Written by Riley Sager — The concept of the final girl is well known to fans of slasher horror flicks. Halloween, Scream, Alien – in each the protagonists are killed one by one down to a final girl. In 2015, a comedy pastiche was released playing on the idea and entitled Final Girl.
Riley Sager’s Final Girls, also plays around with the concept, but it’s no comedy. Instead, it’s a gripping thriller in which very few of the main characters are what they seem. It has just the feel of a film with a final girl, and if you like reading Stephen King, or enjoyed the books Harlan Coben was putting out in the 1990s, you’ll love this too.
While she was a student, Quincy Carpenter went to Pine Cottage out in the backwoods of Pennsylvania with a group of friends. Her plan was to take photos, have a good time and maybe lose her virginity to athletic heartthrob, Craig. In horror movie land that kind of thinking is bound to draw moralistic punishment in the form of a man with a big knife, and true to form six people are stabbed to death that weekend. Somehow Quincy survives, but she can’t remember a thing about that fateful night.
The story takes place years later, in the present day. The media have included Quincy in a group with two other women who survived similar attacks. Lisa Milner is the eldest, and has been trying to help other young, traumatised women in the years since the massacre she survived. Samantha Boyd walked away from a mass murder at a motel in Tampa, Florida, and she’s the final girl who’s gone off-grid. Then there’s Quincy, who lives with her lawyer boyfriend in a swish Manhattan apartment and strives to be as normal as she can while she runs a baking blog.
Then, Lisa Milner is found dead. It looks like suicide. Quincy meets up with the Pennsylvania cop, Coop, who pulled her out of the bloody scene at Pine Cottage all those years ago to talk about Lisa’s death. They’ve remained friends, and Quincy sees this strong, dependable man as something of a guardian angel. She’s spooked by Lisa’s death, and she’s not sure it’s suicide. Maybe, someone has decided the final girls should have died and is hunting them down.
Things really go sideways when Samantha Boyd turns up out of the blue, just as a media latch onto the story that one of the final girls is dead! The plot is then driven forwards by the psychological interplay between Sam and Quincy. Sam seems desperate to befriend Quincy, but is extremely manipulative, shaking Quincy out of her safe existence through a series of bizarre nighttime adventures in New York. Their lives are fuelled by Xanax, Wild Turkey, grape soda and mutual suspicion.
All the while, you’ll be working out what’s going on, and you’ll probably think you’ve solved it more than once. But Riley Sager has enough twists in her plot to keep your cerebellum on a swivel. As a tense and untrusting relationship develops between Quincy and Sam, another question continues to grow in importance: what really happened at Pine Cottage. Quincy is run to her wit’s end trying to deal with Sam, and begins having flashbacks to that bloody weekend in Pennsylvania. Every few chapters, a little more of the past unfolds in parallel to the present. It’s a deftly plotted book that’s hard to put down.
Of course, a great deal hinges on the notion that Quincy has repressed her memories. This is a given in the story, but how and why she’s done this isn’t really explored. That would send the plot in a different direction. Quincy doesn’t ask herself enough questions about some of the other things that are a bit odd in her life either, which is pretty frustrating. She’s convinced she’s in a box labelled ‘normal’. If you can pinpoint what she’s not asking herself, then you might be able to work out what’s really going on in this tantalising thriller before she does. But good luck, because Riley Sager keeps things nice and tricksy as those blood-soaked memories are finally revealed.
If you like a bit of horror, there’s plenty of serial killer crime fiction here on our site.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars