The overall premise of Dead Until Dark is that of a romance which develops between Sookie Stackhouse, a down to earth waitress from Bon Temp who happens to have the ability to eavesdrop on other people’s thoughts, and Bill Compton, the one hundred year old vampire. In addition to this, someone is killing women who have a reputation for being ‘fang bangers’ – vampire groupies – and making it look like Bon Temp has a vampire serial killer on the loose. This murder mystery sub-plot provides a good balance to the romance aspect, preventing it from becoming too cloying, and serves to drive the narrative forward.
The writing in this book is simple, uses a lot of clichés, and at times it feels as though Harris has reached for the thesaurus in an attempt to make things sound more interesting, which is a shame as these words jarred against the natural flow and style of her writing. To start with, I found Harris’s writing too simplistic and off-putting. I couldn’t get beyond the first few pages without thinking it was utter trash. Frustrated, I stopped reading the book. But then I decided that the problem was a case of perspective: my perspective. I read a fair amount of literary fiction and I was applying my expectations of literary fiction upon what was quite obviously a romance-vampire-fiction murder-mystery combo. There’s no way Dead Until Dark could live up to that kind of scrutiny. I couldn’t be objective until I changed my perspective and recognised that the main objective was to answer the question: Is this an entertaining read? Determined to be more open-minded, I started to read Dead Until Dark once more.
While the writing is simple, Harris has created a distinctive voice of Louisiana folk, which serves the story and the characters well. Sookie is actually quite a well-developed character and I think her naïve/vixen persona works well within the context of the story. She’s in her mid-twenties yet very unworldly and sexually innocent, but she’s not immune to her own feminine wiles and charms, and she bounces between innocent and sexy as she tries to find her feet in her relationship with Bill. A somewhat glossed over aspect of the story is that as a child Sookie was sexually molested by her Uncle Bartlett. This factor adds to her confusion about relationships and sex with men. Combine this with her being able to hear a man’s thoughts when she’s making out with him, whether her butt is the right size or her breasts meeting expectations, and it’s no wonder she’s still sexually innocent.
The sex scenes in the book are clumsy, awkward and certainly not the steamy stuff of a Mills and Boon novel. I’m not sure if the clumsily written scenes are a result of Harris’s poor writing skills or if it’s an intentional stroke of good scene setting. Intentional or not, I think that the cringe worthy scene of Sookie’s first sexual encounter with Bill was apt: as the reader, it brought up in me feelings of discomfort, embarrassment and I just wanted it to stop, banish it from my mind. Brilliant, if you think about it, because it reflects reality; first time sexual encounters are rarely the smooth, erotic, passionate moments portrayed in the movies.
It’s Bill that I can’t quite gel with in this book. For a one hundred year old vampire he’s not very smooth as a lover, pretty cheesy actually. Harris presents him as being a bit confused in the realm of modern dating, which doesn’t fit with him having so much life experience – decades and decades of dating, womanising and the like. I simply cannot imagine a vampire living for that long and not being up to date on the changing world of dating. Sookie’s love-infatuation with Bill is understandable, given her background, but Bill’s declarations of love come across as hollow and false.
What did strike me as odd was that Sookie doesn’t have any friends. Not one close girlfriend, not a BFF of any kind. She has work colleagues but there isn’t a character who is placed as her close friend or confidant. Despite her telepathic ‘disability’, as she calls it, she’s able to sustain a close and loving relationship with her grandmother, and her brother, Jason, so it makes sense that she could also carry this over to a friendship, someone who supports her and is her ally. This lack of a close friendship made the story somewhat unbalanced.
One aspect that I do like about Harris’s book is that she has taken the classic vampire storyline and creatively expanded it to include other creatures to co-exist within the human world. These include Sam, the shapeshifter, and Sookie, a supernatural whose species has not yet been revealed in this book. She also has vampires ‘mainstreaming’ living openly within human society, and drinking a synthetically produced blood, which makes them seem more acceptable to society. By not revealing all of her characters and their attributes at once, Harris creates the desire to read the following books in the series, to unravel the mystery of Sookie. She’s more than a telepath, there’s something special about her blood, but what is she?
On the surface Dead Until Dark appears to be a fluff romance vampire novel driven by a murder mystery plot and simple writing, but there is something more complex going on within the story line and characterisation. Once surrendered myself to accepting those aspects, the book actually became more enjoyable to read. It fulfilled its purpose: to entertain.
Dead Until Dark (Orion Publishing, 2008)