also released by Subterranean Press, which could serve as a poignant bookend to this work as it too deals with experimental procedures that involve the recording of dreams and shared dream therapies as a method for psychological study), but Grant knows a thing or two about spinning a readable yarn and her attention to the storytelling craft makes the characters and language her own.
Dr. Jennifer Webb and Esther are the two standout personalities in the story, of course. They are opposite sides to a single coin, and it’s clear why and how much one dislikes the other. Esther is built from the same mold as the protagonists of Grant’s Newsflesh series of post-zombpocalypse news bloggers, though she manages to be individual thanks to her backstory. Jennifer Web is less a Dr. Frankenstein than a scientist on the fringe, which is fun to read.
There are plenty of walk-ons from secondary characters (both from the waking world as well as the dream scenario), but they are little more than sketches. Even the waking world antagonist, an assassin and corporate spy, is not as clearly developed as the two protagonists. I half expected her to be a dream within a dream type character when she appeared a started axing lab techs.
Mira Grant is of course the dark fantasy/horror flipside to author Seanan McGuire, who is perhaps best known for her two urban fantasy series (October Daye and InCryptid). My personal favorite of McGuire’s work is actually her ghost story novel SPARROW HILL ROAD, which I favorably reviewed some time back. That is a book which has lingered in my memory, bringing me occasional grins and chills. Fun fact: This past July saw that ghost story (well stories, since it is more-or-less a mosaic novel) get a sequel in THE GIRL IN THE GREEN SILK GOWN, which is on my TBR shelf. I look forward to reading it (hopefully next month). As a regular reader of the mysterious and horrifying as well as a science minded dude, I should enjoy Grant’s output. While the Newsflesh series features several elements that seem a natural fit to my passions (think gonzo journalists on the campaign trail years after the zombies have risen), I found the first a bit long in the tooth at times. Not quite my cup of tea.
FINAL GIRLS is a tight novella and an all-around better experience. Perhaps it might be a bit too tight when it comes to the folks who get stabbed, kicked, snapped, or otherwise attacked. I would have liked a bit more time with the potential victims, but I’m the kind of person who mostly empathizes with secondary characters in movies and books over the protagonists anyway. What does that say about me, I wonder?
This quibble aside, the story is a solid horror flick for the mind’s eye, moving along at a good pace from its Michael Crichton-type clash of powerful, intelligent people at the beginning through its weird experiment-based nightmare scenario, to its emotionally taut conclusion. Grant is no stranger to horror both cinematic and written, and that knowledge and obvious love of the genre fills this slim volume’s pages. The reading is compulsory.
One writing element that I rather enjoyed was the change of tenses between the waking world action and the nightmarish scenario/dreamscape stuff. The prose uses past tense for scenes in the waking world, but it switches to present tense in the dream sequences and therefore adds to the immediacy. It’s a fun technique, and as the book is just over 100 pages long, the method does not overstay its welcome.
As the weather turns cooler and the Halloween season approaches, FINAL GIRLS offers a lovely way to get into the spooky spirits. Of course, our household doesn’t really give up its Hallowe’en spirits, even around Christmas, but that aside there is something special to me in thoughts of reading scary stories at the start of a new school year. For those of like minds, I recommend grabbing a copy and giving Mira Grant’s FINAL GIRLS a read.
Subterranean Press published FINAL GIRLS in two editions. First was a signed, limited hardcover of 1250 copies, which is sadly out of print. The second format is a eBook, which is still available.
Next week, we will take a look at Donald E. Westlake’s lengthy EX OFFICIO (unfortunately available only as an eBook) unless life happens to prevent that. If so, I have another shorter work to check out.
For the first week of October, I will leave things open to your input. I’ve been bitten by the Mira Grant bug and I’m curious to sample another novella she wrote for Sub Press, ROLLING IN THE DEEP is apparently a gory mermaid horror novella (available as an eBook). That’s option number one. Option number two is to revisit David J. Schow’s short novel ROCK BREAKS, SCISSORS CUT, which I mentioned above as sharing themes with FINAL GIRLS. It too is available as an eBook. Let me know in the comments which one speaks to you, and the one with the majority of votes by Thursday the 27th shall take the October 4th slot.
Grant, Mira. FINAL GIRLS. Burton, MI: Subterranean Press. 2017.