(2020) Grady Hendrix, Quirk, £18.99 / Can$26.99 / US$21.99,
hrdbk, 408pp, ISBN 978-1-683-69143-3
True confession time, I had never read a Grady Hendrix book before, but I’ll soon be rectifying that after reading The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. He’s already won a Horror Writers Association Stoker award for his novel My Best Friend’s Exorcism, and his novel Horrorstor looks like an IKEA catalogue, so I’ve got more fun ahead of me, and look forward to meeting the man himself at this year’s Stokercon, being held in Scarborough in April (2020).
My only minor quibble with The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, is the actual title as it gives the game away. Major spoiler alert here, but if you had never heard or read anything about Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, and were reading it for the first time, you were in for a major surprise well into the book after a whole lot of strange and dark events when you get to the town dump scene and realised that it’s about vampires. Likewise we know from the title of Hendrix’s novel that there is a vampire in here somewhere. Like King, Hendrix is great at building locations, characters and tension, and both authors share that wonderful breathless, almost conversational, storytelling tone, and both can set up a feeling of dread in the reader by some well-placed foreshadowing and a killing, telling phrase. Apart from King’s novellas The Body, turned into the film Stand By Me, I can’t remember ever laughing very much while reading the King of Horror, but in places The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is darkly funny, and did make me laugh out loud in places, even right at the end during a climactic life and death battle, I couldn’t help laughing.
As for the story itself, Patricia Campbell is a “mere” housewife, who feels lost trying to keep the house and her children under control, not to mention her senile mother-in-law who lives with them. She’s almost a trophy wife to her ambitious husband, Carter, who just wants to advance his career and leave everything to her. The only thing she has in her life is a very earnest book group, or rather, Literary Guild of Mt. Pleasant to give the group its official title. The group is run by the formidable Marjorie Fretwell, and Patricia is about to die in front of the them as she has to lead the discussion on their latest book: Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, but she hasn’t read it, and it shows – badly. Thus another group is born, of five women who get together to read trashy true-crime books, although one has to pretend they are doing Bible-readings. The novel is divided into different sections set during a different time period ranging from November 1988 to February 1997, with each section named after a book that is being read, therefore we start with Cry, the Beloved Country and work our way through the years in the company of Helter Skelter, The Bridges of Madison County (which seems to have been about a serial killer- who knew?), The Stranger Beside Me, Psycho, Clear and Present Danger (when the book group has swollen to include men, hence the Tom Clancy book), Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus and In Cold Blood.
Patricia lives for these get-togethers but her life takes a turn for the worse when she is attacked by an elderly neighbour and has part of her ear bitten off. This brings, James Harris, the neighbour’s nephew, into her life. He is handsome and charismatic, and a bit of a charmer. He also has a major amount of money that needs deposited with Patricia’s help as his wallet and ID have been stolen. Soon he’s a friend to everyone, but Patricia has her suspicions. He drives a van with tinted windows because he had a problem with sunlight. He changes his story about where he came from several times. Is he involved in drug-dealing? Is he a hit man? Is he something worse? As her mother-on-law calls him by another name from long ago - a drifter who entered their lives and brought death and ruin with him. Then she hears that the black children from the poor part of town are dying mysteriously and there is talk of a white man stalking the woods, the children have even invented a skipping song about him and call him the “Boo Daddy” who sucks your blood, likes to taste you and climbs in your window.
Just when you thought The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires couldn’t take another twist, or turn, Hendrix ups the ante and the thrills and horror, and by horror I mean a mixture of supernatural shenanigans and domestic horror as Patricia is put in her place, reminded of who she is and her place in life, and made to doubt her own sanity as the men in her life fall under the spell of James Harris. But never fear true horror fan for there are some wonderful tense, horrific scenes involving roofs, woods, vans, rats, attics and bathtubs, and if there is one thing to learn from this novel it’s never to underestimate a Southern housewife or mother. Damn that Grady Hendrix, because I suspect it is going to be really hard to find another book as entertaining as this to read in the rest of 2020. Enjoy, I certainly did.
See also Jane’s review of The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires.
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