Esther Hoffman’s entire journalistic career has been spent debunking pseudoscience and phony therapists, after her father’s brilliant career was shut down by phony regression therapy. She may have met her match with Dr. Jennifer Webb’s new design, a proprietary virtual reality system that purports to heal patients by running them through scenarios pulled straight out of horror movies. In a controlled environment, flying on a cocktail of designer pharmaceuticals, the system is supposed to help them heal their mental scars or phobias. Esther questions if real change is that easy, and doesn’t flinch at a chance to undergo treatment and take it apart from the inside out.
That’s exactly what Dr. Webb was hoping to hear, as she has her own reasons to get Esther Hoffman into her virtual world. After all, who better to sell her therapy treatments to the public than a converted skeptic? As she plugs into her machine to help “convince” Esther, things take an unexpected turn when real-world threats emerge: just as dangerous as anything created in the VR world, but much more unpredictable. Jennifer and Esther may be at odds, but they are now each other’s only hope to get out of this machine alive… and with their sanity intact.
The last story I read by Mira Grant (a pseudonym of the productive Seanan McGuire) was another SubPress novella, Rolling in the Deep, which I found enjoyable but pretty much what-it-says-on-the-tin: a tale of a cruise ship attacked by mermaids, wherein a cruise ship is attacked by mermaids. The horror element and sharp writing are just as strong in Final Girls, but it’s less straightforward; its main twists came as a surprise, and kept me on the edge of my seat throughout the story. It’s a fast read at just over a hundred pages, but there’s enough complexity to make it a rewarding and engaging read, nailing the novella “sweet spot” between depth and brevity. And then there’s Grant’s sharp writing, throwing out killer lines like “any word can be an insult if it’s thrown hard enough from the window of a moving sneer.”
The main draw for me was that this procedure uses horror movie tropes—fear as a means to heal psychological scars—which I find a unique and evocative idea. I’m happy to say that Grant hit the mood, style, and feel of a horror film without resorting to the obvious clichés (e.g., chainsaw-wielding hockey-masked killers); it’s sort of a coming-of-age teenage drama where Jennifer and Esther become close friends… and that friendship is tested when the monsters arrive. It’s a great homage to horror films that doesn’t go for low-hanging tropes, and the way it focuses on the characters’ friendship makes it all the more human and convincing. I appreciated that the story is more about these characters’ friendship than about the horror, though there’s a few scares and plenty of blood will flow by the end.
Even though I came in already expecting to like it, Final Girls surprised me by just how good it was. The characterization is top-notch, the pacing is just perfect for its length, and the twofold horrors are realistic and horrifying. This is another win for Grant, her style and flair meshing well with the evocative concept. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to horror readers—or Mira Grant’s fans in particular—especially those who have come to appreciate the novella as a sweet spot between full novels and short stories. Two thumbs up, and I hope Grant comes up with another cool novella next year…
Title: Final Girls
Author: Mira Grant
Release Date: 30 April 2017
What I Read: Subterranean Press ebook
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via NetGalley and SubPress)
MSRP: $40 signed ltd hc / $4.99 ebook
ISBN/ASIN: 159606823X / B01N2BFS9F