Dead Reckoning by Charlaine Harris (Gollancz, 2011).
Dead Reckoning is the latest novel in Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse, or Southern Vampire Mysteries, series. At book number eleven, it doesn’t seem that there’s a whole lot more to say about the adventures of Sookie and friends, but Harris always seems to have a few more rabbits left to pull out. And then, what incentive has Harris to mess with such a winning formula?
Sookie is a waitress from small town Louisiana, who is preoccupied with work, friends, and dealing with her irritating gift of telepathy. You know, your average sort of thing for a twentysomething lady. The central conceit of the books is that synthetic blood has just been invented, enabling vampires to “come out of the closet”. Yes, there is a parallel with queer rights running through the books, which I would have liked to see pushed in quite different directions to those Harris has taken.
That is, in fact, my main frustration with the series: Harris sets up the potential for some fantasy-style treatment of political and social issues, and never quite chases them up. For instance, Sookie’s supernatural boss, Sam, responds to attempts to shut his bar down with ‘I can’t believe this is happening in our country, and me a veteran. Born and bred in the USA.’ It’s those kind of throwaway parallels that Harris could push so much more, but has a tendency to just leave hanging.
Dead Reckoning was something of a surprise, then, because Harris’ main theme is the clash of routine daily life and the horrors of the supernatural. Where Sookie has mostly managed to balance her associations with vampires, Weres, and other supernatural beings with her human life, her sunny disposition here crumbles. The clash is sometimes surreal, sometimes hilarious or even sickening, but it feels a lot more emotionally real than many of the past Sookie novels. Our charming, forthright narrator is struggling with being true to her Christian faith under circumstances often requiring her to kill or be killed. And then there are the times when dealing with the emotional fallout gets too much: the novel ends with Sookie dumping a body and switching on her television to watch Jeopardy!. Fantasy doesn’t always have to be pleasurable, and Harris knows that the scaling back of Sookie’s humanity finally needs to be confronted.
And it is violent, unnecessarily so at times. The clinching of that tie between the mundane and the edge of life and death erupts in what had been a quiet scene of Sookie coming home with the groceries. She’s taking bottles of milk and synthetic blood out of her car when she’s forced to use the milk as a weapon against an attacker. Such interruptions of the domestic – here through the swapping of pure, life-giving milk and artificial blood – plague Sookie. This is where Harris is at her best, in making Sookie realise that an average human life simply isn’t accessible to her anymore.
The problem with Sookie as a narrator is that she’s repetitive, both in word choice and in that Harris will use her to tell you the same facts about the same people over and over. The déjà vu is a little tiresome after eleven books. And then there’s a memorable scene in which Sookie refers to her genitals as her “yahoo palace,” so help us all. Where clashes between the various supernatural groups might give Harris some place to work through racism in a fantastic guise, again, she doesn’t quite make it. Sookie has a benevolent and vaguely creepy style of racism she doesn’t quite seem able to shake, spending a lot of time gawking admiringly at the physical differences of all the non-white characters she meets. I wonder what the series would be like if we could experience it at times from, say, Sam’s perspective instead.
For all that, there’s some great anti-misogynistic moments, which is a turnaround from some of the more distressing elements of previous books. ‘I don’t need to have a baby just because other women are doing it,’ Sookie declares to a customer who is on her case about the old biological clock. Where many such novels feature lovestruck women in awe of moody sexy vampires, Sookie sees the carework of looking after her boyfriend, Eric’s, emotions as a drag. But the messaging about women’s autonomy and consent are undercut in a big way with Eric beating up his number two, Pam, and Sookie’s ex-boyfriend and rapist continuing to pursue her with a compliment about how amazing her breasts are. I did say it was a turnaround, which probably says a lot about how badly female characters have been treated in previous novels.
If you’re thinking of picking this up as your first Sookie novel, don’t. The bulk of the pleasure to be had from this novel is in finding out what the next part of the story is for characters in whom readers have become invested. It’s a continuation of ideas about ethics and human nature Harris floated in previous novels, rather than marking the emergence of anything that makes this one novel stand out from the eleven. We’ve still got ‘the corrupt vampire seducing the youth of America, inducting them into orgies of bisexuality and bloodsucking’ that made the books so popular to begin with. In Dead Reckoning, the mix of housework and horror comes into its own.