Follow the Maggot Wagon by Robert Essig

Follow the Maggot Wagon takes the road trip narrative in a deliciously awful direction. Jamie and Adam had been friends for most of their lives, but they’d gradually grown apart as Adam’s impulse control issues and drug use led him down paths Jamie wouldn’t follow. Though Adam’s poor impulse control might have helped to push the friends apart, it was also the thing that contributed to years of pranks, dares, and manipulation by Jamie and other friends. Old tensions arise as the two friends find themselves stuck behind the maggot wagon, a truck that smells like it’s hauling a full load of carrion beneath the tarp in the back, and Jamie takes this as an opportunity to push Adam into doing something risky and juvenile, pushing his buttons along the way.
The true surprise of Essig’s story isn’t what’s going to happen, as the reader begins to suspect where things are going long before we arrive at the farmhouse. The shock is the motivation behind it. Throughout the story, we catch glimpses of the eroding facade of civility between the two friends, as the interactions take on an increasingly cruel and bitter tone. We think we know why we’re speeding toward the inevitable outcome, only to find ourselves just as stunned as Jamie and Adam are when more secrets get revealed.
I suspect many of us have friendships like this, where old grudges and recrimination are difficult to forget and perhaps more challenging to forgive. Thankfully, most of us don’t decide to follow the maggot wagon as Jamie and Adam did.
This was an excellent character study, portraying both individuals with vivid and tragic dimensionality. Both Jamie and Adam are relatable, and that makes it all the more disturbing because one has to wonder how much or how little it might take to push us into either the driver’s or passenger’s seat.

This title was released as part of the 31 Days of Godless event at http://www.godless.com for October of 2021. You can obtain a copy for yourself by going to the website or downloading the app to your mobile device of choice. The link is below:

My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

My Best Friend’s Exorcism is a nostalgia-packed excursion into the life of adolescent girls in the 1980s. We meet Abby and Gretchen when the girls are in fourth grade, as Abby attempts to celebrate her birthday party at a roller-skating rink. Alone with her family, Abby fears no one will show up, but the strange new girl from school appears. What begins as an awful experience for the birthday girl develops into the best friendship either of them could hope for.
We’re provided with snapshots of the friendship between these two girls throughout the narrative, the bulk of the story devoted to character development.
The meat of the story picks up when the girls are in their Sophomore year of high school at the prestigious Albemarle private school. They’re near the top of the class, and they have bright futures ahead of them. That’s when everything changes. Abby finds herself helpless as she watches Gretchen changing into someone she no longer recognizes, and everything becomes a dizzying nightmare of lies and manipulation that she struggles to navigate while learning that there’s more going on than she can easily comprehend.
As a story about friendship and coming-of-age, it’s pretty fantastic, really delving into what it means to be best friends from childhood. As a horror or thriller story, it falls well short of the mark. I have the same issue with this Hendrix novel as I had with The Final Girl Support Group, in that the story grows tedious before it truly begins to get to the point where anything is happening that propels the narrative forward. Much like that novel, when this story starts getting good, it gets great, but it takes an awfully long time getting there. There are points when it appears to be picking up speed, only to revert to a meandering, detail-filled exploration of Abby’s day-to-day life, and it was challenging to make it through those intervals.
The narration provided by Emily Woo Zeller brings this story of youth and friendship to life in a way that it desperately required. Her performance of the various girls, notably Abby and Gretchen, was terrific. The voice provided for Christian (The Exorcist) was amusing and captured the absurd, muscle-bound character in such a way as to make him almost feel real. The audiobook edition of this novel made an otherwise unsatisfactory experience a much better one, and that is due entirely to the quality of the narration provided.