Like so many tropes in Western literature, the popular vampire tale owes its origin to that greatest of English Romantics, the aristocratic rebel, Lord Byron.
While it is generally known that the idea behind Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein
germinated at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland--where Byron, the Shelleys, Claire Clairmont, and Byron's physician, Dr. John Polidori, passed a stormy evening in 1816 by recounting horror stories to one another--it is less commonly known that each
member of this august group resolved to compose a horror yarn of their own. Having learned of the vampire myth during his travels in the East, Byron's contribution was to be a tale of the undead.
Alas, Byron only completed a fragment of his work. However, seizing a golden opportunity, Polidori went ahead and composed his own vampire story, with his ravening creature being a thinly disguised depiction of Byron himself. Called The Vampyre
(1819), Polidori's novella initiated a vogue for nosferatu
lore that culminated in Bram Stoker's masterpiece, Dracula
(For those who are interested, both Byron's fragment and Polidori's complete tale are included in The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories,
a fine genre collection.)* * *
As evidenced by the array of related merchandise at the Torrid site, vampires are currently experiencing a dramatic rebirth. Unlike the majority of modern trends, however, this development is not unwelcome for proponents of the aesthetic restoration.
Most of the renewed popularity of the undead is due to one author, Stephenie Meyer, and her four-part Twilight saga. Her series suffers from many faults, particularly Meyer's resentment of girls who embody the fair-featured, golden-haired feminine ideal, a resentment that expresses itself in catty and puerile ways. Moreover, the fourth volume in the series, in which Bella, the female protagonist, becomes a "Mary Sue" of the worst kind, is an unreadable disaster, and deserves to be consigned to the rubbish heap.
However, in the first three Twilight books, Meyer tells a tale that could markedly enrich the sensibilities of the young women who comprise her fan base.
Twilight is a saga of love from afar, a convincing description of the sensations that one experiences when one in enamoured of someone who is completely out of one's league--someone who is too attractive, too charismatic, too perfect for one ever to have a chance of winning their heart.
The particular element that makes the Twilight series relevant to this forum, however, is identified in the following excerpt from the third book, Eclipse. In this passage, Edward (who is Meyer's Adonis-like vampire and the male lead of the series) has just proposed marriage to Bella, and offers her an ancient family heirloom in the form of an engagement ring.
"I suppose it's a little outdated." His tone was playfully apologetic. "Old-fashioned, just like me. I can get you something more modern. Something from Tiffany's?"
"I like old-fashioned things," I mumbled as I hesitantly lifted the lid.
The entire worth of the series is summed up in that one exchange. Edward, whom the author has designed to be as appealing as possible to young girls, is indisputably and determinedly out of step with the modern world. He is someone from another time, and carries with him many of the values and sensibilities of that past age.* * *
Better still, this old-fashioned quality is precisely what Bella adores about him. Meyer is subtly but persuasively encouraging her young, female readers that when they fall in love, they should choose someone like her elegant male protagonist, with his resolutely unmodern values.
The potential good that this could do for the coming generation is incalculable. Prior to the exchange quote above, Bella had just propositioned Edward sexually, seeking relations out of wedlock. But Edward sticks to his principles, and insists on marrying her first. That's the kind of man--a true gentleman, something unheard-of in this day and age--whom Meyer is prompting young women to love: someone with values and dignity.
Where else, in the modern world, do girls receive such counsel? In fact, where are they not told the exact opposite?
Better still, the fact that Edward is an "old-fashioned" guy, and that Bella cherishes this quality, manifests itself in delightfully politically-incorrect ways. For example, long before they begin their romance, Edward makes a habit of watching Bella from afar, even stealing into her room and observing her sleeping. In our modern age--in which feminism has bred suspicion and enmity between the genders--such behaviour would be deemed "stalking." But in a more civilized era than our own, Edward's actions would have been regarded as the sweet, romantic behaviour of a lovesick suitor, the modern equivalent of Cyrano de Bergerac standing beneath Roxanne's balcony.
Significantly, although she is in some ways a modern girl herself, Bella does not react negatively to Edward's "stalking" when she learns of it. Rather, she appreciates it. She recognizes it as an expression of his genuine adoration of her.
How many potentially great love affairs end prematurely these days because women today have been taught to misinterpret and distrust the ardour of those men who are still true romantics? By introducing this politically incorrect element into the Twilight relationship, Meyer is encouraging young women to see past society's brainwashing, and to appreciate impulsively romantic gestures.
Meyer skillfully capitalizes on the conventions of the vampire genre to promote refreshingly old-fashioned values in other ways as well. For example, nothing is more fulfilling to both men and women than the traditional damsel-in-distress scenario. Although modern society has stigmatized such impulses, every authentic woman longs to be rescued, and every real man aspires to be a rescuer. By configuring her male protagonist as a vampire, and thereby endowing him with superior strength, Meyer has found a way to establish a traditional protector/protected relationship between her male and female characters, and get away with it. If this relationship had been presented "straight," without any trappings of genre, it would never have been accepted by a modern, politically correct publisher. Or if it had, leftist critics would have savaged it. But by presenting Edward as a vampire, Meyer was free to make him physically strong and heroic, giving him traditionally masculine attributes. And by putting her female character in imminent supernatural danger, she was free to make Bella vulnerable and needy, in a quintessentially feminine way. If one were to remove Meyer's nosferatu trappings, one would discover that she has told a refreshingly traditional tale of a knight protecting a damsel in distress.
It is a great blessing for young women to experience such a story, both as a fulfillment of their natural fantasies, and as a validation of their subconscious inclinations towards such relationships. After reading Meyer's books, young women will no longer feel ashamed of sinking into their boyfriends' arms, of longing to be protected, of wanting to feel safe, of requiring their partners to behave like men who are willing to defend their honour, and take care of them. They will no longer feel obliged to follow an artificial feminist script, but will feel empowered to be traditionally feminine. They will not view being "old-fashioned" as a negative, but as a positive.
Interestingly, despite the popular belief that Twilight is a "girls' story," many male readers enjoy it as well. This is not surprising. The way in which Bella loves Edward--which involves her dwelling endlessly on his "beauty," and gushing over the effect that his beauty has upon her--is actually representative of the way in which men love gorgeous women. Men are very visually oriented, and fall in love primarily because of the physical appearance of the girls whom they adore. Men idealize their significant others based on looks far more than girls do. Even the word that Bella repeatedly uses to describe Edward--"beautiful"--is properly a term applied to attractive women, not to men (the equivalent adjective for men being "handsome").
Therefore, male readers easily transpose genders when reading Meyer's novels, and relate Bella's impulses to the way in which they themselves have pined over unattainable goddesses. On the one hand, they relate to Bella's longing for an unattainable physical ideal, and on the other, they identify with Edward in his protector role (especially when the unworthy, primitive, rival suitor, the werewolf, enters the picture).
The other recently penned saga that is currently popularizing the nosferatu genre is The Vampire Diaries, written by L.J. Smith. It too comprises four volumes, of which only the first three are readable. Most of its fame is due to the CW network's eponymous television series--which actually has nothing in common with the books, other than its name.
In some ways, The Vampire Diaries novels are limited by their Young Adult genre origins. No one should be expecting Dostoevsky here, nor even Stoker. However, one single element makes Smith's books worthwhile, and that is the lead female character, Elena Gilbert, who is one of the most unique and exciting characters in popular fiction.
Elena is, in many ways, a female equivalent of Meyer's Edward--a mortal goddess whose beauty turns every man who looks upon her into a lovesick admirer, a male version of Bella.
Elena's appearance is described thus:
That pale golden hair, so fair it almost seemed to shimmer. The creamy skin, which had always made him think of swans, or alabaster, flushing faintly pink over the cheekbones. And the eyes . . . a colour he had never seen before; darker than sky blue, as rich as the lapis lazuli in her jeweled headband.
Apart from the fact that she is not plus-size, Elena possesses every trait of timeless beauty. Furthermore, she is the most popular girl in school, the one whose boyfriend is the captain of the football team. She is the girl whom every guy wants, and whom every other girl wants to be. She is, in short, the kind of character who is never allowed to be the heroine in American popular culture. In countless books and movies, such girls--the prom-princess, head-cheerleader types--are depicted as the antagonists of tomboyish, shrewd, politically correct heroines. Invariably, the Elenas of American high-school culture are depicted as villainesses who get their "comeuppance," without even a single chivalrous male rising up to defend them.
The reasons for this are myriad. Racism plays a major part, and one can easily see in the ritual dethroning of these blonde "queen bees" an analogy to the displacement of American's fallen Anglo-Saxon elite. ("Victors' justice," one might call it.) But undoubtedly the trope exists largely because it gives female authors, whose tomboyish brunettes are their literary stand-ins, the chance to avenge themselves on the blonde princesses whom they envied and resented in high school.
(Rosalie, in the Twilight saga, is a classic example of an unattainable, beautiful blonde who is made to "lose" to the author's Mary Sue stand-in, the brunette Bella.)
It is worth noting that this character type existed in English literature long before it appeared in America. Otherwise fine authors such as Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot are not above creating gorgeous blonde antagonists for their surrogate brunette protagonists to dethrone, testifying to these authors' all-too-human failings.
But in The Vampire Diaries, for once, this type of character is allowed to be the heroine. This is a wonderfully refreshing change, almost Nietzschean in its revalution of common values. The only caveat to Smith's boldness is that as the series progresses, she makes her blonde heroine more conventionally moral, thus depriving Elena of her more transgressive qualities. But the Elena of the first book is a revelation.
A Nietzschean perspective is genuinely warranted here, incidentally, because what makes Elena such a revolutionary character is not only her superlative beauty, but also her consciousness of her own allure:
In that instant, Elena was aware that she was beautiful. It wasn't just the dress, or the way her hair was done. She was beautiful in herself: imperial, a thing made of silk and inner fire.
She has the vain awareness of her own beauty that the greatest plus-size models display in their images:
She knew, suddenly, what she must look like to him, pale hair spilling over the blackness of the cape, one white hand holding the velvet closed at her throat: a ravaged princess pacing in her tower.
Most daring of all is the following passage, in which Elena permits herself an exciting thought that all true goddesses secretly entertain (and that all men and women subconsciously know to be true):
But then she remembered something else, just a flash: looking up at Damon's face in the woods and feeling such--such excitement, such affinity with him. As if he understood the flame that burned inside her as nobody else ever could. As if together they could do anything they liked, conquer the world or destroy it; as if they were better than anyone else who had ever lived.
On some level, Elena realizes that she exists on a higher plane than those around her, because of her superhuman beauty and passion. She considers herself better than the common run of humanity--and she is absolutely right.
The author herself encourages such superlatives. At one point in the book, someone who gazes upon Elena after she is dressed for a school dance is dumbfounded by her attractiveness, and expresses his admiration in almost poetic terms:
Robert was looking at Elena, too. He blinked, opened his mouth, and closed it again.
"What's the matter, Bob?"
"Oh." He looked at Aunt Judith, seeming embarrassed. "Well, actually, it just occurred to me that Elena is a form of the name Helen. And for some reason I was thinking of Helen of Troy."
Elena's beauty has epic connotations--literally. Elena's blonde beauty matches the traditional appearance of Helen, whose fair features are a part of her legend. And just as Helen's beauty prompted two nations to go to war for her, so Elena's beauty incites mortal combat between the two principal male characters of the series (two brothers), in a conflict that has an undeniable grandeur about it. Elena is as close to an epic princess as the author could conceive, given the limitations of the teen genre for which the books were developed.* * *
Incidentally, one of those brothers, named Stefan, shares many qualities in common with Twilight's lead vampire. Like Edward, Stefan has old-fashioned values, elegant turns of phrase, and he too is allowed to save his beloved from harm when Elena finds herself imperilled, in a classic damsel-in-distress moment. Also, the scene describing Elena and Stefan's initial kiss is passionately described, especially for a work of teen fiction, and is actually far more provocative than anything in the Twilight series.
Sadly, the Elena of the Vampire Diaries television series has nothing in common with the Elena of the books, neither looks-wise nor personality-wise. Instead of a transgressive, exciting blonde goddess, the show presents her as a dull, mousy, politically correct brunette. In typical fashion, Hollywood neutered a character who was a thoroughgoing challenge to its slave morality, and made her tediously conventional.
Anne Rice, who is as qualified as anyone to comment about this genre, recently had this to say of Twilight. She noted that the books reflect
the deep desire of young women to have the mystery and protection and wisdom of older men. I think many girls mature much earlier than boys, and they are frustrated when they approach young boys for love or protection. Hence the fantasy of a wise and protective vampire coming into the life of a young girl who, of course, appreciates him in a special way.
In one sense, these latter-day vampire stories are literary analogies for May-December romances between distinguished gentlemen and young women. But more importantly, they subtly advance the idea that Old World sensibilities have a tremendous appeal, and are far superior to the degenerate values of the modern age. The books quietly encourage their young female readers not to reject suitors with old souls (whatever their chronological age may be), but to give them real consideration, for with them they will find love and respect of a kind that they would never experience with more modern types.
No, these young adult novels do not qualify as great literature. Far from it. Would we rather see today's youth reading Stoker? Certainly. But here's the thing--they aren't reading Stoker. They are, however, reading Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, and there is at least a chance that these books will introduce today's youth to forbidden, old-fashioned ways of thinking.
Albert-Joseph Pénot, Bat-woman, c.1890:
- An authentically great vampire novel . . .