Good horror makes you think. Great horror makes you angry and jumpy and anxious and ready to burn down an entire town and rebuild it as a utopia because the system is bullshit and you know exactly what’s happening and you can’t stop it.
I think you already know which one of the two The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is.
Grady Hendrix is a master of the genre, that much is pretty well established. And while he has always written his female lead characters with great style, depth, and nuance, I think this book might actually be his best work yet in that regard.
Patricia Campbell is your typical Southern housewife, with a respectable husband, two kids, and a dog. She thinks her biggest problem is her mother-in-law moving in, but she finds solace in her book club. But rather than reading “wholesome” literature, they read dark thrillers and true crime, though they don’t exactly announce that fact. When James, an enigmatic and charming stranger, moves in next door, Patricia acts like a good neighbor and helps him out. That is until a series of unsettling patterns in his behavior and with several Black kids causes her to rethink everything she knows about him. By then, it’s too late — James has swayed everyone, including Patricia’s husband and friends, into thinking he’s a good man. What follows is a twisting tale of wits, friendship, and persistence in the face of unending doubt that will leave you shocked, angry, and a little heartbroken.
There were multiple times during the reading of this book where I was very, very angry. The way the men dismiss their wives and the way the women censor themselves even when they know something is wrong is infuriating. Watching someone game the system so perfectly and so disturbingly like how it happens in real life was enough to put me on edge the entire time. Yes, vampires are scary, but the way that these characters have to fight doubt when lives are on the line, the many closed doors they faced trying to get help was terrifying. It felt like being trapped in a maze with no end in sight. Constantly, characters bring up how people noticed weird quirks when coming into contact with serial killers that signaled something was wrong, even though no one believed them, creating a chilling parallel.
It’s always a little cliche to have days saved by the power of friendship, but a good ensemble novel can balance out old tropes. All of the women are fleshed out, ranging from pious but kind Slick to the elegant and classic Grace, to the fun and out-there Kitty, to outspoken Yankee Maryellen. Even Mrs. Green, the woman who takes care of Patricia’s mother-in-law who clues Patricia into what’s happening, is given a lot of depth and agency. The bond between these women, while not always perfect and supportive, was one of the strongest and most engaging aspects of the book and kept me reading through the most upsetting parts.
As someone who is particularly sensitive to scenes of sexual assault/rape, I will warn readers there is a description of a pretty brutal assault towards the latter half of the book. However, as is fitting with Hendrix, the scene is handled with the utmost gravitas and is not just for shock value. The story is recounted by the victim in her own words, is described in a way that is not even mildly “sexy” or “erotic,” and is very much treated as a despicable act of power and torment meant to hurt and humiliate. There are depictions within where female characters are routinely gaslit, ignored, degraded, and physically beaten, it only serves to drive home the incredible violence they face in ways large and small.
Hendrix starts the book off with an author’s note all the moms who he and his friends all overlooked, that I think really speaks to the message and feeling of the book:
“[The suburban moms] just seemed like a bunch of lightweights. Today I realize how many things they were dealing with that I was totally unaware of. They took the hits so we could skate by obliviously, because that’s the deal: as a parent, you endure pain so your children don’t have to…I wanted to pit a man freed from all responsibilities but his appetites against women whose lives are shaped by their endless responsibilities. I wanted to pit Dracula against my mom. As you’ll see, it’s not a fair fight.”
This only serves to highlight just how much Hendrix understands horror, what makes something truly terrifying versus just the typical blood and guts. The feeling of powerlessness, of screaming into the dark but no one hears you, the sick confirmation that no one cares if you live or die so long as they are right and can prosper. But also it is has a message of perseverance, that even when we are overlooked or ignored, there will still be people on our side, and that we can fight back, even if it takes time. Horror and hope – the best of both worlds.
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is available for pre-order online and will be in stores on April 7, 2020.
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires was provided to us by Quirk Books. For more information on how we review books and other media/technology, please go review our Review Guideline/Scoring Policy.
Grady Hendrix knocks it out of the park again. With fantastic characters, a chilling plot, and an ability to elicit an emotional response that will have you speeding through to get to the end, this is a must read for those looking for thoughtful horror.