Vampire fiction has evolved considerably in the just-over-two centuries since the genre was codified by John Polidori. Each year brings with it a new take on the theme that becomes the latest contender for classic status, and for 2020 that work may well be The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix. The Lord Ruthven Assembly certainly believes so, considering that they gave the novel their award for best vampire fiction last month; previously, Goodreads voters placed it in the top three horror books of 2020.
Grady Hendrix’s story begins in 1988 when Patricia Campbell and her smalltown South Carolina friends grow dissatisfied with their local book group. Struggling to find time for literary masterpieces about social issues, they end up drifting towards lurid volumes on true crime. The years pass and, come 1993, the book club is still together, meeting regularly to discuss their latest gruesome reads – the subject matter of which becomes all too topical for Patricia when she is suddenly attacked. The assailant is elderly local Ann Savage, who bites a chunk of her ear off; the attacker dies in hospital while Patricia recovers from her ordeal.
After this incident, Patricia forms an unlikely association with Mrs. Savage’s great nephew, James Harris. Charismatic and affluent, James becomes a hit with the local community. Behind the façade lies a dark secret, however, and Patricia is forced to confront the fact that the town has a vampire in its midst.
The novel’s premise sounds like pure whimsy, its characters constituting a housewifey reimagining of the vampire-hunting comic shop owners from The Lost Boys. Any such impression is misleading, however, as author Grady Hendrix takes the time to craft a multi-layered and believable community in which to locate his tale.
Patricia is a former nurse with a natural desire to help people, although her capacity to do so is filled by her husband Carter, eye-rolling teenage daughter Korey and Nazi-obsessed ten-year-old son Blue. The other members of her book group are also satisfyingly fleshed-out, each given a different role to play in the narrative of the club’s descent into darkness. Kitty Scruggs is the woman who first pushes the group towards true crime books; Grace Cavanaugh is something of a busybody, yet remains firmly sceptical where Patricia’s anxieties about James Harris are concerned; and Maryellen is a Yankee feminist married to a police officer, making her far too respectable to go chasing after vampires. Meanwhile, Ursula Greene is a carer for the elderly, and sober-minded enough to accept that, yes, something is very wrong.
Then we have Slick Paley, a conservative Christian who throws a party celebrating Martin Luther instead of heathen Halloween and whose reading list includes the likes of Johanna Michaelsen’s Like Lambs to the Slaughter: Your Child and the Occult. It would have been easy for Slick to become a mere caricature, but instead she is the most nuanced member of the novel’s supporting cast. On the one hand, her belief in the reality of the Devil and his works means that she can readily accept Patricia’s claims that a vampire is about town. On the other, her obsession with purity and sanctity makes her reluctant to confront Harris head-on. Whether Slick will ever clutch a stake rather than pearls is a point of tension throughout much of the story.
Having built up its community of characters, the novel then throws a vampire amongst them. As is generally the case with modern specimens of his kind, James Harris ticks off some of the items on the vampire-convention checklist while punching holes in others. He is harmed by sunlight, can control rats and must be invited before he can enter a residence; but rather than sinking fangs into his victims’ necks, he drinks blood from their inner thighs using a weird appendage in his throat:
A man’s back bent over something on the floor, his rear end and the soles of his work boots turned toward her, and then his back reared up, and he turned into the flashlight’s beam and she saw James Harris. But there was something wrong with the lower half of his face. Something black, shiny, and chitinous like a cockroach’s leg, stuck several inches out of his mouth. His jaws hung open, stupefied, as he blinked blearily in the light, but otherwise his body didn’t move as this long insectoid appendage slowly withdrew into his mouth, and when it had retreated fully, he closed his lips an he saw that his chin and cheeks and the tip of his nose were coated in slick, wet blood.
However, such details turn out to be less important to the wider story than Harris’ versatility as a symbol. His predilection for child victims makes him an obvious paedophile stand-in. He also symbolises the spread of illegal drugs: the scars he leaves on his victims resemble the tell-tale track marks of substance abuse, and when Patricia first tries to turn the community against him, she uses the cover story that he is supplying drugs to children.
He is partly the product of racial prejudice, getting away from his crimes because Black people are present either as victims or scapegoats. Ursula Greene, the first character to accept Patricia’s theories about Harris, is not coincidentally the only major African-American character: “one little boy has an accident, an old lady runs away with some man, the police figure it’s just colored people being colored”, she says. “It’d be like reporting on a fish for being wet.”
People with mental health issues are also in the line of fire. Patricia’s senile mother-in-law has had past experience with Harris, but her concerns are roundly dismissed until it is too late. “Nightwalking men always have a hunger on them,” she says, underlining greed as yet another concept symbolised by Harris. “They never stop taking and they don’t know about enough. They mortgaged their souls away and now they eat and never know how to stop.”
Contrary to vampire convention, Harris does not turn his victims into his undead offspring; yet the results of his attacks are psychological as well as physical. The town is hit by a spate of child suicides shortly after his arrival, a plot detail that adds to the fantasy narrative’s harrowingly credible overtones.
Like many other vampires, Harris is a figure of temptation as well as danger, promising to give even as he takes. He possess a large amount of money, ostensibly the life savings of his deceased aunt, and becomes a boon to the community by investing in local industry – making it all the harder for Patricia to work against him. While her husband sees him as a valuable business partner, her two children come to see him as a surrogate parent, offering the support that their troubled mother is struggling to give them. Even Patricia is forced to admit that Harris does have a way with their two children, particularly by communicating with the taciturn Blue on his own level – albeit by encouraging the boy’s all-consuming interest in Nazi atrocities. How easily the source of temptation bleeds into the source of anxieties.
The danger posed by James Harris, along with the gaslighting she receives when she tries to draw attention to it, takes a heavy mental toll on Patricia. She finds herself going up against not merely a lone vampire but almost an entire community: even Patricia’s own husband begins giving her Prozac rather than simply listening to her. At its bleakest moments, the novel becomes a psychological portrait of a single person’s alienation and isolation as potential sources of support are robbed from her one by one.
It should not be understated how much parental angst factors into The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. In his preface, Grady Hendrix reveals that he wrote the book partly as a counterpoint to his earlier novel My Best Friend’s Exorcism, in which the main characters were teenagers and, consequently, parents were cast as blockages. This time around, Hendrix strips adolescent estrangement of any glamour and places the concerns of a mother front and centre. The novel has a lot to say about bringing up children, its characters regularly making wry and sometimes downright grim observations on the matter. “Being a teenager isn’t a number,” says Maryellen. “It’s the age when you stop liking them.”
But just as strong as its investment in maternal anxiety is the novel’s almost spiritual passion for literature of blood, guts and trash. Hendrix has an encyclopaedic knowledge of exploitative morbid writing (as anyone who has read his non-fiction book Paperbacks from Hell will know) and draws upon this in writing his story, his characters reading and discussing a laundry-list of real-life publications from Joan Barthel’s A Death in Canaan to Ann Rule’s Small Sacrifices.
Familiarity with the likes of Charles Manson and Ted Bundy gives Patricia an idea of how Harris and his kind operate – as, of course, does the writing of Bram Stoker. Indeed, so important is reading matter to the novel that even the vampire himself is defined in part by his literary tastes: he favours the likes of Ayn Rand, Ken Kesey, Alan Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac.
The book’s faith in horror-culture is not without caveats. Patricia’s love of lurid true crime publications may give her some of the mental equipment to confront James Harris, but it also allows her opponents an excuse to dismiss her concerns. Meanwhile, Blue’s preoccupation with graphic books and documentaries about Nazis is a constant cause for concern to Patricia, even if her own taste in literature is not too far removed in terms of morbidity. Later in the novel, after Blue has befriended Harris and subsequently entered his teens, his bedroom is described as containing posters for gore-soaked horror films, a copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook and the mutilated remains of his once-beloved Star Wars figures. Patricia is unsure how much of this is an adolescent boy being an adolescent boy, and how much is evidence of her shortcomings as a mother.
Key to the strength of The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is its understanding of horror. The same can perhaps be said of any horror novel, granted, but in this case what stands out is how it captures the multi-faceted nature of horror. The vampire’s arrival brings sundry fears and anxieties to the surface of the community, and Patricia must overcome her own fears to defeat him; in doing so she draws upon her morbid reading matter – horror in a form that is distanced, abstracted, containable and edible. Just as Bram Stoker’s protagonists needed to give themselves a crash course in folklore before they could confront Dracula, the ladies of the Southern Book Club rely upon their affection for the gruesome to combat James Harris and all that he stands for.