Our heroine of the day is Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic waitress who is attracted to Bill not just for his vampirism but for the mental silence that comes with it. Despite this useful power, she has her limits and she doesn’t tend to use them as, after a lifetime of listening in to people’s thoughts, she’s quite sick of it. Though she’s a pretty blonde, she’s by no means a damsel in distress. In fact, she ends up saving Bill more often than Bill saves her. She has the tendency to be a bit of a blank slate at times but that’s tempered by her open-mindedness compared to the rest of her community and her moments of distress when a character very pettishly imagines something that upsets her, knowing she’ll read it. She could do with a little more fleshing out but Sookie is still a good female lead.
I’m not so sold on Bill Compton, the newest vampire in town. Unlike others of his kind, he’s not flaunting his new legal recognition by being as outrageous as possible but by trying to blend in with society from fitting out his house to attending a meeting of Civil War soldier descendants to talk about his experiences. He’s got all the standard specs of a vampire lover: he can be quite broody at times, he’s very protective of Sookie to a homicidal degree but he has a few glimpses of humour by wearing a Grateful Dead shirt.
The last human I want to touch on is Sookie’s brother, Jason, who has no telepathic abilities but neatly serves as a foil for Sookie. While she’s a prude (her abilities make relationships very difficult), he’s sexually promiscuous and, while she’s a social recluse, he’s a social butterfly. As a direct result of the former, he becomes a prime suspect when murder victims start appearing. Though he and Sookie had a few conflicts, they didn’t really serve much purpose to the plot and he serves more as motivation for Sookie to solve the murder mystery to prove his innocence. Not a very good trait.
Lastly, I’m going to cast a brief look over the other vampires appearing in the book. The first of which are a gaggle of Bill’s friends, Malcolm, Diane and Liam. They exhibit the classic delusions of grandeur due to their vampire state. They act as outrageous and as offensive as they can and (spoiler alert) learn the hard way that legal recognition doesn’t make you invincible. Eric, the owner of a vampire bar, is much more pragmatic and is one of the first people to see the value of Sookie’s gift. He’s not a strict subscriber to Bill’s idea of blending into human society, as he sees the benefits of capitalising on human fascination with his kind by opening a ‘vampire bar’. More on that, later.
I must say, it was difficult to pick out the people I wanted to talk about. There are so many colourful and unique characters in Bon Temps but, unfortunately, the main characters aren’t as interesting as the side characters and the book sometimes feels rather crowded. Many times, I’ve had to flick back to remind myself who these people were. While it’s great to have so many different characters, you need to make sure they stick in your mind for more than one aspect.
4 out of 10 drops
First off, the name of Sookie’s home town is Bon Temps, which is French for ‘good time’ and that’s certainly what everyone seems to be having with so many colourful characters and lurid activities going on under the veneer of a conservative town.
What’s made quite clear (though it’s not a big part of the story) is the ongoing racial separation between white and black people. With Louisiana’s Civil War history and America’s fractured racial relations, it’s hardly surprising to learn that this is an accurate reflection of ordinary Louisiana life. There is still a huge racial divide today and, while there’s no open hostility in the book, I wouldn’t be at all surprised that, if vampires didn’t come out of the closet, that would be the main conflict in the town.
Speaking of conflict, I was rather surprised to read about the ‘Descendants of the Glorious Dead’, a club for descendants of Confederate soldiers. I was even more surprised to find that there are real life clubs dedicated to remembering Confederate soldiers in Southern states. Thankfully, they always glorify the soldiers rather than the Confederate ideals.
Also, it turns out that tornadoes are common in Louisiana which makes the cover story for two deaths a bit more realistic though I still think it’s a bit too silly and improbable that no one else saw or was hurt by it.
Two more little interesting facts: there is a vital artery called the femoral artery in the thigh and close to the groin. It’s the main blood supplier to the limb so it would be a nice target for vampires but the victims would have to watch out if they wanted to keep using their legs. Also, when reading this originally, I thought Sookie finding Sam in his dog form and calling him Dean was not very subtle reference to Sam and Dean Winchester from Supernatural and, therefore, a rather clumsy hint to his true identity. It turns out, however, that Dead Until Dark was first published four years before Supernatural first aired and, unless there’s an original book series that evades Google searches, this is really just a big coincidence.
7 out of 10 drops
The more vampire books I read, the more often I see vampires ‘coming out of the coffin’ as a regular trope. Not that it’s a bad one, especially when it’s done well. Like in Guilty Pleasures, the vampires are fetishized with specialised ‘vampire bars’ and debated over with everyone having a different opinion not only on whether vampires should be accepted but on what vampirism is actually caused by. What isn’t in doubt is that recognising vampires legally may not have been the best thing for them. Right from the first chapter, we see humans fatally draining vampires for their valuable blood, lynch mobs burning down vampire houses and vengeful prejudiced killers hunting down women for the crime of preferring vampires. It’s easy to see an allegory between the treatment inflicted on the Bon Temps vampires and those of present day LGBT+ people and I think it’s done well so far.
Vampires themselves are the classic beautiful seductive beings, which deducts a few points in my book, and have the powers of ‘glamour’, which can hypnotise humans into doing a variety of things for them whether it’s handing over money or blood or (my pet peeve) forgetting something. They are also burned by the sun and by silver (so silver chains are the bonds of choice for ‘drainers’). In addition, they exhibit an ability that I would really like to see more of in vampire fiction – flight. I really hope we see more of this.
It’s not just vampires knocking about. Sookie is a telepath who can read the surface thoughts of surrounding humans. It’s not usual to have a human heroine with a supernatural power but it is usual for her to be caught in a love triangle and I’m sorry to say that, though it didn’t form in this book, I can see the potential for one later.
The story is, at heart, a classic murder mystery with the heroine in danger of becoming the next victim and who has another good reason to find out who the killer is (to prevent her brother being wrongfully charged). Unfortunately, Sookie isn’t a private detective – she’s just a waitress with the ability to read minds. Even this doesn’t hand her the answer on a silver platter. In fact, it’s by chance that she finds the perpetrator. The usual ‘police-are-useless’ cliche is very present but it’s somewhat justified by the fact that small town policemen aren’t used to catching serial killers and they are somewhat prejudiced.
The story does use a lot of classic elements but there’s a healthy amount of new things on offer to attract interest.
7 out of 10 drops
The story takes place in a small town in Louisiana that seems obsessed with the Civil War, racial divides and ‘traditional values’. Not exactly the best place for a vampire to ‘come out of the coffin’. However, Bill is a member of one of the ‘old families’ of the town and endeared himself to the ‘Descendants of the Glorious Dead’ club of Confederate soldier descendants, which earned him a lot of points. It’s not just the Civil War that the town’s interested in but family bloodlines. Every family is keen to point out just how long they lived there and remind each other of the old family grudges. It’s not very tolerant of the ‘other’ and it’s perhaps not surprising that deliberately outrageous vampires wound up dead.
Which is a common occurrence in this world. While vampires are legally recognised, they’re not necessarily tolerated. Right from the beginning, the image of vampires as powerful is deconstructed and we see vampires in some very vulnerable situations thanks to humans. It’s not surprising that Christians don’t like them and we are told and shown just how much they disapprove. Christians may believe that vampires are damned souls but there’s a nice variance of opinion on just what vampires are made by including the idea of viruses or genetics. We don’t see much of it in this book, unfortunately
Since human society looks down on them so much, it’s quite reasonable that vampires make their own authority. We’re introduced to the usual pecking order according to age but we also find out about regional authorities and the idea that a vampire can become the leader of a ‘sector’, in charge of law enforcement and vampire-led establishments. That’s where Eric’s business comes in. Like Guilty Pleasures, vampires are fetishised and romantised in specialised bars and establishments where tourists and ‘fang-bangers’ can meet and have drinks with vampires (though vampires can only have their ‘drinks’ outside the building). Again, it’s easy to see the relationship between them and gay bars.
This is where the book is at its strongest. The world created is a very interesting one with varying opinions and complicated politics.
8 out of 10 drops
The story is a classic murder mystery with a new victim turning up every few chapters. However, it focuses less on this and more on Sookie’s love life and Bill’s efforts to blend into Bon Temps society. I suppose, since Sookie is a waitress and not a detective, that makes sense and she does get a fair amount of involvement in finding the bodies and trying to prove her brother’s innocence to keep interest.
Like all good detective stories, there are a lot of dead ends, twists and false arrests before the police get the killer (or, rather, Sookie does) but, sometimes, the story seems to forget about the murders and, as a result, it can drag on a bit with little sideshows that have nothing to do with the main plot. The worst offenders are the multiple sex scenes. They get tedious very quickly and the glut of purple prose makes it worse.
I loved all the world building and it never feels like an info dump but, as a result, it’s not very focused on the story or on Sookie’s development. Sookie seems to be more of an observer and a blank slate than a fleshed-out personality at the moment. The part I find most offensive is the story’s handling of child abuse in Sookie’s past. It’s barely given a glance and it’s practically wrapped up in two chapters. It definitely feels like something the author thought up of at the last minute.
The story feels somewhat unfocused and, though the world building has a nice presence, we could do with a more gripping story to drive it along.
4 out of 10 drops
Overall = 30 drops – O Negative/A Negative