Saturday, November 14, 2020

The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires

I'm deviating from my usual pattern of recapping older books to draw your attention to what I consider the best vampire novel of the year, THE SOUTHERN BOOK CLUB’S GUIDE TO SLAYING VAMPIRES (2020), by Grady Hendrix. It's STEEL MAGNOLIAS crossed with ‘SALEM’S LOT! Protagonist Patricia Campbell lives in an upscale suburban community near Charleston, South Carolina, with her workaholic husband, their daughter and son (who grow from children to teenagers over the span of the novel), and her husband's senile mother ("Miss Mary"). It’s divided into two principal sections, set in 1993 and 1996, with a prologue and epilogue in 1988 and early 1997. I didn’t mind the shift from 1988 to 1993, although such a long gap seems unnecessary, but I found the time-skip between 1993 and 1996 jarring. For a few pages it felt like having to start the book all over and regain lost momentum. Other than that complaint, its construction and engaging style felt nearly perfect. Technically, I remember only one small lapse I would have corrected if proofreading the text, a very unusual reaction for me. Patricia’s viewpoint drew me in so deeply that I didn’t even get impatient waiting for the vampire to show up.

Her husband treats her like a nonentity, taken for granted as provider of housekeeping services, which he dismisses as easy and trivial (although essential). Her children become more difficult, naturally, as they get older, and the boy’s preoccupation with Nazi Germany shows no signs of fading. There’s no question of putting her mother-in-law in a “home,” regardless of the burden on Patricia. She finds solace with a small group of friends who read and discuss true crime books. The strangeness begins one night when she comes across an eccentric, crabby neighbor eating a raccoon. When interrupted, the woman bites off one of Patricia’s ears. The woman’s nephew, James Harris, intervenes. Soon thereafter, the aunt dies, and Patricia tries to make a condolence call on the nephew. Finding him apparently dead, she attempts CPR (she’s a former nurse), only for him to spring up, shocked at having his nap cut short. The demented Miss Mary claims to know him from many decades in the past, calling him by a different name. She later dies in a grotesquely gory way. When Patricia begins to suspect the newcomer’s true nature, nobody believes her, even though she has toned down the accusation to a charge of dealing drugs to children (rather than trying to describe what she really witnessed). Mrs. Greene, Black former caretaker for Miss Mary, realizes James is dangerous, but nobody listens to her, any more than to a “mere housewife” with an obvious true-crime obsession.

The most gut-wrenching horror of the novel is the way Patricia’s husband and most of her friends dismiss her reported facts and treat her like a deranged attention-seeker, to the point that she half doubts her own perceptions. The reader knows what’s going on, of course, but James wins over Patricia’s son and ingratiates himself with all the neighborhood families. The men, especially, welcome his financial investment advice. James turns out to belong to a different species, maybe its sole survivor, since he doesn't seem to know anyone else of his kind. Although sunlight pains him, it doesn’t destroy him. He seems practically unkillable, as demonstrated in the gruesome climax when the women unite to dispose of him at last. The story portrays a long, tortuous process of overcoming not only the other women’s understandable disbelief in the paranormal and their suspicions of Patricia’s mental instability, but the barriers of class and race. I have only two quibbles with the novel, one relatively minor and one larger: Why does James hide the body of one victim in his own house? Is this blunder supposed to demonstrate his arrogance, his complacent assumption that nobody would consider investigating him? More importantly, the women’s lifestyles and the dynamics of their marriages feel more like products of the 1950s than the 1990s. Although often painful to read, this novel portrays one of the most convincing evil vampires—yet with a fully developed personality—I've seen in years, which no vampire fan should miss.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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