The Return by Rachel Harrison

4/5 stars

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If there is one piece of media that lives in my mind rent-free, it’s Jennifer’s Body.

Released in 2009 with a screenplay by Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody, Jennifer’s Body has everything. A toxic female friendship, the abject horror of high school, and a botched human sacrifice that results in the title character (played by Megan Fox) becoming a man-eating succubus.

People haaaaated this movie when it came out. Mostly because it was marketed super wrong–the studio was adamant that Megan Fox would draw in the teenage boys of the world, so ads turned the sexiness up to 11, with Cody and the director basically begging the studio not to go through with plans to have Megan Fox do interviews on porn websites in character. In 2009, the film hit theatres, with critics confused over who the film was for, with audiences full of teenage boys wondering when the heck they were gonna see Megan Fox naked like the trailers promised. It got tossed in the dustbin of history, and though the film clearly demonstrated Fox’s comedic bite, her career stalled out.

I first saw Jennifer’s Body in college, and loved it immediately. It’s a delightfully fun spooky-season movie unconcerned with the straight male gaze, and while when I initially went to the mat for this movie my friends would usually raise their eyebrows, but thankfully time has been kinder to Jennifer’s Body. The film has been rediscovered by a new generation and has been reevaluated in the context of the Me Too movement (the titular character is sacrificed by a middling emo band hoping to become more famous, a quite literal example of a woman’s body being used to advance a man’s career). And now that the target demographic has finally discovered this film in an era when criticism is more diverse than ever, people are starting to appreciate that the horror genre can tell stories important and relevant to the other 50% of the population. Who woulda thunk!

Anyway, this brings me to The Return, a delightfully feminist horror novel that follows in the footsteps of Jennifer’s Body–a horror story that explores the complications and joys of female friendship, with a twisty and intoxicating plot, killer dialogue, and a final girl unlike any other.

The Return focuses on Elise, a woman floundering in her post-grad life, who is dealing with the aftermath of her college best friend, Julie, disappearing after a solo hike in Maine. Elise and her friends suspect Tristan, Julie’s husband they’ve never properly met, but two years pass with no news. Their circle of friends are pretty certain Julie is dead, but Elise keeps holding out hope. And then, without warning, Julie shows up on her front porch two years after her disappearance without explanation.

Elise and her friends meet up at a mysterious inn in the Catskills to reunite with Julie and get to the bottom of what exactly happened to her. And Julie seems a bit different–like, horribly-emaciated, eating-raw-meat-even-though-she’s-a-vegetarian different. Elise is left to piece together what happened to her friend as she and her friends are forced to come to terms with their evolving friendship and their lingering issues that even a demon can’t fix.

The blurbs often describe this as Sex and the City meets The Shining, but I think that’s selling it a bit short–the relationships here aren’t pure froth, there’s actually a lot of weight here. While secondary characters Mae and Molly could have used a smidge more development, I really enjoyed how, beyond the horror elements, at the core of this story was the relationships between four women and how they’ve evolved since their student years. If you’ve ever lusted after your college friend’s Insta-perfect vacation photos or wondered why your old roommate didn’t invite you to her wedding or had to smile wanly and explain you don’t actually have that public holiday off from work to your friends planning a get-together, this will resonate with you more than you think, just in the way that Jennifer’s Body will resonate with you if you’ve ever been a teenage girl and if you’ve ever been a little bit afraid of your best friend.

Rachel Harrison is trained as a TV and film writer, and it shows–the dialogue in this book is sharp, the scenery is evocative and the tone is pitch-perfect throughout. When (not if, when) this gets adapted, I can’t wait to see Elise, Julie, and their demonic friendship breakup play out.

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