Read a Czech translation of this post, done by Vera!
So, I have been reading a lot of young adult vampire fiction lately. And I do mean a lot. I felt like if I was going to talk about it, I needed to read a lot to do it justice; I’m not going to opine on a social trend without doing my due diligence. And as I discovered when I hit the bookstore for unrelated reasons, there’s a lot of YA vampire fiction on the market, as in several shelves worth: The Vampire Diaries, The Twilight Saga, Vampire Academy, House of Night, Blue Bloods, Night Huntress, Morganville Vampires, Mortal Instruments, and that’s just some examples of series. I didn’t read all of these, but I did read a sampling, along with some standalone books specifically recommended by readers because they somewhat reversed the vampire trope: Evernight, Companions of the Night, and Mr. Darcy, Vampyre.
I’ve been exploring the new vampire mystique ever since Baxt made me read Twilight, trying to figure what it is about the culture that we are living in that is drawing people to vampires, and what it is about vampire stories in particular, right now, which is appealing to young women. I’m also trying to explore whether or not YA vampire fiction is harmful to young women, given the often problematic content. Young women have always, I think, enjoyed fantasy (some of my favourite series when I was in middle/high school were fantasy), but vampire fantasy in particular is gripping people right now, and vampire fantasy is a far cry from the trashy girl power fantasy books I remember reading in my tender youth (oh, who am I kidding, readers who actually know me are well aware that I was never a “tender youth,” I went straight from “nerd” to “shit starter”). I had no idea how much vampire fiction had exploded in the last couple of years in the young adult market, since I’m not working at a bookstore anymore, and therefore am not as in touch with the publishing industry.
I recently wrote about the shift that I’ve noted with modern vampire fiction, in which the vampire is transformed from a monster to a love interest. Essentially, the vampire has been turned into a new kind of romantic hero, and vampires are really just being slotted in to very old plots, all of which run along the lines of “young girl with a troubled past falls in love with somewhat dangerous fella, they overcome some sort of obstacle, the end.” And, to be fair, this was exactly the kind of thing I adored when I was in my young adult reading phase (I mean, who doesn’t love Alanna sneaking out to hang with George Cooper, King of Thieves?).
This is also the stuff of romance novels, a genre which has long been read by young women (as well as some older readers, of course). And I think this is what’s most interesting about the flood of vampire YA fiction. The stories are not necessarily new, although they may be dressed up with some changed elements, but they are appealing to older readers. Historically, I think there’s traditionally been a big divide between YA fantasy/romance and adult fantasy/romance, and that divide is breaking down.
One of the notable features of YA vampire fiction is that the vampires are essentially neutered. They must, of course, be stripped of their monstrosity because we cannot identify with a romantic interest who kills people to survive (although undergoing mental torment over past misdeeds is acceptable, in the case of a reformed vampire). Vampire fiction has come up with a variety of creative ways to get around this problem: vampires which feed on animal blood, vampires which feed on synthetic blood, vampires which steal bagged blood from labs/hospitals/blood banks, vampires which only take blood from willing donors. Intriguingly, I could not come across a series in which a vampire did willing kill humans for food by pursuing evildoers; I guess revenge fantasy isn’t a big hit in the YA market (although it is referenced in The Twilight Saga that Edward tried this during his rebellious phase).
In the process of removing the blood drinking component, of course, authors have also stripped vampires of their sexuality. What has historically made vampires interesting to people is the deep sexual connection going on there, with the blood drinking and the fluid exchanges. So, when a vampire isn’t drinking blood, a huge sexual metaphor has been removed, and because the vampire refuses to take blood, he (almost always “he”) must abstain from close physical contact with the human female love interest, for fear of losing control. The exception to this is the Sookie Stackhouse books, which are of course written for adults, not YA readers.
So, we have a weird dichotomy here: historically, vampires were sexualized monsters. Now they’re sexless and not monstrous. They still carry an aura of danger because of historic vampire fiction; vampires are treated as figures of horror and we associate them with things that go bump in the night. But most of the vampires we see in YA vampire fiction are essentially defanged. In the case of Spike on Buffy, literally, with the use of a chip which prevents him from committing violence, a plot device which forces Spike to become more sympathetic in the eyes of viewers, so that we can begin to accept him as an actual ally and love interest (I should note here that Buffy is not exactly in the “young adult” class, and in fact many young adult fans of the current crop of vampire fiction don’t like Buffy). With the exception of the bad evil vampires, the cartoonish villains who do not have fully realized characters at all, the vampires women know and love in modern vampire fiction are not really vampires at all.
In addition to not taking human blood by violence, many can go out in sunlight, handle crosses and garlic, walk into churches, come into contact with holy water, cross running water, and so forth. Some can even take a stake through the heart. They retain the trait of immortality historically associated with vampires, and most can only be killed with beheading (in some cases, dismemberment) and/or being set on fire. So, basically, writers of YA fiction are evoking the vampire mythos without having to deal with any of its limitations.
Vampires in chastity belts. What a peculiar thought.
And yet, something which people are evidently very into. Apparently, we are in a place socially where we crave controlled danger and measured risks. We want to fantasize about being overcome and swept off our feet, but we want to stop short of sealing the deal. We like the idea of an immortal, inhumanly strong partner who is deeply tormented and struggling, someone who embodies sexualized mythology but does not actually have sex. We also evidently appreciate the idea of being overpowered and compelled into a relationship, rather than exercising sexual freedom. The hugs and kisses exchanged by our lead characters satisfy us enough, please us, even, judging from the rate at which these books are flying off the shelves.
Now, there’s always been a place in romance for what I think of as chaste seduction; books which are not sexually explicit, dancing at the edges of sexualized scenes but not going into graphic detail. In some of these books, the sexualized scenes are more about groping on the couch and kissing than they are about actual sex, and readers have long enjoyed romance novels of this kind. But, for the most part, romance novels are pretty racy, and some are even raunchy (there’s a reason they call them “bodice rippers”), and it intrigues me to see readers turning away from that and embracing (so to speak) YA vampire fiction, which features a much tamer version of sexuality.
Indeed, some readers don’t like series like Sookie Stackhouse because they are too explicit, and the same complaint has been made about Vampire Academy. Is this a function of our strangely dual culture, in which everything is sexualized, yet women are not allowed to be sexual? Does reading chaste fiction fulfill a desire to participate in sexuality without fulling engaging in it, to be part of a sexualized culture without actually being in it?
Because, let me tell you something, gentle readers: people sure as hell are not reading these books because they are good. Seriously, I picked up Pride and Prejudice at one point just to clear my brain, and it was like night and day. It was one of those things were, you know, I’ve never been a big fan of Jane Austen, but I was reading and going “HOLY SHIT! THIS IS AMAZING! THIS BOOK IS SO FUCKING GOOD!” I was even reading bits aloud and chortling to myself. And then I had to read Frostbite and I wanted to cry.
I will have more to say about YA vampire fiction; I just kind of wanted to lay the groundwork here for future posts about it, since while I’ve talked about vampire culture, I haven’t really gotten specifically into the YA fiction aspect. So, consider this post fair warning: here there will be vampires.