Oh No. Not Twi-Moms.
They’re back. The vampires, I mean. I hear there’s even an American Vampire League devoted to promoting the equality and civil liberties of vampires. No surprise, really. Every generation has its version, though Anne Rice must be having a lit fit over the return of the undead in Stephenie Myers' Twilight series. Rice’s Vampire Chronicles may have been overwrought, her prose purple, but until Twilight and its sequels (and the new tv series “True Blood,” which has the wit to do vampires with a nod and a wink), she had the vampire franchise pretty much to herself. Nor is it surprising that even the most highbrow among us have our lowbrow guilty pleasures. Still, I have to wonder what is so compelling about the books that have seduced otherwise smart adult women into helping to turn these cheesy melodramas made for teen-aged girls into the latest commercial juggernaut. It’s certainly not the prose.
But take one smart, independent, accident prone girl who faints at the sight or scent of blood, yank her out of her warm sunny home town element and plunk her down in a new high school in a dank and murky town she dislikes; add a gorgeous, sensitive, smart but dangerous young man (did I mention that he’s gorgeous?) who finds her beautiful (did I mention that he’s dangerous?), throw in the breathless language of sleazy romances, - his eyes smolder at least once on every page, his voice is like melting honey when it’s not like velvet; his chest is “sculpted, incandescent,” his breath has an “exquisite scent”; she feels “flickers of electricity” when near him - and I can muster a few hunches.
For those of you who are uninitiated and who still have time to reconsider, the series follows the secret love affair between Bella, a “human,” and Edward, a particularly ravishing (is that pun intended?) and ethical vampire who, along with his adopted vampire family, has trained himself to resist the blood of humans and feed only on that of animals. This does not mean that he isn’t dangerously susceptible to Bella’s scent and often on the brink of wanting to bite her. Bella doesn’t care. If a part of him thirsts for her blood, she’ll live with that, however precariously, because she is “unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.” Who wouldn’t be? Did I mention that he’s drop dead gorgeous? I think I did. But I haven’t yet mentioned that he’s irresistibly sensitive to Bella’s needs and feelings, supremely protective of her, (he rescues her from danger at least four times just in book one), and agonizingly passionate. And dangerous. This is all about sex- illicit, desperately longed for and tantalizingly withheld, for if Edward loses control, Bella dies. So part of the books’ lure is that of the cliff-hanger – Will she? Will he? What happens if they do?
But that’s not their only attraction. At one point, Bella tells Edward she wishes she could explain “how very uninterested I was in a normal human life.” A big part of the story’s appeal is that it’s told in the first person by Bella. From page one on, the reader is in her head, identifying with her, feeling her passion for Edward, her alienation from her high school peers, her longing to be taken. She’s always in danger, and so is the reader – but at a just-safe distance. Bella lives in a perpetual state of heightened excitement and, for the time our heads are in the book – so are we.
Do all adolescent girls entertain the fantasy of loving the bad boy, subduing him, discovering his sensitive core? I suspect a lot of them do. A holdover from pre Sex and the City times, when the bad boy could act out all the impulses denied to women, he remains a powerful lure, apparently even for grown-ups. It’s as though now that women have won a hefty supply of adult responsibilities, they fantasize about losing the control they’ve gained, surrendering it back to the guys. In Twilight Edward’s power is paradoxically enhanced and tamed: he may be a fatal attraction, but it’s he who exercises restraint. Talk about safe sex. For adolescent girls, the books are an opportunity explore and indulge. For their mothers, they’re a temporary return to that state of hyper excitation and yearning, the fantasy that something special and even dangerous might yet happen to lift them out of lives that feel ordinary, without any of the real danger that comes from taking personal risks with one’s life. Reliving the tense eroticism of the high school years from a safely comfortable distance has its understandable rewards, but this fantasy comes packaged in a retro-folly of female helplessness and male rescue. Bella is smart and sassy and seems independent – she drives an old pick-up truck she loves and comes and goes from her father’s house pretty much as she pleases – but she’s also pretty helpless, clumsy and accident prone so Edward can always rush in to save her. Bella isn’t making her own life exciting – Edward is doing that for her, leaving her breathless and tingling in the process.
Now, I get that it’s fun getting sucked into a world at once real and not. I get that it’s intoxicating to live temporarily in a fantasy of forbidden passion. I even get that there’s a thrill to be had from indulging in what one knows to be a guilty pleasure. (Ms Myer gets it, too and she knows how to push all the right buttons.) Those of us who are readers like nothing better than to get lost as we surrender to another world, another time and place, intense emotions. Good books deal with themes of longing and loneliness, sexual passion and human frailty, alienation and fear just as the Twilight books do. But they do so by engaging us with complexities of feeling and subtleties of character, expressed in language that rises above banal mediocrity. Their reward is something more than just an escape into banal mediocrity. We deserve something better to get hooked on.