There are so many things I want to talk about with The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires but every time I start, I realize they’re almost all spoilers. Which is funny, because from the title, the basic premise is pretty clear: a book club, comprised of middle-aged mothers, who slay vampires. But it’s a little less than that, and so much more.
Patricia Campbell, thirty-nine-year-old wife to an ambitious psychiatrist and mother of a daughter and a son, joins a book club in an effort to become more cultured, more learned, and, most importantly, more her own person. But the Literary Guild of Mt. Pleasant turns out to be snootier than she bargained for. It’s snootier than several of the members bargained for, though, and Patricia, Grace, Slick, Kitty, and Maryellen fall into their own unofficial book club. Instead of reading classics and celebrated literary titles, they read pulp fiction and true crime.
For years, their little group happily reads their lowbrow books. Things get more tense when Patricia’s mother-in-law, Miss Mary, moves in, and her nerves are further shaken by a vicious attack by her elderly neighbor. And it is in the wake of that attack, and the neighbor’s subsequent death, that Patricia meets the one who will shake their small little neighborhood apart: James Harris.
James Harris is kind and polite. He’s new to town and needs a little help, maybe a good home-cooked meal. The fact that he looked actually dead when Patricia, a former nurse, first met him, or that he seems a little too interested in the family (or that he happens to show up in the poor outskirts of town, where the children just happen to be dying under mysterious circumstances), are just odd quirks to an otherwise friendly neighbor. Miss Mary doesn’t think he’s charming or friendly—she calls him a killer. But Miss Mary’s opinion doesn’t matter for long, because she and her nurse, Mrs. Greene, are attacked in the family home by a truly heinous number of rats.
After Miss Mary’s death as a result of the rat attack, Patricia is understandably shaken up and goes to check on Mrs. Greene, even though the family no longer employs her. It is there that Patricia finds out about the children missing in the poor outskirts of town, and it is there that she realizes that congenial neighbor whom she had welcomed so effusively into her home might be something far more sinister than he seems.
That’s it. That’s all I can say. In fact, I fear I’ve said too much already. There are indications of darkness at the beginning, of course—right in the title, even—but it does take a while for things to pick up steam. Luckily, author Grady Hendrix’s prose is so snappy and his characters so likable that those first several chapters pass by on hardly more than the promise of horror. Once it does plunge into the real genre stuff, though, it gets pretty dark pretty fast. I made the mistake (or impeccable choice, depending on your point of view) of reading some of those bits late at night while being the only one awake in the dark house. Such delicious spine-tingling followed, I promise you, and there were plenty of hazy dreams when I did finally get to sleep.
Hendrix does know his way around the horror genre. While reading one of his previous novels, Horrorstor, I was so enthralled by the story of strange happenings within a definitely-not-an-IKEA furniture store that I blocked out an hour on my work calendar, retreated to a meeting room, and locked the door so I could keep reading. As I said, he doesn’t shy away from the creepies or the crawlies—or the gore—but it feels fresher than those elements do in many horror stories, and almost playful. And with it being set in the nostalgia-laden late 80s and early 90s, it’s a tale that helps putty over some of the gap that only another season of Stranger Things can really fill.
Southern Book Club has the same sort of compelling story as Horrorstor, but I felt it had more heart. Which seems to be on purpose, given what Hendrix writes in his author’s note. He never took his mom seriously when he was a kid, dismissing her errands and carpooling and book club and rule enforcement as “lightweight” pursuits, but adds, “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.”
Here, the kinds of things Patricia and the other members of her book club deal with are a little more supernatural than Hendrix’s mother had, certainly, but you feel that sort of respect and weight come through. The characters are drawn earnestly and tenderly, for the most part. That “for the most part” is where my biggest criticism comes from, though there’s no way to describe them without significant spoilers.
So let me simply say that I am so tired of authors (primarily, frankly, male authors) using rape as a plot point. There’s domestic discord and, occasionally, violence throughout our book club members’ lives, which is also kind of tired to read about, though I will say that none of that felt like it was inserted to be shocking as much as describe the reality many people (statistically, mostly women) face at home. The repeated dismissal of women by their spouses and by (male) authority figures was more than frustrated, but I’ll acknowledge that the 80s still weren’t great times for women (have we reached a great time for women? No? Just checking).
One book club member, however, is brutally raped and is hospitalized as a result. Another character, who is still a teenager, is also repeatedly sexually abused by a trusted adult figure. I’ll acknowledge that I’m reading this from a twenty-first-century, post-#MeToo point of view, but I struggled to see how these plot points were necessary to tell the story Hendrix seemed to want to tell. Rather, they felt like violence added in for shock, and the results dismissed much too quickly. The villain was already amply villainous, and these respective attacks only served to make him almost cartoonishly evil, so the story didn’t even benefit from perpetuating this extremely tired trend. Why does it continue to be necessary to show the brutalization of women? Why do we need to be attacked for the sake of drama?
While I enjoyed reading Southern Book Club as a whole, the unnecessary inclusion of this specific and overdone kind of violence left me with a bad taste in my mouth and makes it hard for me to wholeheartedly recommend it. Do better, writers.