Sometimes she craved a little danger. And that was why she had book club.
Sometimes, I have complex, layered reasons for picking up a particular book. Not so with Grady Hendrix’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Vampire Slaying. I mean, take a look at that title! Who could resist?
I’d just come off of a marathon reading session of challenging reads and I wanted light, engaging fare. It’s safe to say that my expectations were pretty high and my standards low. This book’s got everything I want in a vacation read, and early reviews teed it up to be the golf equivalent of a slam dunk. I was entirely unprepared to hate this book.
When I first saw this book advertised before its publication, I was instantly and indelibly reminded of two things that I love: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a text post from years and years back about a post-apoc video game wherein you fought as a ’50s housewife complete with tea dress, gloves, and pearls. If you haven’t seen either of these, stop now and investigate. I’ll be here when you come back.
Those images in mind, and a vague notion of sticky, hot summers depicted in movies and tv, I poured myself an actual lemonade and kicked back to bury myself in what was sure to be an enjoyable book.
And truth be told aspects of this book are fantastic. Hendrix has done some really cool things in building and exploring this narrative, and they are absolutely worth exploring. Really, as far as I’m concerned the book has only one fatal flaw.
There isn’t a single tolerable character in its 404 pages.
And honestly, there isn’t all that much to say about that. At no point could I connect with, relate to, support, or tolerate reading about any of the characters – either because they were intolerable people or because they received no characterization. There was no in-between. There were no outliers.
While I think it’s probably enough to say that I hated all of the other characters, and leave it at that, I feel duty-bound to explain some of what I disliked about the main character, Patricia. Because she did break this book for me, and with just a couple of simple qualities.
15 pages into The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Vampire Slaying, I made the following note:
I’m just not sure I can drum up a whole book’s worth of sympathy (or patience) for the “oh, woe is me – for things in the house need doing and I’m too weak and female to ask for help with the housework” crowd.
That’s perhaps not the most charitable of descriptions, but as this book churned on page after page after page, it turned out that I really didn’t have that much sympathy or patience to give to a woman who was simultaneously this self-defeating and this certain that she was in the right.
It’s not that I don’t understand that many women shoulder the main burden of housework, or that they struggle to ask their partners for meaningful help. I’ve been that woman. I get it. And it’s not that it’s all that intolerable to watch a character make dumb decision after dumb decision and not learn from it.
It’s that she did it all with this doe-eyed self-centeredness, and that we had to be right there with her the entire time because she was our main character.
And that’s kind of that, really. Patricia broke me.
However, Hendrix did do some cool things that are totally worth celebrating.
There’s not a lot about a vampire story, even a modern urban vampire story that hasn’t been done before, and Hendrix did something really novel in setting his vampire story not against any old southern backdrop but a modern suburban backdrop. He then could use the clearly defined elements of the setting to juxtapose the real and the unreal, the mundane and the supernatural, and simultaneously play fast and loose with the traditions we all know (whether we love them or not) from the vampire mythos. And play he does. It’s a delicious concept and very well framed.
Adding to this the specific way he centers his story and particularly Patricia’s attention around the book club really brings weight to this story. It feels very modern, offering Hendrix his best opportunities for highlighting through contrast the otherworldliness of the undead element. And if there had been any characters to speak of this is where they really would have shone.
Instead, out of the vacuum where characters could have been, shines one very amusing bright light: Hendrix’ frequent references to literature. The conceit of using the books the Book Club is reading to frame the evolving narrative seems like it might be a simple technique that offers a couple of cutesy moments, or a chintzy gimmick to put a spin on a pretty tropey narrative tradition. But Hendrix positively nails it, and if I hadn’t absolutely loathed the main character Patricia this one aspect alone is so strong it would have saved this book in my eyes.
Also of note, I think, is an oft-overlooked detail. A huge amount of care was put into the design of this physical book, and it is absolutely lovely to behold. What makes this baffling is the astonishing amount of flat-out errors in the book. Sentences that were clearly only half-edited (like a “reconsidered” floating in the middle of a statement that includes nothing to reconsider), and multiple continuity errors (like a fascinating multi-page dance about a stolen item where the item goes back and forth from “stolen” to “left at home” a dizzying number of times). I stopped counting after I’d noted 10 egregious errors. We’re all human. We all make mistakes. But for a book that was this carefully put together, I found these errors to be really astonishing.