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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 blood-sucking fiend.
Patricia Campbell had always planned for a big life, but after giving up her career as a nurse to marry an ambitious doctor and become a mother, Patricia’s life has never felt smaller. The days are long, her kids are ungrateful, her husband is distant, and her to-do list is never really done. The one thing she has to look forward to is her book club, a group of Charleston mothers united only by their love for true-crime and suspenseful fiction. In these meetings, they’re more likely to discuss the FBI’s recent siege of Waco as much as the ups and downs of marriage and motherhood.
But when an artistic and sensitive stranger moves into the neighborhood, the book club’s meetings turn into speculation about the newcomer. Patricia is initially attracted to him, but when some local children go missing, she starts to suspect the newcomer is involved. She begins her own investigation, assuming that he’s a Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy. What she uncovers is far more terrifying, and soon she–and her book club–are the only people standing between the monster they’ve invited into their homes and their unsuspecting community.
I have several confessions when it comes to reading, and my relationship to Grady Hendrix novels is one of them. I have every book he has released, I have listened to him in multiple interviews, follow him on social media, can recognize him in any photo, and I had not read a single one of his books. I pulled The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires from the thousands of books in my TBR pile because I had just bought the paperback a week or two ago, and since it was a thicker than many of the others, I wanted to free shelf space. This is how I finally a Grady Hendrix novel.
The story starts in 1988 when Patricia Campbell joins a book club to =socialize with her neighbor ladies in a South Carolina town. When the book club switches from reading classic literature to reading true crime and classic horror, her friendships grow, and it becomes the thing that helps her live and thrive as a Southern housewife with two rambunctious kids and a husband who is at work all of the time. Her book club life and the life of the neighborhood changes when the mysterious stranger, James Harris, shows up and becomes a friend of the family. Patricia has clues that something is just not right with James, but her suspicions are chalked up to her reading crime novels and gossiping about “good men”. Of course she is right all along.
The way The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires unfolds is that it becomes several intertwined parts and harks to a strong tradition of stories about white neighbors in white neighborhoods where people write down the license plate numbers of any strange vehicle and find it rude when someone does not welcome them into their home. The setting and the feeling of this novel reminds me of some of the great southern classic literature like To Kill A Mockingbird or A Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The horror parts of this story feels like a throwback to old Stephen King, from the 80s and 90s, particularly ‘Salems Lot and Needful Things, where it is an entire town that is in danger, but only a few people see this and are trying to stop it. In this case, it is the ladies from a book club. Mixing these two elements makes for a novel that I really enjoy, and I can see as a great new classic in Southern and town horror novels.
I tore through this novel in only a few days, reading huge chucks at a time. To me this feels like a true throwback horror novel, like it could have been written in the 80s or 90s. Like all horror at the time, this story is good even though it is a little clunky, a little disturbing, and a little coincidental. In the end, the final solution is oddly satisfying. I like the structure, the characters, and that I could feel the danger that James Harris imposes on the town that the men are too stupid to see but the women are keen to. Some of the scenes could be a little too much for readers that have child harm triggers, but if this is something you can get past, I suggest that you do not hesitate like I have. I will not be sleeping on Grady Hendrix anymore, and I am putting his other novels to the top of my TBR pile.