Review by Annabel
If you enjoy a contemporary horror novel laced with style and humour, you need look no further than the work of Grady Hendrix. I discovered him with Horrorstör, his first with Quirk Books, which was set in a furniture warehouse rather like a Swedish brand we can all name – the attention to detail was wonderful. His next book was My Best Friend’s Exorcism, a tale of demonic possession set in a High School, styled as a 1980s Yearbook and told entirely from the pupils’ points of view, two girls who are best friends in particular.
This brings me to his latest, which could be considered a companion volume to My Best Friend’s Exorcism – set a few years later in the same neighbourhood. However, this time he’s telling the parents’ story. In his introductory author’s note he says:
When I was a kid I didn’t take my mom seriously. She was a housewife who was in a book club, and she and her friends were always running errands, and driving car pool, and forcing us to follow rules that didn’t make sense. They just seemed like a bunch of lightweights. Today I realize how many things they were dealing with that I was totally unaware of. They took the hits so we could skate by obliviously, because that’s the deal: as a parent, you endure pain so your children don’t have to.
Meet Patricia Campbell. As the novel begins, it’s 1988 and we’re in a posh suburb of Charleston, Georgia, and Patricia is just about to flunk her first stint as ‘discussant’ at the Literary Guild of Mt. Pleasant – a book group ruled over by the formidable Marjorie. She was supposed to lead on Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, but every time she started to read, life intervened. Patricia decides to improvise, and it goes very wrong. There’s no way Patricia will go back the next month to discuss Jude the Obscure.
She’s not the only one. Instead, she’s invited to join Grace, Maryellen and Slick at Kitty’s house to discuss a very different kind of book. They’re all true crime fans! Over the next months and years the five women will read many classics of the genre, plus some great thrillers. Life goes on, Patricia’s daughter Korey grows up and goes to High School, and her mother-in-law who has dementia comes to live with them. Patricia and husband Carter, a busy doctor at the hospital, employ Ursula Greene, a black nurse who lives on the poor side of Charleston to help out. Mrs. Greene will be of vital importance later.
Cut to 1993, and the book group had discussed Helter Skelter, on the Manson murders, a true crime classic. Patricia is just about home, when she is attacked on her front drive. One of her less salubrious neighbours, old Mrs Savage, has gone mad, leaping at and clawing Patricia, trying to get at her neck, but instead managing to bite off her earlobe before Carter intervenes. Her friends rally around her.
“I heard that Mrs. Savage’s nephew moved down here from someplace up north,” Slick said. She didn’t need to be more specific than that. Everyone knew that any place up north was roughly the same: lawless, relatively savage, and while they might have nice museums and the Statue of Liberty, people cared so little for each other they’d let you die in the street. “Leland told me some real estate agents stopped by and tried to get him to put her house on the market, but he won’t sell. None of them saw Mrs. Savage when they were there. He told them she couldn’t get out of bed, she was so poorly. How’s your ear?”
Mrs. Savage dies, and soon Patricia will have an encounter with her nephew. James Harris begins to insinuate himself into everyone’s lives; bonding with the husbands, and visiting their book group, he seems to see it as a permanent invitation. Patricia isn’t convinced by him but is too polite to demur. Only Miss Mary, Carter’s mother, sees him as threatening, confusing him with someone from her childhood – Hoyt Pickens.
Girls start to go missing, but they’re from the poor black neighbourhoods and the papers aren’t bothered. Ursula is though. Patricia’s daughter Korey is beginning to act strangely too. Patricia and Ursula know all of this is something to do with Harris. Can the housewives acting together manage to run him out of town, dead or alive, before things get too desperate?
It’s instantly clear to us the reader, of course, that James Harris is a vampire. Hendrix has great fun playing with all the vampire tropes and myths coming up with great explanations and a contemporary monster that works really well. Although enriched with a thick vein of humour, this is a real horror novel, there is blood and gore and real nastiness: this vampire has teeth and more.
Pitted against him are the members of the book club plus Ursula, and how we do cheer them on. Patricia and her friends are such wonderful characters, they are all fully drawn, the husbands – the disbelievers – are mere supporting characters in the fight against darkness. Hendrix is obviously drawn to female protagonists, as from Horrorstör onwards they dominate, pitting themselves against male or indeterminate monsters. It’s very gendered, but this and My BF’s Exorcism are period pieces, sporting immaculate attention to detail of the cultural mores of the late 1980s into the 1990s.
I also loved how he disembowelled Marjorie’s book club in the opening chapter, allowing our fearless five to go their own way. As in My BF’s Exorcism where chapters were named after hit pop songs of the era, making a playlist, here the section titles are the book club choices, making a rather bizarre reading list with all the true crime and thrillers. Having read and discussed the murderers and psychopaths that populate these books gives the women a different perspective on their problem, making them stronger still!
Hendrix continues to find new ways with horror in The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, I loved it and can’t wait to see what will come next.
Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors and is thankful that vampires are not real…
Grady Hendrix, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires (Quirk Books, 2020). 978-1683691457, 352pp., hardback.
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