I often enjoy vampire fiction, what we might call a sub-sub-genre of the sub-genre Dark Fantasy; I even taught a senior Popular Culture course on Twentieth Century Vampires (& had a full class for it, surprise, surprise). Still, I have my standards: the books I want to read should have ‘real’ vampires in them, who project a least a certain amount of fear or terror (even if socially muted as in Charlaine Harris’s fine Sookie Stackhouse series, also known as The Southern Vampire Series). And they should be at least well enough written: there are so many New York Times bestsellers out there in which the writing is execrable, as lacking in style as the worst first year essay (or The DaVinci Code, which I could not read beyond the first awful page).
Anyway, for some time now friends who share this interest have told me I have to watch TrueBlood, the HBO series based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels; & eventually I caught up with the first season. It’s good, no doubt, & I enjoyed it; yet I felt something was missing though I couldn’t quite pin it down while watching the show. The thing is, a TV show like this has to become a kind of well run ensemble narrative to really work, & this one certainly does; but that means there need to be other story lines beside Sookie’s, & so we have narrative lines right from the start about a number of other characters in Sookie’s life in Bon Temps. So we get flashbacks for Bill the Vampire, the telepathic Sookie’s first boyfriend, & the whole backstory of Tara (her best friend who doesn’t really appear until the third novel) & her problems with her mother. Her brother Jason’s affairs with some murdered women take up more space, & then he gets a new lover who seduces him into killing a vampire they’ve kidnapped for his blood (V, the new hot drug). All of this is well done, the acting is fine, & certainly the mise-en-scène is up to HBO’s high standards. The alternate recent history in which the vampires have ‘come out of the coffin’ & entered into society, at least in such countries as the USA, is well developed, with the various destructive & instructive aspects of such a change shown. So it’s a good show, but I came to it from the novels, & when I went back & reread a few I realized what it was I was missing in TrueBlood. TV, like any dramatic medium, insists on an outside view of all the characters interacting before the spectators. Because TrueBlood, like all the best TV, is a truly ensemble production (as were, for example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel, two of my favorite shows, & shows that were not based on a previous incarnation in fiction), it can only show us the various plotlines & the characters acting & engaging with one another within them. But what separates the Sookie Stackhouse stories from so much contemporary supernatural romance writing is that she narrates her ongoing & ever more complicated story.
The first novel, Dead Until Dark, offers a somewhat different version of what is also the main story of TrueBlood’s first season, but the real difference, & the reason, I realize, that I like the books so much, is Sookie’s narrating voice. Smart, witty, curious, if lacking in formal education (because of her ‘disability,’ her telepathy), & somewhat naïve about the way the world works (but learning quickly, & able to accept what she learns), Sookie is the core of her story, & she is a winning, & mostly reliable narrator (where she may be a bit unreliable is in what she knows [& what she thinks she knows she knows, so to speak] but things others say clue us in to what she might miss at times, & it usually isn’t much). As the series progresses, so does Sookie grow. Slowly but surely, she has to tell us a bit more about who (& what, so far as she understands it) she is, and about her background, although this too will turn out to be full of surprises. She is a capable person, & part of her capability lies in the fact that she does accept the world of these books, which is far wider & wilder than it seems at first; there aren’t just vampires, but many other supernaturals, such as shapeshifters including werewolves, and even stranger beings, including a maenad who turns up in the swamps of Louisiana. Also, although one of the charms of the series is its social comedy, the stories do get darker. And she begins to see herself as darker & meaner than she thought she was or wants to be, as the scrapes the vampires & others she now knows get her into lead her into violence & a rather unchristian desire for revenge on those who hurt her or those she cares for. The tone of her voice, as she goes through all these changes is, for me, the greatest charm of these novels. And it is that tone that I miss in TrueBlood.