I admit, I’d let The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires slide off my radar almost as soon as I saw the news of its publication. It looked a lot more True Blood with a dash of Steel Magnolias, and if I’m going to read about vampires these days, I want something real weird like Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, on in a queer revisionist take on Harry Potter, like Rainbow Rowell’s Wayward Son books. (Book 3 needs to hurry up and get here already.) But then a friend of mine mentioned reading it and how it was an interesting look at women and gender and privilege wrapped up in a vampire story, so I decided to give it a try, and added it to my digital library holds.
The setup is fairly simple: the five central characters are white, Southern housewives in 1990s South Carolina who form a book club built around their shared fascination with mysteries and true crime. Their neighborhood is a cozy, everybody-knows-everybody type of village, the kind that makes it feel safe to read all these crime stories because, of course, that kind of thing would never happen here. Our protagonist is Patricia Campbell, a former nurse whose husband is a doctor angling to head up the psychiatric department at the hospital, who accordingly hasn’t got a lot of time for his wife or their two kids or, for that matter, his aging mother, who is suffering from dementia and has recently moved in with them. A mysterious man moves in next door–supposedly the great-nephew of that neighbor–and next thing Patricia knows, her elderly neighbor lady attacks her by the trash cans one night, bites off her earlobe, and then dies in the hospital. Patricia takes a casserole over to the nephew, James Harris, who, for some reason, has eighty-five thousand dollars in cash and no ID and asks for Patricia’s help in starting to establish a life in town. Meanwhile, children in a nearby poor black neighborhood start to die, one by one. And it all spirals from there.
Hendrix does a solid job of capturing the bitter truth that women are both chronically dismissed and underestimated, while also having the deck stacked against them in terms of both power and money. The vampire isn’t the only villain in this story: the patriarchy is a constant co-conspirator in his crimes, as Patricia and her friends discover once they pit themselves against James Harris.
Here’s what I loved less: the surprise rape scenes were a big one. Of course vampire stories are super-sexualized; they basically always have had erotic overtones, so the fact that there’s something creepy and sexualized to Harris’s attacks isn’t shocking. But there is also at least one straight-up rape scene, which simultaneously is described too explicitly, and yet whose consequences are never quite clear enough. (Also a quick content note about a suicide attempt as well as sexual assault. These can be pretty triggery, so read this book when you’re in the right frame of mind for this stuff.)
Here’s what I loved even less than that: Hendrix’s handling of the black characters in the book. Of course a well-off suburb in the 1990s is going to be quite segregated. But the only black character with a real presence in the story is Mrs. Greene, who is introduced as a caregiver to Patricia’s mother-in-law, and the only glimpse we get into the lives of the black residents of this town is one trashy mobile-home park. And given that Mrs. Greene winds up playing a hugely significant role in the battle against James Harris, it feels distinctly unfair that she and her milieu are so poorly fleshed out, and so generally stereotyped into the bargain.
Hendrix was asked about this in an interview with NPR, and said, “What he doesn’t see is that white women where I grew up relied on black women to help them raise their children and clean their homes. They interacted every day and often became friends, even if those friendships were complicated and limited by serious issues of race and class. But they cared about each other’s families. They knew each other’s problems.” And yet the women of the book club don’t know, and consciously decide not to care, for most of the novel. (Some leeway given here to Patricia, who knows first and cares most and is shouted down or gaslit by the people around her.) There is no sense of this interconnectedness of the communities, or the mutual care; Hendrix can dress it up in nice words all he wants, but his disinterest as an author in Mrs. Greene and the black community that suffers the worst of James Harris’s predations reveals the genteel racism that continues to thrive in many communities across America, as the last few weeks have laid bare. And it’s a shame, because I actually really wanted more of Mrs. Greene’s perspective; she was a sharp, empathetic woman who was willing to make hard sacrifices to protect the people she loved most. (And that’s her own family, not Patricia’s; Hendrix thankfully gets that right.) If this book was ever adapted into a film or TV series, the writers would improve it greatly by expanding Mrs. Greene’s role: there’s a whole other novel existing in the gaps there.
These issues set aside, it’s a highly readable book; Hendrix’s prose is brisk and efficient, and the creepiest sequences of the book are as terrifying and suspenseful as they need to be. He also doesn’t make Patricia any stupider than she needs to be, though a few of her decisions come a bit out of left field and lack the narrative setup they need to really stick. It’s a fun one, and I appreciate the mixed quality of the ending, which acknowledges a monster like James Harris or the patriarchy is always going to leave some scars. Overall, it’s a fun read, though I think I’d recommend Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country over this, in terms of playing with old horror tropes and the deep flaws of American culture.
Final note: there is a beloved family dog in this book, and while the dog does die, it is of ultimately of old age and not vampire. I know some of us need that kind of information.