Vampires! They’re goddamn everywhere! When they look back on the start of the 21st century, will they wonder what we were thinking, or will there be no fiction without vampires?
Of course, not all vampires are born equal. There are some that are unreadable, and there are those that offer themselves to you with no real challenge: vampires on cruise control. The Sookie Stackhouse novels (AKA the Southern Vampire Mysteries), which became the TV series True Blood, is one such vampire series; easy enough to read without causing much concern, but also without approaching greatness in any capacity.
Four years prior to the events of Dead Until Dark, synthetic blood became viable and vampires became public knowledge. Telepathic cocktail waitress Sookie Stackhouse wants desperately to meet a vampire, but soon after she meets Bill Compton people start dying and her life takes several unfortunate turns.
Dead Until Dark won the Anthony Award for best paperback original mystery upon publication, but I was hard pressed to view it as a mystery; it is true that there is a series of killings, but so much else is going on besides that it’s very easy to forget that people are dying all around Sookie. This is very much an orientation novel, introducing Sookie to the world of the undead in as crowded a fashion as possible – “Sookie, these are my vampire friends, who aren’t as nice as me. Here’s a vampire nightclub, filled with vampire fetishists!”; “Sookie, I’m totally not a werewolf!” – and consequently the overarching plot is obscured, which is never a good thing when people are dying and lives are at risk.
Sookie always has something to do, and eventually that comes down to what I suspect (and fear) a lot of people read these novels for: vampire sex. Vampire sex is tonally discordant, because Sookie quickly establishes herself as somewhat prudish. A lot of the vampires come across as either gay or bisexual and it’s not immediately clear whether she is homophobic and disapproves of their actions or simply the public nature of them.
When she loses her virginity to a vampire, the reader is held hostage for several pages as she describes precisely how much blood goes into the process: the recovery from the hymen pain is a squeamish read and I don’t like the idea of anyone getting off on it. If Sookie is going to be frank about her own sexuality, henceforth she should stop casting aspersions on the sexuality of vampires, her brothers, various waitresses or anyone else in the series. She simply can’t have it both ways and I won’t let her (he said of the book that was written ten years ago).
This inconsistent approach to sex is glossed over, particularly in the dialogue and action itself: Sookie has understandably negative feelings towards someone who molested her as a child; her brother advises her to “get over it!”. Upon disclosing the abuse to another character, she is soothed by the proposition of further intercourse, as if to somehow undo the past wrongs. It seems more than a little wrong headed.
I will say this for Sookie: Bill and the rest of the vampires want to own her and, unlike Bella Swan (four years Sookie’s junior in the publication stakes), she won’t hear any of it. The vampires exert an inexorable pull on Sookie’s emotions but I feel an undeniable gratification in her desire to be her own person. Harris is willing to suggest that the treatment of people as chattel is not necessarily the way that it should be and she deserves a sort of respect for that; there is no way that I can accuse her of attempting to corrupt a generation of young women as Stephenie Meyer has.
Though it was published in 2001, Dead Until Dark has the feel of an older book: this is a world untouched by mobile phones or the internet. A different pall would be cast on the society of “fang bangers” if there were such a thing as a vampire craigslist, as there inevitably would be in real life. Perhaps in Bon Temps, Louisiana, they didn’t have the modern conveniences back then. Sookie organises her video collection, of all things! It is strange to read a book of this vintage which does not feature any of the things that would be integral to the story: people can only be called if they’re at home; Bill has to leave Sookie one night so he can go home and make some phone calls.
Harris writes energetically but perhaps without the intervention of a copy-editor; consequently there are sentences that don’t end, words that have no place being on the page, and “lightening” strikes to illuminate a room. The book bounces along despite these problems, and in momentum it becomes reminiscent of Val McDermid’s breezy and irresponsible Kate Brannigan PI series. When it finally comes time to reveal the identity of the killer, Harris shows a level of finesse not evident anywhere else in the book; suddenly Sookie’s telepathic abilities make sense and are useful, and there is a welcome psychopathy and thrill injected into the story.
Despite the overcrowding, when the story is on it is definitely on. Sookie has a lot to learn – perhaps too much for one slim volume – but all of the vampire set pieces that aren’t simply about intercourse are handled well and effectively establish the rules of Harris’ particular brand of vampire. It’s nice to see that glamour plays a part in their mythos, because that’s frequently left out in the more mainstream vampire work that I’ve been exposed to in recent years, and there’s enough that remains unsaid to allow for intrigue in later volumes.
The other supernatural elements don’t fare so well; the interplay between Sookie and her boss is more disturbing than anything else, with Harris coming close to trying to justify sexual harassment. The other “species” of supernatural being does not benefit from the firm cultural grounding of vampires and is consequently vague and, frankly, a little stupid. Harris has chances to redeem them beyond this book but regardless of that outcome, any sexual tension that she tries to generate between Sookie and many other characters will be read as unwelcome to me.
I’m not going to pretend that Dead Until Dark is art, but it has no pretensions of being so. In trying to straddle two genres it inevitably lets the supernatural win over the slightly more pressing issue of a serial killer in the characters’ midst. While it intermittently embarrasses, ultimately Sookie Stackhouse entertains without any of the baggage attached to that other vampire series that both followed her and enabled her to achieve greater prominence.