Review: The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix
Updated: May 31, 2020
WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.
This is a book that I think can best be described as horror meets true crime meets Southern Gothic. Yes, I am aware that that is a genre that does not sound like it should work - but hoo boy, it absolutely does. The central characters are a group of Southern Carolinian housewives who form a true-crime book club in the early 1990s, and they are matched with a vampire who is also a scam artist, and they have to take him down when he starts preying on their families and their children. Sound like a wild ride? It was.
Before I get into my proper review of this book, let me just get a big huge rant off my chest: the men in this book are the worst. The actual, fucking worst. The real horror of this horror novel is how shitty all of these men are to their wives.
The main climax of the novel centers around Patricia Campbell and her book club friends and her conviction that James Harris, a neighbor who moves in, is dangerous (he's a vampire, but that doesn't become relevant until later in the book). She convinces her friends, who all believe her, and then their husbands gang up on them behind their backs to agree that their wives are silly, and have too much time on their hands, and that they can't possibly be right about James Harris because they've all invested in the same company as him and so they know better than they do. James Harris manipulates all of the husbands into manipulating Patricia and humiliating her in front of her friends. Carter, Patricia's husband, goes all pompous psychiatrist on her and gives her pills that she doesn't want to take; turns her kids against her by telling them she's unstable and suicidal and forcing medical care she doesn't want on her (he has her strapped to a hospital bed against her will). The husbands all gaslight and manipulate their wives and none of them respect their wives or listen to anything they have to say, and dismiss all of their concerns and opinions with "well you're not a professional, so..." Carter moves his mother-in-law in with them and then never takes care of her, leaving her entirely to his wife. He never does any of the cooking or the dishes or the laundry or the housework or any of the looking after the kids, but is still convinced he knows best and Patricia has to completely fall in line with him and his opinions and if she doesn't, she must be crazy. And all of the husbands do this. Grace (another book club woman)'s husband beats her. One of the climactic scenes in the novel is when James Harris turns the tables on the book club ladies and takes them in all in, and the husbands are so pompous, so dismissive, so manipulative, so downright horrible in that scene that I actually shook the book and screamed, and was so incandescent with rage that I had to step away and storm around my house for several minutes before I could come back to it. I hate them. I hate them all so much. They are all the fucking worst and I wish the vampire had eaten them.
Okay, now onto my review.
This is a really well-written horror book. I'm not a big horror reader, but within 20 pages of this novel I was completely hooked and had to keep reading. The pacing in the book is superb - the way it builds up to not one, but two big climactic scenes, both utterly horrific in their own way (the scene with the husbands and the scene where the book club ladies dismember the vampire - and the fact that the scene with the husbands leaves you with a more sinking sensation in your stomach than the vampire ones is a brilliant, brilliant piece of non-obvious political writing that so many other fiction writers could stand to learn from); the way the creepiness layers and layers onto the story so that it starts with slight chills and ends in actual stomach-churning grossness. Every moment of horror is so finely tuned it is pitch-perfect, and elicited the whole range of emotions that they were meant to (there's one scene where Patricia is hiding from James in his attic and a cockroach starts crawling over her face- reader, that was more horrific than anything the vampire ever actually did). Grady Hendrix has also created a wonderfully immersive setting - South Carolina in the early 90s - and characters that are so real, so vividly drawn, so utterly perfect in the little details of their characterization that they leap out of the page.
And, most importantly for any horror/thriller novel, this book is so insanely gripping. I could not physically put it down and sped throughout in one day because I had to find out what happened next more than I needed to eat, or shower, or sleep. The writing is brilliant - the scene setting and the pacing (as mentioned above), but also all the little details that build to the world of the novel feeling so claustrophobic, and the sense of horror being barely kept at arm's length by the sheer will of the central characters; the dialogue was snappy and witty and the internal monologue of the narrator, Patricia, was intriguing and nuanced and developed in a way you often don't get when male writers craft female narrators. I also give points for the originality of the story - vampires are nothing new, but putting a vampire in the Deep South, making him a conman, and pitting him against a group of true-crime obsessed housewives? It shouldn't work, but Grady Hendrix has crafted such a wonderful example of the horror novel that it's hard to believe this book hasn't been written long before. And each of the central women is a distinct individual who fights against her own set of circumstances in a way that feels very true to the motivations of the character as a person - again, in a way that not many male authors can successfully do.
I do, however, have to take some points off for Hendrix's rendition of the white savior complex. I think his narrative is meant to serve as an implicit critique of the internalized racism (and overt racism, in some cases) of the South and the main (white) characters in the way they treat, dismiss, and ultimately try and set themselves up as saviors of the black community close to their neighborhood - but it falls really flat. The criticism of that was both too subtle and too ham-fisted to be seen as anything other than a paltry attempt that smacks a bit of tokenism, and should have been much more developed to serve satisfactorily as criticism of the phenomenon. Also, it isn't great that the only black character of any note is basically just a cleaning lady, and that her main personality trait is that she's a good housekeeper. In fact, that's rather bad. Not enough attention is paid to the fact that the vampire goes after the black community because he knows it won't be treated with enough attention to serve adequately as criticism of the fact that that statement was true in the 90s and continues to be painfully true today. In a book that was so painfully aware of the misogyny directed at the main white female characters, it's embarrassingly lacking that the criticism of the racism and the intersectionality of racism and misogyny that Mrs. Greene faces is less developed and less incisive.
This book was a gripping, unput-downable read and also genuinely terrifying. It's gripping and immersive and laugh-out-loud funny in parts. It'll miss out on my top 10 of 2020 list for the lack of awareness in dealing with racism, but if you can bear that in mind, I do recommend this book.