Grady Hendrix has always excelled at plumbing the depths of the not-quite-adult character who is placed in larger-than-life situations. In his 2014 novel, Horrorstör, it’s a young slacker avoiding the grind of grown-up responsibility while investigating the strange goings-on at the IKEA-like store where she works. We Sold Our Souls features a protagonist trapped in arrested development caused by the dissolution of her beloved metal band 20 years earlier. Hendrix’s finest work, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, has an adolescent hero struggling against malevolent forces of both the supernatural and ordinary teen variety. There was something preventing all of them from reaching maturity, whether by design or happenstance, and over the course of each story, they made strides toward becoming better, more adult versions of themselves.
Hendrix’s latest novel, The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires, attempts a similar transformation for its protagonist, but to less successful ends. This is in part because Patricia Campbell, stifled by her bland suburban existence in Mt. Pleasant, doesn’t have much excuse for her wanderlust. Her hermetic existence is of her choosing, and there’s little of the rich internal life that drives so many great narratives of existential ennui. She feels like a sitcom version of a frustrated housewife, not someone who has fully considered her predicament. Halfway into the novel, she abandons everything she once thought, and rather than working as a profound transformation, it plays like Hendrix merely getting the character where he needs her for his plot to make sense.
So thank god a vampire shows up. It’s the early ’90s, and Patricia has carved out a place of her own in her small suburb: a book club. There, she and the other women—garish and blue-collar Kitty, prim and proper Grace, pious Slick, and vaguely sketched Yankee transplant Maryellen—find comfort and companionship in reading true-crime tales of serial killers and sadism. (If it were set in the present, they’d all be huge My Favorite Murder fans.) Her husband, Carter, is an uncommunicative workaholic; her preteen son, Blue, is obsessed with Nazi history; and her daughter, Korey, is focused on school and sports. So Patricia disappears into the lurid world of nonfiction nightmares, until a real one turns up on her doorstep in the form of James Harris, a friendly and charismatic man who charms his way into her family’s life after moving to town to take care of his recently deceased aunt’s estate.
The title already tells us what to expect, so the reader anxiously waits for Patricia to realize what’s going on from the ample evidence: James’ skin condition that requires him to stay out of the sun; the disturbing death of Patricia’s mother-in-law; reports of children disappearing in the neighboring town, where the predominately Black community can’t get the police to care. By the time Patricia ventures out to uncover the mystery, the action is overdue. The author’s usual knack for pacing and structure ends up uneven here, in part because the breakneck fun of the vampire stuff is hampered by the underdeveloped characters. Still, it’s enjoyably breezy pulp, as Patricia and her friends try to find a way to alert their insular and unsuspecting community to the danger that has arrived on its doorstep (and literally been invited inside).
Hendrix has concocted a new spin on vampire lore, a clever idea that sees his monster treating humans more as dialysis machines than snacks, and Patricia’s eventual triumph is a satisfying catharsis of revenge and female friendship. Unfortunately, the path to get there includes a jarring mid-point detour that saps the book of its strength. Hendrix wants to emphasize the ways familial and cultural pressures can convince us to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, but the way he does so is clumsy at best.
Yet the author remains excellent at staging page-turning sequences of excitement and anxiety—whether it’s the bated-breath stress of Patricia breaking into James’ house, or the cat-and-mouse games they play, each wondering just how much the other knows while exchanging pleasantries. Hendrix remains a master of adding little details that fill in the landscape of his Southern-fried world, such as the Christmas décor that includes “a framed cross-stitch of Santa Claus holding the baby Jesus,” or the trunks of oak trees and “their bark stained yellow by the iron-rich Mt. Pleasant water.” Still, it’s a bit of a letdown from an author who’s better at dealing with characters who act and think in simplistic ways for more understandable reasons. The gimcrack pleasures of Slaying Vampires are like its undead antagonist: flashy and engaging in the action, but strangely hollow at its heart.