Far be it from me to be snobby about people’s reading choices. Just because I haven’t picked up those books about a sparkly vampire yet doesn’t mean I don’t want to be spirited away on a cloud of sparkly vampire romance and anti-feminist values. I am pretty sure I foresee a time in my life when those things will be vital ingredients in Project Hermit Weekend (aka Don’t Forget the Sakatas). But I digress, because I am here, of course, to talk about another couple of vampire books: Charlaine Harris’s Dead until Dark and Living Dead in Dallas.
If you’re into ‘background information’ and all that, then I’ll just point out that these books belong to the Southern Vampire series, New York Times bestsellers that inspired the HBO television series True Blood. Sookie, the heroine of the series (there are eleven books in total) is
blond and blue-eyed and twenty-five, and my legs are strong and my bosom is substantial, and I have a waspy waistline. I look good in the warm-weather waitress outfit Sam picked for us: black shorts, white T, white socks, black Nikes.
Sookie’s telepathic, and she’s suitably ambivalent about her ‘disability, or gift’, which allows her to listen in on the thoughts of those around her. It causes a bit of havoc in her mental space. She found school trying, what with her having to hear what everyone else thought about the problem they were working on, so she gave up on it and started working as a waitress instead. And she definitely doesn’t take many lovers; no one wants to hear exactly what a paramour is thinking when his hand is on your ass. So Sookie is settled enough, in a way: she’s found a way to live.
But she is fascinated by the undead, the vampires who a couple of years ago ‘came out of the coffin’ to live among the living, breathing human beings of the United States. They congregate in New Orleans, a kind of vampire epicentre, but rarely do the exotic creatures have the inclination to visit Sookie’s Bon Temps, a rural northern Louisiana town. So when Bill Compton sits at one of her tables, with his nose ‘like a prince’s in a Byzantine mosaic’, it doesn’t take long for her to think of him as ‘her vampire’.
Harris is a tidy writer, whose generally workhorse prose can be funny or unexpectedly vivid, which makes the occasional gaffe okay. Our narrator, Sookie, peppers her speech and thoughts with plenty of charming down-homey talk (though she gets syrupy when contemplating her beloved). Bill is the classic tall, dark and handsome stranger, with a twist – he likes Kenny G when not cocooned in peremptory silences, and prefers women to wear long skirts.
These are some snappy, sure crime books, and it’s easy to see why Alan Ball jumped at the opportunity to create a series based on them. Each book contains a stand-alone story arc, but the vampire–human dynamic is a troubled one that plays out with plenty of antipathy and violence. Dead until Dark sees Sookie targeted by a serial killer who targets women who sleep with vampires, and in Living Dead in Dallas, Sookie is requisitioned by the vampires of Dallas to help them find a lost brother, who may have got tangled up with a religious anti-vamp group.
But though the books are classified as crime fiction, there’s no doubt what these books are really about:
Suddenly I came. Bill howled as he reached his own completion, and he collapsed on me, his fangs pulling out and his tongue cleaning the puncture marks.
It’s a little bit unfair of me to extract these prototype soft-porn sentences, but they illustrate very nicely the odd take Harris has on her characters’ nocturnal activities. You won’t see any anatomically correct terms in Dead until Dark, for example; Harris prefers a primly indirect approach: ‘He slid directly into me’. But there’s no getting around the rampaging libidos of the vampires and the humans who want to have sex with them (‘fang-bangers’). Twine the regular pangs of lust with the additional delicious kick that vampires get from ingesting human blood, and you’ve got an all-night disco party. When Sookie is wounded with a toxic weapon, three vampires drain her of blood before giving her a transfusion. Sookie may be dying, but for her pale friends, it’s the degustation menu with matching wines. And the blood exchange doesn’t just go one way. Sookie partakes of Bill’s blood – vampire blood is healing for humans – and it ‘tasted good, salty, the stuff of life. My unbroken arm rose, my hand clamped the vampire’s wrist to my mouth.’
As my friend Daisy said the other day, ‘sex and death – what more could you want?’ (Well, actually, I think she said ‘sex and death’ and then shrugged. But that’s not an appropriate way to end a blog post.)