Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Living Dead in Dallas (by Charlaine Harris)


We return to vampires and maenads, the original version (if there’s another story featuring vampires and maenads out there, I need to see it, but somehow I doubt such a thing exists). Spoilers follow.

Unlike TV!maenad Maryann, Book!maenad actually has a Greek name, though it doesn’t seem especially related to her character. Callisto was a nymph/princess who used to hang out with Artemis, but she was raped by Zeus (or sometimes Apollo), became pregnant, and when Artemis discovered she was pregnant Bad Things happened (specifics varying according to which version you read) and she got turned into a bear. Greek mythology; not a friend to feminists.

Anyway, this Callisto doesn’t seem especially closely related to her namesake, other than having a genuinely Greek name (a few other Classical bits and pieces are scattered through the book as well – I definitely remember hubris getting a mention at some point. Godric has tattoos from the Roman period, but I don’t think he’s meant to be Roman; the name sounds like he could come perhaps from somewhere in the Empire, but wouldn’t be a Roman citizen. And while we're on the subject of Godric, his supposedly more 'modern' name, Godfrey, did not conjure up the right mental image for me).

The existence or otherwise of the god Dionysus is an interesting point in a supernatural story like this, in which all manner of mythical or folkloric creatures can be assumed to be real, but usually the line is drawn at actual gods, even – or perhaps especially – in a story with a broadly Christian base like this one (Sookie is a churchgoer and she’s the narrator, so there are basic Christian assumptions underlying the supernatural stuff). The gods can be included if they’re revealed really to be something else, like supernatural humans, aliens and so on, but gods as gods are more unusual (though they do appear – Buffy Season 5 being the best known example). The implication here seems to be that Dionysus/Bacchus was at some point real in some god-type form – maenads were ‘driven made by the god’. On the other hand, there’s a reference to the fact that maenads have ‘lost’ the god, and whether this means he used to exist in some form and doesn’t any more, or is just a reference to the lack of belief in Dionysus these days, is unclear, though the lack of current belief is brought up as a specific problem. As in the TV series, the exact process by which a human woman would become an immortal psycho is left deliberately vague, but Bacchus/Dionysus definitely seems to be involved somehow, while whatever existence he once had now seems to be lost.

As someone whose initial exposure to ancient history, pre-university, was through I, Claudius, my favourite bit of the whole explanation scene was Sookie admitting to the reader that she knew about maenads because they featured in a mystery novel she’d read, but deciding to let Eric think she ‘reads ancient Greek literature in the original language’ if he wanted to. Hehe. That would’ve been me ten years ago.

There are various minor differences between book and TV series in the plot and particularly the resolution, but the most interesting difference by far between Callisto and Maryann is that, as far as I can tell, Callisto is not actually the cause of any of the sex and murder going on until she takes her tribute at the very end. She’s attracted to drunkenness and sex and violence, but whereas Maryann brings out behavior that the people around her would usually repress, Callisto merely feeds off behavior that is already happening. Lafayette’s murder, it turns out, was a human act carried out from lust and fear, and the orgy that Sookie finds so repulsive is a simple human activity that Callisto is drawn to, but certainly hasn’t instigated. It’s hard to say which is the more cynical view of human nature – the TV version, which implies that such desires (the violent as well as the sexual) are in all of us, but we keep them buried, or the book version, that leaves the rest of the characters alone but clearly shows some of them actively engaging in such behavior without supernatural prompting. It also explains why poor Lafayette had to die – in his very little ‘screentime’ (page-time?) Lafayette came across as easily likeable, and you can believe that Sookie would go to such extreme lengths to avenge him, which she certainly would not do for Miss Jeanette.

I have to say, in places this was a strange book! Not because of the orgy per se – I am a Roman historian, after all – but because Sookie thought it was a good idea to ask someone who’s been trying to get into her pants since the moment they met to accompany her to one. As a bodyguard. While her boyfriend’s away. He actually has to tell her how crazy this is and it still doesn’t stop her. Even weirder than that, which can at least be explained away as the result of suppressed warm and fuzzy feelings she’s in denial about, is Sam’s affair with Callisto. He doesn’t seem remotely bothered that his fling is a psychotic several thousand year old Thing which Sookie describes as actively evil. Perhaps he’s in denial too.

I did like the book’s depiction of Andy Bellefleur though, one of the most complex characters in both the book and the TV series, albeit in slightly different ways. Andy is a good person trying to do the right thing who sometimes gets it horribly wrong by, for example, pointing a gun at our heroine. He’ll never be a fan favourite, but something about this character keeps Bon Temps and its inhabitants grounded while madness (literally) goes on around them.

I enjoyed this one, strangeness aside, though like anything you’ve seen in another form of media first, it probably needs a second look to be appreciated on its own merits (even if this version is the 'original'). You’ve got to have some admiration for anything that includes a full-on, named-as-such orgy outside of ancient Rome, though I have to say, that scene left me with some mental pictures that can never be erased…

Actual maenads, with Dionysus

 

4 comments:

  1. Interesting... I don't actually remember ANY of that from the book! (I read it 2 years ago) I just remember the Dallas storyline... Guess that's what happens when you read the first 7 books within a one month's period! Damn my sister for asking for them as a birthday present! I had no intention of reading any after the first... :p

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  2. That's the trouble with these books, they're so darned addictive!

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  3. why is Dionysus black and the maenads white?

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  4. In Black Figure pottery like this, men are shown in black silhouette, but white is sometimes used to represent women's skin - so it's because he's male and they're female.

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