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Love at first bite

A series about a romance with a tall, dark, handsome and deadly stranger is a hit with sexually curious adolescents


 

The genesis of Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling series of teen vampire novels, now metamorphosing into a pop culture phenomenon that approaches — however distantly — J.K. Rowling territory, lies in a dream. A teenage couple are alone in a forest glade, she an average girl, he a creature of unearthly beauty, literally sparkling in the sunlight. Each the other’s world entire (to borrow a phrase from Cormac McCarthy), they are intently discussing two colliding facts: they have fallen passionately in love and he, a vampire, can barely restrain himself from eating her, an ordinary mortal, right there and then.

Meyer’s dream has become as iconic an image among her fans as the myth of welfare mom Rowling, madly scribbling away in an Edinburgh café, baby on lap, is among hers. What the Scottish author eventually wrought is known the world over: Harry Potter, all 350 million copies sold and five (so far) blockbuster movies. Meyer’s saga of her star-crossed but chaste lovers, Bella Swan and Edward Cullen — three fat novels (Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse) with 5.5 million copies sold, a fourth volume (Breaking Dawn) set for release on Aug. 2, and an eagerly anticipated film version of Twilight due in the fall — is already getting the Rowling treatment from publishers, booksellers and fans.

When Meyer gives a book reading, lineups of 2,000 or more teen girls, many dressed as vampires, are the standard. Publisher Little, Brown and Co. (distributed by H.B. Fenn in Canada) won’t be providing reviewers with advance copies of Breaking Dawn. As with a Potter novel, all 3.4 million North American copies will go on sale at once, at midnight on the release date. And many bookshops, including the larger Indigo stores, will stay open and hold Twilight-themed parties for the occasion. (But not even Rowling, a marketing master, hit on the ingenious idea of re-issuing past volumes with a poster, stickers, and the first chapter of the longed-for next volume, as Meyer has done with Eclipse and Breaking Dawn.) High as Harry Potter set the bar, Meyer’s creation is the closest thing to the boy wizard’s successor to appear yet.

The passionate, Brontë -esque romance of Bella and Edward — with its hint of a love triangle, courtesy of Bella’s good friend Jacob Black, a Native American who’s also a werewolf — is an unlikely heir to Harry’s throne. Vampire stories are almost too popular for any one of them to stick out from the herd. Enter “vampire” into Amazon.com’s search function and an astonishing 44,000 titles will appear. Among the teen fiction titles, one genre stands dominant: romance with a tall, dark, handsome and deadly stranger, otherwise known as “chick lit with fangs.”

Teen vampire chick lit mixes romance, horror, and comedy (not to mention shopping) in ratios that fluctuate as wildly as the configurations of heroine and love interest. The more the story is played for laughs, the more likely the protagonist is to be a vampire herself. In Sucks to Be Me: The All-True Confessions of Mina Hamilton, Teen Vampire (maybe) by Kimberly Pauley (August release), poor Mina is the bloodsucker equivalent of the non-magical squibs in Harry Potter. As the embarrassingly human daughter of vampires, she has to attend vampire remedial school, as well as juggle the everyday concerns of boys, friends and proms. In more adventure-orientated tales, like High School Bites by Liza Conrad (2006), the heroine can be a Buffy-level vampire slayer.

Most often, though, like Bella, she’s an innocent abroad, inexorably sucked into something that will magically transform her (generally) unhappy and isolated existence. Or kill her. Her beloved, of course, is virtually always a vampire; when he isn’t, she is: the romance has to cross the great divide, or where’s the thrill of it? In VAMPS — that would be Vampire American Princesses — a new series by Nancy Collins (July), the title characters are the designer-draped teen daughters of New York City’s vampire lords, Mean Girls types with blood fetishes. They practically rule Manhattan, sipping flutes of “chilled A-neg” at exclusive clubs, and occasionally slumming in the parks, draining dry the city’s homeless population. Until, that is, poor-girl heroine Cally Monture — half human, half vampire — shows up at their exclusive vampire high school. A vampire prince is drawn to Cally, as is a descendent of Abraham Van Helsing, Bram Stoker’s original Dracula hunter: as a half-blood (literally), she has romantic entanglements across the species divide in both directions.

Fictional vampires can be as evil as centuries of folk tradition made them: few teen girls would want the sort of vampire-human relationships on offer in Rachel Caine’s Morganville series, which saw its fourth volume appear in June; there, the undead brutally run a small Texas town, and any mortal who doesn’t swear allegiance is liable to become a midnight snack. Or vampires can be good. In the Twilight series, the Cullen family, who jokingly call themselves “vegetarians,” have sworn off human flesh for ethical reasons and subsist on animals. (Edward has a taste for mountain lions.) In general, though, the undead are just like the living: a mixed lot morally. After all, there have to be bad vampires about if the hero is to have someone to guard his girl against.

Vampiric powers are just as variable. In an era of declining religious faith, crucifixes and holy water are nowhere near as efficacious against them as they once were. Contemporary authors tend to pick and choose the undead’s attributes, sometimes offering explanations. In VAMPS, the teenage princesses safely swan about town at all hours, shopping by day and killing by night, because they don’t lose their immunity to sunlight, or their image in mirrors, until they are fully mature, at age 25. Then there is the fact that Meyer’s vampires have no fangs, which would mar their handsome features. She provides no explanation for that, nor — since killings occur off-page — any description of how they manage to eat. (Given what Bella overhears at one point — a shriek, followed by horrible crunching noises — they may make up for their lack of fangs with extra-strength molars.) Meyer’s most innovative touch, even if it was virtually forced on her by that dream of Edward glittering in the sunlight, was to have her vampires avoid the daytime not because it destroys them, but because it reveals them for the heart-stoppingly beautiful creatures they are.

But two centuries of literary tradition exert a continuing hold on these books. Vampires solidly remain figures of nocturnal terror and allure, bearing the marks of their genre’s birth almost two centuries ago on what was then a darkened planet. In 1816, the famous Year Without a Summer, ash from an Indonesian volcano clogged the atmosphere, blocking the sun’s rays and bringing about the last great natural subsistence crisis in Western history. In North America, ice choked rivers in July as far south as Pennsylvania. And in frozen Switzerland, while thousands were dying of starvation, the notorious English poet Lord Byron and his circle spent much of June huddled around the fire in a château on Lake Geneva. Bored and high on laudanum, the poet urged his companions to compose ghost stories in the Gothic mode. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein may be the most famous tale to have emerged, but it was The Vampyre, by Byron’s physician John Polidori, that proved the most influential.

Polidori’s short story (in which the undead protagonist was closely modelled on the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” Byron) was an enormous hit, spawning a vampire craze that worked itself into unlikely cultural and literary nooks. In Wuthering Heights — the main template for Twilight, with Romeo and Juliet not far behind — Heathcliff’s housekeeper suspects her master of being a vampire. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) later tied the vampire story tightly to themes of sex, blood, death and aristocratic glamour. That didn’t change much in the last century, even as Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, with a strong assist from Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Angel, completed the transformation of the undead (at least some of them, some of the time) from repulsive incarnations of evil into tragic, beautiful and conscience-stricken figures.

It’s all so blatantly sexual — from the draining of bodily fluid to the visitation by night to the crucial fact you have to invite them in — that the migration of vampire fiction from erotic-tinged horror to erotic romance was inevitable. Vampires have outsized appetites to match their outsized powers, and that’s the way we like them. At the same time, no appetite obsesses us, morally and emotionally, like sex. It’s no accident that vampire literature flourishes in times of sexual repression (Victorian Britain) and fear; in 1992, nary a review of Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula failed to stress the theme of the dangers of sex (especially with strangers) in the age of AIDS. Nor is it a surprise that the genre exerts a particular pull on the most sexually hesitant and curious among us: adolescents.

Paradoxically, it’s the sex saturation itself that makes the teen books such safe, even old-fashioned, fantasies. A vampire story is the very definition of sublimation. On its own, the eternally attractive theme of the powerful (and devastatingly attractive) male figure who loves the less than perfect girl just as she is and promises to protect her from all evil, even while offering her more than a hint of danger — read sex as well as death — is more than enough to pull in teen girls. It’s even possible to write a vampire-friendly Christian romance, which is what Meyer has done, and in the same low-key way that Rowling, a Church of Scotland member, suffused Harry Potter’s world — where no one goes to church — with Christian themes of sacrifice and atonement.

Meyer is a practising Mormon, though religious doctrine never arises above the surface of her books, coming closest in a single paragraph, when Edward and Bella briefly discuss the origins of vampires, in the same way people debate the origin of humanity: creation versus evolution. Edward, the supposedly soulless immortal, probably speaks for Meyer when he says he sees evidence of intelligent design all around him, and that “the same force that created the baby seal and the killer whale” also made vampires and their human prey. Morally and behaviourally, he’s a functioning Christian too. Not needing sleep himself, he spends his nights watching over Bella like a guardian angel, keeping her safe. Whatever his desires, Edward will not, uh, bite Bella until after their (possible) wedding. Naturally, her parents don’t have a clue about any of this, but really: aside from the fact their prospective son-in-law eats cougars for dinner, may yet turn their daughter into a soulless creature of the night, and is — technically speaking — dead, could they ask for a better, more caring, husband for her?

When Meyer awoke from that famous dream, on the morning of June 2, 2003, she was a 29-year-old English lit grad and would-be writer, living in Phoenix with her husband and three young sons. So vividly did she recall it that she ignored the household chaos of getting her boys ready for their first swim lessons and typed a transcript. From then on Meyer didn’t miss a day writing down the ongoing conversation of Bella and Edward, whose voices kept echoing in her head. She went onward from the meadow scene — which became chapter 13 of Twilight — and then turned to the harder task of writing up to that point, driving the last spike into her 500-page continental railway of a book in August, just three months later.

Meyer is as besotted with her characters as they are with one another. She’s in love with Edward, as she cheerfully confesses on her website, and she is Bella. Meyer tends to explain odd circumstances in Bella’s life with references to her own experiences. That’s non-vampire circumstances: the website also contains a question from one fan — “Is Twilight autobiographical?” — and Meyer’s flat answer: “No. Twilight is a work of fiction.” (The author actually has a nice touch in humour, deadpan or otherwise, at least when she remembers to slow down and take a breath. When Bella and Edward are not being intense — an admittedly rare occurrence — they can joke. After they arrive at their small-town high-school prom, and Bella takes in the Carrie-like decorations, she whispers to Edward, “Do you want me to bolt the doors so you can massacre the unsuspecting townsfolk?”)

Fans couldn’t care less that Meyer doesn’t provide much of an origin for Edward and his kind: where he comes from is far less important than the fact he simply is. And that Bella, too, accepts with remarkable ease. Very early on she adds up what she knows about Edward — beautiful beyond mortal ken, outrageously fast and strong, cold to the touch — and concludes, without trace of cognitive dissonance: must be a vampire. Nor do readers care that the adventure aspects of the plot, where Bella barely escapes death at the hands of less kindly disposed supernatural creatures, often have an add-on feel, rather than seeming integral to the story. (Throughout the series, every bloodsucker who encounters Bella wants to consume her. For those who have the senses to detect it, Bella’s blood carries an aroma like the bouquet of a fine wine. It “sings,” in vampire-speak, and Bella may be the first literary heroine to achieve that status not by her character or beauty, but because she literally smells delicious.)

None of that matters to her readers, or should it, for that matter. What they obsess over is precisely what separates this vampire story from any other: the beyond-intense, Catherine-and-Heathcliff romance between Bella and Edward. When her story is focused on the lovers, Meyer’s prose, as one critic put it, “floods the page like a severed artery.” Bella swoons, her heart pounds and stops but never merely beats, Edward wants to eat her, he wants to hug her, they argue, they come back together to learn their fight was all a mistake rooted in their profound love and worry for one another, Edward leaves Bella for her own safety, both become zombie-like and suicidal in their grief, they come back together, it’s even better than before, then there’s another misunderstanding . . . and it all happens at such a pace that a reader barely has time to start a “wait a minute, if one of you would only explain” thought.

Readers don’t have to be adolescent girls who have difficulty distinguishing between reality and histrionic self-absorption (however much that might help) to find Bella’s world as addictive as crack cocaine. In short, vampires are to Meyer’s achievement as magic is to Rowling’s: surface dazzle. It’s what’s underneath, the age-old crises of growing up, of trying to grasp who am I and what do I have to offer, that hook readers and make them want to live in the authors’ imaginary worlds.

Tying it all together is Meyer’s overriding theme, as important to her series as Rowling’s concept of self-sacrificing love as the ultimate power in the universe is to the Potter novels. In Meyer’s series it can be summed up in one word, symbolized by the apple of Genesis depicted on Twilight’s cover: choice. Vampire or human (or werewolf), even when matters seem out of their control, Meyer stresses that her characters’ fates are in their own hands. Bella has to choose humanity or immortality, Edward must decide between love and yielding to his deepest urges. Three volumes later, the big issues remain unresolved. With the end nowhere in sight, and her beguiling combination of adventure, comedy and the highest of high romance as potent as ever, the reach of Stephenie Meyer’s world may yet rival J.K. Rowling’s.


 

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