Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series is one of the most popular urban fantasy series around, with thirteen books, numerous short stories, and a hit television series on HBO. And it all began with 2001’s Dead Until Dark.
“I’d been waiting for the vampire for years when he walked into the bar.”
With this opening line, we are ushered in the world of Bon Temps, a small town in rural Louisiana. Our heroine, Sookie Stackhouse, lives with her grandmother in their old family home, and is a waitress at the local bar, Merlotte’s. Make that a telepathic waitress.
Sookie’s “disability,” as she terms it, will lead her into all manner of scrapes over the course of the series, but her first adventure begins when a vampire walks into a bar. Sounds like the beginning to a joke, right? But this vampire just sits down a table, and orders red wine.
Sookie is thrilled and excited to finally meet a vampire. And—wonder of wonders!—she can’t hear his thoughts, unlike every other human around. But she can hear the thoughts of the couple joining him—the Rattrays. They’re vampire drainers, and are planning to take Bill outside and drain his blood to sell on the black market.
So, without thinking to ask others for help (her brother Jason is at the bar, as is her boss Sam—both perfectly suited for a brawl), Sookie grabs a chain from Jason’s truck and heads out to save the vampire. Sookie herself says, “I’d never actually been in a fight before. Somehow I was positively looking forward to it.” Sookie succeeds in driving off the Rattrays, though not without considerable risk to life and limb, and we are introduced officially to Vampire Bill.
Yes, his name is Bill. Classic.
Sookie is enamored of the telepathic silence and peace that being around vampires brings. Her grandmother, Adele, is equally thrilled by the news that a vampire is in town. Since Bill lived through the Civil War, she hopes that he will speak to her club, the Descendants of the Glorious Dead, about his experiences. Sookie promises to invite Bill on her behalf. So when Bill visits Merlotte’s the next evening, Sookie asks Bill to meet her after her shift. But the Rattrays get there first, and viciously attack her, inflicting life-threatening internal injuries. Fortunately, Bill arrives (after possibly being fetched by a dog?), kills the Rattrays, and feeds Sookie his blood, healing her injuries. This violent incident essentially begins their relationship, as Bill and Sookie begin spending more time together...
Bill agrees to speak to the Descendants of the Glorious Dead about the Civil War, just to make Sookie happy, and later visits in a courting-like-manner to take her on a walk. They kiss, and Sookie agrees to visit his house the next night. When she does, however, Bill is not alone—three aggressively sexual vampires are visiting. They threaten Sookie, and tempt Bill with the blood of their human. But Sookie overhears that the human plans to infect them all with Sino-virus, the vampire version of AIDS. While Sookie saves Bill, she also reveals her “disability” to the vampires, and they are far more intrigued by her than is safe.
After that horrible experience, Sookie isn’t sure if she wants to see Bill again.
The next morning, Sam asks Sookie to check on Dawn Green, a waitress who failed to show up for work that morning. When Sookie goes to her house, she finds Dawn dead, strangled. And she wasn’t the first victim in Bon Temps—Maudette Pickens was killed in just the same manner a few days before. Both women had old vampire bites, indicating they were “fangbangers”—essentially vampire groupies.
As it turns out, both women were known not only for their association with vampires, and for their association with Jason, Sookie’s brother—which means that not only is Bill under suspicion, but Jason is as well. Sookie decides to do a little investigating of her own to clear their names. She begins to listen in, telepathically, trying to find the murderer in the thoughts of her neighbors.
She also asks Bill to take her to Fangtasia, the vampire bar in Shreveport. There she first meets Eric, a vampire and former Viking, and his associate Pam. When she gives them advance warning of a police raid, Eric finds out that she isn’t entirely human…and so begins a long association between Sookie and the vampire community.
While Sookie and Bill are on a break, Sam invites Sookie to attend The Descendants of the Glorious Dead meeting with him. They get coffee afterwards, and Sam kisses her before he leaves. Returning home afterward, Sookie walks into her house and immediately knows something is wrong—she smells blood. And then she finds her grandmother on the floor, strangled. It seems likely that Sookie was the intended victim, because of her new association with vampires.
Bill comforts Sookie that night, and they become lovers. When her friends find out, they are horrified that she’s taken up with a vampire. The appearance of Bill’s vampires “friends” at the bar doesn’t help his cause—they threaten Sookie, and basically freak everyone out.
The murders have understandably terrified the community, and a few men decide to take matters into their own hands. Sookie can hear the townsfolk’ thoughts rising to a fever pitch, but can’t determine which person is the inciting force behind the incipient mass hysteria. She’s unable to stop them from burning down a house with Bill’s vampire friends in it; all the vampires are destroyed, and Sookie worries that Bill was with them. She spends a few terrified hours before finding Bill safe at home, in a hole in the ground.
Jason is now a more serious suspect in the murders, as the police have found the tapes he made with each of the victims. He asks Sookie to “listen” and help him prove his innocence. In the meantime, Eric orders Sookie to visit Fangtasia. As he is the sheriff of Area Five—part of the vampire’s division of territory—Bill has to obey him. Apparently, someone has embezzled sixty thousand dollars from the bar, and Eric wants Sookie’s help in finding the culprit. He also wants her, but that’s besides the point...
After reading several human minds, Sookie discovers that the embezzler is Eric’s business partner and Fangtasia’s bartender, Long Shadow. The bartender attacks Sookie, and Eric stakes him, saving her life. During the fracas, Sookie accidentally swallows some of Long Shadow’s blood, and her strength and senses are temporarily heightened.
As a reward for Bill, Eric sends him a drink...in the form of the fangbanger Desiree. Bill refuses the offer, and Jason drives her back to Shreveport, instead. Unfortunately, when Desiree later turns up dead as well, Jason is in even more trouble than before.
When Sookie’s cat is killed, apparently as a warning, Bill brings Sookie a vampire guard, Bubba, to watch over her while Bill is in New Orleans. He’s a bit slow, and has an unhealthy fondness for cats, and oh yes: his real name is Elvis Presley. Sookie also brings an adorable stray dog home with her from the bar to keep her company, and names him Dean. Turns out, though, that “Dean” is actually her boss, Sam, tagging along to watch over her while the murderer is on the loose. He’s a shape shifter, and can take any form he chooses.
In the meantime, another girl has been strangled. And when Sam and Sookie get to the bar that morning, they find Jason unconscious. He’s the last person to have seen the girl. But don’t worry too much about Jason—luckily for him, this mystery is about to be solved!
Sookie is home alone the next night when she hears noise outside. When she investigates, she finds her guard, Bubba, unconscious, and her gun missing. Sookie runs out towards the woods where she can hide. She sees flashes of thought from her pursuer…a progression of the murdered girls, beginning with the murderer's own vampire-dating sister. The man hunting Sookie in the woods is Rene, Arlene’s boyfriend, and Jason’s best friend.
Turns out Rene had murdered his sister in a fit of rage, when she refused to stop dating a vampire. To justify that killing, he continued target so-called “fangbangers,” convincing himself that these murders were not only morally right, but necessary: because Sookie is dating Bill, she therefore has to die.
He attacks Sookie, trying to strangle her as he had the other girls. They struggle violently, but Sookie is stronger than he expects, largely due to having ingested Bill and Longshadow’s blood. Finally, she is able to pull the knife off Rene's belt and stab him. With Rene in jail and Sookie recovering in the hospital, this particular mystery is solved—yet it’s clear that Sookie’s adventures are only just beginning.
With this first book in the series, Charlaine Harris founded an incredibly rich supernatural world, with plenty of angst and heartache but lots of laughs as well. As dark as this book can be, it never loses its subtle sense of humor. Take Vampire Bill: what a purposely incongruous name! Bill doesn’t wear black or leather, but Dockers, loafers, and polo shirts. While he may hide a double-homicide by staging a fake tornado, he also enjoys flowered wallpaper and Jacuzzis (to point out just one small example of Harris’s brilliant characterization). Each small character in the town of Bon Temps radiates individuality, and each has their own part to play throughout the coming books.
Sookie is a unique heroine, not just in her special power, but in her personality. As Sookie herself says, “I may be uneducated and unworldly, but I’m not stupid or unread.” Aside from her natural intelligence, it’s pretty difficult to surprise or shock a telepath. Vampire licking her head? No big deal. Discovering her boss is a shape shifter? She's more annoyed that he woke up naked in her bed than shocked at his shifting. Sookie is a classic strong heroine, one that gets even more powerful in subsequent books. Her heart breaks, but she powers through. She gets beaten, but never stays down for long. I love that aspect of her character, and Harris is a master of letting us read through the lines, between what Sookie says to what she actually feels.
At one point, Sookie shares, “Somehow we were at the door, and I knew that Bill had lifted me and moved me quickly. I smiled, genuinely. I like the unexpected.” This is an essential part of what drives Sookie through this first book—her desire for adventure, for something exotic. She seeks out Bill, partly because of his mental silence, but also for the potential adventure he represents. Though Sookie may end up in a lot of crazy situations, they are largely due to her own active curiosity about the world.
So is Sookie using Bill for adventure? It may be controversial, but I think that some part of her is. She loves his mental silence, she loves being in a relationship, she even loves Bill. But even in this very first book, it doesn’t seem to be the forever kind of love. Bill’s own feelings are also muddled. He clearly cares for her—after Sookie tells Bill of the uncle that molested her as a child, Bill orders him killed. Vengeful? Sure. Deserved? Yes. He’s there for her when she needs him—most of the time—and wants to make her happy. We cannot forget, however, that he is a product of another time, and another supernatural species.
And what about Sam? Sam clearly has a connection to Bill, one that is not fully explained in this book. Is he the dog that was with Sookie when she was attacked by the Rattrays? Did he run to get Bill? It certainly seems so. And while Sam has been her boss for years, he only makes a move when Bill begins to show interest. Did he take Sookie for granted, or did Bill open his eyes to how he felt about Sookie? It's an open question—let’s discuss.
As for Eric and Pam...well, they only get better from here. They’re the dynamic duo of the series, both vampiric in their attitudes, selfish, and yet endearing. Eric is my favorite character in the series, and while we only get a small taste in this book, don’t worry: there will be plenty more from here on out!
In my opinion, the series only gets stronger from here: as Sookie develops her power and knowledge, the tension and the stakes get higher and higher. But enough of my thoughts, let’s talk about you. What do you think of this first entry in the series?
Whitney Ross is an editor at Tor Books. In her free time, she’s also a book collector, wannabe jetsetter, and Starbucks junkie, and enjoys competitive sports such as skiing and shopping.