Over the past 20 years there has been a fascinating trend in vampire fiction. Ever since Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles crystallized the sub-genre, there has been a steady and seemingly inexorable trend towards systematically stripping vampires of their traditional weaknesses: Garlic and running water were the first to vanish, but holy symbols were quick to follow. It wasn’t long before they were able to cast reflections and even sunlight was downgraded from an instant sentence of death to a minor inconvenience before eventually being phased out entirely. Murderous, bloodthirsty beasts? Not so much. I mean, sure, they might get peckish once in awhile, but even that hunger is easily sated by a visit to the local blood bank or sucking a few rats dry.
The root for the trend was obvious: Vampires are alluring. They have the handsome, civilized polish of Mr. Darcy with a dark edge of bad boy danger. And this appeal moved them steadily from them villains to anti-heroes to heroes and, from there, to romantic leads. The result may be a rather bland creation with only the faintest glimmerings of moral and ethical complexity that was once inherent to the vampire mythos (the typical vampire these days has all the moral conflict of Superman eating a Big Mac), but the motivation was also crystal clear.
What’s interesting in reading Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight is seeing what is, in retrospect, the perfectly logical progression of the trend: Having systematically stripped vampires of their weaknesses, the genre had no choice but to start giving them new bling.
And thus we end up with vampires who literally sparkle in sunlight while being gifted with various assortments of psychic powers.
Okay, quick concept summary for the three people who have no idea what the Twilight Saga is: Isabella Feyfucker moves from the sunny world of Phoenix, AZ to the cold, rainy climes of a small town in the Pacific Northwest. Once there, she becomes the romantic center of attraction for every paranormal male in a 500-mile radius. Particularly Edward Cullen (a vegetarian vampire) and Jacob (a werewolf).
Stephanie Meyer makes it very easy to dismiss her work as that of a talent-less hack. Her prose is crude. Her plotting is uneven and often nonsensical. Her world-building is simplistic and inconsistent. In short,her books simply exude a sense of either carelessness or incompetence or both.
For example, in New Moon Meyer very specifically establishes that it’s the latter half of February (within one or two weeks of Valentine’s Day). Bella wants to sneak out of the house to go hiking and she’s excited when she discovers that her father is planning to go ice-fishing on the river. So far, everything tracks. But when she reaches the woods:
The forest was full of life today, all the little creatures enjoying the momentary dryness. Somehow, though, even with the birds chirping and cawing, the insects buzzing noisily around my head, and the occasional scurry of the field mice through the shrubs, the forest seemed creepier today…
Well, of course it seems creepier! You’ve left your father ice-fishing in the middle of winter and entered some sort of Twilight Zone Narnia featuring eternal summer!
A few paragraphs later Meyer has added “chest-high ferns” (a well-known winter growth) and a “bubbling stream” (which has inexplicably failed to join the river in freezing over) just to maximize the surrealism of the scene.
In the big picture, this continuity gaffe is of relatively minor importance. But Meyer strews this stuff all over her apparently unrevised, unedited, and unread manuscript. And it’s not just the minor stuff, either. Major plot points often fall prey to the same traps.
It was particularly interesting to watch the Twilight movie after reading the books: Meyer’s fanbase screamed bloody murder about a number of minor changes which had “ruined the movie”, but ironically these changes almost universally fixed the fundamental flaws in Meyer’s novel.
For example, in the novel Meyer gets about four-fifths of the way through the book before suddenly realizing that she doesn’t have an ending. To “solve” this problem she has three vampires show up out of nowhere. One of them decides to harass Bella just ’cause he can, Edward kills him, and… that’s it. End of novel. These vampires have no connection to the rest of the narrative, but apparently because there’s a fight the story can be over.
The film doesn’t change much: It just adds a couple of extra scenes in the first three-quarters of the movie to establish these evil vampires as a persistent background threat. But the result is a narrative which actually holds together instead of falling apart.
The film is also remarkably successful in turning Bella’s classmates — who are uniformly bland, forgettable cardboard in Meyer’s novels (to the degree that they quietly fade away in the sequels) — into quirky, memorable characters.
I bring this up only to demonstrate how little effort (or skill) it would take on Meyer’s part to fix many of the most egregious flaws in these novels.
THE SILVER LINING
Because Meyer is not, in fact, a talent-less hack. To the contrary: She has one particularly exceptional talent that I feel fairly safe in saying is the reason she’s now a multi-millionaire and her books have become cultural icons.
While Meyer’s secondary characters are nothing more than interchangeable cardboard, Meyer’s handling of her central cast of characters is adept. I would even describe it as gifted. Bella, Edward, and Jacob leap off the page. They breathe. They live.
Are they foolish? Unstable? Irrational?
Absolutely. And it’s easy to make fun of them for that. But there are plenty of foolish, unstable, and irrational people in the real world. Meyer simply captures them in narrative form and then, through the application of the supernatural, she adoitly elevates these all-too-human characters into a mythical plane.
Are those supernatural elements nothing more than a cliched reworking of the vampire-and-werewolf cultural gestalt created by White Wolf’s World of Darkness? Sure. But it doesn’t matter. The mythic elements of Meyer’s milieu don’t need to be particularly original in order to heighten the reality of her characters.
So, basically, you have the powerful alchemy of teen romance with the dial cranked up to 11. That, by itself, is basically paint-by-numbers. What can’t be trivially duplicated is the potent reality of Meyer’s characters. With that added to the mix, the result is explosive.
It’s a pity that this gemstone is mired in the muck of Meyer’s weakness as a writer, but the jewel itself glitters no less brightly. And it’s not surprising to me that these books were able to capture the imagination of a generation of teenage girls.
THE DEEPER PROBLEMS
There has always been something vaguely disturbing in the sub-genre of vampire romances: Holding up the “dangerous man that I can change through the power of love” as some sort of romantic ideal is certainly a popular trope, but not a healthy one. On the other hand, while Meyer doesn’t precisely deal with these issues, she does manage to avoid some of the thornier patches of the sub-genre.
But where the series gets particularly creepy are the sequels. In New Moon, Edward suddenly embraces hardcore emotional abuse as his modus operandi. And then, in Eclipse — as if Meyer were checking off abusive relationships on a To Do list — Edward goes for full-on stalker. Whether it’s literally disabling Bella’s car so that she can’t go where she wants to go or the constant variants of “I only hurt you because I love you, baby” that he mouths, the warning sirens were screaming.
As if to emphasize Edward as a co-dependent, abusive stalker, Meyer simultaneously establishes a second love interest in the werewolf Jacob. Jacob is everything Edward isn’t: Emotionally available. Stable. Supportive. And, thus, completely rejected by Bella as anything more than a good friend (who she can’t see because her jealous boyfriend forbids it).
In Breaking Dawn, the abusive nature of the relationship drains away. But while it made for a more enjoyable reading experience, in retrospect it’s equally creepy: The subtext appears to be that marriage is a magical cure-all. Having problems with an abusive boyfriend? Get married and he’ll start treating you better!
Ironically, Meyer’s strengths as an author only serve to make the Edward-Bella relationship even creepier. She writes Bella with an absolute truthfulness, detail, and depth that seems to fully capture the psychological mire of someone caught in an abusive relationship. In other circumstances, one could hold this up as a literary triumph. But the narrative never presents itself as a the gut-wrenching tale of a girl trapped in a co-dependent tragedy. Meyer is writing a self-destructive horror story, but she thinks she’s writing about exemplary True Love. It’s sad, disturbing, and rather disgusting.
NEW MOON: C
BREAKING DAWN: B-
Published: 2005 / 2006/ 2007 / 2008
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Cover Price: $10.99
ISBN: 0316038377 / 0316075655 / 031608736X / 031606792X