I was lucky enough to stumble upon Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris without realizing that it was the first book in the series that inspired True Blood, the popular HBO TV show starring Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer, and Sam Trammell. So I didn’t have any preconceived expectations going in. It meant I could be totally open to take it for what it was – a charming supernatural mystery romance about a young telepath who wants to find love in a one-hick town populated by vampires, shapeshifters, and bigots.
I actually liked True Blood – well, I found it addictive. I just didn’t like how often it shoved my face in explicit sex and violence without any reason I could see. Fortunately, Dead Until Dark succeeds where True Blood failed. There was probably just as much adult content as the TV series, but each instance of eye-stabbing or ear-licking was both necessary and enjoyable.
The story opens when Sookie Stackhouse meets her first vampire. In her world, vampires have been “out of the coffin” for two years – ever since the invention of TrueBlood, a synthetic blood drink that allows vampires to survive without feasting on humans. Everybody knows they exist but nobody has seen one in Sookie’s small town, Bon Temps, until Bill Compton strides into the local bar. Sookie is instantly drawn to him because she’s a telepath who’s sick of hearing everybody’s thoughts, and Bill’s vampire status makes his brain as silent as the grave.
The powerful supernaturals try their best to use Sookie in their power plays, throwing her deep into drama again and again while she’s constantly trying to crawl out of it and lead a “normal” life. Really though, it’s her genuine care for her friends and lovers and her strong commitment not to be a shitty person that forces her to fight, lie, cheat, and steal along with the worst of them. It was so much fun to read. I got the best of both worlds – a protagonist I respect and as much wickedness as my heart desired.
You see, love and violence are put to work in Dead Until Dark. They are the key vehicles of putting across some interesting questions about tolerance. Who are we allowed to love? Who are we similar to, and who is just too different? If we hate someone or feel afraid of someone, does that make them a monster?
Despite the generally unaccepting town she was brought up in, Sookie’s own position as a misunderstood telepath makes it impossible for her to dismiss the dignity of the “monsters” around her. While fighting for vampiric rights, she also unfailingly accepts her friends whether they’re single-mothers, queer, or struggling with mental illness. She stands up for them and loves them and assumes, always, that they are as important and real and good as everybody else.
I’ve noticed myself gravitating more and more toward books which are rich in dialog, tension, and light in description, like the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs or anything by Illona Andrews. Dead Until Dark definitely fits that mold. Harris knows how to develop complex characters, settings and relationships with just a few on-point descriptions that make other writer’s flowery prose seem silly. Sookie’s telepathic abilities, for example, were a delight. More than once somebody’s errant thought served to lighten a tense moment or to add a dash of human realism to an otherwise convoluted situation. It was used exactly as it should. Since Sookie is generally determined to protect people’s privacy, her telepathic ability isn’t a constant interruption. She works hard to stifle it, in fact, which adds an interesting dynamic to her story.
Dead Until Dark (and it’s whole series, really) is infinitely worth reading. It has all the fun of a high-action, bloodthirsty, love-crazed TV series but it incorporates a thread of social awareness and plain-and-simple goodness that transforms it. It’s not just empty entertainment – it’s a hopeful look at what acceptance, bravery and strength could look like in a world even more divided than ours.