***Warning, mild spoilers for The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires***
Vampires are my favorite monsters. I love how they represent a dangerous, alluring mixture of lust, power, sin, and death. I cannot get enough of how they are compelled by their desperate thirst even as they leverage human weaknesses to seduce victims.
Likewise, I’ve always appreciated author Grady Hendrix’s nuanced understanding of monsters and horror tropes. He possesses an uncanny ability to tap into pop horror elements, investigate how they work, and map them onto our lives. He did it in Horrorstör and My Best Friend’s Exorcism, both of which I loved. So, when I heard that Grady Hendrix, author of some of my favorite horror novels of the past few years, I was stoked.
I wasn’t disappointed—not only was The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires worth the wait but it is now my favorite Grady Hendrix work. As a longtime fan, I find it his most mature, compelling, and satisfying work. The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires represents a new level of his craft, where he has successfully dissected the vampire archetype, crafted compelling and realistic characters, and breathing new life into an old story. And he didn’t sacrifice any of his trademark dark humor or his love for gross-out scenes.
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is about a group of southern suburban homemakers protecting their community from a ruthless vampire who has infiltrated their idyllic neighborhood, Mt. Pleasant. Spanning from the late 1980s into the mid-1990s, the novel follows Patricia, a wife and homemaker who is overworked, overwhelmed, and unappreciated by her husband and kids. To regain a degree of individuality, she forms a book club and befriends an amazing group of supportive women who share her love for paperback thrillers and horror novels. Of course, once Patricia finally feels that her life is under control, a handsome and mysterious stranger named James Harris moves into the neighborhood. Patricia suspects that his magnetic yet sinister presence is related to the string of neighborhood horrors, but who will believe a bored housewife with an appetite for salacious fiction?
It is wicked good fun. Steeped in southern culture and spiked with plenty of dark humor, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is a hell of a ride. And while I am forever haunted by certain gnarly descriptions of the critters that one might encounter in a certain attic, I can’t stop thinking about what’s going on underneath the surface. It’s about a group of women who learn that decades of cloistered domestic life have not totally robbed them of strength and agency. If anything, all those thankless days and hard nights caring for inconsiderate families might have given them the exact weapons needed to defeat the biggest evil they would ever face. The real challenge, however, is deciding to defeat evil instead of looking the other way.
As Hendrix put it, “I wanted to pit a man freed from all responsibilities but his appetite against women whose lives are shaped by their endless responsibilities…as you’ll see, it’s not a fair fight.”
For two years now, I have been a mom. The transformation has been profound. I’ve had to reorder every area of my life. I have gained and lost confidence in many areas. I have leveled up intensely when it comes to multitasking, organization, and strategy. On the other hand, I’m responsible for a toddler who is both intensely helpless and a tornado of mayhem, while holding down a full-time job. Things like working out and personal hobbies are the first to be sacrificed to time constraints or exhaustion. I rarely feel like I have it “together” in any part of my life. Add a nearly year-long pandemic, unprecedented political turmoil, and a burning dumpster of job-related stuff, and it’s been a very trying year for me.
That sense of instability, of being stretched too thin, of mastering one challenge only to have another blow up in my face, is a lot to handle. I don’t really feel in control of much of anything. Things didn’t use to feel this way. I didn’t use to feel this way.
So, it’s not surprising that the novel’s greatest strength is its unflinching dedication to portraying Patricia’s struggles. Her depiction is painfully accurate, especially when it comes to her attempts to protect her self-worth against the slow gnawing of her jerk husband and self-centered kids. And then there is the vampire trying to devour her life.
The friendships she forms with the other moms feel real and create much of the novel’s emotional depth without being cheesy. For these women, their relationships become havens through good times and bad, and shit gets bad. It’s not all lost football games and bratty kids—there are days of mind-numbing boredom, a horrific rat-attack that would make Stephen King proud, crumbling marriages, institutionalized racism (this is the South after all), and a vampire stoking the fires.
By their nature, vampires are insidious. They pass for charismatic, not, but distinctly normal people, like wolves in sheep’s clothing. Their superpower has never been drinking blood or possessing superhuman strength—it is how scary adept they are at exploiting human flaws by manipulating social conventions. Vampires wrote the book on manipulation, gaslighting, and pitting people against each other. And they are particularly dangerous when they can ingratiate themselves to and corrupt those who hold the social and economic power in a situation. You know how vampires use lawyers to run interference in Dracula and The Vampire Chronicles? What about the 2004 miniseries of Salem’s Lot and Kurt Barlow’s whole “I’m just a charming, wealthy European, don’t mind me” schtick?
James Harris spreads evil because Patricia helps him even when she doesn’t feel comfortable doing so. Then her husband and his friends do. Then the whole neighborhood does. He gives them enough reason to remain willfully ignorant—the sexual tension, the too-good-to-be-true real estate deals, the it-must-be-sincere way James tries to become everyone’s friend. All the while, he’s feeding off the poor black children on the bad side of town before turning his sights on the children of Mt. Pleasant.
The real horror of The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires isn’t the horrific new spin on vampire anatomy or a housewife’s existential crisis or that the cleaning ladies come from the part of town where the black people live. No, the horror of The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is how easy the pickings are when people look the other way because they are not immediately threatened. Because it is easier.
James is dangerous because he uses the preexisting, insidious social hypocrisy to his advantage without much twisting. He pits white against black, neighbor against neighbor, men against women, woman against her family, and he does it all too easily. All he has to do is find the most socially powerful person or group of people in the situation and make them feel special, different, safe from harm.
Of course, no one is safe, and by the time they realize what’s happening, it’s too late.
According to Hendrix, motherhood gives us individual and group strength that can be its own superpower. This isn’t a new thought (check out any mommy blog or Insta account), but it is still a pretty powerful idea in horror, where mothers are often portrayed as overwhelmed by their maternal burdens, regardless if they are good mommies (Poltergeist, Rosemary’s Baby) or bad mommies (The Babadook, The Others).
But that’s not all he’s trying to say. We have to come together as mothers, as neighbors, as people. All of us. To help ourselves and our families, we have to lift up each other. We have to protect each other. The James Harrises of the world rely on division. They hide in the cracks we refuse to peer into. They count on us being petty, self-centered, and all too ready to claim that we’re too busy to stop the carnage happening outside what we think are safely maintained borders.
We can find strength and community in the day-to-day routines, football game watch parties, text groups, and book clubs. We must nurture those relationships, but we cannot stop there. We should look to those women in our lives who we might not think of as deserving of our friendship. We see the world outside of our messy but cushioned lives. We must reach beyond the end of our driveways.
Yes, it is uncomfortable. Yes, it requires us to take on more hard work. Yes, it would be easier to stay in our little bubbles than to open our hearts to those in need. But if anyone is going to start this work, moms are probably better equipped than most. Let us rise to the occasion.