I remember the first time I held a Grady Hendrix book in my hand. It was the summer of 2017. I remember a distinct dearth of good books, and a kind of mounting anxiety that maybe I would never read a good book again. I’d read a string of novels in a row for review purposes, all of them failing to grab me, failing to stir any passion. I remember wondering whether I was just burned out or that maybe I’d underestimated the rose-tint of nostalgia. That as an adult, I was never going to re-discover that childhood mania for reading, where every word seemed the most exciting thing in the world. It was me and not the books that was changing. Or, so I wondered.
Then, there was My Best Friend’s Exorcism.
As I began to read that book, I experienced two things. Firstly, something rekindled within me. Corny, I know. But it was exactly that feeling, a little flame coming to life inside me. Excitement, hope, awe. The second, was the opposite element: water. I felt like I was being caught in a powerful undertow. The prose sucked me along in its current and suddenly, like a child staying awake past their bedtime to read, I literally could not put this book down. It had been a long, long time since I’d experienced the sensation of being in the palm of an author’s hand; complete narrative control. I was a school-kid again, reading Stephen King. I was totally lost in the world of 80s America in the grip of Satanic Panic. I was totally lost in the friendship between these two girls: Abby and Gretchen. When I got to the final line of the book, I broke down into tears and wept. I was staggered, awe-struck. Here was writing that exemplified the entire reason I had become a writer in the first place; it struck directly to the heart and pulled no punches.
Needless to say, I became a mega-fan of Grady Hendrix in that moment. I would later go on to read his previous novel Horrorstor, about a haunted Ikea, and also read and review We Sold Our Souls, his metal-themed follow up about conspiracies and troglodytes. I would even go back to his less known self-published title: Satan Loves You, a satire and reinvention of Dante Alighieri. I have yet to read a bad book by Grady Hendrix.
Now, we get The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires. Here, Hendrix takes on Bram Stoker, re-imagining the vampire-tale in an exquisitely modern way: pitching middle-aged housewives against a four-hundred year old monster. In Grady’s own words: “It’s not a fair fight.”
The story is set in the late-eighties and early nineties – incidentally right around the time I was growing up. We follow Patricia Campbell, a housewife with two kids, Blue and Korey, that have moved into a new area, the Old Village. The idyllic ways of the Old Village typify a bygone era of neighbourly concern and friendship. Patricia soon meets a group of woman that have started a book club, but unlike stereotypical reading groups, the five wives favour books about serial killers and monsters over romance or “classics”. However, soon, the book club finds a real monster in their midst, a monster that threatens their families and children.
Much like in the original Dracula, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires has an element of ensemble, a group of people that must come together to stop a threat that is bigger than all of them. Each member of the book club is unique and has their own problems they’re railing against outside of the main narrative. Slick, for example, has to lie to her husband that it’s a Bible-reading class, because he disapproves of such “un-Christian” content; she wrestles with her Christian values against her friendships and desire to face the very real darkness they’re up against. Grace Cavanagh is obsessive in her desire to keep her household neat and under control – and will shut down anything that she deems a threat to the sanity and order of her life, thereby ignoring the reality of the situation. But, it is the husbands that prove the secondary antagonists in the narrative, dismissing and opposing the book club’s attempts to thwart the real villain of the piece: James Harris.
James Harris. A drifter, a handsome charisma-font that walks into their lives one day, promising the world. For the first ten- to twenty-percent of the book, I feel like Hendrix traces old ground, re-familiarising us with the tropes of the vampire. It is after this twenty-percent mark that things get really interesting with James Harris. The psycho-sexual threat he poses is in no way dumbed down, but rather, turned up to eleven. It’s interesting that in many ways he does not try to seduce the women. It’s the men he’s after. He speaks their language, walks their walk, knows the quickest way to their hearts and minds. It’s the men that dance to his tune. The women are naturally mistrustful, though Patricia, in her secret heart of hearts, cannot help but feel a certain forbidden desire brewing.
But James is also repulsive and pathetic – and it’s this that makes him a breath of fresh air. We’ve seen a million and one dastardly “Counts”, and a few outright flesh-eating monster-men, but we haven’t seen many cretins like Harris. Hendrix focuses more on the parasitic dimension to vampirism than the romantic or Gothic. Harris is a tick, a leech, in more ways than one. He has infiltrated the book club’s families’ lives and now they can’t get rid of him. He is financially latched onto them, as well as physically. But the most disturbing aspect of him is his predatory approach to children. I won’t say any more, lest I spoil the book, but Grady Hendrix unflinching goes there. If you think, after the first six or seven chapters, that this book is too soft a take on vampires, I encourage you to read on. Unlike Bram Stoker, Grady Hendrix does not have the tricky issue of Victorian prudence to circumnavigate. Harris really is a monster: in form, deed, and nature.
Due to some of the playful ways Grady Hendrix approaches his blurbs and Twitter, I think there is a mistaken idea he is more tongue-in-cheek than real horror. This is a mistaken assumption: his books are some of the scariest I’ve ever read. Even within the first few chapters of The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, there is a home-invasion that made my every hair stand on end (and subtly mirrors a similar scene in Dracula, updating it with a modern twist). Furthermore, some of James Harris’ unspeakable acts later in the novel are gut-wrenching and extremely disturbing. You’ve been warned.
Grady Hendrix is also the author of Paperback From Hell, a non-fiction examination of horror through the ages, and he puts his encyclopedic knowledge of horror and crime to good use here in taking us through the book club’s reading list, a list that has symbolic significance for the main plot of the novel. Ted Bundy is mentioned more than a few times. There are parallels to be drawn between him and Harris, but they are quietly evoked. In fact, subtle symbolism is the name of the game in The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. Hendrix spends a lot of time carefully placing objects in our field of vision, a little like an auteurist film director with a penchant for visual storytelling, only for those objects to then blossom with meaning at a later stage. He weaves together the interior lives of the five women with the exterior events seamlessly. There is a disturbing scene later in the book in which a floor strewn with Monopoly money becomes allegorical – I won’t say of what, but you get the idea that there is more to even these small things and they are inextricably tied with the main thematic plot in often surprising ways. Never does his symbolism feel forced or too on-the-nose. Hendrix works in his symbols and imbeds them deep in the narrative, so that their significance becomes almost like subliminal messaging, felt even if not consciously understood.
His messages are similarly subtle. For example, Hendrix always weaves in feminist notes into the narrative. The husbands suppress the book club, and you hate them for it. But none of the men are caricatures of evil, they’re just weak people caught up their own pretensions and the lies of a far stronger man. And you can see why they don’t believe Patricia: she doesn’t always make the best case. In fact, sometimes Patricia is downright stupid, but not for the sake of the plot or in order to create suspense – but rather she’s simply someone who feels before she thinks. It’s this depth of feeling, however, that makes her such a good friend, that motivates her to risk everything to stop the awful things that are happening.
But Patricia is not the stereotype of the “emotional woman”. She’s clever in her own way, a leader who is finally able to bring everyone together and lay the trap for the terrible monster that is haunting their lives – risky though that trap is. Harris underestimates the book club. Severely. Patricia proves herself to be a fearless hero. Though not my favourite of Hendrix’s heroins, Patricia grew on me throughout The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, and there is a moment of beautiful schadenfreude in the subplot of this novel which centres around Patricia and her husband Carter’s deteriorating relationship. This book is full of moments like this, because Hendrix understands that even with a vampire on the loose, the most intriguing aspect of any story is always the human and emotional core. We come to understand just how much mothers will give for their children, and that sometimes the hardest, strongest people are the ones who just get on with it, the ones we think of as background.
On that note, there’s a subtle note of the West’s institutional and ingrained racism here. Mrs Greene, a black house cleaner from Six Mile, has known about James for a while. Children have been going missing from Six Mile for a while. But no one cares, because the children are black, and those track marks on the central artery on their thighs, well, we all know that most people from Six Mile are users, don’t we? The backward attitudes of even seemingly enlightened people is made evident in the book club’s responses to Patricia’s remonstrations, and even, to a degree, Patricia’s only sluggishness to act and believe. Yet never does this become a diatribe directed at the reader, more, a sensitive and realistic observation on the fallibility of even people with the best intentions. We’re all, in some way, selfish. We don’t like dealing with problems until they turn up on our doorstep.
Grady Hendrix’s work always strikes to the heart, partly because he (ironically given some of his titles) never demonises anyone. Even James Harris is, in some awful and strange way, a sympathetic character, and there emerges from him a kind of litany of self-justification and regret that exposes just how alone and afraid he really is. The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is one of Grady Hendrix’s best books, and he is possibly my favourite author. I have to admit that I had a significant degree of trepidation when I started reading this novel. I love Dracula, but I was getting pretty tired of vampire novels. If you’re feeling the same way, I encourage you to give it a try anyway. This isn’t like any other vampire novel ever written: it’s scarier, painfully realistic, and disturbing to the max. It’s similar to other vampire books in only one capacity: it ends with blood.
The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires is published by Quirk Books and is available here.
Grady Hendrix is a novelist and screenwriter based in New York City. His novels include Horrorstör, named one of the best books of 2014 by National Public Radio, and My Best Friend’s Exorcism, for which the Wall Street Journal dubbed him “a national treasure.” The Bram Stoker Award winning Paperbacks from Hell, a survey of outrageous horror novels of the 1970s and ’80s, was called “pure, demented delight” by the New York Times Book Review. He’s contributed to Playboy, The Village Voice, and Variety.
Reviewed by Joseph Sale
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