(2020) Grady Hendrix, Quirk Books, £9.99, pbk, 405pp, ISBN 978-1-683-69145-7
This is a vampire horror set in the deep South in the 1990ís. The story focuses on Patricia Campbell, a middle-aged housewife with a psychiatrist for a husband and two teenage children. Bored with a domestic life that revolves around cleaning up after her family and caring for her mother in law, she joins a local book group in order to make friends but is kicked out for failing to read the set book. She and a few of the other women rebel and decide to set up their own group, focussing on true crime, something their husbands donít approve of but which fascinates the women. Ann Rule is a particular favourite and The Stranger Beside Me is mentioned several times. The idea that sometimes we cannot (or will not) see evil even when it is right in front of us is a key theme of this novel.
Several months after the book group incident, a man called James Harris moves into a house on Patriciaís street. Driven by a neighbourly desire to help (and get a good look at him at the same time), Patricia introduces herself and quickly finds herself doing various tasks to help him out. It is clear from the off that something is not right with James Harris; he has US$85,000 in cash in a bag and no identity documents. Patricia is suspicious but not suspicious enough. Harris is tall, attractive and charismatic, a clear nod to Bundy, and because of this Patricia ignores all her doubts about him. Soon she has invited him into her house to meet her family which, as everyone knows, in a vampire novel is a bad move. From that point Harris begins to worm his way into every aspect of her life. He makes friends with her children and her husband Chris. He then offers Chris a business partnership which promises to solve all their financial worries. He does the same to each of Patriciaís friends.
By the time that Patricia accepts that there is something very wrong with Harris, no-one is willing to believe her and her persistence puts her position in her social circle under threat. Patricia is forced to make a choice between what is right and what is easy. By this stage, Harris is killing local children, and at one point Patricia even catches him in the act, but even this isnít enough: she tries to ignore the evidence in order to preserve her friendships and marriage. Yet, in the end there is simply too much proof and one by one, her friends also start to see the truth. Nonetheless, their husbands remain fiercely resistant and support Harris regardless. The women have no choice but to deal with him themselves, which they do in a finale that should satisfy even the most bloodthirsty of readers.
I donít read a lot of horror; it isnít usually my genre. I had three attempts at reading Salemís Lot and returned it to the library unfinished each time (and have great empathy for Joey in the episode of Friends where he put The Shining in the freezer because it was too much to cope with). That wasnít the case with this book. So if you are looking for something that will make you need to sleep with the light on, this probably isnít it. Instead of the creeps Hendrix opts for what Iíd call the gross factor. I donít want to add spoilers for readers who enjoy that sort of thing, suffice to say that the horror is stomach-churning and fiercely unpleasant. The pacing is fast, despite the story stretching out over several years, and the story bounces lightly along with a jolly, cheery tone. I enjoyed the southern US setting, though as a British reader Iím not in a position to say how authentic this is, but the story was persistently entertaining. Many reviewers have loved it and if you like blood and gore the book will probably work for you too.
However, there were a few things that readers may wish to consider. As I have said, the book is set in the 1990ís and the references to Beavis and Butthead, and other memorable pop culture from that time, made me laugh, but the four women seemed to be stuck living in the 1950ís, spending most of their time doing their husbandís laundry. At times, their characterisation and interactions verged on cliché and I was very aware that this was a male representation of female relationships. One of the women is abused by her husband, which felt careless and unnecessary, and one of the women is raped by James Harris and dies of her injuries. Some readers may wish to avoid the book for this reason. Iím hard pushed to remember any violence against the male characters, but violence against female characters is cover to cover and Hendrix doesnít discriminate, dishing it out to preteen girls as well as old women. Although the women win in the end, against Harris at least, the devastation left behind makes their victory feel thin. The Southern Book Clubís Guide to Slaying Vampires is a good read for a lazy Sunday afternoon, although it probably wonít make it onto your horror classics shelf.
See also Ian's review of The Southern Book Clubís Guide to Slaying Vampires hardback.
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