Stories about people trapped in virtual reality have been thoroughly done, and the trope of the horror-story “final girl,” the lone survivor or almost-survivor who makes it to the end of the movie, at least, is pretty familiar too. In Mira Grant’s latest story, the novella Final Girls (2017), she mixes both of these with a dash of science fiction for an interesting tale that didn’t completely work for me.
Dr. Jennifer Webb is a visionary who has created proprietary VR technology designed to help people address and ultimately heal old traumas. Webb’s favorite VR technique is to run the patient (or patients, if it is a family situation) through a horror movie scenario. With all the safety subroutines in place, the patient can use fleeing from zombies or hiding from cannibalistic cornfield dwellers as a way to confront and release fear. Safety protocols guarantee that nothing too horrifying or genuinely fatal can occur when a patient is in the scenario.
Esther Hoffman is a journalist whose father was unfairly convicted of child sexual abuse after an incompetent therapist “recovered” memories from some local children. He was ultimately exonerated, but posthumously, because he died in prison. Esther makes a crusade of debunking pseudoscience, and she is sure Webb’s device falls into that category. Reluctantly, Esther agrees to go into the VR pod and experience the process firsthand. Once she is under, Webb, who hasn’t told her she was going to do this, joins her, intending that the fictional friendship the two women form in VR (where they are teenage girls) will influence the tone of Hoffman’s article when she comes out of the pod.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, yes, you guessed it. The equipment does not fail; instead a convenient villain enters the facility and removes the safety features. Then she begins tweaking the scenario to make it fatal. The villain’s motivation is plausible even if her actions are not. The plan is to have Webb, at least, die in VR, thus tainting the project and clearing the way for the anonymous competitor, who is probably the government. In the scenario, things get more horrible and gory for Webb and Hoffman, who think they are sixteen and that they’ve been best friends for three years. As they try to run and fight the undead who have risen from the graveyard behind their houses, they find each escape route closed, and things grow more dire with each step.
I liked the characters of sixteen-year-old Jennifer and Esther, and I believed their friendship. That stood out for me. Grant changes typeface within the story to indicate when we are in VR and when we are not, a technique that created some emotional distance. The emotional distance must be intentional; the text is reminding us that we are actually “watching” the girls’ story, but this philosophical and textual distance meant I lost some connection with the characters, often just when I needed it. The story frame of the assassin/thief really was not successful for me, and the last few pages, meant to chime off classic horror tropes, were not a complete success either.
Grant’s prose is always polished, and the elements of Final Girls’ prose (dialogue, transitions and physical descriptions) are good. The idea of a manufactured friendship was intriguing but didn’t get enough room to stretch. This story is short in length and it fell short for me in other ways. I suggest checking out Grant’s other work, under the Mira Grant name or as Seanan McGuire, for a more satisfying read.