What a wild ride. The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix was my kind of crazy though. If you visit this book’s page on Goodreads you will see two very different top reviews. The top review (written by a white man) claims that this book is harmful, racist, and not at all a feminist book. The second top review (by a white female) is completely the opposite. I side much more with the female reviewer, but in my review I will reference some of the points made by the male reviewer just in case you read that review and are put off by the accusations. I will speak in vague terms, but there may be slight spoilers about scenes or some of the horror elements.
But first let’s take a step back and explain the basic plot. The book takes place in the American south during the 90’s. Several women in a very white, suburban community have decided to host a book club where they read thrillers, true crime, and horror, much to the annoyance of their husbands. A rich stranger moves into their community, and one of the book club members, Patricia Campbell, finds some strange coincidences and occurrences tied to this man. Her fellow book club members doubt her and hold onto their perfect lives, while the husbands view Patricia as an unstable influence on their wives. But what if Patricia is actually on the right track? What if this man really is a too goo to be true presence in their town?
I loved the plot and characters so, so much. Patricia and her book club members are innocent of a lot about the real world because they are just housewives. Even Patricia, who was once a nurse, has her days filled with vacuuming the curtains, polishing the good China, and making lunch for her children. Despite that, you can see some fire in their personalities even early on. Patricia certainly has a hunger for something more in her life. Overall, I felt that the women were realistically portrayed and varied in personality, which made them all unique.
As for the plot, it takes place over several years, so you see the characters and community change over time, which I really liked. However, I found it to be a fairly fast read. It was hard to put down with several twists and turns. Some of the main characters’ plans get thwarted, so they have to pick up the pieces and decide where to go from there. I liked that things weren’t easy for them, and many external forces complicated their decision making. The plot progressed realistically for the time period, though the fantastical elements required some suspension of disbelief. The horror elements included gore, bugs, and things that were emotionally horrific, which I will explain in more detail below. One thing I didn’t understand was the fact that Nazism was brought into the plot. I didn’t think it made sense, and there was already so much going on in the plot and themes that it could have been dropped. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the strange happenings in novel began mainly happening to non-white characters? Or that the evil in the novel that build up over time was parallel to the evils of the rise of Nazism?
The next few paragraphs will touch on some of the critism the novel is getting about sexism and racism, so there may be slight spoilers below. Skip to the last paragraph for my final thoughts.
First, is the novel sexist? Their husbands are mostly stereotypical for the time and place. They are domineering, abusive, and honestly think little of their wives and their interests. They don’t take the wives concerns about the new stranger seriously at all. All of this certainly makes the men sexists, and even the way the women treat each other at times stems from this internalized misogyny. However, I think that the book makes it pretty clear that this is wrong. I was legitimately angry and frustrated at how Patricia and the other women were treated and how they treated each other. Their husbands gas lighted and belittled them constantly, but if there is one thing I learned from horror authors like Stephen King, sometimes the most disturbing and chilling horror comes from everyday injustices. That doesn’t make the author or the book sexist; it just shows how awful humans can be to each other, which makes great horror in my opinion. The book ends on a hopeful note, and shows the women taking charge to improve their lives, so I can’t see how the book or author reads as sexist when the characters grow and shed the toxicity they experienced from others and from themselves.
I’ll also touch on the racism accusations in the view I mentioned, but being white myself, I wouldn’t take my opinion as infallible. So, there is one main character who is black, and she is hired as a maid and caretaker by a few of the white women in the community. There are scenes where the white women visit the black woman at her home. The black woman’s home and community are poor, and when the white women visit they are confronted by some young black men who threaten them. The black community was being hit the hardest by the strange happenings in the area, so it makes sense that the young black men were wary of the strangers in their community. (They also experienced some displacement by white building developments, and there was a rumor in their community that a white man had been creeping around their children.)The young men were easily dispersed when the black woman told them she knew the white women. So, I think that the young men being intimidating was not a racist portrayal. They had good reasons to act that way toward white strangers, and the white women (though startled) were unharmed. Some white characters had misgivings about visiting the black community, but that was realistic for the time and setting, and the characters who felt this way were not portrayed positively by the narrative.
There are accusations that the “white savior” trope was part of the novel because Patricia and her friends sought to help the black community when the strange things began happening. I disagree with this as well. Though Patricia tried, she largely failed to do much, and the black characters tell her exactly that. The white women do not really get involved in solving what is going on until their own homes and families are threatened. The black characters call them out for that, and Patricia is able to convey this sentiment to her friends and finally call them to action. And during the climax of the novel, though there are more white characters taking part than black, it is the black character who does more to resolve the situation than several of the white characters.
So, with all of that being said, I would not be put off by some of the reviews you might see floating around (says the book reviewers herself). Try the book (perhaps through your library like I did) and form an opinion for yourself. If you liked Out by Natsuo Karino but want something with vampires and some American southern flair, try this. It was creative with multiple kinds of horror and with a dash of humor. Four and half out of five stars.