You know how it’s all very well to go out to fine dining restaurants, but often what you would rather do is collapse on the couch with macaroni cheese? Or that documentaries are all very interesting, but most nights the closest you want to get is watching Mythbusters? As stacked with classical novels as my bookshelves may be, sometimes I like to sit in the sun, pour a coffee and devour a book in one (or possibly two) sittings. Lately a popular choice for these moods has been the Sookie Stackhouse series, known widely to most people through its television incarnation for HBO as True Blood.
Vampire fiction is one of the big sellers in modern mass market literature, but that is nothing new. Some of the biggest names in classical literature have published vampire tales: Goethe, Byron, and of course Bram Stoker. Vampires have had a healthy screen presence as well: Nosferatu, Christopher Lee in Dracula, and what would I have watched on TV as a teenager if not Buffy? It isn’t hard to see the appeal. Vampires are frightening and dangerous, but possess an element of glamour that is missing from other undead beings: it is hard to imagine a sexy zombie. Many books pick and choose their vampire mythology, do they possess an ability to transform into bats, can they stand the smell of garlic, or the sight of a crucifix, for example. This lends vampires a versatility, meaning they crop up in everything from comedy to pure horror.
Lately the media has been saturated with the Stephanie Meyer Twilight series. I’ll admit here, in print, just this once, I’ve read those. I think they were pretty bad, and the fourth book, Breaking Dawn - that was just plain weird. Charlaine Harris’s series began slightly earlier but didn’t become a big hit, as far as I am aware, until later. In many ways they are each others antithesis. Where Twilight shies away from the dark elements of a vampire’s nature, and appears to believe the only thing worse than being a serial killing vampire is sex before marriage, Harris’s is a much more adult read, soaked with blood, sex and murder. The premise of the series is that vampires have ‘come out’ to the public, after the manufacturing of synthetic blood; they present public faces as night dwellers who no longer rely on humans to survive. However the vampires in this series have a believable duality: as likeable as many of them are, they are also sexually predatory mass killers, who are essentially dead during daylight hours.
The books are set in the bible belt state of Louisiana, so Harris is able to explore some interesting ideas in the conflict of supernatural beings and religious fundamentalism. The titular character Sookie is not just human, but a telepath, something that allows her to empathise with the suspicion vampires and other supernatural beings, such as the shape shifters, are treated with. However Sookie has been raised with Christian values, and it is her conflict with her desire to lead a ‘good’ life and her involvement in the dark dealings of the vampire world, that give these novels an element of pathos. Some of the actions of the vampires, but also of the religious right, are truly horrific. Now in the eleventh book Sookie’s life has evolved into something she isn’t sure she likes, as she has become increasingly inured to violence.
While her books aren’t literary greats, or even terribly deep, Harris writes likeable characters with a lot of wit, which is often quite dark: in the most recent novel, Dead Reckoning, after a particularly bloody fight, a dazed Sookie sums up one minor vampire character with ‘noisy eater’. Some of the earlier books have a few editorial errors, and as the series continues some elements are beginning to feel a bit repetitive. However, overall, I find them to be a successful and entertaining addition to the vampire tradition.