Monday, October 26, 2009

Dead Until Dark

Emmyjean contributed this post on Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris. To contribute a review or other literary musings to Attic Salt, e-mail


"'I have taken some night classes in psychology,' said Bill Compton, vampire."

This should give you an idea of what we're facing in Dead Until Dark, the first entry in Charlene Harris' Southern Vampire Mystery series.  Exposition so clunky it had me barking with laughter in public.  The incongruous pairing of would-be courtly language with present-day buzzwords.  And of course, vampires. Fucking vampires. 

When our grandchildren look back on the early 21st century mass cultural orgasm over vampires and ask us what that was all about, I'll have no good answer for them.  Sure, one could spin together a nice tale about fascination with vampires dating back to tales of Vlad the Impaler, told 'round a crackling Carpathian peasant's fire.  Bram Stoker would surely get a entry, trying to justify the vampire fascination as being part of a powerful literary tradition about the seductive power of evil.  

And then when I got to the Southern Vampire Mysteries, I'd blame them all on George W. Bush. 

This book, ostensibly about the collision between two exotic worlds, is in fact a celebration of their mutual mediocrity. Bon Temps, Louisiana is stuffed with unloveable losers.  There's our heroine Sookie, a waitress with few aspirations beyond sunbathing and slinging beers at Merlotte's. Her brother Jason is beautiful but proudly dumber than the sacks of asphalt he spreads as a road crew worker. Pity poor Arlene, beer slinger and single mother incapable of learning from her (many) encounters with bad men that she is not, in fact, an actual doormat. Sookie's lug of a friend from high school is still holding onto old football rivalries. Her Gran's old lady friends salivating over shared memories of the "Glorious War."  Even the vampires themselves, supposedly dripping in glamor and mystery, spend their nights at a bar in a Louisiana strip mall. Denizens of Bon Temps, undead or otherwise, aspire to nothing greater than their next beer or roll in the hay and/or coffin, yet they wear their stupidity, provincialism and prejudices as badges of pride. It's easy to imagine Sarah Palin referring to them as "real Americans." At least Twilight eventually sent its heroes to Italy. 

Speaking of Twilight and its feminist critiques, Dead Until Dark at least has the decency to grant our heroine a life outside of her vampire paramour.  Sookie may claim to be all boobs and no brains, but she is also a telepath (a "gift" or "curse" depending on the requirements of the scene).  That we would praise our narrator having experiences or thoughts outside of those immediately related to her boyfriend seems ridiculous, but in a post-Twilight world this makes her uniquely self-possessed.  Of course, it is Sookie's odd inability to read Bill's thoughts that draws her to him.  Because the key to a relationship is stony silences and unanswered questions. 

It bears mentioning that True Blood, the HBO series based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels, is everything the books want to be but fall short of. Cameras linger over titillating sex scenes that on the page cut away to a moonlit sky and wind in the trees; characters drawl with hilariously overdone Louisiana accents; the opening credits teem with images of Southern Gothic tropes like menacing Klan members and tent revivals. Where the Skinemax-inspired show prances about with tongue firmly in cheek, the amatuerish writing of its source material comes off as cut-rate fanfic. True Blood is lusty, campy, and in on the joke where Dead Until Dark remains, well, bloodless.

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