The Girls of October
Author: Josh Hancock
One of the early concepts students learn in literature courses is the idea of the unreliable narrator, an often main character or omniscient presence who is subjective about the story unfolding on the page. But what if that main character loses agency, and the narrative is fragmented to the tell the story of a person accused of murder caused (likely) by psychological trauma and an unhealthy penchant for horror movies? Such is the construction of Josh Hancock’s fascinating novel which in its narrative style tells the story of a young and tormented college student. For fans of horror fiction, especially horror films from the 1970s through the mid-1980s, this is required reading.
Before starting, understand two important elements pertaining to plot and style. First, the story focuses on Beverly Dreger, a college student with a history of childhood-related, psychological trauma caused by a Boogeyman figure that figuratively and literally tore her family apart. Beverly believes this figure killed her mother and may still have unfinished business with her. Beverly’s father tries to play a traditional parental role, but his daughter’s afflictions are often too much for him to bare. To cope, Beverly focuses on school where she is majoring in film. Her obsession with horror films, especially Halloween, is a significant and revealing path that ultimately leads her to be accused of murdering three students at her college, particulars unknown.
A basic understanding of the plot will allow you to immerse yourself in Hancock’s non-traditional style of storytelling. Instead of choosing the ubiquitous 1st person or omniscient narrator, Hancock employs a series of vignettes to tell the story of Dreger in numerous settings and timeframes. Traditional “chapters” may be newspaper articles about the scene of a crime, or a chapter from a dissertation studying unusual cases involving the supernatural. Other examples include interviews, case notes from Dreger’s psychologist, and transcripts from a television and radio show. Each vignette slowly builds a perception of Beverly that she has no control over, brilliantly flipping the unreliable narrative device flatly on its head.
Perhaps the best and most telling examples of Dreger’s psyche are her college essays. During her studies, Beverly writes analyses on Wes Craven’s The Last on the Left and John Carpenter’s Halloween. The themes of these two films weigh heavily on Beverly, especially the latter, for the Boogeyman figure that haunts her closely resembles the milieu of innocence vis a vis the small town of Haddonfield reeling from a masked perpetrator. Dreger writes a poignant and visceral review of Craven’s masterpiece, and even more shocking analysis of Halloween that echoes John Huddleston’s Freudian analysis “Unmasking the Monster: Hiding and Revealing Male Sexuality in John Carpenter’s Halloween.” Dreger’s own perception – building on the psychoanalytic connection that Halloween is famous for – is partly an exercise into questioning whether her own Boogeyman is real or a manifestation of mental illness.
What makes this novel work is Hancock’s deep understanding (and love) for the horror films that defined a generation like Dreger’s. Her story is a character study that not only has you questioning her sanity and role in these murders, but the novel also contextualizes the very fear and anxiety of Americans trying to first fathom – and then cope – with the notion of the serial killer and the “disgusting” exploitative horror films borne out these concerns. Beverly’s mind – reliable or not – is a window into cinematic history when horror was once detested before being accepted by the mainstream. This added layer not only guarantees that horror aficionados will enjoy this sub-text, but that even the most casual of readers will enjoy Hancock’s unique narrative and character analysis.
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Eric Dinsmore | Twitter: @dinsmorality
Image courtesy of Josh Hancock