Vampires typically roam the fogged streets of London or the humid nights of New Orleans, opulent worlds filled with beautiful monsters and formal balls.
Trailer parks and honky-tonks didn’t fit until author Charlaine Harris took a chance with a telepathic barmaid named Sookie Stackhouse.
Now, Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries series has hit The New York Times’ list of bestsellers, gained fans far beyond her south Arkansas town of Magnolia and inspired a television series on HBO.
Though fueled by sex, violence and hints of humor, Harris’ novels hold a mirror up to a South where race and societal change permeates through her prose.
Still, the mother of three said her only concern at first was finding something that would sell.
“I’m no crusader,” Harris said. “I just like to make a point. If people get it, good. If they don’t, OK.”
Stackhouse’s fictional hometown of Bon Temps, La., resembles the South in which Harris grew up, filled with waitresses who wear Keds sneakers and shop at Walmart. Trailer homes dot the rural pastures of the north Louisiana town and pickup trucks fill the parking lot of the bar where Harris’ heroine works.
That sense of place allows the fantastic to seem commonplace, especially as wereanimals, fairies and witches crowd into the story around Stackhouse and her vampire associates. Even the vampires, though satiated with artificial blood produced in Japan, struggle with scheduling nocturnal home repairs.
In a way, Harris, 57, says she wanted to serve as an “anti-Anne Rice,” allowing humor and reality to drive her novels.
“I just drew on my knowledge of what it’s like to live in a small town from the viewpoint of a person who has very little disposable income, … a person who’s really having to count their pennies, plan ahead to pay their property tax,” she said. “That’s most people, I believe.”
Harris’ Stackhouse novels read quickly, ramping up at chapters’ ends in the pattern of her many trade paperback mysteries. While pulpy love entanglements and murders snare Stackhouse, the novels also provide a glimpse of social criticism. Vampires, once in self-imposed exile, “come out of the coffin,” an intended parallel to the acceptance of gays in the world.
“It just seemed like a very similar situation to me,” Harris said. “It’s just admitting publicly the existence of something that we’ve always known existed privately.”
Stackhouse’s own travails — romantic and otherwise — will continue for at least four more books, the author said. The next adventure is due out in October, with Harris exploring some loose “threads” in Stackhouse’s life.