The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix
Patricia Campbell and her neighbors are housewives in Charleston, South Carolina. Looking for friendship and something to talk about other than their husbands, children, housekeeping, and other neighbors, they form a book club. True Crime is their genre of choice.
After the ladies read Helter Skelter, Patricia laments that nothing exciting ever happens in their neighborhood:
“But don’t you wish that something exciting would happen around here?” Patricia asked. “Just once?”
Grace raised her eyebrows at Patricia.
“You wish that a gang of unwashed hippies would break into your house and murder your family and write ‘death to pigs’ in human blood on your walls because you don’t want to pack lunches anymore?”
“Well, not when you put it like that,” Patricia said. “Your camellias look wonderful.”
Things finally do get interesting in their sleepy suburb when a handsome stranger named James Harris arrives to take care of his elderly aunt and to find investors for a new housing development. When the aunt dies of a mysterious degenerative illness, leaving James her house, and then the housekeeper dies, and then black children across town begin disappearing or dying, too, Patricia gets suspicious of their new neighbor.
But nobody wants to listen to Patricia’s concerns because James is now one of them and the investments are making their families rich. Patricia’s husband and friends say she’s reading too many crime novels. So, in an effort to protect the children on both sides of town, Patricia sets out to uncover the truth. But it just may destroy her marriage, her children, her friendships, her neighborhood, and even her own life.
I’ve mentioned before that I don’t read much horror. The truth is that I’m a wimp. But I make occasional exceptions, especially for Grady Hendrix whose novel We Sold Our Souls, I loved. I tend to like his settings, characters, and sense of humor and, as a Southerner, I knew I’d enjoy a story about Southern housewives in a book club. Plus, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires (2020) is a finalist for the Locus Award for Best Horror Novel, so that was another reason to give it a try.
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, which is set in the late 1980s to mid 90s, begins with an author’s note in which Hendrix explains that when he was growing up in that suburb in Charleston, he thought his mom, a housewife, was a “lightweight” who did nothing but run errands, drive carpool, attend a book club, and make up dumb rules. Now, as an adult, he realizes how much his mother and her friends secretly endured to protect their kids from pain. At the end of the introduction, he says “I wanted to pit Dracula against my mom. As you’ll see, it’s not a fair fight.”
I loved most of this story and could totally relate to Patricia Campbell and the Southern ladies in her book club. Hendrix gets this just right – their propriety, modesty, and politeness. These ladies are not your typical urban fantasy’s leather-clad kickass heroines. They’re graceful and mannered, but they’re also loyal and protective, and they can be fierce when they must be. The book is often hilarious as Hendrix juxtaposes these traits.
As expected, there were several scenes that really grossed me out including one that triggered my one and only true phobia (so as not to spoil the plot, I won’t say what that is). I finished the book last night before bed and had some pretty rough nightmares.
But, other than these few terrifying scenes, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is entertaining and amusing. There were a few places where I got frustrated by Patricia’s reckless decisions, implausible reactions, and her refusal to call the police at crucial moments but, for the most part, I understood her, and it made me laugh when one of her kids asked what’s for dinner while she was reading a book and she answered the same way I always do: “Food.”
Patricia’s best ally is Mrs. Greene, a black woman from across town who sometimes works in their houses. I loved how Hendrix portrayed Mrs. Greene and her community and managed to address issues such as inequalities in housing, news coverage, and policing, and the problems of gentrification. Patricia and her friends would never think of themselves as “racist” but, looking back from 2021, it’s obvious to us now that they unwittingly facilitated these injustices. I also like how Hendrix, while using housewife stereotypes to provide amusement, never belittles them and, instead, highlights the important work they do for their families:
“There are more important things than cleaning,” Patricia said.
Grace stopped, holding the last two saucers in her hand, and turned on Patricia, eyes blazing.
“Why do you pretend what we do is nothing?” she asked. “Every day, all the chaos and messiness of life happens and every day we clean it all up. Without us, they would just wallow in filth and disorder and nothing of consequence would ever get done. Who taught you to sneer at that? I’ll tell you who. Someone who took their mother for granted.”
It turns out that these housewives’ mundane skills will be crucial for slaying a vampire!
If a hilarious but horrifying story about Southern housewives sounds like your thing, I urge you to pick up The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. The audiobook (Blackstone Publishing) is really spectacular because it’s narrated by actress Bahni Turpin who is always so amazing. She’s one of the best in the business and is particularly effective when there’s humor in the story – she’s so funny.