Review: Dead Until Dark

I dream of a good comfort read. You know the type: fluffy but not vacuous; unchallenging but not problematic; the kind of thing you can sink into like a warm bath.

Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series looked like it might fit the bill. It’s certainly long enough, at 13 books and approximately a gazillion novellas and short stories. It’s also popular enough (thanks to the HBO TV adaptation True Blood) that most libraries stock it, although as is always the case in libraries the first volume seems perpetually to be missing. It stars a mystery-solving small-town heroine in a relationship with a vampire; sounds fun, right?

Well.

In Dead Until Dark we meet that small-town heroine, the aforementioned Sookie Stackhouse. Sookie considers herself to have a “disability”: she’s telepathic, making it difficult for her to hold down a relationship or a job. (It would have been interesting, I think, for the text to lean more into this angle, constructing telepathy as a neurodivergence that prevents Sookie from functioning fully in our society – but actually her power doesn’t seem to affect her life all that much apart from occasionally expediting a bit of plot.) While working as a waitress at the fictional town of Bon Temps’ most prominent bar Merlotte’s, she meets her vampire love interest Bill, who along with his supernatural fellows has been empowered to come out of the shadows by the development of an artificial substitute for human blood. With TruBlood readily available, the vampires have no need to drink human blood – although they still like to, to some extent. But when women in the town start being ‘orribly murdered, suspicion naturally falls on Bill.

In many ways the novel gave me exactly what I wanted out of it: a spot of light urban fantasy, a realistic world I could see myself living in with a dash of supernatural spice; the consolations of a mystery we know will be solved by the final pages and a romance that’s sure to end happily for now if not ever after. But beneath it all runs a vicious undercurrent of racism.

There are precisely three non-white characters in the quite extensively-peopled Dead Until Dark: a Native American vampire who turns out to be embezzling his also-vampire boss; a Black vampire who Sookie thinks of as trashy because she likes to wear hot pants; and Sam, Merlotte’s short-order cook, who has a “very hard life” because he is both Black and gay. This is all pretty horrible representation, and stereotypical to boot. (I think Sam is also the only queer character in the novel.)

And, look. I get that Bon Temps is in the USA’s deep South, and that overt racism is still absolutely endemic there (and elsewhere); that sundown towns have not gone away. But it’s a little…discombobulating to be told, matter-of-factly, that Black people don’t live in Bon Temps, in a novel published in 2001, as if this is just the way things are and will always be. No acknowledgement of the role Bon Temps’ white inhabitants probably have to play in that, or of the historical circumstances that brought such a situation about. The centuries-old Bill, as I’ve just remembered, was actually a Confederate soldier, and there’s a whole subplot where Sookie gets him to give a talk about his experiences to the town’s historical society, whose members appear to treat a civil war literally fought for the right to continue enslaving Black people as, like, a mild historical curiosity? No wonder Black families don’t want anything to do with this shitty town and its shitty lack of self-examination. Also, just to emphasise that one of the book’s main romantic leads is an unrepentant former Confederate soldier.

Sigh. My search for the perfect comfort read continues.

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