What makes the True Blood TV series, and the novels by Charlaine Harris it is based on, stand out from the current crop of run of the mill vampire fictions? For those of you currently enjoying Seasons 3 or 4 this article looks back at some of the fundamental starting points of the early episodes. And for those of you not yet hooked maybe it will inspire you to have a watch.
When put on the spot to describe True Blood , creator Alan Ball said it was about “the terror of intimacy”. It is that and much more. The show took the strengths of Harris’s novels and rolled with them, creating a whole new world of additional characters, sub-plots and plot twists, enriching the work. This can create a whole set of difficult questions about what we nerds like to call “canon“, but, what the heck, sometimes you just have to leave behind the inner nerd and succumb.
True Blood has a reputation for graphic sex and violence, but that is not all that defines it. Two outstanding features of both the novels and the show occur in the first few chapters of Dead Until Dark, the first novel in Harris’s series, and in the first episodes of the first season of the TV show. They really shook me to the core of my vampire fiction loving boots and I am going to address them in this article.
Firstly, the sheer force of Sookie Stackhouse. From the outset Sookie’s strength is made clear. Within the first episode and first few pages of the novel, Sookie has rescued vampire Bill from the Rattray couple who are attempting to drain his blood and would leave him for dead. This is a reversal of the tradition of vampire fictions, especially those with romance, where a young woman will be placed in peril and be rescued by an attractive and moody male vampire.
While Sookie can physically hold her own in a parking lot she also possesses a unique power, reading people’s thoughts. She sees this talent as a disability which holds her back in many ways in life. She didn’t do well at school and makes a living serving in a bar. She finds it impossible to get romantically involved with anyone whose thoughts she can hear. After they meet and are instantly attracted to each other, Bill keeps asking Sookie, “What are you?“ and she replies, “I’m a waitress”. From this modest introduction Sookie goes on in subsequent seasons to be so much more. But lets not get into spoilers now…
First Sookie goes on her personal journey to deal with “the terror of intimacy”. Her initial sexual innocence and virtuousness is emphasised at the show’s outset. She is seen to be uncomfortable with the lewd behaviour of her bar colleagues and friends, and even their use of the “J word”, (Jesus). The lack of sex in her life is contrasted with the rampantly over-active sex life of her hapless brother Jason. Sookie’s instant attraction to Bill is deepened as she discovers she cannot hear his thoughts. During the early episodes of the show she undergoes a sexual awakening. Often this occurs without Bill’s presence as attention is focussed on Sookie alone engaged in fantasy, masturbation and sexual dreams.
Sookie’s growing interest in Bill is challenged as she encounters violent, frightening vampires and her community is terrorised by serial killings. Bill himself is morally ambiguous, the narrative does not create the idea of a unique “good” vampire. Like humans, Bill could be capable of both good and evil.
By rescuing Bill, Sookie put herself in danger. When the Rattrays come after her for revenge and beat her to near death, Bill returns the favour and saves her life. Obviously this puts us back into the familiar ground of gender stereotypical roles, but how he achieves this is a unique and bold step.
Harris introduces the idea that vampire blood has restorative and healing powers when drank by humans. It had already been established that vampire blood made people feel high and increased their sexual potency, but after Sookie receives life-threatening injuries, Bill’s blood completely heals her. In a reversal of the trope of vampire fiction that vampires drink human blood to stay alive, it turns out that their blood can restore life to humans. Usually humans only drink vampire blood as part of the process of becoming a vampire. In that case though they are not saved from human death. They will die and become one of the undead . They will then need to drink more human blood to sustain themselves. Human blood is always the source of life. Harris’s blood transaction is uniquely different. Vampire blood enables humans lives to be saved, for them to not only remain human but to be more alive than ever before. Vampires have the potential to make victims of humans, and to be their saviours. They then also have the potential to become victims as some humans seek to steal their precious blood in a reversal of the human-vampire dynamic.
“The blood is the life,” said Renfield, Dracula’s insane, bug eating servant. Harris’s novels and Ball’s TV show bring a whole new dimension to that mantra.
Text © Angela S