Summer is always a great time to catch up on TV you missed, and both of us have recently binged on the first two seasons of HBO’s True Blood, catching up to current airings of season three. True Blood, despite all of its campiness, has been hailed as “quality television” and become a major force in summer television schedules. Yet, many of the critics who praise it – including Todd Van der Werf at the L.A. Times – freely admit that they have never read the books it is based on, and don’t intend to do so. Their loss. Summer is a great time for reading, too, and we’ve found Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries (aka the Sookie Stackhouse stories) to be fun, sexy, suspenseful, and a totally different experience than True Blood.
The Southern Vampire Mysteries currently include nine serial novels and several interstitial short stories following Sookie, Bill, Eric, Alcide and more. They are usually categorized as “paranormal romance” or “urban fantasy,” both messy genres that mix up romance (or even erotica), supernatural elements, and often some kind of mystery or action plots. These genres are directly aimed at women, offering female protagonists through whose experiences and perceptions the story unfolds. Sookie is just such a protagonist in the books, describing her “disability” of telepathy, musing over her relationships, and agonizing over decisions about how to survive yet another supernatural conflict. In fact, some of critics’ dissatisfaction with Sookie in True Blood may come in part from the way that television has erased a lot of internal character moments in order to show us the action. Sookie’s internal musings about relationships and her deepening involvement in vampire politics just don’t come across as well without her first-person narration.
It’s also important that Harris calls these her Southern Vampire Mysteries – these books could also be described as “cozy mysteries”, which is certainly the genre of Harris’ other series (Lily Bard (Shakespeare), Aurora Teagarden, and Harper Connelly). Cozy mysteries feature non-professional women solving crimes – they “just happen” to be there, they are resourceful and charming, and their relationships with neighbors, friends, family and romantic partners are highlighted. These novels – everything from Agatha Christie’s “Miss Marple” books to Diane Mott Davidson’s catering mysteries – focus on character development and fast paced plots, with little explicit sex or violence. Sookie novels do the same (with a little more sex, and a lot more blood). And Sookie novels, like other cozies, are serialized books, allowing readers to follow a likeable character through any number of unlikely adventures, solved cases, and boyfriends. Ending with a cliffhanger – or a preview of the next book – is common, and this structure is replicated well in True Blood. Serialized narrative in novels also activates a bit of a collecting urge, pushing one to read the next and the next, to binge on the novels and enjoy the sense of completeness it brings to see books on a shelf, or to know the whole story. Obviously, this kind of binge is common to serialized television, as well, possibly making serialized novels a uniquely well-suited medium for television adaptation (see also: Dexter, The Vampire Diaries, Rizzoli & Isles, etc.). Television offers the time to visit subplots, character moments, and nuances that film adaptations of books must often gloss over, often turning a single novel into an entire season.
Finally, for those of us from small towns and/or the South, the Sookie Stackhouse novels portray a rural Southern experience that is funny, relatable, and affectionate. Despite the problems and limitations of life in Bon Temps, the portrayal of this world is not condemnatory. As a native of the Mississippi Delta, Harris creates a vision of life in the South that’s neither overly romanticized nor too simplified. No “urban fantasy,” the Sookie novels move to a nearly nostalgic rural Southern environment and challenge it with the supernatural. True Blood may attempt to do the same, but the sense of a small community fades into a collection of high-profile characters, and the accents are terrible (we’re looking at you, Stephen Moyer).
While True Blood at times does cliffhangers well and makes some good additions (extending Lafayette’s presence and introducing Jessica), Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries offer a much different serial experience in a wryly lighthearted and suspenseful story world that’s sure to add some fun to your summer.