Sunday, September 19, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Dead until Dark /Author: Charlaine Harris

First Published in Daily Times - Saturday, September 18, 2010

Published under the title: Playing for high stakes

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

All the books in the Southern Vampire Mystery series have the word ‘dead’ in the title, a female lead with moxie as the protagonist, a mystery at the core and the un-dead community as its star attractions. The media is saturated with vampires these days but instead of dying from overexposure, this proves that they are stronger than ever.

Charlaine Harris adds another dimension to an old tale, tweaking the mythology to imagine a world where vampires have risen again. This time they have a stake in society instead of the other way around and no longer need to skulk around in the shadows or hunt humans for that matter. Freshly recognised, at least in the US, out of the coffin, into the open, teetotaller vamps owe their new found freedom to the Japanese whose alternative nourishment plan involves synthetic drinks.

These un-dead run true to type with their fangs, drinking problem, ruthless nature, immortality, fear of splinters and inability to hold down a day job (the word ‘sun’ still translates to ‘extra crispy’ in the un-dead dictionary). While humanity will always be seen as a tasty treat, even the living dead cannot discount the importance of good PR, which is why they are trying to play nice by ‘mainstreaming’ in an attempt to blend in and live the dream.

This premise captured the fancy of screenwriter Alan Ball who developed the Sookie Stackhouse series for television. HBO’s ‘True Blood’ just ended its third (grisly) season and has been picked up for a fourth. The TV script is not completely faithful to the books and characters done away with in the series are alive and well onscreen. The gruesome Southern Vampire Mysteries, like its television adaptation, cannot be classified under ‘wholesome’ entertainment.

Though vampires are the principal attraction, the relationship between two misfits — a telepathic barmaid called Sookie Stackhouse who is not exactly the belle of the bar and tall, dark and very dead Bill Compton — newest resident of Louisiana — is central to the first book. The story is told from Sookie’s perspective, a spirited narrator who is refreshingly blunt, occasionally witty and consistently entertaining. She can come across as a teenager at times, instead of a strong willed woman in her mid-twenties, but perhaps this is due to her social status or lack of a degree or both.

Citizens fear the mainstreaming vampires and the seemingly harmless barmaid; vamps for obvious reasons and Sookie for her ‘gift’. Despite her supernatural connections, or perhaps because of them, she has a flair for getting into scrapes.

The story begins a few years after the vamps came out and while the world is done reeling from the aftershocks of this earth-shattering revelation, the ultra-conservative Deep South has not. That the un-dead can now walk among the living is an interesting departure but the living do not have to like it. Former bad guys are trying their best to be law-abiding citizens (second class citizens, but still). Humanity is making an effort to be tolerant of the newest members of society and society is having a hard time accepting their pledge at face value. Neither is succeeding very well. If all this sounds familiar, it is because human history is replete with instances of bigotry and worse.

Harris’s creations have a dual purpose. They serve as metaphors for minorities, and stand in for bloodthirsty monsters. Like any other minority, their specie is regarded with suspicion and faces discrimination but, like all good monsters, they hold the power to turn the tables any time. Vampires, whether they are underground indulging in their favourite pastime or out in the open playing politics, are still vampires. And humans are still paranoid creatures who are easily spooked. Both species have a great capacity for evil. The writer magnifies the horror as she lets fear of the supernatural stew together with the baser instincts of mankind to release the noxious fumes of intolerance and draws parallels between the real and fictional worlds.

In Sookie’s universe, all the supernatural beings have converged in one place and familiar characters from myth/legend/folklore show up from time to time giving a richer feel to this macabre set piece (and vampires some competition). For all its light-hearted demeanour, the never ending Bill-Sookie-Eric drama or the depiction of vampire politics and power play, darkness permeates every aspect of the series. These books are unsuitable for the young adult section.

The New York Times’ bestselling author Charlaine Harris is an established crime fiction writer and has penned other mysteries like the Harper Connelly and Lily Bard series. Dead until Dark has won the Anthony Award for best paperback mystery, 2001. The tenth Sookie Stackhouse mystery titled Dead in The Family came out this May and there are three more to come.

Ace Books; Pp 326; Rs 495

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