Award-winning author Grady Hendrix has written about the confederate flag for Playboy magazine, covered terrible movie novelizations and ninja death swarms for outlets ranging from Slate to the British Film Institute, and scripted award shows for Chinese television. His novels include Horrorstör, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, and We Sold Our Souls. He’s also the author of Paperbacks from Hell, a history of the horror paperback boom of the 1970s and ’80s, which won the Bram Stoker Award for “Superior Achievement in Non-Fiction.” His latest novel is The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, and he recently agreed to talk about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires?
A while back I wrote a book called My Best Friend’s Exorcism about two teenage girls in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1988, at the height of the Satanic Panic. They become convinced that one of them is possessed by Satan and poor decision-making ensues. A lot of people came up to me after reading it and said, “The parents in that book are so awful.” And they’re right. I wrote that novel from a teenage point of view, and when you’re a teenager there is no one on the planet more awful than your parents. But there’s another version of that story, told from the parents’ point of view, about how helpless you feel when your kid is in danger. I wanted to write a story about those parents, and so The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires was born. It’s not a sequel to My Best Friend’s Exorcism but it takes place in the same neighborhood, a few years later, because that’s where I grew up and I apparently lack the imagination to write about anywhere else.
Are Patricia, Grace, Slick, Kitty, Maryellen, Mrs. Greene or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?
Every character in my books is based on a real person. It might be someone I’ve known all my life or someone I just saw on the subway, and by the time they make it to the page they’re unrecognizable, but they all start with the seed of a real person. And those women in the book club are all based on the moms I saw around me when I was growing up. I dismissed them as lightweights at the time, and it’s only getting to know them as adults that I realize just how much they did to keep us safe.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
I’m a pretty inefficient writer, so there were two completely different versions of this book with radically different characters and endings before I arrived at the version people will read. So there are tons of characters, a bunch of world-building, and a whole lot of setpieces that will never see the light of day. I wish I could write books more efficiently, but writing complete novels, one after the other, and murdering them again and again until I arrive at the final version seems to be my “method.” It’s more of a mess than a method, however.
Do you have a favorite vampire novel and/or movie? A least favorite? Or something that is so bad that it is enjoyable?
I’ve been really excited to discover a whole school of 19th-century vampire fiction devoted to people who are just exhausting. In story after story, book after book, writers detail the horrors of being around someone who talks too much, takes up too much of your time, and essentially just sucks the life out of you. Florence Marryat’s Blood of the Vampire is a fun version, but there are also some even better short stories about rich people who suck all the vitality out of their servants until they’re withered wrecks, which is how I used to feel after working as an assistant to a rich person. The funniest of the bunch is Arabella Kenealy’s “A Beautiful Vampire”, but there’s also “Good Lady Ducayne” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman wrote one set in smalltown America called “Luella Miller.”
In your Author’s Note you write a bit about your Mom, and all Moms really, and how they are perceived by their children during their teen years. Has your Mom read The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires? What did she think?
She thought it really didn’t capture her natural beauty or charm. Also, she feels like she would have handled a vampire much more efficiently and with less horsing around.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
Right now, I’m doing nothing but reading vampire books so I’ve got Whitley Strieber’s awesomely ‘80s and over-sexed The Hunger sitting here alongside the unexpectedly weird mash-up of mods and Bram Stoker, Dracutwig, about a top model in the ‘60s in Swinging London who’s also Dracula’s daughter, and the psychosexual and deeply bizarre Dracula in Love, by John Shirley in which a lot of time is spent describing Dracula’s penis which is apparently the size of a large snake, moves independently of its owner, and has two glowing yellow eyes.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
As a kid I was obsessed with a book called The Park is Mine by Stephen Peters about a Vietnam vet who takes over Central Park and kills all the police officers who try to take it back. It’s high-quality war porn which is what I loved to read when I was 11. I feel like my devotion to this book in which the hero takes amphetamines by the fistful and lovingly describes the mantraps he uses to murder police officers would get me put on a list today.
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
Shirley Jackson’s quiet, chilly, self-assured voice is my true north. One day I would love to write a book as perfect as Charles Portis’s True Grit. Elmore Leonard taught me how to write about something by writing around it. Haruki Murakami showed me how deadpan works. Robert Caro taught me not to take shortcuts. Angela Carter gave me a master class in description.
What is a book you've faked reading?
I used to make my living reviewing books and movies and it taught me that if I’m going to talk about something I have to have read it cover to cover or seen it all the way through. It’s too easy to get. I’ve had to learn to read very, very fast.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
The Little People by John Christopher has an amazing Hector Garrido cover featuring an Irish castle overflowing with Nazi leprechauns. I bought it for the cover but I’m so glad I read it because Christopher reassured me that these aren’t actual Nazi leprechauns but merely six-inch tall homunculi bred from fetuses stolen from concentration camp victims by Nazi scientists who were trying to create a race of tiny S&M sex slaves for Gestapo officers. They’ve escaped to Ireland and are living in the basement of a castle, which is a great comfort since, for a minute, I was worried that leprechauns had deeply offensive politics and it was going to be hard to boycott Lucky Charms.
Is there a book that changed your life?
I read Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor when I was way too young. I didn’t understand all of it, maybe even none of it, but it always felt like there was something hidden in all that dense language I needed to find so I kept on reading, getting seduced by its archaic vocabulary and bad occult vibes. It was unlike anything I’d ever read, and unlike anything, I’d ever seen anyone else reading. It felt like a secret.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
Charles Portis’s True Grit is the Great American Novel, full stop. But I’d also like to take a moment to sing the praises of Shirley Jackson’s domestic memoirs, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. They are very, very funny and written so precisely they make PG Wodehouse look sloppy. Also, EM Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady is way underrated. If you want to find where Bridget Jones came from, check it out. And if more people read Vernon Lee’s ghost stories, she would have displaced Henry James as the master of the form whose language creeps under your skin and fogs up your soul.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
I would give anything for a book to thrill me as much as The Park is Mine did the first time I read it.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
I think I’d like to be sitting on a beach watching the end of the world. It would just give me a nice sense of narrative completion to see it all end, and it would be enormously flattering to my ego to be living in the literal end times.
What is the question that you're always hoping you'll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
I’m always hoping someone will ask me about my spirit animal. A Chihuahua in a tiny sweater, thank you for asking.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing up a non-fiction book about kung fu movies coming to America in the Seventies, which is going to have a ton of art and feature stories about murderous porn barons, secret CIA operations, and massive riots. Then I’ve got to revise my novel that’s coming out in 2021 and get started on the novel for 2022. And try to pimp The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires in the middle of a global pandemic.