Book Review: Charlaine Harris’s ‘Dead Until Dark’

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Last week I finished reading Charlaine Harris’s Dead Until Dark, the first book in her Sookie Stackhouse series of vampire novels, which has now been televised as HBO’s True Blood. For those who haven’t seen the show or read the series, the basic plot is that Sookie Stackhouse is a psychic, blonde, blue-eyed, sharp-tongued waitress who falls in love with a mysterious vampire named Bill. (You know, as you do.) Vampires have come out of centuries of hiding as the victims of an apparent ‘virus’, and now live in the open, and off synthetic blood that’s been formulated by the Japanese.

Truth be told, I watched the first episode of True Blood when it first aired, and was immediately put off by what I thought to be needless sexual violence, and also the use of language that was derogatory towards women. (As a committed feminist, I tend to have very strong views on the subject, and this often influences what I watch on TV.) But when I saw the book in my local public library, obviously well-used and covered with date stamps from previous readers, I decided that I may have been a bit harsh at first, and decided to give it a try. The overall book seemed different to my first impressions of the series, in that the sexual violence actually seemed toned down- yes, there are references to Sookie’s brother’s infamous ‘movies’, but you don’t actually see them, they’re only mentioned. Similarly, although there is sex in the novel, it is s off-set by repeated references to Sookie’s sexual inexperience, and her often ‘good-girl’ nature.
I think, in general, there is more sexual violence on TV nowadays (I’m thinking of you, Game of Thrones) but that’s probably another rant for another blog post.

Back to Dead Until Dark– what I did like about Sookie was that, under her ‘down home’ style, she actually had a strong spine and a sense of guts. My favourite scene in the whole novel was the scene where she rescues Bill from some vampire ‘drainers’ (i.e. attackers who want to drain his health-revitalizing blood and sell it for profit) with just her wits and her brother’s (albeit handily-placed) length of chain. She always seemed to have a quick word or comeback for those that went up against her, although her psychic ability did give her a head start. I also quite liked the fact that the novel was set in the American South, in a small town (Bon Temps,) rather than a big sprawling urban jungle of a city, or the shadowy backstreets of London (both of which, I think, have been done before.) Most of the action takes place within the local café/bar (Merlotte’s) and the smarter, more sophisticated, yet infinitely more dangerous vampire bar. Within this close-knit community, the supernatural element stood out all the more strongly, bringing into question ideas of identity, difference and belonging. (For example, some of the vampires-like Bill himself- attempt ‘mainstreaming’ i.e. fitting in with the local community by drinking only synthetic blood, and coincidentally, also alcohol. It appears to work on the whole, but they never really fit in.) I also liked the way in which it wasn’t so much a love story, as a murder mystery. Someone in Bon Temps viciously killed off a group of women known for sleeping with vampires, (including some of Sookie’s colleagues) and it was not clear until late on whether it was a vampire who killed them (they have bite marks on their legs,) or a human. The fast pace and action kept things rolling along nicely, until the final culprit was revealed.

Okay, now to the stuff I didn’t like quite so much…

1. First of all, the names… the sheer amount of hum-drum, rather mundane names (particularly those of the vampires) started to grate on me. I think that vampire names should be as unusual and decadent as the vampires themselves. As a Gothic fiction devotee, by the end of the novel, I was yearning for an Abraham Van Helsing, a Carmilla or even a Lestat. Instead, I got Bill, Diane, Malcolm and er….Pam. Yes, really, there is a highly-powerful vampire woman named…Pam. I get going against the trend for whimsical vampire names, but why oh why do they have to sound like middle-aged receptionists instead?

2. I liked the way it played with humour and cliché, often with a casual catchy phrase (the vampire bar, for instance, is called Fangtasia.) However, the repeated use of the word ‘fang-banger’ to signify ‘vampire groupies’, i.e. human girls who willingly sleep with vampires, really irritated me. I found it offensive, as to me it is too allied with the word ‘gang-banger,’ a word which, for me personally, may rhyme catchily, but does nothing to suggest the true horror of gang rape. Again, my feminist spidey-senses were on full alert.

3. The ludicrously thin plot. Okay, there are vampires, there is some explanatory mention of a virus, and I get that this is obviously the first in a long series, so not everything is going to be explained. But to just introduce the MASSIVE concept of vampires living in our society amongst us, and to not fully explore the impact that such a thing would have, was disappointing to me. Where was the public hysteria? Where was the group of post-apocalyptic human survivors arming themselves against a hungry vampire horde? Where were the women petrified for their children? And how have the Japanese suddenly formulated synthetic blood? If vampires really have existed for centuries, why have they only waited until the advent of fake blood to come out into the light (no pun?) Oh, so many questions, Charlaine Harris. I know it’s the first in a series, but the novel isn’t that long (compared to say, Dracula) and I felt things could have been explained just a leetle bit more.

Furthermore, Sookie’s psychic ability…come again? She’s psychic- um, how exactly? Why? And how come everyone in her normal little café is suddenly fine with this? The worst example of this simple plot came into force when Sam (Sookie’s inexplicably hunky boss) turned out to be a shape-shifter. (He just happens to turn into a dog. You know, just ‘cos he can. A real ‘WTF?’ moment for me, to say the least.) Suddenly vampires exist alongside shape-shifters, and yet there’s been no mention of this before. Disappointing, and not to mention confusing.

All in all, give rate Dead Until Dark four out of ten stars. I liked the action and the murder-mystery plot, but in places the back-story was just too darn thin, and the characters needed extra thought. If you like your vampire stories punchy and full of passion, this is the one for you. If you want something a little more gritty and three-dimensional, perhaps not.
Overall rating: 4 out of 10




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