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 if you don’t want spoilers—and they are very significant spoilers, I’m not being dramatic—stop here and know that despite them and how much they still bother me, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is a fantastic read that I really enjoyed, the end.
If you do want spoilers, keep scrolling. Highlight if the text is too hard to read. (CW: Domestic abuse, sexual assault)
That being said, I have Very Serious Concerns with a few plot points. When the book club begins to voice concerns about James Harris’ potential responsibility for the dead children and gather evidence to help police launch a quiet investigation, their husbands entirely discredit them and, in some cases, abuse them in retribution. We’ve come a long way with domestic violence, even if we have a ways to go still, so I can see an argument here for this being included for the sake of accuracy or telling the story that happens behind closed doors. It bothered me, but that could be a valid argument.
More troubling, though (and I recognize I’m writing this from a 21st-century, post-Me Too perspective) is when one character is brutally raped to the point that she is hospitalized, neither she nor Patricia even consider reporting the crime to police or the attending doctors. Which, again, I can see somewhat of an argument for given how terrible things are for rape victims today, though the degree of viciousness associated with the attack makes me think someone should have taken notice (and perhaps they would have, had it not been for the collective discrediting mentioned in the previous paragraph).
But where I fail to see a valid argument at all—still acknowledging I’m writing from a different time and place and set of circumstances (and by the way, if you’ve gotten this far not caring about spoilers, this is your final warning of the most spoilery-spoiler of them all)—is at the end, when Patricia WALKS IN on James Harris doing stuff that looks VERY MUCH like he is SEXUALLY ABUSING her TEENAGE DAUGHTER and then he ACKNOWLEDGES HE WAS DOING DIRTY STUFF but basically just PEACES OUT NO PROBLEM and her response is, “Oh, guess we have to kill him now.” Like, yes, he’s a monster and needs to die?? But also no?? Because it seems like that’s an area where you definitely should be getting police involved ESPECIALLY IF YOU HAVE PHOTOGRAPHIC EVIDENCE???? And that way maybe he can just GO TO JAIL FOR A WHILE instead of what you actually decide is a reasonable turn of events????? Like…????? Obviously, I don’t have the time or space to go into all the details but I feel like all that pretty much covers it and I am baffled and pissed at this turn of events that honestly doesn’t seem necessary to the story as a whole. The rape, also, seems completely unnecessary. So yeah, those things are still bothering me.