twilight of the vampires

For the Old Mole December 22, 2008.

If there are any pubescent girls in your familiar circles, you may already know about Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series of young adult novels. The first of the four books was a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into 20 languages. The film version is currently playing to large audiences, and the next film in the series is scheduled to appear next year.

The story's heroine and narrator is teenager Bella Swan, who falls hard for her mysterious classmate Edward Cullen. Edward and his foster family are vampires, but they think of themselves as vegetarians, because they eat only the blood of animals, not humans. Still, Edward cautions Bella that he's "the world's most dangerous predator" and is powerfully tempted to drink her blood. Kissing her might mean losing control and devouring her in a more than metaphorical sense. But Edward remains a gentleman, as they say, and their relationship remains chaste—apparently all the way until book four when they marry and Bella becomes a vampire, too.

The series has been criticized for its single-minded earnestness, its lack of the ironic flair of, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as for its embodiment of Meyer's conservative Mormon values, for Bella's masochistic devotion to the predatory male, for her damsel-in-distress need for repeated rescuing.

In none of these motifs is Twilight unique, of course. Sadomasochistic desire, at least, is often part of vampire romance, a genre that has grown popular enough to win its own shelf space in bookstores. Even Laurel Hamilton's novels about vampire hunter Anita Blake and Robin McKinley's novel Sunshine tap into similar—you should excuse the expression—veins. Meyer's version is distinct, perhaps, in its devotion to premarital abstinence, and in the clarity with which it preserves all sorts of boundaries.

But certainly it participates in a wider cultural shift in vampire stories. Traditionally, the vampire was, among other things, a figure for a theologically-inflected morality of sexuality as damnation. In the paradigmatic vampire text, Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, the undead, evil vampire seduces more-or-less innocent victims, violating bodily boundaries in erotically-charged imagery of licking, kissing, and, of course, biting and sucking.

But Dracula was also repulsive. Hair grew on his palms. He smelled bad. In contrast, Edward—like Buffy's vampire boyfriends Angel and Spike, not to mention any number of Ann Rice characters—is utterly alluring (though I believe Meyer is the only one to make her vampire hero actually sparkle in the sunlight instead of bursting into flame).

For Milly Williamson, author of The Lure of the Vampire: Gender, Fiction and Fandom from Bram Stoker to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the changing cultural depictions of vampires reveal wider social shifts, and she attributes the embrace of the vampire to the post-1960s counterculture embrace of the outsider. In this light, Brendan O'Neill of the BBC suggests that Twilight constitutes the "ultimate mainstreaming of "'outsider status.'"

But perhaps it's also simply the mainstreaming of sex, part of the later twentieth-century celebration of embracing one’s desire as positive and libratory—not a losing of one’s soul but a finding of one’s identity—that helps account for the transgressive and subversive aspects of vampirism becoming part of the vampire’s appeal. The appeal of sexuality is not lost on contemporary Christianity, even in its right-wing forms. As Cynthia Burack noted in an interview this fall with Old Mole Jan Haaken, the Christian Right has come to celebrate female sexuality, as long as it remains confined within heterosexual marriage.

But Twilight isn't only about traditionally hierarchical and wholesomely sadomasochistic heterosexuality. Another old association with vampirism has to do with class. Karl Marx often used the vampire as a figure for capital—"dead labour which, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” From the aristocratic Count to the professional-class Angel, vampires tend to have long unlives in which to accumulate wealth.

It shouldn't be surprising that in a capitalist society girls might measure the worthiness of the suitor to whom they will submit the jewel of their chastity according to what he offers in class status as well as devotion; nor should it be surprising if in the United States such class status has also a racial dimension. Jake Wilson, writing in the Melbourne, Australia periodical The Age notes that

Both as novel and film, Twilight has less to do with horror than it does with the romance - described by the literary theorist Northrop Frye as an "aristocratic form", which concentrates on characters more free than ourselves, while accepting pity and fear as forms of pleasure.

In fact the vampire mythos is used by Meyer as a cover for more than one sort of fantasy. The snob appeal of the wealthy, decadent Cullen clan is obvious, but race is also a big, weird deal here. "Aren't people from Arizona meant to be really tan?" someone asks the pale-faced Bella on her first day at school. "Yeah," she shoots back, "maybe that's why they kicked me out."

The Cullens are even whiter. The pancake make-up on the actors has been applied with a trowel, while the less glamorous human characters include Bella's Native American . . . friend Jacob, and a dorky boy of Asian heritage who writes for the school paper.

But readers don't have to settle for white, or even male, vampire protagonists. In her novel The Gilda Stories, available at the Multnomah County Library, Jewelle Gomez transforms several dimensions of the earlier vampire paradigm. Where the villain Dracula is a white male aristocrat, the heroine and title character of Gomez’s novel begins her story as a black female slave. Where Stoker’s vision of vampirism stresses the languid sickliness of the vampire’s victim, the perversity of same-sex desires, and the danger of the border crossings represented by the vampire (boundaries of life, race, and nation as well as sex), the vampires in The Gilda Stories, in contrast, offer healing to those they bite, and form loving same-sex pair bonds and multicultural, multiracial families with other vampires.

Similarly, Octavia Butler's last novel, Fledgling, features a black female vampire protagonist, and presents same-sex, interracial, and even inter-generational relations between vampires and humans in naturalistic terms, without endorsing a supernatural or romantic framework. In Fledgling, vampires are not undead humans but another species. They reproduce sexually with each other, but their daily relationships are with their symbionts, the humans who provide their food source. In what's described as a kind of "group marriage," the human symbionts gain extended youthfulness and vigor, and indeed a lifespan perhaps three times normal for humans. They have strongly-bound families, and, in a further point of commonality with Meyer's vampires, they appear to have access to bank accounts based on thousands of years of careful investing.

For the impoverished vampire we need to look away from the United States, for instance to the Swedish film Let the Right One In, currently playing in Portland to much smaller audiences than Twilight. Although the vampire heroine of Let the Right One In also has collected some valuable objects, she ends the film traveling in a cardboard coffin. And though, like Twilight, Let the Right One In might be described as about young love, it is also about alienation, brutality, and revenge.

Human beings' aggressive and sexual impulses cannot be reliably contained by the magic of garlic cloves or marriage licences, and the dangerous boundaries of sexuality remain to be tested and traversed by every generation. But as the economy spirals downward, it may feel ever more appealing to surrender to the dead white hand of capitalist power, in the fantasy of being saved by it.

We should be wary of any sparkle in this fantasy.


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