Warning: spoilers ahoy!
As keen readers of this blog may have noticed, I am currently overseas on what has thus far been a holiday. I say thus far because at some point in the near future, I will have to find myself a job, however temporarily, in order to supplement our saved monies with new monies. But until that happy day arrives, I will continue to enjoy a glorious abundance of reading time. Since our departure on August 20 – eighteen days ago – I have read fourteen books. And of those fourteen, eight have come courtesy of Charliane Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire series. Only the most recent volume, Dead and Gone, has escaped my eagle eye, and that’s because (a) it’s still in hardback and (b) I want to savour it. Also, I only finished From Dead to Worse last night. At 1 am.
Being a regular occupant of the fantasy/sci-fi/paranormal section of various bookshops, I think I can reasonably claim that, up until the recent advent of the True Blood TV series, which is based on the books, Charlaine Harris was not taking up nearly so much shelf space in Australia as is currently the case. In fact, I only knew of the series through an online article comparing the roles and personalities of various women in vampire books, and despite having had True Blood recommended to me by several friends – and despite the fact that the article itself mentions True Blood – it wasn’t until I wandered into a store and found a prominently displayed copy of Dead Until Dark emblazoned with a reference to the TV show that I realised one was based on the other. It was enough to make me buy the first book, which I finished at the airport, and from there on in, I have been shamelessly hooked.
So let me cut to the title of this piece: Sookie Stackhouse – and Charlaine Harris – are awesome. With each book, I find myself making notes on exactly why the series works; I can’t vouch for True Blood, not having watched it (yet), but here are my top 5 reasons why Sookie Stackhouse beats the pants off every other vampire-lovin’ heroine on offer:
1. The Setting
Sookie Stackhouse lives in a little town in Northern Louisiana called Bon Temps. Unlike Sunnydale, home of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Bon Temps is not endowed with a local hospital, seaport, airport, military base or university campus as the narrative requries: rather, it genuinely is a small town, and manages to remain so despite Sookie’s many adventures. Despite her strong cast of locals, Harris feels no pressing need to set every single incident in Bon Temps, happily moving events to bigger cities like Shreveport, Dallas and New Orleans; and when she does write about Sookie’s home ground, there’s always a strong sense of local humdrum. People hold grudges; they get married, or engaged, or pregnant; and while these happenings aren’t at the core of the series, they nonetheless glue everything together.
2. The Real (and Unreal) World
This is something of a sticking point for urban fantasy stories. The notion of a secret world existing beneath the real one is definitely intriguing, but the very fact of that secrecy means that the real world must play second fiddle to supernatural events: the magic-world can impinge on real-world events as a matter of course, but except for human ignorance necessitating secrecy in the first place, the reverse is rarely true. By creating a setting where vampires alone of a thriving supernatural world have revealed themselves to the public, Harris has created an intriguing, original balance between the real and the magical. There is a publicly anti-vampire church called the Fellowship of the Sun, and there are maenads, fairies, half-demons and their kindred keeping out of sight. There are vampire-exclusive hotels and airlines, and hidden inbred communities of wereanimals. There are vampire groupies (fangbangers), humans who make an illegal living from draining and selling vampire blood for its potent qualities (Drainers) and anomalies like Sookie. In the backdrop of each story are supernatural politics: werewolves and shifters debating whether to take the vampire path and reveal themselves, vampires trying to ‘mainstream’ and live among humans, ancient vampire politics revitalised for the modern age, and laws being blocked or passed in government that affect the vampire community. Perhaps most significantly, the effect of Hurricane Katrina finds its way into the narrative, a real-real world event crossing into real-and-magical world territory. As per Anne Rice’s established canon, Harris started out by treating New Orleans as a vampire mecca, and set the sixth Sookie book, Definitely Dead, in the city. It was published after the hurricane had struck, but as its events took place – quite by accident – in the months prior to Katrina, Harris was able to integrate the tragedy into Sookie’s chronology without recourse to retconning. As a consequence, the plots of the following volumes – All Together Dead and From Dead to Worse – are both contingent on Katrina having disrupted vampire and werewolf territories, forcing migrations between states and providing Sookie with houseguests from New Orleans, friends whose homes were destroyed or damaged in the disaster. At a micro level, Harris has a profound sense of events having consequences, and of the fact that sometimes, there’s a delay between cause and effect. None of her Sookie books is entirely cathartic, but rather consists of a segment of life, some aspects of which lead naturally to future plots, while others don’t – and in a supernatural series, that particular realism is wonderful.
3. The Human Element
Thanks to Harris’s skills as a writer, Sookie Stackhouse is an entirely believable character. Having been raised in Bon Temps, she’s never been to college and is largely self-educated; she says her prayers at night before falling asleep, worries about the choices she makes, budgets for house repairs, shops, works, pays her bills, and in every important respect reads as a real person. This is true of all Harris’s characters, even when they aren’t entirely human: there are no straw men to be found, and the fact that Sookie is a telepathic narrator means that even passing characters can have their thoughts refreshingly outlined without the need for a break in narrative voice. Even the vampires, to whom Sookie is attracted precisely because she can’t read their minds, feel like representatives of a real and different species in their own right: Harris has managed to make them both alien and familiar all at once, and not just brooding humans with a fetish for necks.
4. The Chemistry
There’s something very sexy about the Sookie Stackhouse books – and by ‘sexy’, I don’t mean our heroine spends 90% of the time with her kit off. Sookie enjoys sex, and there’s certainly some thrilling scenes, but the sexiness comes from the chemistry of well-crafted relationships, not just mindless boinking. The fact that Harris has distinguished fangbangers – vampire groupies – as a social phenomenon of her new world order is a welcome brow-raise to the legions of vampire heroines desperate to get themselves bit and turned. Sookie doesn’t want to be a vampire. She wants a family, a loving partner and money in the bank; and her dealings with vampires, when not sexual, focus primarily on the latter qualification. Even when she’s in love with one of the undead, she never so much as contemplates eternal life. There’s an extraordinarily welcome realism to the notion of a female heroine who is neither pining for centuries of love with the first vampire she meets nor constantly jumping the bones of anything supernatural. At times, Sookie might be looking for love in all the wrong places, but like so many real women, the important thing is that she is looking, and not just for a one night stand. Her telepathy means that any relationship with a normal human would be shortlived: it would simply be too painful to be constantly aware of all the negative thoughts, repressed fantasies and disloyal impulses that cross the regular human mind – and if we, as readers, are honest with ourselves, we can understand this in a heartbeat.
5. The Genre
Ignoring their paranormal and romantic themes, the Sookie Stackhouse novels are well-written mysteries in their own right. Harris’s gift for realistic background detail and her avoidance of false catharsis makes the whodunit element a genuine page-turner. Sookie-as-narrator thinks in a playful, often humerous voice, with an earthy, sensible grounding – perhaps an uncommon feature of fantasy heroines, but one which serves both creator and character in excellent stead. The Sookie Stackhouse books would be at home in multiple sections of the bookstore, and yet are decidedly unformulaic. It is not a requirement of each book that Sookie has sex, or kills someone, or falls in love – rather, there are various things which may or may not happen, and each story is a different triangulation of familiar points. Events progress; relationships end; minor characters dip in and out – the people behave like people. There is humour, and danger, and luck – the latter always being a tricky thing to write, but which Harris pulls off with aplomb – and there is comfort, and loss, and a natural advancement of Sookie’s knowledge of the hidden world. Harris has said recently that she has a couple more Sookie books in her, and while I fervently hope this is the case, I also hope that, when she does eventually leave Bon Temps to fend for itself, she only closes half the doors, and leaves a couple of windows open. Because that realness – that sense of possibility, of the day to day, of small events making big waves and big events causing micro changes – is what creates such an abiding sense of affection for the series. Sookie Stackhouse is a wonderful gal, and luckily for both her and Harris, she’s found the writer she deserves.