“Nothing Nice about Southern Ladies”: The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

            Sometimes an author—who has already found their niche and voice—has a breakout hit that reaches outside of the bubble and finds a new audience. Grady Hendrix, who studied and wrote about the horror paperback boom while also turning those tropes into something new in his own work, found a little more mainstream success last year with The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. I can only speculate why this was the book to achieve double the amount of his previous bestseller’s ratings (according to Goodreads). Is it because we all love vampires? The catchy title and splashy cover design? A year where more people had some free time to read? Regardless, what lurks beneath those pretty peaches is, perhaps, not what some readers expected.

            This was my fourth Hendrix book. One could say his niche is exactly the kind of stuff I love: haunted IKEAs, exorcisms, and well-written histories with the perfect touch of humor. So of course I was going to read the vampire book. I’m the same girl who once got rid of over 20 vampire books at one garage sale—it was not just a phase, turns out. So, as someone who is well-versed in the lore and writing of these dark creatures throughout the years from Dracula to Interview with the Vampire to Twilight and more, I can say this book delivers what might not seem like a “new” take but is a refreshing look at the vampire as metaphor and monster nonetheless.

            Patricia Campbell, mother of two, housewife, and book club member, is a little tired of her stagnant life. Between taking care of the house, her kids, and helping with her mother-in-law, she barely has time to read but finds enjoyment when she can. It’s in these escapes and moments with her book club, who choose to read true crime and other ‘sensational’ works rather than the classics, that she finds community and a brief break from the chaos of life. That is until the mysterious James Harris moves into town and, in short order, what had seemed like chaos before truly falls into disorder. Is he like the men in the books she reads, or something worse? And how are women in a book club supposed to solve such a problem?

            One of the strongest aspects of the book is in the way it humanizes and sympathizes for Patricia’s perspective throughout. In some ways, I think people find it easier to imagine the housewives of the 1950s or 60s because they’re more often depicted in pop culture. Here, Hendrix paints a picture of these privileged women of 20-30 years ago and how their lives were impacted by the “ease” of the newer, fast-paced culture that surrounded them in a post-Reagan world. Sometimes just hearing Patricia’s to-do list is exhausting. She and the other women aren’t always likeable or relatable characters, but I don’t think they should be. Our culture has changed so much in the last few decades that some of the decisions these women make—even if understandable to them—are definitely products of their time period, environment, race, and class. We would like to think we would make different decisions. Patricia is that idea we as readers often have that our book knowledge will enable us to recognize real world situations and act upon it. However, as demonstrated by the book itself, even fiction has obstacles to overcome and real life hardly goes the way you expect. Her strengths, weaknesses, guilt and remorse, love, and drive make her a compelling character overall.

            This is not to focus solely on her. The other women in the book club—Slick, Grace, Maryellen, and Kitty—all have separate personalities and parts of them that help make them distinct and memorable. The women who are largely ignored by the others—Miss Mary and Mrs. Greene—are both minorities; Miss Mary is elderly and has dementia, and Mrs. Greene is Black. Both Miss Mary and Mrs. Greene (especially the latter) play a large role in trying to prevent the coming disorder but they’re not listened to for the most part. The men in the book (“the husbands”) are the perfect mix of understandable masculinity and positive traits, toxic mansplaining, absent, or power-hungry. James Harris, as a foil for Patricia, works so well as their relationship changes throughout the novel. His insertion into her town, her family, and her life is a perfect example of what a parasite would do.

            And it’s that parasitism that lies at the heart of the vampire metaphor of the novel. Vampires work as excellent metaphors; they’ve been symbols for the AIDs epidemic, Mormonism, xenophobia, the danger of female sexual independence, etc. Book Club, from its title to its basic summary, doesn’t try to surprise you when it comes to the formulaic layout of “mysterious stranger comes to town and bad things happen – what could it be?” Instead, it’s how those bad things are handled and in what ways by who that creates an overall conversation and metaphor about privilege (especially white), intersectionality, misogyny, and gentrification. Over the elaborate metaphors, there’s an entertaining and effective story—which is often how vampire stories work at their best.

            Other than the vampire, the moments of horror or suspense in the book are—par Hendrix—a lot of fun. You can see the touches of inspiration from the pulps of that era or where he’s playing with the expectations of the vampire genre and then dialing it up for shock value. Sometimes this is more effective (I was never squicked by rats until this book) and sometimes it’s too much. The climax of the novel feels like everything you want in that moment, but also like you’d like to look away and can’t. There are also a few scenes that were reminiscent of domestic horror in the vein of The Auctioneer  or Rosemary’s Baby between the husbands and their wives which will leave readers gritting their teeth in frustration.

            That said, I did find that sometimes the novel was weighed down in terms of pacing, development, and what felt like extraneous plot points. The book, as a whole, does end in a spectacular fashion but it takes a lot to get to that point so I could understand struggling to get there. One moment of horror (not on the page, luckily) ended up feeling completely unnecessary. I understand that it was a trope of horror in the 70-80s and it is appropriately gross, but it also felt like a bit too much when compared to the rest of the novel. Some plot points—such as Patricia’s son’s interest in Nazis—were reoccurring and did have thematic value but didn’t come to much of a conclusion and were like a bug crawling up your back still in the end. It felt like Hendrix was juggling a few too many things at times. And, perhaps, some of these are intentional; our real world “vampires” are never really slayed.

            Overall, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is a slow burn that takes its time working up to that titular event. However, along the way, you find more than enough horror at the hunger some feel for prestige, money, land, power, safety, or family—and the cost that comes with it. I’d recommend this novel to vampire lovers, those who want books about groups of women coming together against evil, people who want their Southern hospitality with a little kick, or anyone who enjoys horror that uses social satire as part of its storytelling. If you’re looking for a book to sink your teeth into this summer, this one will satisfy on those hot and lazy days.