Dead Until Dark
Ace Fantasy/Mystery, 2001
Whatever else I may think of this series, Charlaine Harris gets big points for one of the best titles in the vampire romance/vampire mystery/vampire comedy sub-sub-sub-genre. Maybe it’s just the alliteration, but it works.
Dead Until Dark is the first in the Sookie Stackhouse series. A TV series based on the books is currently playing on HBO under the more boring title True Blood. I must admit that when these books came out I was completely put off by the name Sookie Stackhouse. I still am. I mean, southern, I know, but Sookie? Stackhouse? Really? Still hard to get past, even though I enjoyed most of the book.
Before I read this book I was wondering what tiny scrap of vampire romance/ vampire mystery territory had been left untrampled by Laurel K Hamilton’s (metaphorical) size-twelve waffle-soled boots. It turns out it’s Southern Gothic Humor. Basically, the Sookie Stackhouse debut has two things going for it—High Concept, (“What if vampires were real? And they were just people like us?”), and an engaging, funny, first-person narrator.
The first ingredient was well established by Hamilton, but by setting her book in the small town of Bon Temps, Louisianna, Harris has created a metaphysical St Mary Meade, with Sookie as a telepathic Miss Jane Marple, if Jane Marple were a blond, sexed-up, twenty-something hottie who wears short-shorts and shorter skirts.
As a closeted telepath, Sookie has made herself a recluse. She never progressed beyond high school, because concentrating in a room full of other students was impossible. She doesn’t let herself date because it’s awkward to pretend she doesn’t hear the blatantly sexual thoughts of the men she’s around (blond hottie, remember?) Why she chooses to work in a bar, then, is something of a mystery, but we’ll let it go because it works so well.
When a vampire moves to town, however, Sookie realizes to her relief that she can’t hear his thoughts. Vampire Bill—and here’s another reason the book works; not Rene, not Jean-Michel, not Antoine, Vampire Bill—is attacked by human ne’er-do-wells. Sookie, who has telepathically overheard their scheme, rescues Bill and thus begins their relationship. The availability of synthetic blood and the legal “outing” of vampires generally makes them more like citizens and slightly less like predators. It’s like adopting a tiger cub because it’s so cute. This, we know, is the major thrill of the vampire romance; the exciting thought that your lover may lose control and kill you. Thrilling, no?
Because it is so gosh-darn thrilling, there are many “fang-bangers,” or humans who let vampires feed off of them just for the extreme thrill of it. In Bon Temps, we quickly realize, somebody is not happy about that, as two local fang-banger women are soon found dead.
Danger mounts for Sookie as we meet other vampires who just aren’t as. . . well, let’s say socialized as Bill, and the body count continues to climb. At the same time things heat up between Sookie and Bill in the best bodice-ripper tradition.
The plot itself is fairly predictable with lots of foundation-laying for future books. About three-fourths of the way through I suddenly thought, “Oh, no! Don’t let that person be the murderer! I really like them!” Alas for me.
Sookie’s convincing, homegrown voice and the cast of quirky characters, including a cameo from an undead celebrity, keep the book chugging even if the tale did start to go flat about two-thirds of the way through. I also liked Sookie’s observations about telepathy—some people’s thought are chaotic and she often can’t track them in a linear fashion.
The book is least exciting when it’s following the vampire stuff. Vampire bars, vampire bureaucracy, the tedious—and spurious—vampire Code of Etiquette, the uneasy status of humans—meals on legs? Walking decanters?—the sense that you could be ruthlessly passed around by stronger beings who can Do What They Will With You (oooh! Guilty shiver of pleasure!) now plays more like a buck-ninety-eight Marquis de Sade knockoff than anything dangerous or new. Because it’s obvious where the series is headed, I probably won’t read any of the later books. Dead Until Dark is best when Harris leaves behind the vamp-trappings and delves into southern mythos, as in this golden scene where Bill addresses the local Civil War history group, telling them about their ancestors:
“An ancient man in the first row raised his hand.
‘Sir, by any chance did you know my great-grandfather, Tolliver Humphries?’
‘Yes,’ Bill said after a moment. His face was unreadable. ‘Tolliver was my friend.’
Just for a moment there, there was something so tragic in his voice that I had to close my eyes.” (CH,123)
It is bits like that that kept me reading Dead Until Dark until way past dark.