By MARK BENEDICT
Grady Hendrix is funny as hell. Humor powers his fiction, non-fiction, and screenplays. His new novel, THE SOUTHERN BOOK CLUB’S GUIDE TO SLAYING VAMPIRES (Quirk Books) is no exception. Set in an affluent South Carolina town in the 1990s, the novel centers on befuddled housewife Patricia, who joins a women’s book club that focuses on true crime with occasional detours into politer territory. In a scene of pure comic gold, they take on Bridges of Madison County, debating whether its drifter hero is a secret serial killer or just a plain old selfish jerk.
Still, don’t underestimate Hendrix’s horror chops. The novel is supremely vicious, courtesy of new-in-town James Harris, who’s equally charming and sinister. Don’t underestimate Patricia, either. Although she and her friends at first appear slightly oblivious and submissive, they eventually graduate to fully mindful and fearsome. These women mobilize. We’re thrilled to chat with Hendrix about SOUTHERN BOOK CLUB, as well as about his non-fiction book on vintage horror novels, PAPERBACKS FROM HELL, and the reissue series it spawned.
SOUTHERN BOOK CLUB is a real opus. It spans over a decade, has a large cast of characters, and mixes elements of several different genres, most notably horror and Southern women’s fiction. Would you say it’s your most ambitious novel?
I actually wanted to write this book years ago, but one of the reasons I didn’t is exactly that: I just wasn’t good enough to pull it off. I have a newfound respect for John Jakes and all those writers who did sprawling family sagas. I’ve got family trees, histories, backstories, and so much material on Kitty’s family (I can tell you a lot about Honey’s engagement), Grace’s son (poor Ben Jr.), and Maryellen’s ultra-talented science girls that you’d wind up shooting me to stop me. There were days when my eyeballs bled onto calendars from 1993 as I calculated birthdays, anniversaries, and when a character would have to be born to be 13 in ‘93. Cutting it back to focus on Patricia and her family was the right thing to do, but I hate that the final version took out most of the material on Horse and Kitty’s marriage, and Maryellen and Ed’s, which are actually really great relationships. They were my antidotes to the toxic marriages at the heart of the book.
The paperback of SOUTHERN BOOK CLUB will include extra material I’m writing right now in the back, and Amazon has optioned the book for streaming, so a lot of the world building will serve to make the show deeper and take it into season two.
“Let’s face it, there’s no way to make a rat attack less horrible.”
The novel really delivers the horror goods. That rat scene! So gruesome. Also, I like how Patricia, our heroine, occasionally spies something evil in the darkness that she can’t quite identify at first—her full perception, and ours along with it, takes a moment to click into place. It’s a creepy effect. Were you ever worried, though, about getting too intense or violent for the readers who are more in it for the friendships and funny banter?
It’s always hard to write about horror before it’s recognized and combated because readers will often be ahead of the characters (“It’s a vampire, get a stake”) and start to get impatient with them. I really wanted to keep this book realistic and human so that was a tough balance to strike. I can’t tell you the number of emails I’ve gotten where a reader says, “Why didn’t they just burn him to ashes? That’s how you kill a vampire.” And, yes, maybe on Buffy, but in the real world you need a crematorium to get fire hot enough to reduce a human body to ashes and then it takes about 90 minutes. Who’s got unobserved access to a crematorium for an hour and a half? I don’t. Who knows how to operate one? I can’t.
In terms of the violence, I’m very aware of my readers, and I didn’t want to go over the top with it, but a worse sin is averting my eyes and softening something. And let’s face it, there’s no way to make a rat attack less horrible.
What’s your intent in giving the vampiric stranger in town the name James Harris? It’s a name that rings some bells for the Shirley Jackson enthusiasts among us.
Glad you spotted it! Every book I write, I adopt an author as my spirit animal and read a lot of their work, and Shirley Jackson was my spirit animal for SOUTHERN BOOK CLUB. I re-read both Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons while writing this one because they’re two of my favorites by her, and not enough people read them. James Harris is 100% a cousin of Shirley Jackson’s Daemon Lover.
Patricia and her friends, as good-hearted as they are, initially seem clueless about racial inequality. Their first, failed book club attempt centers on Cry, the Beloved Country, an anti-apartheid novel that none of them have actually managed to read. We might chalk it up to their being too busy to tackle a difficult book, but then we learn that they employ black people in service positions and that there is an impoverished black community nearby. So their indifference to the book leaves an uneasy aftertaste. Was that your intent?
I grew up in South Carolina and seeing how the structures of racism connected to your daily life was not easy. In school you’re taught about the heroism of the civil rights movement, but you don’t draw the line to how it shapes the world you live in on a daily basis. It’s the same with Patricia and her friends: the bigger picture seems remote and far away. They know African-American people, and deal with them as individuals, but they don’t see privilege. They don’t see institutionalized racism. Ending apartheid in South Africa was the great anti-racist achievement of the ‘80s and it happened because of internal South African struggle but also thanks to external economic pressure. That economic pressure came not from governments but from people who pushed divestment on a grass roots level. It’s something Patricia and most of the women in that group support, but it doesn’t feel like it’s about them. They just don’t see the parallels.
Also, while I find Cry, the Beloved Country a very boring book, I know it’s a Worthy and Important Book. But Marjorie Fretwell’s book club is asking these women to read something that will theoretically elevate them and these women don’t want reading as self-improvement, they want reading as connection. Patricia, Grace, Kitty, Maryellen, and Slick find each other because they want to read something they see themselves in. They want a story. They want community.
Cover art is a passion of yours. PAPERBACKS FROM HELL lovingly spotlights the artists. The reissue covers are amazing. And the covers of your own novels tend to have a sneaky or meta zing. The paperback edition of We Sold Our Souls, your rock-themed novel, is styled to look like an issue of Rolling Stone. How much influence do you have on your covers? What was the idea behind the cover for SOUTHERN BOOK CLUB?
That’s all my publisher. Quirk has a great approach to cover art and fantastic designers and art directors. I get to consult with them, and they’re really responsive, but by the time I see a cover they’re 70% of the way there. They wanted to class things up a little with SOUTHERN BOOK CLUB and go frou-frou Southern to fit the book, and that peach looks like something that could be part of a wallpaper pattern. And peaches tie into the book’s backstory in a pretty sinister way. The only downside is that it’s very hard to make two peaches not look like a part of the human anatomy, so Andie Reid, the art director, had to draw them about 5,000 times before we had peaches that didn’t look like it was a book about butt-biting vampires.
What’s your personal favorite of the PAPERBACKS FROM HELL reissues?
The Tribe. I mean, I love them all, and have particularly warm spots for When Darkness Loves Us and The Spirit, but The Tribe is the book that I find myself thinking about the most. It’s probably the great work of Jewish horror, and it’s such a generous, funny vision of a teeming, multitudinous New York City during its grittiest era, probably because its author had just been forced to move away from the city while she was writing it, so it’s a love letter to a city she misses. Also, it’s got killer golems. I’ve always got room for killer golems.
“The Tribe is such a generous, funny vision of a teeming, multitudinous New York City during its grittiest era. Also, it’s got killer golems. I’ve always got room for killer golems.”
On Facebook last month, maybe in jest, maybe not, you said that the anniversary of Gremlins 2 was unfairly overshadowing the anniversary of Exorcist II. Tell us your true feelings. In your mind, who wins the cage match between these two WTF horror movie sequels? What are the flaws and merits of each?
I like Gremlins 2, I mean, they visit a chic new Canadian restaurant and I’m married to a Canadian so that should be enough, but a little of it goes a long way. There’s not a recognizable human emotion in the entire movie because it’s supposed to feel like a cartoon, and it does. But there’s a reason those Warner Bros cartoons are shorts more often than not. That level of manic energy exhausts you in the long run. Exorcist II is a really flawed movie. A really, very, deeply flawed movie. A really, very, deeply, horrendously flawed movie, but at least there’s a soft, nougaty Richard Burton center and some people doing human-like things when they’re not dressing up like locust gods. To be honest, though, I like living in a world where we’ve got room for both.
To shop titles in the Paperbacks From Hell series, go to Valancourt Books.