Dead Until DarkThanks to my local science fiction book club, I’ve been expanding my reading horizons over the last few months, and thus came across at least one book I would almost certainly have never chosen to read on my own: Charlaine Harris’ Dead Until Dark, the first in the author’s surprisingly popular Southern Vampire Mysteries series. In simplest terms, this book was a fun, breezy read that won’t win any grand fiction prizes, but was a worthwhile and refreshing lark that breathed some much-needed life into the image of the modern vampire.

For those who don’t keep up with such things, there is a burgeoning subgenre of fantasy/horror romance fiction out there, and Harris is one of its chief proponents. If you take nothing else from her work here, you can at least thank Harris for defusing the Anne Rice/Laurell K. Hamilton uber-gothic melodrama of contemporary vampire fiction. Harris’ bloodsuckers have more in common with John Grisham’s antagonists–both in tone and in setting–than anything you’re likely to find in a Bram Stoker homage. Put another way, the main protagonist in Dead Until Dark is a 25-year-old high school-educated Louisiana waitress named Sookie Stackhouse who lives with her grandma and just happens to be able to read minds. No grand dames and immortal heiresses to be found here, just a little Southern-fried supernatural mischief.

The major conceit of novel–I wouldn’t prop it up with the label of “high concept”–is that vampires have in recent years “come out of the coffin” and joined mainstream society, mostly because a Japanese biomedical group has created synthetic blood substitutes that finally let nosferatu eat something besides you, me, and the requisite leather-clad goth clubber. The bloodsuckers have been able to stay mysterious for all the preceding eons because of their “glamour” powers–a kind of hypnotic mind control that forces their victims to forget being bitten, sort of like Lois forgets that Clark Kent = The Man of Steel at the end of Superman II (well, at least until the new Richard Donner director’s cut).

Sookie is a mid-20s spinster because her reflexive mindreading inescapably complicates relationships. By strange coincidence, she can’t read the mind of her small town’s newest vampire resident–Bill (again, no painfully poetic monikers here)–and those same powers prevent Bill’s glamour from working on her. Soon enough, an unlikely romance begins, then the requisite small-town murder mystery pops up and Sookie’s mindreading powers prove both boon and hindrance. Nothing terribly surprising, but the ride is entertaining enough.

Where Harris really shines is in crafting a believably flawed, ordinary, yet entertaining cast. Sookie’s telepathy lets Harris instantly sound off and every other character’s internal motivations–a great trick for a writer looking to quickly sketch out a town full of folk–including the womanizing yet well-meaning brother, suspicious and prejudiced sheriff, or standoffish yet protective barkeep. By the time she’s done, Harris has given us a glimpse at vampire society, winked at the Southern obsession with the American Civil War, taken a quick shot at Anne Rice-ish vamp-goth groupies, and even snuck in the unlikeliest celebrity-turned-immortal-bloodsucker you’re ever likely to read. All in under 300 pages. It’s the horror-fantasy equivalent of a beach novel, but every now and then some ably executed cotton candy fiction is a welcome respite from overdone slabs of faux-literary fantasy beef.