Review: Grady Hendrix's new vampire book a Southern-fried feminist delight
It feels weird to call a blood-soaked horror novel writhing with creepy-crawlies a delight, but these are strange times, and indie horror writer Grady Hendrix ("My Best Friend’s Exorcism”) is the patron saint of strange.
His latest, “The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires” (Quirk, 410 pp., ★★★½ out of four), is as unexpected as its title, a Southern-fried feminist take on well-worn lore that makes it feel fresh. Hendrix dispenses of the coffins, wooden stakes, crucifixes and garlic cloves, instead rooting his horror in the everyday of true crime. Vampires, after all, were the original serial killers.
Patricia Campbell’s book club knows a lot about true crime – it’s pretty much the sole literary focus of this seemingly genteel group of housewives in 1990s Charleston, South Carolina. Their reading list includes perennial classics, like Ann Rule’s “The Stranger Beside Me,” about her friendship with serial killer Ted Bundy, and “Helter Skelter,” about the Charles Manson murders, as well as some even more bloody books.
Coronavirus reading:10 inspirational books that offer advice on how to live in tough times
Yes, the women take some perverse pleasure in reading about man's perversions. “All right,” one says, gleefully pouring wine from a jug. “Let’s talk about axe murder!” But mostly it’s a conduit for much-needed feminine bonding. Patricia’s life is, by all appearances, an enviable one: She’s married to a successful doctor and lives in a nice house with her two adolescent children, Korey and Blue. Only she’s never been more distant from her husband, who’s constantly away at work (or is he?), and Blue has taken up an unsettling interest in Nazis. The grisly true-crime books – along with the wine and camaraderie – are a pressure valve that let off some of Patricia’s pent-up frustrations.
Then, as so many true-crime stories start, a stranger comes to town.
James Harris is a tall and charming man with honied words that easily make sense of the inexplicable: why he has a sack full of tens of thousands of dollars in cash, for instance, or why he doesn’t have any identification to open a bank account, or why exposure to sunlight makes him so sick. What’s more, he likes to read, and when he starts talking books with Patricia, she’s a little bit of putty in his hands. When he goes in on an investment opportunity with the husbands of book club, he becomes a fixture in the community.
Then weird things start to happen. And children start to die.
Amidst the blood bath that ensues is some sophisticated social commentary on the nature of feminine bonding and about the appeal of true crime, and why women in particular gravitate toward cautionary tales of real-life horror.
When Patricia begins to suspect James isn’t who he says he is, is that the product of an overactive imagination that’s been fed too many horror stories? Or is she simply following the clues ignored by so many women in the past? “Think about how many young women would still be alive today if people hadn’t taken Ted Bundy at face value and started asking questions earlier. Think of Ann Rule had put the pieces together sooner. How many lives could she have saved?”
Make no mistake: This is a proper horror novel and not for the squeamish (if you have a particular aversion to vermin, consider yourself duly warned). But its incisive social commentary and meaningful character development make “The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires” not just a palatable read for non-horror fans, but a winning one.
In an author’s note, Hendrix writes about not taking his housewife mom and her book club friends seriously when he was a kid. “They just seemed like a bunch of lightweights.” But then he grew up and began to see his mom in a different light, the beginning of his inspiration for this book. “I wanted to pit Dracula against my mom,” he writes. “As you’ll see, it’s not a fair fight.”
Indeed, it is not.