As my previously stated love of the novels Horrorstör and My Best Friend’s Exorcism will attest—not to mention my undying admiration for the absolutely stellar and beautifully-designed nonfiction work Paperbacks From Hell (which explores the horror paperback boom of the 1970s and 1980s)—Grady Hendrix has become easily one of my favorite horror writers working today. He seems to have hit upon a tremendously winning sweet spot in his stories, finding the perfect balance between heart, humor, thought-provoking themes, and brutal, squirm-inducing violence and gore. This formula, if you want to call it by so dismissive a term, may not work for everyone, but every single thing of his that I’ve read has just delighted the ever-loving shit out of me, and his 2020 novel The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is no exception.
Now, I may have mentioned this once or twice before, but vampires aren’t usually my go-to subgenre. I used to be really into them back in the 1980s when Anne Rice was big, but after a while, the monster started to become a bit stale for me. I still love lots of vampire media, but I rarely seek it out on purpose, and in fact I’ve had the experience recently (specifically when I read Dark Corner by Brandon Massey) of starting to read a book that I didn’t know was about vampires, and then becoming kind of disappointed when I realized it was about vampires (I still ended up enjoying Dark Corner overall, though).
That said, Hendrix’s book tells you right in the title that there’s going to be a vampire in it, so I wasn’t as blindsided and knew what to expect going in, or so I thought. The description of The Southern Book Club’s Guide… gives an elevator pitch likening the story to Dracula meets Steel Magnolias and Fried Green Tomatoes, and to an extent that’s accurate, but reader beware: if you’re expecting this to be some light and fluffy tale of a gaggle of proper Southern belles primly defeating bloodsuckers without even dislodging their church hats and in between sips of sweet tea, then you have another thing coming. The story starts out sort of like that, but it gets pretty gnarly as it goes on, and it tackles a lot of deeper issues than I expected, including rape and child sexual abuse, as well as racism, sexism, and classism in the American South during the late 1980s, although I will note that a dry sense of humor is still threaded throughout.
The story begins in 1988 in an affluent suburb of Charleston, South Carolina, and it’s largely told from the perspective of Patricia Campbell, a housewife whose husband Carter is a successful psychiatrist who works long hours and is rarely home. The pair have two children, a teenage daughter named Korey, and a son who’s about ten named Carter, Jr., but always referred to as Blue. Also living in the home is Carter’s mother, Miss Mary, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s.
The Campbell family have a seemingly idyllic life, but Patricia is bored, and wants more. She once worked as a nurse, which she found very fulfilling, but gave up her job when she married so that she could take care of the home and the children. Now she’s beginning to feel as though her contributions to the family aren’t really valued, and that she wants some excitement injected into her drab existence of constant cleaning, cooking, child and elderly care, and general household management. But because this is a very proper, very wealthy, very conservative suburb, there are only so many outlets for someone looking to spice up her life, so Patricia and her handful of friends—Grace, Kitty, Maryellen, and Slick—form a sort of loose book club.
At first, type-A Grace insists that the book club focus on great works of Western literature, but soon enough, the other women become bored to tears with Cry, The Beloved Country, and opt instead to read some lurid true crime, beginning with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Grace isn’t really down with this, but she eventually relents when she sees how lively the book club discussions become the more grisly the book they’re reading is. They tell their husbands they’re a Bible study group, though, because the men wouldn’t approve of their womenfolk reading such trash.
The first ripple of the deluge of horror to come is when Patricia is attacked in her own side yard by an elderly neighbor of hers with the apt name of Ann Savage. Ann has dementia, but it seems that something else might be at work here too, as Ann’s attack on Patricia is so severe that the old woman bites Patricia’s entire earlobe off and swallows it. The old woman subsequently dies after being carted off to the hospital.
It turns out that shortly before the attack, Ann’s nephew James Harris arrived in town to care for her. After Ann dies, Patricia tries to do the neighborly thing and take James some food, but she finds him in a bit of a bizarre state, and they get off on the wrong foot. The following evening, James returns and apologizes profusely for the misunderstanding, and from there, a friendship between James and Patricia begins to blossom. He seems lovely, and interesting, and although there are a few strange things about him—such as the fact that he claims to have lost his ID and needs help getting another one, and the fact that he has $85,000 in cash that he claims he found in Ann Savage’s crawlspace—Patricia opens her home to him, and the rest of the family also find him a delight, especially the kids. In fact, her husband Carter brings him in on a big real estate development deal that is going to make all the men in town a great deal of money.
Now, you know and I know that James is a vampire, but obviously, the characters in the novel wouldn’t jump to that conclusion immediately, as no one would in real life. Patricia only begins to suspect that something may not be entirely kosher about their charming new neighbor when she hears through their cleaning lady Mrs. Greene that children in the “black” part of town, Six Mile, have been disappearing, turning up dead, or committing suicide after some unexplained illness, and that each time, a white van has been spotted in the neighborhood: a white van that bears the same partial plates as James’s white van.
As the danger escalates, Patricia sees some very messed-up stuff with her own eyes, but the tension and terror here come not from trying to discover who the vampire is—since we know that right from the jump—but from the fact that Patricia knows that James is a monster, but absolutely no one except for Mrs. Greene believes her. Even when Patricia tries to do the smart thing and frame the whole situation as James selling drugs to kids or being a pedophile, she’s basically perceived to be losing her marbles; her friends largely turn their backs on her, her husband tries to put her on Prozac and absolutely will not listen to anything she has to say, and he even goes behind her back and sabotages her attempts to report James to the police. No one wants to believe that the charismatic, compassionate, helpful, and wealthy James is anything other than a totally stand-up guy, and no one in the upscale neighborhood wants to rock the boat just because a few kids in “that” part of town are dead.
The first part of the story, as I said, takes place in 1988, and after one particular event, it jumps ahead three years. We get inside Patricia’s head a great deal, and learn how guilty she feels about not being able to make anyone listen to her about what a threat James poses. Finally, though, with the help of Mrs. Greene and the rest of her book club, she decides she’s going to damn the consequences and try to rid the neighborhood of the bloodsucker once and for all.
This book was a fun, scary, and wildly entertaining ride from start to finish, and I was actually really sad when it ended because I wanted the story to just keep going. I loved the character of Patricia, and I will note here too that this is one of the best examples I’ve seen of a male writer portraying a female protagonist so well. The frustration she feels at being constantly gaslighted, not only by her husband and the other men in the neighborhood, but also by her own female friends, was so heart-wrenching, especially because you know that she’s right and that the vampire menace is eventually going to impact her own family in horrible ways.
The character of Slick was also a highlight; she’s a very evangelical Christian who believes Halloween is of the Devil and Satanists are hiding under every rock (1988, y’all, the struggle was real), and she could have easily become a caricature or a figure of derision in the story, but she’s complex, fleshed out, honorable, and heroic. One of the best things about Hendrix’s writing, I think, is the genuine sympathy he seems to feel for all his characters, however flawed they may be.
The story also touches on a lot of interesting themes without being heavy-handed, including the subtle and not-so-subtle racism operating in the American South; the way the affluent view the lower classes; the way being wealthy and charming can let you get away with pretty much anything; the devaluing of the work housewives do to keep their families and households functioning; and just the belittling of women’s opinions and interests in general by certain types of men. It’s done in a sort of dryly humorous way, but it brings a real depth to the story.
Keep in mind that if you’re squeamish at all, please don’t go into this thinking it’s going to be some breezy romp, because this thing gets pretty disgusting at times, especially if you weren’t expecting it. If you have a phobia of rats or cockroaches in particular, you might want to stay far away, and there is also a pretty nasty rape scene and the aftermath described, as well as pretty fucked-up shit happening to children, and a very graphic dismemberment. I saw a few reviews on Goodreads from people who were expecting this book to be a cute, light-hearted little comedy because of the title and the description, but then were shocked when the gross shit started happening, so just be warned if that’s not your bag. This book does have humor in it, but make no mistake, it’s definitely horror with a capital H.
Grady Hendrix has been consistently great in every single book of his that I’ve read, and I’m absolutely looking forward to plowing through the rest of his catalogue over the next few months.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.