Constant Reader Book of the Month Valentine’s Day Bonus: The Last Girls Standing by Jennifer Dugan

David B Morris
9 min readFeb 26, 2024

The Journey Into A Fate Worse Than Death

Note: I am aware that my entry for February was just last week. However, at the time I was in the midst of reading this book as well and had I not finished Wilder first, this book would certainly have been listed. As you’ll see the book I’m about to review lists many of the larger themes that have been part of many of previous reviews — and does have a love story at its center. So for that reason, I’m breaking my own rule.

Throughout my reading of The Last Girls Standing, I couldn’t help but think that Sloan Allison, the protagonist at the center of the story, might have been best served in she had been able to avail herself of the services of Mulder and Scully. After all, the overarching action involves the ritualistic slaughter of eight people by a cult that considers themselves eco-terrorists and commits suicide after their crimes. This is the kind of thing the FBI investigates and has elements that are pertinent to the X-Files.

I can see that if Sloan went to see them, Scully would be all too aware — because it’s obvious to everyone in the book — that Sloan is understandably suffering from massive amounts of both PTSD and survivor’s guilt and that this kind of trauma can lead to the paranoid beliefs she has almost from the start. Mulder would naturally suspect this as well, but he would do her the courtesy of a further investigation before telling her that there are no connections.

If Sloan went out of her way to point out the ‘connections’ she sees, Mulder and Scully would no doubt be gentle and tell them that some of the scariest cases they ever investigated seemed to involve paranoid conspiracies but at their cores involved just ordinary people. Scully would tell them how she had been certain that an ordinary death fetishist appeared to her as a monster when he was just an ordinary man. Mulder would tell her how he can be called in by his former profiler to tell them that there was a possible a supernatural being was committed murders when in fact his old mentor had spent so much time in the killer’s head that he could not get out of it and became a killer himself. Scully (not Mulder) would tell her that she once went on a date with a man who believed his tattoo was telling him to kill people when in fact it was just his built in psychosis. And both would say that there are things that go bump in the night out there, but in this case the people who killed eight counselors and left only Sloan and Cherry alive were just crazy people who had lost their way. They would conclude by telling Sloan the best thing she could do for herself was find a way to move forward and try to get help from the people who loved her and supported her.

If you look at the cover and book jacket of Last Girls Standing, you would assume that what you are about to get is some kind of horror novel. Sloan and Cherry have been bonded by their trauma and that Sloan is learning that there is a chance the teenage girl she had fallen in love with is part of the cult that killed her. I don’t know if Jennifer Dugan, who is a writer of lesbian love stories, made this decision deliberately or whether it was a decision of her publisher to lead the reader to think that’s what we were getting. It’s certainly what I assumed when I began to read this novel. But as it unfolded, I realized that Dugan was doing a trick that The X-Files sometimes did to great power — have a story with the atmosphere of supernatural trappings with a great conspiracy to reveal at the center something more banal and painfully, ridiculously simple. The result is a story that is more frightening than any conspiracy theory could ever be because it is one of the stories I’ve ever read of a descent into madness.

When the novel begins it has been months since the tragedy but Sloan is still there. Her parents (mostly her mother) have spent an infinite amount of time and patience trying to get their daughter to find a way to move forward. Sloan has refused. She has not agreed to go to any kind of therapy that has been suggested to her. She has only agreed to see someone who isn’t a therapist but rather part of regression hypnosis. She has stopped seeing all of her friends from before the killings. She has ‘deferred’ going to NYU for one year, but as we see in a sad scene halfway through the novel Sloan clearly has no intention of ever going to college. She hasn’t tried to get a job. She barely interacts with her parents. The only person she has any relationship with at all is Cherry, the other survivor of the massacre.

No one is happy with the relationship. Sloan’s parents believe that it is holding her back from moving forward with her life. They’re right, to be clear. What they don’t get is that is a toxic and one-sided relationship — for Cherry. Sloan has not been able to remember what happened to her after a certain point in the massacre but Cherry has. Sloan has been making Cherry tell her this story over and over. Most of their interactions when we meet them in the novel involve Cherry picking Sloan up from therapy which is the only part of the session Sloan looks forward to. They have spent weeks and months googling the crime and putting it on the wall of Cherry’s room as part of a collage. The two of them treat it as a game which at the end they get to make out. Cherry has also been doing a lot of things to help Sloan — she has been making flower arrangements for all the funerals they’ve gone too, she made a story up about one of the counselors to make him the hero, even though it’s clearly something that bothered her. Sloan has been sleeping at Cherry’s house because it’s the only time she can sleep at all. As the novel progresses, it’s increasingly clear how much wear this has been putting on Cherry, but she is doing this because she loves Sloan and wants to help her.

The problem is that Sloan has gotten to the point that she doesn’t want help, not really. There are numerous occasions throughout the novel that Sloan makes it clear she wished she had been killed to, which is sad but not uncommon. The old Sloan Allison effectively was killed along with everyone who actually got murdered, something she’s willing to acknowledge. The problem is there is no sign that Sloan has any interest in trying to move forward. She has fixated on the idea of the missing time because she thinks that if she remembers what happened to her, she can move on. But as the novel progresses, it increasingly becomes clear that’s just an excuse to stop her from doing anything to get better.

In the scenes with Sloan’s mother, Sloan sees how much damage she has done basically wearing her down to a nub. By this point only one of her friends from ‘before’ is still reaching out to her because she’s been shutting them out. Sloan has no interest in any part of her old life. She only cares about Cherry and that is clearly because of her connection to what happened. When Cherry increasingly tries to get her to move forward, and when she begins to take steps to get past the horrors, Sloan takes this as a betrayal even though there is never a moment in the entire novel where Cherry is anything but supportive of Sloan.

And the thing is Sloan knows it, but she doesn’t have the capacity to move forward. So she does what far too many people do in the aftermath of a tragedy: they go down a rabbit hole. In this case, it’s more literal. Sloan finds a box in Cherry’s home that has a rabbit carved on it. Cherry doesn’t want to share it with her. This starts a splinter in Sloan’s mind. When the lone survivor of the murders — “The Fox’ as they have nicknamed him — takes a plea, his sister reaches out. Sloan is convinced that she knows something about what happened. Cherry tells her nothing good can come from this. Under the guise of reconnecting Sloane convinces one of her friend Connor to drive her to an out of the way meeting place, something he clearly does not want to do.

Sloan meets with this woman who tells her about her younger brother and how he got involved with the group that called itself Morte Hominus and a man named Marco. It’s clear that his sister doesn’t believe any part of their rituals and thinks they were lunatics. But when Sloan learns that the leader of the cult called himself The Rabbit, Sloan goes catatonic and is now convinced that Cherry’s mother is part of the cult. Connor is horrified by her reaction — and even more horrified when she tells him that even if Cherry is part of the cult, that isn’t a reason to end the relationship.

Sloan begins to read a book which is Morte Hominus’ Bible. The moment she sees the first page she passes out. Cherry tries to convince her to leave the book alone and she agrees — but then notices pages are torn out.

By this point in the book Sloan is almost certainly beyond help. The final straw comes when Sloan learns that ‘The Fox’ has been reaching out to the survivors’, something everyone has gone out of their way to avoid mentioning to her. Sloan wants to accept his invitation. Not for closure or any kind of therapy. She wants to know if Cherry was part of the cult and she was left alive for a reason. When you are so far gone that you think that the person who killed eight people and utterly destroyed your life has anything constructive to say to you, there may be no way back.

As the novel continues Sloan’s mind has clearly fractured to the point that even when reality violates the narrative she has built for herself, she keeps trying to twist it to mean something that isn’t. She keeps acknowledging even to herself how gossamer thin the strands she’s weaving are for this conspiracy. The thing is, the longer the novel goes on, it’s clear that Sloan just can’t do it:

“She would come to terms with the fact she wasn’t special…That she survived a mass murder because of a random roll of the dice. That it could just have easily been (one of the other counselors sitting her with Cherry.”

But each time she refuses to turn away. Sloan is constantly being offered help throughout the novel. The last time her therapist sees her she tells her: “I can only help you if you want to be helped?” When Sloan says she does, the therapist asks: “Are you sure about that?” And by this point we know she doesn’t.

In the final act of the novel, Sloan is alone in her home going to see the Fox. Her mother is working early and staying late. Her father is constantly taking their brother to see friends.

“Sloan understood what they were really doing.

They were running. Running away from the monster in their house, the memory of what was lost. The shell of what remained. They ran from Sloan…and now Cherry was running too.

It was fine, Sloane thought, it was fine.”

The prison the Fox is being held in is in the town where the camp where the murders took place in. We understand going in just how horrible this must be for Cherry and how much she must love Sloan to be willing to do this for her. When they arrive at the prison, Cherry is clearly horrified just being there and Sloan is so detached she almost thinks of it as ‘disappointing’

I won’t reveal the ending of the novel, though at this point you might well be able to figure it out for yourself given Sloane’s degeneration to this point. There are certain elements that do fit the model of the horror film but the only monster still around is the one that made herself. In perhaps the most twisted way imaginable, you might even consider the final pages a happy ending. I have little doubt Sloan does.

The ending its worth noting would not be out of place on an episode of The X-Files — or Criminal Minds or Law and Order or any of so many procedurals we’ve become familiar with over the years. That said I am reminded of the conclusion of so many episodes of The X-Files over the years: the final bloody conclusion of a case and either Mulder or Scully in a detached fashion, narrating their final case notes to the viewer. They would be able to make sense out of what happened at the end of The Last Girls Standing far more than a liver-eating mutant or a giant bloodsucking worm or an alien conspiracy. Because we’ve met people like Sloane Allison before, even if they haven’t survived a trauma like this. We run into people who get lost in the dark and thinks that the people with flashlights are the ones who brought them there in the first place.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.