If you walked into a Borders (before they shut down, that is) and wandered over to the Young Adult section you would have seen an explosion of paranormal, supernatural, and fantasy romance novels — so noted my friend Kim Lau at dinner last night. (She’s going to teach vampire literature next quarter by the way — I so want to take her class!) I’ve noticed the same phenomenon in the e-book market, a darkly attractive brood of handsome vampires, irresistible warlocks, hunky werewolves adorning the covers of books targeted at young women and girls. Perhaps it’s the influence of Twilight but vampires (and their fellow-creatures) are hot, hotter than ever. And when, Kim wondered, did the horror get almost entirely replaced by sensuality? These modern vampires aren’t the hideous creatures portrayed by Bela Lugosi, but slim catwalk models as cool as death without a trace of fresh blood on their perfect pouts.
It’s an interesting question. Horror was, in the past, the dominant aspect of the gothic romance novel, an equal partner to the eroticism. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, revulsion around female sexuality created the seductive but terrifying transformation in Lucy from a vivacious flirt to an unbridled ravenous succubus who hunts innocent children as well as hapless gentlemen. Another friend of mine suggested that it’s possibly because as a society we’ve gotten over our fear and disgust of sexuality, which is a very intriguing comment. Anne Rice may have jump-started the sexy vampire archetype with her icy Lestat, but the vampires of her mythology, while gorgeous, were physically incapable of sex or sexual pleasure (although I suppose the female vamps could, like their human counterparts, fake it.) Their ecstasy was all in the feeding and drinking of blood, preferably human, and preferably from a lovely young thing.
I loved the Anne Rice novels as a Goth-inflected teenager but they were dark dark dark; and there was really no suggestion that a human female could ever be safe with a vampire lover — or even that a vampire could ever love a human. Vampires are so far out of our league after all — they are glitteringly beautiful things, usually wealthy beyond imagining, jaded from having walked the earth for so long and given in to so many temptations. All they really want is to suck your blood.
But somewhere along the evolution of vampire lore and literature all that raw evil power was absorbed perfectly into the conventions of a traditional romance novel. The vampire male’s supernatural strength is an exaggeration of the manliness of the muscle-bound hunk; his long life, an extension of the romantic hero’s previous life experience. His dangerous nature, well, he’s just fierce because he cares so much, and he stalks you not (only) because he’s a predator but because he loves you. He keeps secrets in order to shield you. And his possessiveness is just virile protectiveness because you are, after all, a fragile human girl whom he could easily crush in one undead hand.
At the same time the authors feel free to trounce vampire conventions where convenient, essentially sanitizing the grittier, messier aspects of vampirism which is, I believe, a result of our disengagement from old-fashioned Catholicism. Once upon a time, vampires were clearly and unrelentingly evil because they could have no souls. That’s why they burned to a crisp under the purifying heat of God’s sunlight, and hated holy water blessed by a priest and were wounded by touching Christ’s symbol, the cross. Twilight-era vampires have none of this angst. They actually sparkle in sunlight as if someone rubbed them all over with a glitterstick. They don’t care about holy water, crosses, sacred ground or any of that. They do drink blood, but many are “good” vampires, feeding only on nonhumans or, in the case of Buffy’s Angel, blood bought or stolen from hospitals and blood banks. Their fangs have receded and their claws have retracted.
It would be too strongly worded to say I am “disturbed” by this shift from vampire-as-killer to vampire-as-lover but let’s say I watch its unfolding with alert interest. I mean, I can’t be the only one who thinks it’s kind of gross, the idea of snuggling with a creature of the night? Anne Rice wrote vividly, I think, about their slightly sickly sweet smell, the smell of rotting flesh, of stale blood after they’ve fed. And the idea of embracing an ice-cold lover doesn’t exactly get me hot and bothered. I’m trying to understand the appeal of the genre (and I realize that I’ve been mainly focusing on vampire romance — there’s much more beyond that, of course.) I have a lot more research to do here — and a lot to understand about the balance of fear and love, power and powerlessness, desire and repulsion.
And just for fun: Buffy vs Edward.