An Invitation to Trust
The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires: reading 1
April 19, 1993, almost exactly 100 miles away from the town where I was born and spent most of the next 15 years of my life, David Koresh and his followers set fire to the compound where they were facing off with federal agents, killing 76 members of his offshoot of the Branch Davidians, itself an offshoot of the 7th Day Adventist church, itself an offshoot of conservative, evangelical Protestantism. The FBI siege of the Davidian compound (and its fiery result) would prove galvanizing for the white power militia movement in the US. Two years later, Timothy McVeigh would choose April 19 to launch his attack on the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City.
What does any of this have to do with a book about a fictional vampire in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina in the summer of 1993? Maybe nothing. Possibly everything.
In 1993 I was a junior in college. I spent the year gradually coming to terms with the fact that no grad school would accept me with my grades, and that I was woefully underprepared to do much of anything in the real world. I hung out with my girlfriend. I drank too much. Seeing the Branch Davidian complex burn made me realize that, as a species, we have a very complicated relationship with trust.
Human society - even at the most basic level - requires an enormous amount of trust. You have to trust the words and the actions of the people around you. When the light turns green, you trust that the car in front of you will go. And you trust that when it is red they will stop. You trust that when you say “good morning” to the barista at Starbucks they won’t suddenly throw hot coffee on you. Trust informs every interaction we have, from the prosaic to the profound.
We trust that when we meet someone new and they tell us who they are and where they are from and what they do that they are telling the truth.
And. Sometimes some people lie. Some lie a whole hell of a lot.
They violate the social compact. They take advantage of our trust. David Koresh used the trust that 76 people placed in him to start the fire that killed them. The list of cult leaders who have killed their followers is long and infamous - from Jim Jones (909) to Marshall Applewhite (39) and everyone in between and beyond.
And it’s not just cult leaders. Bernie Madoff swindled investors out of $65 billion. Enron’s collapse left chaos in its wake. Cult leaders, con men, shady corporations, and all manner of flimflam artists take the basic trust that we have in our fellow human beings - the trust necessary for human cooperation and survival - and weaponize it against us.
We need trust in order to survive. And trust can be violated for personal gain. And confidence men (and women) exploit that disconnect. It is like these bad actors have found the loophole in being human.
You know who else uses that same loophole? Vampires.
One of the aspects of vampire lore I find most interesting is the idea that vampires have to be invited in. A vampire that crosses a threshold unbidden will find their powers weakened or completely eliminated. In order to get that invitation, vampires must charm and cajole. They can not bully their way into an invitation. They must build trust in order to break it - just like a cult leader or con man. The skill sets are the same.
And so is the end goal - to drain someone of the thing that gives them life. To take their money, or their love, or their belief. Vampires take something even more elemental - the blood that sustains us.
As the first part of this story about Patricia and James and the women of the Mount Pleasant book club unfolded, all I could see were the many red flags that accompanied James’ arrival in town, and his increasing presence in the lives of these women (especially Patricia). I kept thinking about all the times they invited him in. I kept thinking about trust and how necessary it is. And how quickly it can be abused.
In order for trust to be abused, someone has to want something. Those who fall victim to Ponzi schemes want predictable returns. Those who are seduced by cults want something to believe in.
I think Patricia is bored. I think that - despite her very busy life - she is lonely. She wants someone who sees HER. And so she becomes a target for James. And trust is violated.
Here are my questions to ponder for this first section of reading:
1. There seem to be many red flags when James and Patricia first connect. Which stood out to you? Why do you think Patricia ignored them?
2. The book starts in 1988 and then jumps to 1993. What, if anything, do you wish you knew about the 5 years in between?
3. What character do you find most interesting or compelling? Why?
4. It seems likely that the Hoyt Pickens described by Miss Mary is, in fact, James Williams. Why do you think he has returned to the same place?
I hope that you are enjoying the start of the book as much as I am. It feels like it will be a real roller coaster ride.
As a reminder, the next section will be from Chapter 12 through Chapter 23 (stopping at the page that says Three Years Later).
Let’s see what awaits!
Happy reading y’all.