04 May, 2021

[Review] The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

Cover image from the goodreads website.

Series or Stand Alone: Stand Alone
Release Date: 7 April, 2020
Publisher: Blackstone Publishing
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror
ISBN: 9781094136943
Edition: Audiobook (also available in hardback, eBook, and paperback)
Review Written: 27 January, 2021
Warnings: child death, child abuse, abuse of a corpse, rabid humans, death, vivid gore, attempted suicide, infidelity
Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias meet Dracula in this Southern-flavored supernatural thriller set in the '90s about a women's book club that must protect its suburban community from a mysterious and handsome stranger who turns out to be a real monster.

Patricia Campbell's life has never felt smaller. Her ambitious husband is too busy to give her a goodbye kiss in the morning, her kids have their own lives, her senile mother-in-law needs constant care, and she's always a step behind on thank-you notes and her endless list of chores. The one thing she has to look forward to is her book club, a close-knit group of Charleston women united by their love of true crime and paperback fiction. At these meetings they're as likely to talk about the Manson family as they are marriage, motherhood, and neighborhood gossip.

This predictable pattern is upended when Patricia meets James Harris, a handsome stranger who moves into the neighborhood to take care of his elderly aunt and ends up joining the book club. James is sensitive and well-read, and he makes Patricia feel things she hasn't felt in twenty years. But there's something off about him. He doesn't have a bank account, he doesn't like going out during the day, and Patricia's mother-in-law insists that she knew him when she was a girl--an impossibility.

When local children go missing, Patricia and the book club members start to suspect James is more of a Bundy than a Beatnik--but no one outside of the book club believes them. Have they read too many true crime books, or have they invited a real monster into their homes?

See more by Grady Hendrix at his website.
This book was recommended to me by a friend. I had been eyeing it for a while, but their praise for it got me to place myself on the online waiting list for the library's audiobook copy. Full of vivid descriptions of South Carolina, I was blasted around the state that I grew up in with enough force to knock my socks off. 

Patricia Campbell is a housewife, somewhere between my grandparents generation and my parents. She's still lady enough to want to keep the house clean, see her kids grow up, and not to question her husband's dalliances elsewhere. But, given that she's got less to do now that the kids are in school most of the day (hah, yeah right), she decides that she's going to join a book club. Unfortunately, the one she initially joins is a very catty society of posh white ladies who want to read the "classics" (though for the life of me, none of the books mentioned were anything I'd touch with a ten foot pole). That book club swiftly falls apart, but a new one forms out of some of the members.

Patricia ends up becoming friends with Grace, Mary Ellen, Kitty, and Slick (Though is Slick her real name? There's no way it is, it can't be.). In their "Not a Book Club/Book Club", the women enjoy reading true crime novels and discussing them. It's during one of these book clubs that Grace notes that a man named James Harris had moved into a neighbor's house to help "care" for his elderly "aunt". 

From there, things seem to take a strange turn as Patricia's Mother-in-Law, Ms. Mary, continually says that she can hear owls, bats, and rats in the roof at night. She's also claiming to have a photograph of James Harris from her childhood and claims he killed her father. While Carter, Ms. Mary's son and Patricia's husband, writes off the notion, Patricia tries to make sense of it. It doesn't help that she get's attacked by her elderly neighbor and ends up finding James Harris "looking like a corpse" on the bed in the house. 

Things keep going crazy, with Ms. Mary being killed by a horde of rats and her caretaker not being much better off, Ms. Mary dying, and Patricia feeling like her family is slipping away. The first part of the book cumulates with Patricia being hospitalized after her attempts to raise awareness backfires. After a suicide attempt, Patricia sees no choice but to accept that she was wrong (but was she really?) and move on with her life.

Three years after her supposed breakdown, Patricia begins to see that things still aren't quite right. With the help of James Harris, all the families in her book club have profited tremendously, but it feels like something still isn't quite right. Her daughter's acting moodier than a normal teenager, and her son is traumatized from having found her after her attempted suicide. Both of her children seem attached at the hip to James Harris. 

Patricia ends up visited by a vision of Ms. Mary telling her to contact her old nurse (Mrs. Greene, who lives in Six-Mile, where children continued to disappear). Things spiral out from there, with Slick getting attacked and growing sick quickly (and her husband fearing that somehow she's contracted AIDS), finding a dead body in the attic of James Harris's house, and finding James Harris in bed with Corey. 

Finally, the Book Club/Not Book Club group realizes what they have to do. They have to kill James Harris to prevent him from destroying anyone else. That just proves harder to do than one would think.

This book truly speaks to the feel of Southern Gothic (despite being set in the late 1990s), and plays upon the openness of the South with a two-faced edge. Hendrix manages to give a grimdark feel to the world at large and make us question: Which of our neighbors is a vampire? 

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