I’m a huge Grady Hendrix fan (see my reviews of Horrorstor, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, and the amazingly excellent We Sold Our Souls). This book was so much more intense than I thought it would be, and there’s so much to unpack that it’s a tough one to grade.
Truthfully, if I had known what I was getting into, I doubt I would have read this book. And yet I’m so glad I did, because this, among other things, is a story about reading whatever the heck we want to read and the power of women when they decide to unite, both of which are themes that are Relevant to my Interests, Oh, Yeah.
Here’s an incomplete list of Trigger Warnings:
- Racism and Classism
- Gaslighting (OH GOD SO MUCH GASLIGHTING)
- Child Abuse
- Spousal Abuse
- Rats (OH GOD SO MANY RATS)
- Cockroaches (AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGH)
This is not one of Hendrix’s lighter books. This is hardcore, graphic, physically and psychologically violent, gory horror. The gory parts are hard to read and the psychological horror even tougher. There are some funny moments but it’s not humor and it sure isn’t romance.
So why I am recommending this to The Bitches (those that feel equipped for it – please respect your triggers)? Because this is a triumphant book about women fighting for autonomy. They struggle to own their own space. They struggle to find solidarity. When they try to protect their own families at the cost of others, terrible things happen, but when they accept that all children are their children, they kick serious ass. Hendrix explains his motive for writing the book in the introduction:
Because vampires are the original serial killers, stripped of everything that makes us human-they have no friends, no family, no roots, no children. All they have is hunger. They eat and eat but they’re never full. With this book, I wanted to pit a man freed by all responsibilities but his appetites against women whose lives are shaped by their endless responsibilities. I wanted to pit Dracula against my mom.
As you’ll see, it’s not a fair fight.
The book is set in Charleston, South Carolina, from 1988 – 1997. Patricia is an upper-middle- class White housewife with two children who is also caring for her husband’s mother, a woman with dementia. She joins a book club that reads crime fiction, thrillers, and true-crime books, and makes friends with her fellow readers despite disagreements and tensions between them. Her world is shaken when a stranger named James Harris arrives in town and children from lower-income, predominantly Black neighborhoods begin to disappear. Patricia thinks that James Harris is responsible, but he insinuates himself into the lives of her family members and friends and she can’t convince anyone that he is dangerous.
This book is scary in a lot of different ways. It has jump scares, insects and rats and small spaces, and lots and lots of blood. The psychological aspect of the horror is even worse. I’m super scared about being eaten alive by rats, but the odds are in my favor there that this probably won’t happen to me (knock on wood). However, all of us have been patronized. All of us have lost a friend. All of us have struggled and failed to protect someone. These fears are abundantly and effectively addressed.
The book is adamant that housewives and mothers are often, and stupidly, underestimated, that there is strength in numbers, and that you should never ever apologize for your reading material. There’s a lot of trauma to get through before the celebrating, though. Patricia faces losses for a long time before she garners any victories. James Harris, with a polite voice and a smile on his face, befriends her children, gets all the husbands of her friends financially entangled in his investments, and convinces everyone, sometimes even including Patricia, that she is mentally unstable and unreliable. Worst of all, he ingratiates himself into Patricia’s beloved book club, turning it from a safe space for women to yet another event which men control and dominate.
Of all the scary things in this book, patriarchy is the absolute fucking worst, and some of the most horrifying moments in the book involve the silencing of women. Hendrix is very good at showing how many ways women can be diminished and silenced by men, from physical violence to gaslighting to separating women from their support networks. Initially, Patricia is saved from boredom and stress and frustration by becoming friends with her book club members and knowing that once a month they will get together without the company of children or men. Later, Patricia counts on that network of support to save her from more dire threats, and nothing undermines her as much as losing the support of the club. There’s a lot of supernatural and bloody stuff in this book that is scary but doesn’t seem real. All of the gaslighting and isolating feels all too real and is therefore utterly horrifying.
Hendrix is also good at illuminating how a predator, be it a Very Bad Man or an oppressive social structure, thrives in a climate of racial and social division.
Harris uses the rich part of town for safety, money, shelter, all the material hungers that he has, while using the children of the poorer, and Black, part of town for food. Patricia’s biggest struggle is to force herself, and then to force other mothers in the book club, to actually give a shit about the Black children who are dying instead of allowing their deaths to be a price for her own safety and prosperity in the “nicer” part of town.
When it comes to addressing patriarchy in horror, this book is awesome. When it comes to showing the struggles and the triumphs of women, the book is excellent.
However, I have two questions about the book that I still haven’t settled on answers for:
- Did the rape scenes (there are 4 that are either portrayed or discussed in detail) need to be that graphic?
- Did it properly address the racial injustice, the fact that the Black woman had to do most of the work all the way through to the end of the story, and the White savior implications?
I don’t have answers to these questions but here’s some non-spoilery context. As is traditional in vampire lore, the consuming of people has sexual overtones. In this book, instead of being portrayed as sexy seduction, the feeding is portrayed as the rape of both adults and children, including grooming children and, in a sense, using drugs to sedate and control rape victims. I appreciated the fact that these rape scenes are not glamorized. However, they are very graphic. I’ve written more about the problem I have with graphic rape scenes in my post “Mad Max: Fury Road Makes Your Rape Arguments Invalid.” In this book, the purpose of these scenes is just to horrify, and I truly can’t decide whether this is problematic or not. They sure succeeded in horrifying me, but honestly I was horrified enough without them.
The other thing I’m having trouble unpacking is how the book deals with Mrs. Greene. Mrs. Greene is hired to care for Patricia’s mother-in-law, who has dementia. Mrs. Greene also cleans houses for some of the book club members. Mrs. Green is Black and lives in the low income part of town. She is the one who brings the plight of the Black children to Patricia’s attention.
Mrs. Greene is not a symbol or a “Magical Negro.” She has her own life and interests. She has her own two children to protect. She plays a pivotal role in the story. She also does most of the actual work during the final scenes. She fights to get the White women to help her and they abandon her again and again to protect their own interests. However, it’s not her story, it’s Patricia’s story, even though Mrs. Greene does so much more than her share of the literally and figuratively dirty work. This did not sit right with me. The books deals effectively with the themes of social inequality based on gender, race, and class, but not so well with the actual characters. The book explicitly conceptualizes the layered horrors of racism and classism, but still centers the White characters, which is a serious problem.
The publisher describes this book as Steel Magnolias meets Dracula.
This is a whole different ball of wax. I don’t know what to compare it to, but I’ll tell you what it has:
- Astute insights into character, including pleasant surprises about many of them.
- Fabulous dialogue. “Between us we’ve been cleaning houses for eighty years,” says one woman to another as they contemplate cleaning up an extravagant bloody crime scene. “I think we’re up to the challenge.”
- Terror and suspense.
- A hurrah ending that celebrates women, and skill sets, and interests that are usually devalued.
- A grasp of the importance of community.
- Painful observations of various kinds of social inequities.
- A smiling villain and a very pissed off mom.
- A lot of references to true crime stories.
If these things are your jam, and you feel up to tackling the potentially triggering material, you’ll be rewarded by a very good book.
Patricia knew how they looked, a bunch of silly Southern women yakking about books over white wine. A bunch of carpool drivers, skinned-knee kissers, errand runners, secret Santas and part-time tooth fairies, with their practical jeans and their festive sweaters.
Think of us what you will, she thought, we made mistakes, and probably scarred our children for life, and we froze sandwiches, and forgot carpool, and got divorced. But when the time came, we went the distance.