Summer Media: Reading Sookie Stackhouse

Anna Paquin as Sookie Stackhouse

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.

Dead Until Dark, the first novel in the Southern Vampire Series

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.


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9 Responses to “ Summer Media: Reading Sookie Stackhouse ”

  1. Anne Helen Petersen on July 14, 2010 at 7:42 AM

    I can’t get past the writing — and this coming from someone who willingly submits, as both of you know, to Twilight. I tried the first two books and the brassy, late ’90s tone was just too much. Maybe, for me, the slight irony (or hints of camp that the series picks up so gloriously) are too much in written form; I must need my written vampires to be shades of earnestness, forever love, and sparkles.

  2. Erika Johnson-Lewis on July 14, 2010 at 7:59 AM

    Great piece.

    I spent last summer consuming the Sookie books one after the other and enjoyed them very much. After the first few episodes of season 3, I’d say I prefer them at this point. Sookie, while often irritating, has such a strong voice in the books that’s completely lacking in the series, which also often forgets that she’s a telepath and only remembering when it’s convenient rather than it being the central element that defines her character. The change from 1st person to large ensemble cast of characters is going to necessitate Sookie’s character receding in prominence a bit, but I miss her observations (and penchant for describing her awful clothes in detail).

    Lafayette and Jessica are by far the best additions in the TV series. Yet, the addition of Sam’s drama with his family feels forced *spoilers* since in the books he does fall into the background as Sookie’s universe expands. It’s not easy to just leave a central character behind in a television series, especially one as well-liked as Sam, but did they have to go to cliche town to buy his story? The characterization of Sophie Ann is also terrible, and by far the most disappointing change they’ve made in a series of mostly good ones.

  3. Mary Beltrán on July 14, 2010 at 11:00 AM

    Thanks for bringing this topic to Antenna! Having read and enjoyed all of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse books after first catching True Blood last year, I was really struck by how weak the last one, just out this year, seems to be in comparison to the rest. I had to wonder if this was because Harris has been under particular pressure – since True Blood has been out and created such a fervor for the books – to squeeze a new book out and also to show Sookie and Eric together and in love (I wanted it, too, but it made for a boring story). Your thoughts?

  4. Liz Ellcessor on July 14, 2010 at 11:38 AM

    Annie, I think “brassy” is the perfect way to describe the tone of the books – and that might be a reason that I always imagine the novels as looking less like True Blood and more like Pushing Daisies. It works for me in ways Twilight never does…

    Erica, I agree that I prefer the books. I also feel dissatisfied with stories like Sam’s, or Eric’s maker, that contradict later plots in the books. Maybe if True Blood moves away from its source material, as Dexter did, this might be less of an issue.

    And Mary, Lindsay and I also just read the latest book and were disappointed! Nothing happened. I do think that it’s about Harris being under pressure to keep turning out the Sookie books – I’ve heard she now has two continuity assistants just to keep things straight. Can’t blame her for wanting to capitalize on the popularity of her series, but it really seems like the story of the books might already have petered out.

  5. Kristina Busse on July 16, 2010 at 8:51 PM

    I’m so glad you posted on this. After seeing your column, I just picked up the first novel on sale and am enthralled and surprised with how much I’m enjoying it. Being more a Vampire Diaries than True Blood fan (and I hope we will get to talk about “quality” TV at Flow : ), I didn’t expect to enjoy the book(s) as much as I did. Two things that I tentatively want to throw out: (1) I really enjoy the local color, so to speak that the books are steeped in. I’m not from the Deep South but have lived down here for 20 years now, and I can hear Sookie talk in the books in a way that Paquin, as much as I like her, never pulls off. (2) While there’s some near explicit sex (I’m kinda constantly testreading Twilight supplements for pre/early teens, so I’m hyperaware of that aspect), there seems to be much less explicit violence as compared to the show. I’m wondering if the audience shift (I’d expect from a clearly delineated mostly female audience to a more mixed gender) has brought that with it. [And I’ll have to read more and rewatch TB, but is there a first person sensuality turned into voyeuristic sexual exhibit there as well? Or am I going all second wave feminist here? :)]

    • Lindsay H. Garrison on July 20, 2010 at 11:29 AM

      So glad to hear you picked it up and enjoyed it, Kristina! I think both of your points are spot on. The way Harris writes the town of Bon Temps is one of my favorite things about the series. While I see why Alan Ball and HBO would want to expand the story lines to make an ensemble show, I just really enjoy the first-person perspective of the novels/short stories that really develop Sookie; she makes a fun, complex heroine in a way that True Blood doesn’t really allow Paquin to do.

      And yes, there is much less explicit violence in most of the novels in comparison to the show. I definitely think that trying to expand the TV show to include not only a mixed gender audience, but a “sophisticated, upscale” HBO audience is a factor in the show’s darkness and violence. When we were writing this post, Liz and I both talked about how, to us, the Sookie from the novels seems more like a Pushing Daisies-esque “colorfest on ABC” (credit to Liz for the term) rather than the dark ensemble show that is TB. Also, the credit sequence for TB actually seems even darker and more ominous than the show itself even is, which is interesting.

      And, fwiw, I also agree that there’s certainly something to the notion that moving from the first person sensuality of the novels to the ensemble of TB brings with it some sort of voyeuristic sexual exhibit. So, no, you’re definitely not overdoing the second wave feminist there. 🙂

      • Kristina Busse on July 20, 2010 at 11:37 AM

        And that coming from what I assume id a firmly embedded third wave makes me feel much better 🙂

        Oh the title sequence! I want to write on nothing but the title sequence! A friend of mine made an amazing True Blood vid ( that uses the title sequence. I kind of want to write an Antenna post just on the title!

        I’m getting really tired of the HBO sophistication argument. While I’m a big proponent of not having all media be PG13 by default, I don’t think maturity needs to be expressed in gross (and often sexualized) violence alone. How about maturity of morality and complex issues. That to me made The Wire a sophisticated show. Not explicit murders…

        Colorfest on ABC is an interesting term. I think of Pushing Daisies as the epitome of quirky, and, yes, the novel definitely fit under that term…

        • Lindsay H. Garrison on July 20, 2010 at 3:08 PM

          Yeah, the title sequence is kind of crazy and amazing. I *love* your friend’s vid – that would actually be a ten-times better fit as an intro to TB than the actual one. I’ve always felt like the title sequence is kind of cool on its own, but is actually a title sequence for an entirely different show. One that is much more ominous and/or seriously and critically takes up issues of religious fundamentalism. Your friend’s vid seems to catch the right tones of dark humor, sexual nature, and gore of the show waaay better than the current one.

          • Kristina Busse on July 20, 2010 at 3:45 PM

            Yes, it’s almost as if the title sequence creates a framework that affects our reading of the actual text but doesn’t all that much enter into the text. So Lim’s merging of the two brings these elements together more explicitly?

            The religious fundamentalism and really the Southern conservatism have been brought up only in somewhat caricature ways, hasn’t it? If The Wire is the cornerstone of HBO’s quality TV, then it’s the complexity and the withholding of moral judgments. True Blood? I know Jason and Louisa will try to convince me otherwise, but at the moment…I’m not quite seeing it.