- The Washington Times - Friday, June 19, 2009

MAGNOLIA, ARK. | 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, Miss Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries series has hit the New York Times’ list of best-sellers, gained fans far beyond her south Arkansas town and inspired a television series on HBO. Although fueled by sex, violence and hints of humor, Miss 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,” Miss Harris says. “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 the author grew up, filled with waitresses who wear Keds sneakers and shop at Wal-Mart. 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.

For Kevin Durand, an associate philosophy professor at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, life in Bon Temps evokes where his family once lived in Louisiana.

“As she describes the place, it’s a place I’ve been,” said Mr. Durand, who specializes in pop culture ghouls and vampires. “I’ve seen all of those things before.”

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, satiated with artificial blood produced in Japan, struggle with scheduling nocturnal home repairs.

In a way, Miss 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 says. “That’s most people, I believe.”

That pretty much is a picture of Magnolia, a city of 11,000 only 20 miles away from Louisiana. There, the small county courthouse sits in a square near a gazebo. Murals of magnolia flowers and oil derricks, once the town’s lifeblood, cover building walls. A diner across the street hosts a workday crowd, but don’t look for a bottle of beer — it’s a dry county.

It’s here where residents stop the roughly 5-foot-tall redhead in the grocery store, even if they’ve never read one of her books. She volunteers at her church, where members don’t raise eyebrows at her violent and racy tales.

The county library, a converted Assembly of God church that has a steeple in the parking lot for sale, stocks a whole shelf of Miss Harris’ novels, including her early mysteries.

“Everything Charlaine writes goes over like a helium balloon in Magnolia,” says assistant library director Dana Thornton.

Miss 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,” Miss Harris says. “It’s just admitting publicly the existence of something that we’ve always known existed privately.”

Those vampires attract Stackhouse, a mind reader, as she can’t hear their thoughts like normal people. They brood like other vampires flooding bookstores and movie theaters, but Miss Harris endows them with a dark power harkening back to Bram Stoker, Mr. Durand says.

“They’re still not the cuddly little teddy bears with teeth kind of deal; they’re still a threat,” he says. “The only reason that they don’t wipe out everything is because they restrain themselves.”

Race also plays a part in the novels. Few black characters exist on the pages, a problem Miss Harris acknowledges. The first Stackhouse novel also hints to the need for a black and a white funeral home in Bon Temps, something Miss Harris writes is tradition rather than racism.

Miss Harris herself grew up in Tunica, Miss., during the 1960s. Now home to casinos lining the bank of the Mississippi River, the Tunica of her childhood was 80 percent black and surrounded by rice fields. The town’s high school finally integrated in 1969 when Miss Harris was a senior.

“It was very painful and frightening. Honestly, I congratulate the two young black women who graduated from my class,” she says. “I don’t know how they did it.”

Those angry with sweeping societal change make their way into Stackhouse’s town after supernatural creatures reveal themselves. Stackhouse finds herself targeted by them, her “disability” of being able to read minds often placing her in harm’s way. A terrorist bombing against vampires finds her helping firefighters recover victims as the smell of “hate” hangs in the air, an allusion to Sept. 11, 2001.

“I saw so many people (like that) when integration came in, people who hated change without really understanding what it was going to mean or really looking at it from any other perspective than their own comfort,” Miss Harris says.

Another disaster, Hurricane Katrina, hits close to home for the book’s characters. Vampires struggle to cover damaged roofs with blue plastic tarps. Stackhouse takes storm victims into her home — though they are witches, of course.

Some readers got angry about using the hurricane in her novels and accused Miss Harris of exploiting the tragedy. However, she believes it would have been impossible not to mention it.

“I thought, ‘How can I write a book about Louisiana and not mention Katrina?’ That would have been crazy,” Miss Harris says. “The last thing I want to feel like is I’m profiting on someone else’s misery.”

Stackhouse’s own travails — romantic and otherwise — will continue for at least four more books, the author says. The next adventure is due out in October, with Miss Harris exploring some loose “threads” in Stackhouse’s life.

But that sense of small town and the details of Miss Harris’ own life will continue to fill the pages of her novels.

“You’ve got to use everything you have,” she says.

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