Literacy 2021: Book 17: The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires

This horror novel by Grady Hendrix is a lot better than its premise might suggest

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

In a small South Carolina city in the late 80s/early 90s, a group of overstressed and under-appreciated housewives form a book club over their shared interest in true crime and suspense stories. Their friendships and families are tested over the next few years, after a strange man moves into the neighborhood and begins working his way into their lives.

Genuinely horrifying. In retrospect, it might’ve been because I thought I knew exactly what the book was going to be and how it was going to pull its punches, but I was surprised by how quickly and intensely it dove into horror. Fantastic details during the most intense scenes — often involving insects, like fleas and roaches! — that kept the action feeling immediate and personal. Great at pushing my buttons; I was tense when I was supposed to be tense, inadvertently groaning out loud during some of the worst moments, and internally screaming with anger when I was supposed to be frustrated. Good at balancing tone: it avoids becoming maudlin, but also has an unerring morality to it that never devolves into cynicism or nihilism. Uses the setting and time period for effect, not just nostalgia; this is a society of affluent white people only just starting to acknowledge how much they’ve normalized casual racism and misogyny. De-romanticizes vampires, while all of pop culture in the time of the book’s setting was trying to make them sexy and misunderstood. Gives a contemporary take on Dracula-style vampires that splits the difference between realism and the supernatural.

Depictions of sexual assault that didn’t seem gratuitous, but were still unexpected; I’m not generally a fan of content warnings, but I think the book’s premise and presentation suggest a tone that’s lighter than the actual material. The characters’ tendency to reset back to normal life after horrific events strains credulity, even after you realize it’s part of the theme (see below). I wish the book had gone more into the actual details of the plan for slaying vampires, as the title implies, instead of just telling us that the women did their research. I wish Hendrix had saved his introduction/dedication for the end of the book; it’s wonderful that he insisted on including an essay praising his mother, but it also threatens to overwhelm the start of the book with expectations of Steel Magnolias/Designing Women levels of schmaltz. Although I think the book is an excellent horror story and explanation of the premise, there’s no denying that the premise itself is kind of a mish-mash of cliches. The book constantly reminded me of how much I miss my mother.

One Thing I Like
One thing the book does particularly well throughout is show how repression and suppression worked (and still works!) in societies like the middle-to-upper-class southern white families in the 80s and 90s. The men in this book were so casually cruel and condescending, and all the white characters were so dismissive of the plight of their black neighbors, and all of the characters were so desperate for everything to go back to normal, that at times it seemed too much to believe. Except it also feels like a real, accurate depiction, especially to those of us who grew up in southern towns in the 80s and 90s. So much of the menace from the monster in this book comes from its ability to manipulate everyone’s desperation to keep up appearances and maintain public perception that they’re good, proper, Christian families. They’re so eager for things to be normal that they’ll deny an abundance of evidence of evil. They’re not naive, necessarily, but so wrapped up in creating and maintaining an illusion of perfect suburban whiteness that they’re in denial of anything that threatens or is even critical of it.

The book is direct in its condemnation of casual racism and misogyny, and it makes a deliberate illustration of how easily the monster fits itself into that kind of environment and takes advantage of it. But it’s a little bit more subtle about how much people deny our true selves and our obligations to each other out of a need to be normal.

Surprisingly excellent. I’d expected a mash-up of Steel Magnolias, Fried Green Tomatoes, Designing Women and the like with Fright Night, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and True Blood. Instead, it’s an often-intense horror story that seldom pulls any punches, and uses social commentary for good effect. It’s not quite the predictable story of The Irrepressible Resilience of Southern Women, but actually a sincere celebration of the true strength of people who’ve been underestimated and unappreciated.