Last week a friend lent me a copy of Twilight, swearing up and down that I would love it – she never buys hardbacks but made an exception for this, so she really thinks highly of it. I’d heard of the Twilight series before but until I looked the books up on Amazon I hadn’t realized what a phenomenon they were; since the author is a Mormon BYU grad I had thought her popularity was more local. But apparently, girls across the continent are fighting over first rights to Edward Cullen, brooding, conflicted vampire hero who’s in love with a high school girl approximately 1/6th his age. Now, where have I heard a story like that before?
Actually, I didn’t think that the storyline was a particular weakness of the novel; I won’t be buying it in hardback any time soon, but it’s not because of the “brooding vampire falls for cute human” storyline. It’s more that I found the prose to be very flat and Edward a very bland hero – the constant descriptions of how gorgeous and godlike he was, while very teenage-girlish, really got in the way of discerning anything about his character other than that he is (a) in love with the heroine because, mysteriously, he cannot read her mind the way he can with everyone else and (b) conflicted about this because although he tries only to feed off of animals, he’s still mad, bad and dangerous to know. Even (b) might not have been such an issue if he hadn’t been in love with the girl for characteristics which were all utterly beyond her control. Oddly, as sometimes happens in overly souped-up teenage romances, the secondary characters were much more lively and interesting than the leads.
Of course, Edward and Bella aren’t the first such couple to angst their way into mass popularity. It was impossible to read Edward’s agonizing about how very, very bad he is for her without thinking of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and of course Angel. They have the same problems with making long-term plans: what about the fact that she ages and he doesn’t? What about children? What about the possibility that one day he’ll turn evil and use his beloved as a human juice box? One question, though, is treated very differently: in Twilight, Bella keeps asking Edward to “turn” her so they can be together forever. In Buffy, this idea is presented as the sort of thing that only hippy-dippy space cadets who romanticize vampires as “The Lonely Ones” would ever contemplate. Of course, Buffyverse vampires are inherently evil unless their souls are deliberately and (one would assume) painfully restored; Twilight vampires are presented as having more of a choice in the matter, though naturally inclined towards evil. (They also glitter unnaturally in direct sunlight instead of bursting into flames, which I thought was a nifty twist, actually).
Vampire erotica has been around for a long, long time and the subset of sexy vampire meets high school girl has also been going strong for a while (anyone remember L.J. Smith’s Vampire Diaries? They’re still selling). Vampires have come a good way from their early manifestations, which were as distinctly unsexy staggering corpses who were occasionally dug up and spiked through the heart to prevent their doing further mischief to whatever village they had the bad luck to be buried in. Anyone who’s been through the literary analysis grinder will probably think of a number of applicable analogies in the new, improved vampire stories at once – the symbolism of a girl’s first love drawing blood from her isn’t hard to miss, and there are a lot of others which I’ll leave to the people who need thesis material more than I do. But I think part of the appeal is simply the fact that these vampires are living their life after death. It’s when people are leaving childhood that the idea that they can and inevitably will die begins to seem real. To acquire a lover who has, albeit at a high cost, overcome death and has outlasted centuries – it’s like a sign of hope. To become immortal oneself might seem too frightening and too lonely; very few people in fiction choose immortality voluntarily (like the heroine of Tuck Everlasting, they may flirt with the idea but eventually decide that it’s better to live a normal lifespan than to outlive all their family and have to endure on through who knows how many years). But to be in love with someone who is both lets you remain as you are but gives you proof that a life after death (in however twisted a form) is a real possibility – there’s a lot there that’s appealing, though I doubt that’s what the Mormon church is thinking of when it says that “Families can be together forever.”
As for Edward and Bella, I’m a little sorry not to have seen the appeal there that my friend did; I feel a bit like the people who were left cold by Harry Potter: “What, this is IT?” But …I’m still reading the next volume. And probably the one after that, and after that, and however long the series goes, because I am, if you’ll forgive the term, a complete sucker for this kind of plot. Flat characterizations, annoying descriptions – they don’t bother me enough that I’m willing to forgo finding out whether she will or she won’t.
-posted by sonetka