Just two posts ago, I sang the many praises of Grady Hendrix, a contemporary horror author whose books are whip-smart, woke, frequently hilarious, and scary as hell. It might seem a bit soon to do that all over again, but that’s how good his brand new novel The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is. Set during the 1990s in an affluent suburb of Charleston, SC, the novel is told from the perspective of unhappy housewife Patricia Campbell. With a family who needs her less and less — and who she understands less and less — our protagonist pours herself into the local book club. In it, Patricia and the neighborhood’s other lonely mothers devour true crime paperbacks like Helter Skelter and The Stranger Beside Me while also deepening their friendships with one another. But a bit of real excitement finally comes into her life with the arrival of a young, sexy, immensely likable new neighbor named James Harris. He lavishes some much-needed attention on Patricia and makes her feel useful again by having her run a few important, daytime errands for him (he has a medical condition that makes him sensitive to light, you see). She also finds herself called to do more than simply read about true crime when unusual amounts of weirdness and violence start creeping into the community. As the title suggests, Patricia’s investigations lead to the shocking discovery that James Harris is a vampire. Though her senile mother-in-law Miss Mary and Black housekeeper Mrs. Greene have reasons to believe her, any hope of defeating this threat will depend on convincing and recruiting the rest of her book club. “With this book, I wanted to pit a man freed from all responsibilities but his appetites against women whose lives are shaped by their endless responsibilities,” Hendrix writes in a reflective and affectionate author’s note. “I wanted to pit Dracula against my mom.” To this end, he incorporates some jolting, real-life horror into the proceedings; this depiction of vampirism is a very far cry from not only Bela Lugosi but also the self-serious bloodsucking that has become a fixture of contemporary popular culture. Among other things, James Harris knowingly exploits structural racism by preying on Charleston’s poor Black community and uses rape as a weapon in his war with the book club. In order to thwart Patricia and her friends’ attempts at slaying him, he also takes full advantage of the sexism, male chauvinism, and domestic violence that exists in their respective homes. In this way, Hendrix is absolutely not kidding when he says that this imagined battle between Dracula and his mom is “not a fair fight”: the vampire has a small army of (somewhat) unwitting assistants in the “traditional” husbands of the book club’s members. (For those who might be wondering, Linda H. Codega helpfully enumerates a list of potential trauma triggers in her review of the novel for Tor.com.) Vanquishing him, then, requires that the book club take some pretty big swings at the patriarchy. Luckily, these women are up to the challenge, just as the heroines of the author’s previous books all were. And, like those other novels, following these characters as they find the courage to rise up and face their enemy makes for an electrifying reading experience. It definitely helps that Hendrix is working at the highest level when it comes to generating edge-of-your-seat suspense. (In particular, a scene set in James Harris’s attic gave me a case of the willies that I will not soon forget.) Additionally, his unsentimental and unsparing view of the South — which recalls his warts-and-all depictions of heavy metal subcultures in 2018’s We Sold Our Souls — really draws the reader into the book club’s world. In fact, the publisher might be doing the novel something of a disservice by continuing to market it as “Steel Magnolias meets Dracula”: quite unlike Steel Magnolias, there is nothing about the South that is even remotely romanticized in The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. It is much more accurately described in a blurb from fellow writer Paul Tremblay, who notes that the author “re-creates a time and place without the dangerous, distortive lens of nostalgia.” Between this mature political consciousness, the expertly delivered thrills and chills, and the delectable set-up, there is every possibility that Hendrix’s book will become a favorite among those who like their horror with maximum intelligence and a good sense of humor. Indeed, they might even come away from it with a new answer to the question, “Who ya gonna call?”
This title, like all others featured in the “Readers’ Advisory” section of this website, has been independently reviewed. However, if you buy a copy of the book using the link provided on this site, I may earn an affiliate commission from Bookshop.org, whose mission is to “financially support local, independent bookstores.”
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