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

Grady Hendrix seems to bill himself as a writer and a creator as a bit of an outsider. There is no doubt of his love of nostalgia. In that way all of his work has always been filtered through an eighties shade of sepia that isn’t always my thing. I was lukewarm on “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” but I adored Satanic Panic which abandon’s much of his nostalgic influences and played up his snark. All of that being said, I was a little nervous about approaching The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires as it was set in the recent past (uh oh) and was about the type of monster I am least excited about (double uh oh). I shouldn’t have been. Southern Book Club manages to capture Hendrix’s charm while jettisoning some of the qualities that made his type of nostalgia problematic. The Southern Book Club’s FROM the 90’s not OF the nineties. The nineties offer us a little spice rather than being the dominant flavor in SBC.

Billed as Steel Magnolia’s meets Dracula the bulk of the story revolves around a slightly edgy (at least in Charleston) book club comprised of housewives in one of the local suburbs. One of the group’s leaders, Patricia Coleman is fed up with some of genteel culture. Book club offers her an escape from the duties and responsibilities of her role as a mom and and a wife. When James Harris moves into the neighborhood and starts to insinuate himself into her life her whole world shifts on it’s axis. The plot is never quite the exploration of southern culture that Steel Magnolias reveals and it is far from a traditional vampire novel (thank god). Patricia and her friends are never OF the south they are FROM the south and creating that space and creating that freedom plays a central role in the book.

Hendrix has made a book that is inherently political. In a world that attempts to embrace our past, without reconciling its problems nostalgia has been weaponized. Perhaps that is why I have been most weary of Hendrix’s past work. He seemed to be part of the culture that was bombarding our current culture with memes imbued with the “weren’t things so much better back then” message. That is not this novel. Things were not great for anyone back in the day. They were not great for the members of the southern book club, for their children and especially for the people of color that filled ancillary roles in their lives. Hendrix makes an pointed effort to explore race and class throughout the book and this adds a different level of sophistication to the book. It is not always successful, but through Patricia Hendrix he owns the limitations of his own viewpoint. Rarely does an author admit to his own creative limits. After all they are the masters and creators of their own universe. Hendrix does exactly that. It takes a level of maturity and courage and he should be lauded.

The Southern Book Club purports to be a horror novel so the ultimate question it must answer is; “Is it Scary’? It has two of the scariest scenes I have read this year. One involving a house full of rats and the other an insect in an ear. Perhaps the most disturbing though is the dread that pervades most of the last act. We witness first hand the consequence of being gaslit. The Campbell’s house has been invaded and Patricia’s ability to see it for what it truly is and impotence to act on those observations is perhaps the scariest element of the entire book. It is the first and last fear of every parent. What if we see that our children are at risk but can’t do anything about it. The entire novel then becomes an exploration of what it is to be a parent. That is not to say it doesn’t have monsters, because it definitely does. Our vampire here is more of The Strain variety then of the southern Dracula version which frankly is a bit played out with the evolution of Lestat, True Blood, and others.

Earlier I said The Southern Book Club is about being a parent. To be specific it is about being a mother. SBC captures the Betty Friedan quiet panic that seems to pervade every detail of domestic life. Perhaps unlike Friedan this novel doesn’t conclude that this type of life is limiting but rather acknowledges how big a personal sacrifice it takes. It made me want to call my mother and tell her thank you. It opened up dialogue with my own wife about her role in our family. Using that standard The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is a resounding success. It convinced me every mom slays everyday. I gave both my mom and my wife a copy of Hendrix’s novel for Mother’s Day. I then offered to do the dishes (It was the absolute LEAST I could have done).