The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is a novel by Grady Hendrix, whose previous works include such titles as Horrorstör (2014), My Best Friend’s Exorcism (2016), We Sold Our Souls (2018), and his non-fictional history of the paperback boom, Paperbacks from Hell (2017). In 2018, We Sold Our Souls was named one of the best books of 2018 by Library Journal and the Chicago Public Library. If you aren’t a Hendrix fan yet, what are you waiting for? Hendrix is just as masterful at writing character-driven page-turners as he is creating clever, attention-grabbing titles. The Southern Book Club, with its charming characters, biting social commentary, and a healthy dose of gore, may just be my newest favourite of his works.
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is a southern vampire thriller set largely in the ’90s. The novel opens with a scene of pure horror: Patricia Campbell, housewife and former nurse, prepares to attend and lead a book club meeting despite the fact that she didn’t read the book. Thankfully for Patricia, following her very public humiliation, she and four other women abandon future meetings of this particular book club in order to create their own. Rather than pretend to read high-brow novels and canonical literature, this new book club instead commits to reading macabre true crime selections. Just as Patricia gains newfound friendship and interests through this rogue book club, she also faces a lot of personal hardships: she is the primary caregiver of her live-in mother-in-law, whose health is rapidly declining, her husband, Carter, is distant and unattentive, and Patricia feels unfulfilled by her life as a housewife. The vital friendship she gains from her fellow book club members helps to support her through these difficulties, but when a mysterious stranger named James Harris moves into town, Patricia’s life bursts at the seams.
While my spoiler-free summary may make this novel sound like it obeys the traditional vampire formula, don’t be fooled. In the “Author’s Note” that Hendrix provides at the book’s front, he explains that he “wanted to pit Dracula against my mom.” While this fight isn’t fair, as Hendrix admits, it’s also the sort of vampire battle that horror fans have yet to witness. It allows Hendrix to depict two American archetypes: the housewife and what he terms the “rambling man.” In his depiction of vampire-as-rambling-man, Hendrix uses the true crime genre to his advantage. Paralleling the gory books that Patricia and her friends read, the mysterious James Harris behaves more like a Ted Bundy than a traditional Dracula figure. Despite the various warning signs and red flags that Harris’s behaviour sets off, Patricia’s friends and family refuse to believe that he’s anything but a charming neighbour. His handsome features and wealth help the Old Village residents to ignore the fact that he has thousands of dollars in cash stashed in a bag, has no ID card, has a condition that prevents him from staying out too long in the sun, or that his ugly white van was witnessed in a nearby town where children suddenly have a habit of disappearing and dying. Harris never uses any sort of vampiric charming power, nor is this ever needed; the locals are charmed by the same persuasive powers Bundy used: looks, intellect, and a display of wealth and normalcy.
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Hendrix further blends the two genres of vampire thriller and true crime narrative in his depiction of the victims. When Harris first moves in, his first victims are mainly black children from a working-class neighbourhood, Six Mile, near the wealthy and white Old Village. The police fail to listen to the locals of this town, all of whom seem to believe that a stranger is kidnapping and killing the children. Instead, the police blame the parents or the children themselves, citing substance abuse, child abuse, and suicide. This official lack of care is paralleled with the ways that Patricia and the other Old Villagers help those outside of their neighbourhood. The reader is encouraged to make the connection between James Harris’s literal consumption of the children of Six Mile and the Old Village denizen’s use of Six Mile and its residents to increase their comfort and wealth. James Harris manages to get a number of Old Village men to invest in Gracious Cay, a development project featuring houses with a fashionable “nouveau plantation” design. While this project initially yields a considerable amount of income for the Old Village investors, it also forces many residents within Six Mile to move out of their homes, no longer able to afford to stay. Additionally, despite the fact that Mrs Greene, a resident of Six Mile, worked for the Campbell family and cared for Miss Mary in her final days, it proves to be incredibly easy for Patricia to forget about Mrs Greene rather than help her. It is not until the children of Old Village are the target of James Harris’s insatiable thirst that Patricia manages to enlist herself and her book club to join forces with Mrs Greene and protect the children. Hendrix demonstrates the ways in which wealthy Americans leach off of the working-class. This form of consumption most obviously ties to the vampire genre, but it also works well with his true-crime angle, as many serial killers, from Jack the Ripper to Jeffrey Dahmer, evade capture at least partly due to their selection of poor and largely ignored victims.
Beyond boasting an exciting new take on the vampire thriller, Grady Hendrix also excels in his portrayal of The Southern Book Club’s characters. In particular, each member of the titular book club feels fully fleshed-out and real. I found myself deeply caring for these women, which helped to make James Harris feel truly threatening. I was most surprised by Slick, the deeply religious member of the book club who had to lie to her husband that they were studying the Bible rather than books recounting grisly murders in order to be able to attend the meetings. I didn’t think that I could sympathize with and care for a character who hates Halloween so much she feels the need to throw a “Reformation Party” to “save” the neighbourhood teens, but here we are. I was also struck by how well Hendrix created his novel’s antagonist, the monstrous yet handsome James Harris. Hendrix could have easily phoned it in and made Harris just like any other vampire. Instead, Hendrix provides a completely new take, one that borrows a bit from American true crime lore to create a character that is as unknowable as he is terrifyingly realistic.
Finally, I have to celebrate Hendrix’s incredible ability to write truly disgusting scenes. I’m pretty sure this was my first experience actually cringing just from reading some gross-out prose. There are two scenes that particularly come to mind: one involves a ridiculous amount of rats, the other features a cockroach. Here’s a taste:
The roach crawled down the side of her face, over her ear, probing inside her ear canal with its antenna, then, drawn by the warmth, its legs began to scrabble into her ear. Oh, God, she wanted to moan. Please, please, please, please… She felt the antenna waving, exploring deep inside her ear, and it sent cold shivers down her spine, and bile boiled up her throat, and she pressed her tongue against the roof of her mouth, and felt the bile fill her sinuses, and the legs were inside her ear now, and its wings were fluttering delicately against the top of her ear canal, and she felt it crush its body into her ear.
I believe that Hendrix’s scenes of nasty prose serve a dual purpose. First, they provide a thrill that I previously believed only horror movies directed by the likes of Sam Raimi or David Cronenberg could deliver. Secondly, because these moments are so reminiscent of scenes featured in 1980’s and 1990’s horror films, they add to the temporal setting of the novel, allowing for a completely nostalgic experience. Reading this novel brought me back to the pure, gross-out ecstasy I experienced while watching Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 (1987)and Jim Muro’s Street Trash (1987) for the first time.
I’m so grateful that I was able to read The Southern Book Club during my first week of working from home and social distancing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. If you’re looking for something to sink your fangs into (sorry, I had to!) while under quarantine, this is that book. It’s a real page-turner, complete with characters who feel like old friends, fantastic humour, and all the gore horror fans crave.
The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix is published by Quirk Books.