In his latest horror novel, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, Grady Hendrix pits a group of suburban housewives against an immortal monster, and as he warns us in his author’s note, “It’s not a fair fight.” This surprising tale manages to upend expectations at every turn and defies the annoying stereotype that women after a certain age become invisible and insignificant. The book club members of the Old Village in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, are anything but ordinary. Oh sure, they might look that way from the outside, warming up dinners and vacuuming curtains, but these are sharp, formidable women. Underestimate them at your peril.
Even before she’s attacked by a rabid elderly neighbor, former nurse turned full-time mom Patricia Campbell is struggling. She’s struggling to get her husband’s attention, to understand her teenage children, and to care for her dementia-addled mother-in-law. Hendrix shows the frustrations of middle-aged life, no blood or gore required. Without pandering, he manages to convey the challenges of keeping a household running, day after day, with little appreciation. But meeting a handsome, charming vampire definitely doesn’t make Patricia’s life easier.
At first, she’s happy to have a new face at her dinner table, especially one who distracts from her surly daughter and Nazi-obsessed son. But Patricia quickly becomes suspicious of their light-sensitive neighbor who leaves dead bodies in his wake. Unfortunately, she’s the only one around who seems to care at first. Hendrix conveys the mental pain of being dismissed as paranoid. Patricia reads and re-reads Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry about the Manson family, comforting herself with cult leader Charles Manson’s sentencing. “She needed to assure herself,” Hendrix writes, “that not all men got away with it, not every time.” Hendrix also captures the spirit of the #MeToo movement and its justified anger about the way powerful men can commit crimes with impunity if nobody believes their victims — and especially if a community stands to profit from looking away.
But Patricia’s troubles are nothing compared to the poor, black community of Six Mile. In that part of town, a string of children’s deaths barely gets the attention of local police or newspapers. Families are left on their own, and mothers like Mrs. Greene take matters into their own hands, going so far as to send their kids away. As Mrs. Greene’s employer, Patricia is an unlikely ally, but soon the pair team up.
Throughout this novel, Hendrix emphasizes the many over the few. This is not a hero’s story, though we certainly root for Patricia from page one. No, if we learned anything from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it’s that defeating an immortal cannot be done alone. Not only do Mrs. Greene and Patricia work together, but Patricia ropes in the members of her true crime-obsessed book club, laying out the case for them clue by clue. And yet at every turn, it seems like the villain will outsmart them. Hendrix is a master of suspense.
While the premise of this novel may sound like camp — and there’s definitely a healthy dose of humor in these pages — the violence is terrifying. Hendrix pulls off a seemingly impossible trick: writing about monsters and murders without losing the charm you’d expect from the title. The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is a delight and not just for horror fans. It could be seen as a companion novel to his wildly popular My Best Friend’s Exorcism, which explores how teenagers might react to demonic possession.
Hendrix is also the author of Horrorstör, about a haunted Ikea, and Paperbacks from Hell (which won the Bram Stoker Award), a critical analysis of horror novels from the ’70s and ’80s. It’s fair to say that Hendrix has something of a reputation to uphold, and his latest offering does not disappoint. Perhaps because Hendrix is so well versed in his genre, he feels comfortable subverting expectations. This story escalates tension and violence without ever losing its heart. Ultimately, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is as much about the power of friendship as the danger of monsters.
Erica Wright is the author of four crime novels and two poetry collections. Famous in Cedarville was released in October 2019. Now a senior editor at Guernica, she grew up in Wartrace and received her M.F.A. from Columbia University.
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