Thursday, February 12, 2009

"Dead Until Dark," by Charlaine Harris

Alternate Title: Oh No! Vampire Bill!

The Chick:
Sookie Stackhouse. A waitress in northern Louisiana, she falls for Bill, the new vampire in town, because not only is he dreamy and mysterious, but she's somehow unable to read his thoughts like she can with everyone else.
The Rub: With a killer on the loose murdering vampire groupies, now's not the best time to be dating the undead.
Dream Casting: Not today - I just based it on the casting from the HBO show.

The Dude: Bill Compton, a.k.a. "Vampire Bill." A Civil War-era vamp, he's trying to "mainstream it" (i.e. try to live openly and peacefully with humans), and feels a strange attraction to Sookie - a perky blond waitress who isn't the least afraid of him.
The Rub: Um, while Bill may be a gentleman, not all of his fellow vamps are keen on toeing the line. And some of those non-toeing-line vamps are keen on Sookie, too.

The Plot:

Bill: Hi, I'm a vampire!

Sookie: I LOVE BILL!

Bill: I love you too, Sookie.

*several people die*


Bill: Um, okay?


Bill: Because I'm WHIPPED, that's why!

Sookie: Oh alright, I love you again.

Bill: Hooray!

Romance Novel Conventions

2 Alluring Vampires

1 Perky Blonde Waitress

Several Murders

Several Quarts of Blood

Several Misunderstandings

The Word: Reading Charlaine Harris' Dead Until Dark was a bit of a let-down for me. To be fair, I didn't have the highest expectations for the novel as I whole. I got burned out of vampire romances early while reviewing novels for Green Man, and I never really got back in the groove. Vampire romances on TV have been fine - but the books I left by the wayside in favour of different fare. With Dead Until Dark, I watched the show first (True Blood), and one of my friends lent me a copy of the book after I talked about it, so this review is going to end up being someone comparative between the two.

In the world of the novel, vampires have just come out of the "coffin," thanks to new synthetic blood that makes feeding on humans unnecessary (or at least not as necessary), and they're now recognized as legal citizens with all the rights that regular human beings have. However, there are still a few bumps in the road to peace between humans and vampires, namely:

1. Not all humans are keen on welcoming vampires with open arms, and

2. Not all vampires are keen on restraining themselves to "mainstream" it - i.e. stop feeding on unwilling humans and try to live normal human lives.

In the middle of this political mess is Sookie, a young waitress living in Bon Temps, Louisiana who "enjoys" quirky outcast status thanks to her gift for reading people's minds. In fact, she doesn't refer to it as a gift - she calls it a "disability," which isn't entirely inaccurate. Because of the effort it takes to keep everyone's thoughts at bay and the incredible awkwardness of being forced to hear every date's private thought, she's curtailed her social life to practically nothing. Nearly everyone else in Bon Temps thinks she's harmless but crazy, except for her manager Sam, her waitress friend Arlene, her womanizing brother Jason, and her grandma.

When Bill strolls into town, Sookie immediately pegs him for a vampire and is entranced by a particular trait of his - it's not his pallor, or his fangs, or any other of the creepy vampire characteristics that have made "fang-bangers" (slutty vampire groupies) such a national punchline. When she looks at him, she hears .... complete and total silence. She's completely unable to hear what he's thinking, and it's a huge relief. Think of this as a gender-reversed Twilight attraction, if you will.

Bill starts to feel the same way about her, but both have to come to terms with the unexpected obstacles in their relationship - Bill can only come out at night, the other vampires he hangs out with aren't exactly the friendly type, human society isn't quite as welcoming of vampires as Sookie is, and someone in the town of Bon Temps has started murdering vampire groupies in gruesome ways.

I'll just come out and says this right away: I liked the TV show better. Gasp! Shock! That being said, the show wasn't perfect, either - some parts were painfully cheesy, while others were really entertaining. But either way, whether this will enrage Charlaine Harris' fans or not, I felt the show (in most ways) dealt with vampire culture and dating and the integration into the community better than the book did.

First of all, I notice that Charlaine Harris, or at least the narration of her main character Sookie, uses a lot of passive language and passive description. This left me feeling left out of the action, at a distance from what was going on, and as a result I was bored and uninterested. As well, while the vampires "coming out of the closet" is mentioned once in the beginning, the book never goes into any great detail on this fact - like, what are vampires doing all over the world? How is the government reacting to vampires? How are vampires getting jobs? Sookie claims to know a lot about vampires, but a lot of what she hears is vague, hearsay, or just plain wrong - which doesn't make sense in a society that has just accepted vampires and wants to know more about them.

True, you could argue that, as a humble Southern waitress, Sookie can't be expected to know everything - but she could at least hear something. We get nothing. The show, on the other hand, used a lot of clever ways to show how vampires were being accepted into the community (or not) - with everything from fake commercials for synthetic blood ("This blood's for you!"), clips of religious organizations hating on vampires shown on a TV in the background, articles about the Vampire Rights Movement (from the American Vampire League) being shown in a newspaper. It's just the little details, but the show manages to convey way more about the "vampire outing" phenomenon than the book did.

I mean, the idea of vampires being recognized as legal citizens is a unique one, and a lot of my disappointment about the book stemmed from the fact that Harris, while she creates this idea, doesn't back it up or build on it too much in the book.

That being said, the book does succeed in showing us the normal humdrum eccentricities about dating a vampire that are pretty funny - and different from a lot of vampire romances/shows I've read. None of this hiding in the shadows to steal a kiss or visiting Vampire Bill in a crypt scenarios - they go to the movies. They stay in and read. Sookie has to be careful what she eats and what jewellery she wears (so that she doesn't taste bad or hurt Bill will silver). Those little details, I think, were what kept Dead Until Dark from being a total wash-out.

These details really helped keep up my interest in this book, because the characters felt flat as paper to me. The first chapter did not set a good example, and it just continued on from there - our heroine (nudging the fourth wall) begins the book by describing herself, then introducing and subsequently describing all of her friends and Significant Characters like they were items in a catalogue. "Hi! I'm Sookie Stackhouse, I'm blond and pretty and have great legs - look! There's my Kooky Best Friend Arlene who has red hair and freckles, and there's my Selfish Brother who's hot and blond," etc. etc. Gee thanks for pointing out all the archtypes in your story right away, Sookie. I totally wouldn't have figured it out for myself eventually.

Most of the characters are described at face value and then don't contribute any real, well, character - most of it is "explained" to us by Sookie. Frankly, I shouldn't have to be told what characters are like, they should be able to show me all by themselves. Maybe I'm a little biased because all my absolute favourite characters on the show are, in the book, either absent (where is Tara? She's fantastic!) or abbreviated (Jason, Lafayette, and to a lesser extent, Sam), but most of the characters in the book (other than Bill and Sookie), were cardboard.

One example I found was with the character of Sam (spoilers ahoy): I actually found that Sam's character was better developed on True Blood than in Dead Until Dark, particularly with his power. In both versions, he's a shape-shifter. In the novel, however, he springs this on Sookie rather suddenly, and Sookie, after a "huh" moment, accepts it, and then never brings it up again. Furthermore, there was very little build-up or foreshadowing to Sam's ability in the novel. It just seemed to come out of nowhere, and then it was instantly accepted like normal, and I didn't buy that for one second. True Blood plays the shifting more into Sam's quiet, shy character and provides some nice foreshadowing beforehand (and Sookie's famous reaction to it is hilarious).

That being said, the show didn't always improve on the original. I was surprised to find out that the love scenes in Dead Until Dark are actually really gentle and sweet - and really tame, especially considering it's a romance. So, of course, there really isn't a good explanation for the incredibly, uncomfortably graphic sex scenes in True Blood, other than the crappy excuse of "It's HBO - what else are you watching it for?" I never thought the raunchy nude scenes in True Blood were necessary, but figured if it was part of the novel, then I couldn't complain. Well, news flash - they weren't.

Yes, True Blood is based on Dead Until Dark, and it's more or less true to the events of the novel - but put side-by-side, I believed the events of True Blood more because the writers provided a context, structure, and foreshadowing that gave credence to the actions and events in the narrative that Dead Until Dark (with its unnecessarily limited narrator) didn't.

True Blood: B. Dead Until Dark: C.


  1. Anonymous5:22 AM

    I wonder if you would have felt differently had you read the book first THEN watched the series like I did. Because True Blood for me, is a travesty LOL. I can't stand the series and I LOVE the books. This is rather fascinating actually - specially when you ask for Tara. This is one of the things I can't stand about the show: Tara. Because she hardly exists in the books (Sookie doesn't REALLY have friends) you see. Plus, I hate Bill.

  2. I think I would have felt the same, more or less. I didn't like Sookie. Maybe it's because I'm Canadian and don't get all the Southern references. But I just couldn't relate to her - and part of that, I think, was because she didn't have friends. She lives a totally isolated existence and I couldn't come to grips with how she could possibly interact with other people.

    She's an island, and when you have a character who's an island, you sort have to make her really, really interesting all by herself - and I didn't feel she was. She's - a waitress. Who likes reading. And sunbathing. And that's it. And maybe that also explains why she, as the narrator, does almost nothing to describe the world she's in that's been changed by vampires coming out, and that bothered me personally.

    I do hate Bill - although it's harder to hate him when you actually have to look at him (the actor playing him is rather yummy).

    Agree to disagree - I usually can't stand vampire paranormal novels (although, again, I can tolerate them on television when they're played by nice-looking men, *lol*), so take that as you will. Every romance reader has a particular subgenre they're not psyched about, and this one happens to me mine. :)

  3. Anonymous8:06 AM

    Oooo, I heart me some vampires so..easier for me, I guess.

    As for Sookie, I can understand how she doesn't have friends - she just can't because of the mind-overdrive she would get, so I was ok with that; althoug I can see your point about her being a waitress that likes reading and sunbathing and that's it. LOL.

    Dunno, I just always really felt for her, I always related to her, found her, there's Eric Northman ; )