A feature on the work of Charlaine Harris that originally appeared in Black Static #12:-
DEAD, BUT STILL KICKING
Written by Charlaine Harris, the Southern Vampire Mysteries debuted in 2001 with Dead Until Dark and have appeared since at the rate of one volume per year, each with a punning title based on the word ‘dead’. Set in a world where, thanks to the development of True Blood, a synthetic blood drink, vampires have come out of the closet and are functioning as useful members of society, they chronicle the adventures of Sookie Stackhouse, a young woman who works as a waitress at a bar in Bon Temps, Louisiana. Sookie is special: she can read minds. Unfortunately this ability is as much curse as gift, and vampires are the only people with whom she can have anything like a normal relationship, as their minds are closed to her.
Producer Alan Ball picked up on the appeal of the books and translated them to the small screen for HBO as True Blood, starring Anna Paquin as Sookie. The series debuted in the US in 2008, and will run in the UK on the FX channel from July 19th. To commemorate that, in June and July Gollancz are reissuing all previous eight books with snazzy new covers as well as bringing out a hardback edition of new entry Dead and Gone.
I was sent the original three titles for review back in 2004, when Orbit put them out in paperback, but the combination of punning titles and not wholly representative cover artwork, gave me the impression that they were strictly lightweight and aimed primarily at the YA market, and therefore of little or no interest to our readers. By the time I got around to reading one of the books and discovered how wide of the mark that assessment was, the window of opportunity for a review had closed, but what goes around comes around, as they say, and so I can make up for past omissions by briefly reviewing those three books now, along with Harris’ latest volume, at slightly greater length and for no extra charge.
The first book in the series, Dead Until Dark (Gollancz paperback, 336pp, £6.99), opens with Sookie saving Bill, the new vampire in town, from some crooks intent on draining his blood for sale on the black market. Sookie is attracted to him and eventually they become lovers, though that brings problems of its own, including the interference of a vampire gang who don’t subscribe to the philosophy of co-existence with humans. Worse still, a serial killer is murdering women in the town and framing vampires for the crimes, with a couple of the deaths a little too close to Sookie for comfort. It’s up to our heroine to sort out what’s what before she too becomes a victim.
Harris’ writing has a definite lightness of touch to it, but that shouldn’t be confused with lightweight, as she takes on board serious themes such as child abuse, misogyny and murder, with S&M style fun and games to flavour. And there is no flinching away from describing how nasty these things can be, with repercussions inside the family circle and ripples outwards through the larger community. Sookie’s discovery of a murder victim, somebody she cared for, is especially disturbing, the writing really getting under the character’s skin and making you feel for her loss.
Harris also does an excellent job of showing how a reality in which vampires co-exist peacefully with humans would work, all the ramifications of that, with a side order on problems a girl who can read men’s minds must encounter when it comes to dating. The characters are all believable and Sookie herself is a thoroughly engaging heroine, sexy and sassy, often the voice of reason, aware of her own shortcomings but ignorant of what a truly good person she is, and all the more appealing for that. The easygoing prose moves the story along at a cracking pace but never descends into gush, and there are some delicious touches of humour to keep the pot seasoned.
There’s the same feeling of amiability with a hard edge about the second volume, Living Dead in Dallas (Gollancz paperback, 288pp, £6.99). Bill and Sookie jet off to Dallas, to help the local vampires discover the fate of one of their number who has gone missing, a plot strand that brings them up against a fanatical religious organisation intent on wiping out vampires and leads Sookie to encounter a group of were-creatures with their own rules and group ethos. Back in Bon Temps, the locals must cope with a rogue maenad demanding tribute (of a particularly bloody kind) and Sookie investigates the murder of one of her work colleagues, the trail leading her to a group of kinky sex aficionados.
As before, Harris writes well, effortlessly drawing readers in and making the concerns of her characters their concerns as well. Sookie, coping with the problems attendant on her telepathy and romance with vampire Bill, is growing in stature, and an engaging protagonist, someone who could be a spokesperson for most of us, with her strong moral sense and simple humanity. Similarly Harris uses the beautifully realised vampire backdrop to explore issues of prejudice and intolerance. As far as that goes, her work reminds me of Laurell K Hamilton, though Harris’ books are more fully rounded and easier going, with sexuality just a part of the mix and not the abiding preoccupation it has become for the post-ardeur Anita Blake. The only quibble I have is the inclusion of the maenad subplot, which seems too obviously a plot convenience, a way for some of the bad guys to get their comeuppance without the bother of a trial and due legal process. It’s a minor point though and doesn’t seriously detract from the overall appeal of the book.
Dallas ended on a cliff-hanger, with the revelation of some mystery in vampire Bill’s life, and the plot thickens with Club Dead (Gollancz paperback, 288pp, £6.99). Bill has gone missing in Jackson, Mississippi, where he went on a secret mission for Louisiana’s Vampire Queen. Sookie is enlisted by the local vampire chief Eric to help find him, though she has personal issues to contend with as it appears Bill may have got cuddly with another vampire, a lady from his past. With shape shifter Alcide, to whom she feels a physical attraction, as a chaperone Sookie visits a night club vampires and their hangers on frequent, picking up clues as to Bill’s whereabouts. The quest is to lead her into deadly danger, not just from vampires but also from a pack of werewolf bikers.
I enjoyed this third volume, but perhaps not quite as much as its predecessors. My reservations concern the plot, which this time around was rather flimsy, with Bill’s big secret simply a MacGuffin, and a not particularly convincing one at that. On the plus side, the characters are fleshed out some more and we learn a lot about vampire politics, all the infighting and rivalries that go on below the human radar. Sookie’s romantic problems with Bill are unresolved at the end of the book, and Harris allows her to spread her wings a bit more, expressing interest in both Alcide and the enticing Eric. There is plenty of action too, as the story veers in first one direction and then another, and Harris’ prose is as feisty and fun as ever, so think of the book as a slowing down for breath, rather than the start of any grinding to a full stop.
Okay, skip forward to ninth and latest volume Dead and Gone (Gollancz hardback, 312pp, £12.99) and my impression is that the series is still very much on the boil. A lot has happened in the intervening six years, though nothing that can’t easily be picked up on from context. Sookie and Bill are no longer an item, but he is still there in the background, all dark and broody. The new love of her life is Eric, though there have been other alliances in the interim, including were-tiger Quinn. Vampire politics have been completely overturned, and Eric owes allegiance to a new vampire king, one from whom he has to protect Sookie. Most significant of all, Sookie has learned stuff about her own ancestry, that she is descended from a powerful fairy prince, and she has him to thank for her telepathic ability. These fairies are definitely not of the winged, tinkerbell variety though, as subsequent events will prove and in a way not much to Ms Stackhouse’s liking.
That’s all background stuff. In the foreground the book starts with the were-creatures big coming out reveal, their attempt to join the vampires in being accepted by humankind. Soon after that Sookie’s ex-sister-in-law Crystal, herself part were-beast, is killed and left on a cross in back of the bar where Sookie works, and at the same time Sookie is informed by her fairy great grandfather Niall, that there is war among the fairies and she has become a target for the faction opposed to him. After that it all gets rather complicated and decidedly dark, with several people killed and Sookie herself in ever increasing danger, before a resolution of sorts is achieved.
There is a very natural feel to this book, with Harris keeping up a clever balancing act between things that are essential to the plot and other stuff that is simply going on in the background, all part and parcel of being Sookie Stackhouse, although it may prove to be of vital significance at some later date, as for instance with the FBI agents who turn up to investigate something that happened in the past. Sookie herself, despite all the ups and downs in her life, remains an eminently engaging heroine, a deceptively calm centre of sorts, the kind of person you might like to have as a best friend or older cousin, and it’s qualities like these that make us care what happens to her.
Harris’ storytelling is as fast paced as ever, with a prose style that seems effortless as the pages zip by. There are some nice touches of humour, such as the reappearance of vampire Bubba (Elvis Presley) and the opening scene with its satirical slant on reality TV, imagining how a vampire version might go. Regardless, Harris doesn’t flinch from tackling the serious issues, or duck any grisly subject matter, as with the torture of one major character and the painful death of another: it’s simply that she doesn’t dwell on the gory details. On the downside I have to admit that there is something not quite so minatory about torture, when the physical scars can be healed by an administration of vampire blood. For more meat we will have to see what psychological scarring the character suffers in future books. The battle scenes are handled well, with some tense confrontations and Sookie having to deal with the emotions killing someone, or having someone die defending her, brings to the fore.
Central to the book is the theme of prejudice. When the were-beasts come out of the closet not everyone is accepting, as with the shooting of bar owner Sam’s mother by her husband, and the plot by a former friend to murder Sookie, who is seen as a friend of all the ‘freaks’. Crystal’s death looks like a hate crime initially, and even when the real motives of the killer are discovered prejudice of a kind is still an issue. And the war among the fairies is down to a division of opinion between those who wish to interact with humans and others intent on keeping their blood pure, with the obvious subtext that bigotry is not simply a human flaw. As ever in all this Sookie is the voice of reason, unable to see why someone’s opinion of you should change simply because you have were-genes, or are gay, but that doesn’t stop others hurting themselves and her.
Strictly speaking, these books are urban fantasy rather than horror. They give us entertaining stories that are engagingly written, with likable characters and compelling plots, set in a world where vampires, were-beasts and all the rest are just folk like us, aside from the taste for blood and all that other stuff. And if that was all they were then it would be okay in a pass the time sort of way, but Harris also brings to the table a little something extra, a touch of gravitas and realism that you don’t usually get, or expect, from this type of thing.