Review: Dead Until Dark

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Dead Until Dark

 Author: Charlaine Harris
Publisher: Ace
Genre: Fantasy, Mystery
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-441-00853-7

Dead Until Dark is the first of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, or Southern Vampire Mysteries, which are the basis for the acclaimed HBO series True Blood. Like many others, I saw True Blood long before I ever read any of the books on which the show is based. I’ve seen the first two seasons of the show, and I really enjoyed what I saw. The characters were well-developed, the situations were interesting, the blend of fantasy that included more than just vampires and werewolves was really fresh, and the amount of naked men and gay characters didn’t really hurt either. But it’s honeslty been a couple of years since I’ve watched True Blood, and I was excited to experience the first novel in a series of thirteen that tell Sookie’s story. As I’ve been warned by many who have read the books, the plots of the books and the HBO series diverge at a certain point, but for the most part the first book stays in line with the plot of the show. It’s interesting to note that people I’ve spoken to about this seem to align themselves with one or the other: either someone will insist that the books are much better and they never watch the show, or that the show is better and the books aren’t nearly as interesting. Upon completion of the book, I know which camp I’m in, but I’ll save that for later.

Dead Until Dark is set in rural northern Louisiana, and follows Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic waitress working in a local bar called Merlotte’s in the southern town of Bon Temps. In the world of the Southern Vampire Mysteries, vampires have announced their presence to the public and become legally recognized, in an attempt to assimilate into the rest of society and be at peace with humans, leading to the invention of synthetic blood for vampires to drink, as well as a black-market for genuine vampire blood, which induces a drug-like euphoria in humans. One night a tall, quiet vampire named Bill comes into the bar, and Sookie takes an immediate liking to him for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that she can’t hear his thoughts, and can let down her mental boundaries when she’s near him. When Bill is attacked in the parking lot by poachers who want to drain his blood and leave him to die, Sookie comes to his rescue and runs the drainers off, leaving Bill feeling indebted to her. When the poachers assault Sookie a few nights later in retaliation, Bill shows up to find her near death, and heals her by giving her his blood to drink. This begins a tentative dating relationship between Sookie and Bill.

Meanwhile, a string of murders begins in Bon Temps, the victims being young women who have been known to cavort with vampires. Sookie comes home to find her grandmother murdered like the others, and assumes that the killer came for Sookie but instead found her grandmother home and killed her to keep her quiet. Sookie’s brother Jason becomes implicated in the murder of all the women killed, either because of his sexual history with them or his relation to them. While comforting Sookie during her period of grieving, Bill initiates Sookie’s first sexual experience and takes her virginity, from which point she proudly announces that she and Bill are dating. In an attempt to learn more about the murders and prove her brother’s innocence, Sookie accompanies Bill to a vampire bar, where they meet an old and powerful vampire leader named Eric, who takes an instant interest in Sookie. Eventually Eric commands Bill to bring Sookie back to the bar so that he can make use of her telepathic abilities, and in order to help Sookie feel more secure that Eric will not attempt to harm her or call on her again, Bill leaves for New Orleans with a plan that he doesn’t reveal to Sookie.

While Bill is gone, Sookie meets a stray dog and brings it home, only to wake up in bed the next morning next to the naked owner of Merlotte’s, who reveals that he is a shapeshifter who also has feelings for her. After assuring his secret his kept safe by having him transform back into a dog when the Deputy Sheriff arrives to question her about the murders and her brother’s involvement in them, Sookie narrowly avoids being killed again when the murderer is chased off of her property by a vampire guardian Bill left behind. However the following night when she begins to her noises outside and sense someone’s presence, her vampire guardian is nowhere to be seen, her phone lines have been cut and her only method of defense, a rifle, has been stolen from the house. Choosing to fight for her life rather than wait to be murdered, Sookie creeps into the woods with a pocketknife and encounters the killer, the ex-husband of one of her fellow waitresses. Sookie escapes into a graveyard where she is finally caught and attacked, but defends herself by stabbing him with her pocketknife and flees to safety. The story ends with Sookie recovering in the hospital, receiving many bouqets of flowers, one of which comes from Eric, and Bill finally arriving to tell her that in order to provide them more security from Eric, he became a vampire representative and investigator, giving him some legal and political protection from Eric wishing to take a human he has claimed as his own.

Dead Until Dark is a quick and easy read, Harris moves from scene to scene quickly and the plot progresses at a pretty consistent rate. The biggest drawback to the quickly-moving plot, however, is that the characters don’t get much development, and there are a LOT of characters in this book. There are so many names to remember that we’re practically introduced to every resident of Bon Temps, as well as their family history, and characters come and go so often that I frequently had trouble remembering who a certain character was when they briefly showed up again after their introductory scene. Because the plot moves quickly and there are such an abudnance of characters, most of them don’t get much time to convey their personality to the reader. Characters like Merlotte’s cook, Lafayatte, or Bon Temps’ sheriff, Bud Dearborne, get little mention in the narrative and have maybe five or six lines apiece in the entire story.

Because there is only so much characterization to go around in such a large cast, Sookie and Bill get more time to convey their personalities, but unfortunately neither of them are particularly compelling. Bill is stuffy and quiet, he mostly just talks about vampire society and his life in the civil war before he was turned, and Sookie herself seems to begin as a likable  quirky telepath with an inclination towards unusual things like vampires, and even something of a feminist, refusing to be pushed around by her vampire boyfriend, but she becomes confrontational and bitchy as the narrative goes on. By the end of the book, I was happy that Sookie defended herself against the killer, but ultimately I didn’t care much about her feelings or her relationship with Bill.

Sookie’s relationship with Bill is really the main focus of the book, but though the two of them start out interestingly enough: Sookie a telepath who can’t read Bill’s mind, wanting to know more about the world of vampires, and Bill, a civil war veteran who lost his wife and children before becoming a vampire, looking to integrate into society and learn more about the modern world, something drastically changes the interplay between these two: they have sex. When Bill and Sookie finally have sex, all of their conversations stop and they spend the rest of the book having sex. If there’s a problem, they have sex. If Sookie is confused about her life, they have sex. When Sookie confesses to Bill that she was molested as a child, his immediate reaction is to have sex with her.

While Bill begins the book as an enigmatic, well-spoken gentleman, he quickly becomes creepy and possessive, doting on Sookie like a sexual plaything and treating her like property. As a reader, all of the vampire sex was extremely uncomfortable for me to read. It’s not that I’m squeamish about reading sex scenes, but the way Bill is described doesn’t make him seem very sexually appealing or attractive, and Sookie’s attraction seems to be mostly baseless, so after their first sexual encounter, the two begin having sex at every turn. At a certain point the book simply becomes Sookie and Bill having sex, followed by a mysterious death, and this formula repeats until something interesting finally happens.

My other big complaint with this book was that it really seemed as though it was trying too hard to appear “Southern.” Colloquialisms like “by golly” and southern-sounding names like “Sid Matt Lancaster” and “Hoyt Fortenberry” are peppered onto every page, and though the writer herself is authentically southern, Sookie’s story feels inauthentic and a little contrived, as though as a rich socialite were attempting to write a book about what she thought simple country folk were like. Though there are characters of different races and sexual orientations, Sookie seems to feel uncomfortable around them, referring to black people as “blacks,” and talking about how she takes gay people “with a grain of salt.” For someone who claims to be accepting towards those who are different, her feelings and thoughts seem to betray her.

Though this book has it’s issues, it wasn’t without it’s entertainment value, and I particularly enjoyed a scene where Sookie ran through the woods into her local cemetery and called out for Bill in the rain, to which he responded by crawling out of his grave and having rough vampire sex with her in a puddle of mud. It was silly, but entertaining and a little moving at the same time. The small subplot about Sam Merlotte being a shapeshifter and following Sookie home as a collie was fun to read, and made Sam one of the book’s more likable characters. Of course, there are some aspects of the story that are absolutely ludicrous, such as a character named Bubba, who is in fact Elvis Presley turned into a vampire shortly after his death, and as such he came out a little brain-dead and preys on cats instead of humans. However this isn’t really conveyed well, as the big reveal of who he is is written as such:

“Oh my god. It was the man from Memphis.”

I flipped back through the book, trying to figure out who had come from Memphis, and every character who meets Bubba talks about who they think he is, Sookie constantly making mention of who he was before he became a vampire but never saying his name, and it wasn’t until after I read the book that I had to search the internet and learn that he was Elvis, and Harris never directly drops Elvis’ name. This could simply be a silly gag that she threw in for fun, but it adds a level of ridiculousness to a murder-mystery story.

Altogether, Dead Until Dark was at best an okay book. It didn’t really leave me wanting to read any more entries in the series, and if anything it renewed an interest in True Blood, where the characters are given much more time to develop and the plot is quite a bit more involving and interesting. This certainly isn’t prime writing, and I’m not sure this book is really deserving of the all the praise it gets. While it does present an interesting story, this book is a light read that doesn’t contain much in the way of being thought-provoking or emotionally compelling. It is a silly little story about a barmaid who falls in love with a vampire, and should perhaps be taken, as Sookie would say, “with a grain of salt.”

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