Trigger warning for descriptions of fictional rape. Spoiler warning… for spoilers.
A few days ago, Eld and I had a Tumblr exchange about bad books we feel compelled to finish, even though they’re bad, which was precipitated by my stating that I found the most recent installment in the Sookie Stackhouse series of novels by Charlaine Harris to be unforgivably awful. The book, Dead Reckoning, had no discernible plot, completely dropped the ball on what should have been a HUGE DEAL, and it just felt like it was unenthusiastic about slogging through yet another formula Southern Vampire book (it would be unfair to call it a mystery – there was little to no sleuthing). This is how the books work: Sookie cleans her house, Sookie finds out there are even more supernatural creatures that we didn’t know about (seriously, as the books progress, it gets kind of ridiculous – vampires, shapeshifters, werewolves, werepanthers, fairies, demons, maenads,
men who are not rapists – just kidding! all men are rapists in the Sookie Stackhouse novels!), Sookie has violent sex after which she is obligated to ice her pussy, horribly gruesome violence porn in which at least ten minor characters are slaughtered and/or dismembered, the end.
And I can say “the end” because I finished reading it. I finished reading it, even though it was horrible. I finished reading all of them, even though they were horrible (though not so horrible as the latest one). Part of the reason is that I have this sick compulsion to finish reading terrible books, and I am in fact more likely to finish a terrible book than I am to finish one that I’m legitimately enjoying (I mean, I finish the vast majority of books I read, but I can think of a few occasions where I put a good book down and just never picked it up again, and zero occasions in which I’ve put a bad book down). And another reason that I’m hooked on these books is that I just cannot believe some of the horseshit that goes down in them.
A while ago, I had this other blog that kind of stalled out and was eventually deleted, but one of my projects there was to recap and analyze each of the Sookie Stackhouse books. So I’m going to try to condense all of that down into one blog post about how rape-y these books are. Because they’re super rape-y.
Unlike some feminist critics out there, I don’t have a problem with portrayals of rape. I don’t necessarily believe that if an author writes about rape, ze is necessarily condoning it. Vladimir Nabokov wrote about a pedophile – in the first person, no less! – and I really, really don’t think anyone would dare argue that Lolita gives child molestation the thumbs-up. But the Sookie Stackhouse novels are not like that – not at all. While I wouldn’t argue that they condone rape, they certainly engage in some pretty heinous rape apologism – and that’s what we’re going to delve into.
The first thing you need to know about the Sookie Stackhouse books is that the vampires are scary, and they have fangs (unlike some other vampire fiction we know). They are ruthless, untrustworthy, passionate, and they fuck. In fact, it’s observed many times throughout the course of the novels that blood and sex are deeply intertwined, and that for vampires, one rarely comes without the other.
The second thing you need to know… is a brief plot synopsis. In the world of the Southern Vampire Mysteries, vampires have “come out of the coffin” after the invention of synthetic blood – which obviously means that they don’t need to prey on humans to sustain “life” (they don’t need to, which doesn’t mean that they don’t). The first novel, Dead Until Dark, is set in the fictional Bon Temps, Louisiana, two years after vampires have made their existence known to the world. This is where we meet Sookie Stackhouse, a waitress and telepath, who gets all gooey in the groin over the first vampire she meets. His name is Bill Compton, and he just happens to live in the house across the cemetery. AND THIS IS WHERE ALL OF THE TROUBLE BEGINS.
Right out of the gate it’s established that in these books, rape and sexual assault are the weapons of choice. Whether she’s forced to watch sex acts against her will (on page 57, we’re introduced to a group of vampires considerably more frightening than Bill, and the way that threat is established is through a lot of heavy petting and one of them receiving fellatio while Sookie, too frightened to run away, watches), or the local detective is trying to bait her telepathy by imagining her fucking her brother (Dead Until Dark, 104), it seems that the best way to scare Sookie is to put her into extremely uncomfortable sexual situations.
And because it wouldn’t be good, trashy genre fiction without it, “forced seduction” and the threat thereof plays a large role in the steamy scenes as well. Take, for example, this scene which occurs on page 101 in Dead Until Dark:
Oh boy, could he kiss. We might have problems communicating on some levels, but this wasn’t one of them. We had a great time for maybe five minutes. I felt all the right things moving through my body in waves. Despite the awkwardness of being in the front seat of a car, I managed to be comfortable, mostly because he was so strong and considerate. I nipped his skin with my teeth. He made a sound like a growl.
“Sookie!” His voice was ragged.
I moved away from him, maybe half an inch.
“If you do that anymore, I’ll have you whether you want to be had or not,” he said, and I could tell he meant it.
“You don’t want to,” I said finally, trying not to make it a question.
Okay, here is where we have to draw some lines between real life, and the conventions of fiction. In real life, if someone told me that they’d “have” me, whether I wanted it or not, I really, really doubt I’d find it sexy (unless it was something my partner and I had previously negotiated, of course) – in fact, I’d probably be scared shitless. In this book, and in other literature – especially romances – we don’t read this situation as a rape threat because it’s been previously established that Sookie is game, and we know she is game because she is narrating, and we know what she is thinking. We also know that Bill and Sookie would have been humping a long time ago were it not for some strategically placed barriers, like social taboos and miscommunications (because it’s not romantic if two people meet, decide they want to fuck, and then fuck – no, no, there has to be an obstacle). There’s been a considerable amount of research and speculation as to why we’re okay with rape in genre fiction (here is one that I like in particular, and here’s another).
But see, that isn’t the big problem. The big problem occurs in book three, when I guess someone decided that all of those rape threats were no good unless they were actually carried out. At the end of book three, which is called Club Dead (I know), Sookie ends up rescuing a half-starved Bill from where he’s being held captive by the vampire king of Mississippi (I KNOW), and then some bitch locks her in a trunk with him, where he rapes her.
I mean, he really rapes her. I KNOW!!!
Thankfully, Sookie terminates the relationship after that point (though they were honestly on the rocks before that), but remains reluctant to really place any blame on Bill for what happened. It’s argued first that Bill, starving as he was, couldn’t help it or wasn’t aware that he was even doing it. It’s then argued that the blame lies with the woman who pushed Sookie into the trunk, and this isn’t just Sookie trying to rationalize what happened – other characters also say it’s the woman’s fault (her name is Debbie Pelt, FWIW). It isn’t even until book five or six that Sookie even calls what happened in the trunk a “rape.” Bill is never held accountable for his actions (except that he loses Sookie as his girlfriend), and Sookie even becomes friendly with him again after a little time has passed.
Where Harris really fails is that she puts forth a situation – Sookie’s rape – and then refuses to really deal with it. I’d never argue that an author can’t allow hir main character to be sexually assaulted – but if you’re going to have that happen, you must treat it with the gravity it deserves. For example, don’t have another one of your characters say this to the woman who was raped a few hours after it happened:
“Had it occurred to you,” he said, after we’d rolled out of the city’s center, “that you tend to walk away when things between you and Bill become rocky? Not that I mind, necessarily, since I would be glad for you two to sever your association. But if this is a pattern you follow in your romantic attachments, I want to know now.” (Club Dead, 215)
Hey Sookie – this dude just raped you, and I feel like I should probably shame you a little bit for not sticking around to work it out with him, and I also want to know if it’s your wont to run away from your rapist, in case you and I get into a relationship with one another and I rape you. I mean, running away from your rapist – is that a pattern?
And this is typical of the way this rape is treated moving forward in the series – and it’s something I was never able to forgive Harris for. It’s one of the reasons, I imagine, that True Blood changed this scene up so that Bill simply drank from Sookie – almost to the point of killing her – and did not rape her. Because when you allow one of your characters to get raped, you have to deal with it – you can’t treat it like he farted in bed or forgot to bring milk home, or even like he cheated.
It’s a real shame. While these books are certainly not masterpieces, they are fairly progressive in their cavalier attitude toward homosexuality, bisexuality, and gender expression. It’s just too bad that all of that got ruined when Harris refused to acknowledge that she allowed one of her characters to get raped. I guess I’ve never forgiven her for it.
And yet… I’ll be reading the next one when it comes out – you can be sure of it. And I’ll hate it all the way through.
Harris, Charlaine. Dead Until Dark. New York: Penguin, 2001.
Harris, Charlaine. Club Dead. New York: Penguin, 2003.