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, 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 True Blood, 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 permeate through her prose.
Still, the mother of three says her only concern at first was finding something that would sell.
"I'm no crusader," 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 Harris 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 pickups fill the parking lot of the bar where Harris' heroine works.
For Kevin Durand, an associate philosophy professor at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark., life in Bon Temps evokes where his family once lived in Louisiana.
"As she describes the place, it's a place I've been," says 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, 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 says. "That's most people, I believe."
That pretty much is a picture of Magnolia, a city of 11,000 only 20 miles from Louisiana. 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 Harris' novels, including her early mysteries.
"Everything Charlaine writes goes over like a helium balloon in Magnolia," says assistant library director Dana Thornton.
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 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 Harris endows them with a dark power harking back to Bram Stoker, 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."
Stackhouse's travails — romantic and otherwise — will continue for at least four more books, the author says. The next adventure is due out in October, with Harris exploring some loose "threads" in Stackhouse's life.
But that sense of small town and the details of Harris' own life will continue to fill the pages of her novels.
"You've got to use everything you have," she says.