I was really severely into vampires around the time I was entering college. I’d just discovered Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and at that point she was only three books into them and they were still good. I loved the atmosphere, the melodrama, the imagery, and of course the homoeroticism. But most of all I think I appreciated the idea of an immortal existence free of responsibilities and requirements. Rice’s vampires don’t need to worry about money, they can sleep pretty much anywhere and be relatively safe, they can survive being knifed to ribbons and burned alive, and they have all night every night to explore and learn and create and party. Their main worries are finding a meal that doesn’t trouble their conscience and not getting a permanent tan. This was an attractive enough prospect when I was entering college, and it’s even more attractive now. If Rice were still readable and maybe hadn’t found Jesus, I’d probably still be eating those books up.
Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight shows us vampires who in some ways have it even better. These cats can go out in the sun anytime they like — as long as nobody’s watching, because their skin sparkles like diamonds in it, which is kind of a giveaway. Like Rice’s Louis, the vampire protagonists have a conscience, and they strenuously avoid killing humans, to the dismay and detriment of the wildlife in the lush Washington forest they live near. Like Rice’s Lestat, they’re rich as Midas and seem to possess additional psychic talents such as telepathy, precognition, and a sort of empathic projection.
But they’re neither antiheroes nor übermensch libertines. They’re socially responsible, staunchly heterosexual, and one of them is in love with Our Heroine.
I love my antiheroes and libertines but that’s no way for a nice Mormon girl to write about vampires. It certainly creates immediate, potent conflict to have vampires struggling with their predatory natures (mostly stoically, unlike whining Louis), and since a vampire is basically a serial killer who does it for food, not pleasure, you have to make them sympathetic somehow. So I’m cool with her take on the subject.
I have to say, though, that it’s the nicer side of a phenomenon that makes me a little queasy these days, which is the savage killer using his or her powers for good. The most prominent example is a show I admit I’ve never watched and might find fairly entertaining: Dexter, the serial killer vigilante on Showtime. He seems partially inspired by what happened to Hannibal Lecter in Thomas Harris’s novels and the films made from them. In Silence of the Lambs, Lecter’s helpful but clearly evil, unambiguously ruthless. In Hannibal we’re meant to despise his victims — instead of hapless policemen doing their jobs, they’re out to get him or they’re sexist, nasty FBI agents, so clearly he has no choice, right? And in Hannibal Rising, with one exception, he’s just getting revenge against the evil men who destroyed his childhood and murdered his sister. There’s something about the way we turn killers into heroes — instead of recognizing their villainy even if we take a macabre pleasure in its excess — that seems disturbing to me.
Twilight isn’t really about vampires or murderers so much as high school romance. Here’s how it works. A girl moves to a small town where she discovers to her amazement that she’s relatively hot and desirable. Every guy asks her out but she puts them off, intrigued by the one guy who seems to hate her guts and yet saves her life. Eventually it turns out he only seems to hate her because — I’m really not spoiling this for you — he’s a vampire, and her scent is almost irresistible. It’s not clear whether he loves her because she smells so good or if the two just happen to coincide or what. He is just thoroughly in love with her despite hardly knowing her and yet he’s forbidden to love her because that enticing scent makes him want to kill her.
She loves him, of course, because he is godlike in his beauty (as we are told in so many words several times) and also his nigh-omniscience (he reads minds) and nigh-omnipotence (he runs almost as fast as he drives, can stop a car with one hand, and hunts wild animals without guns). Also he is an older man, around five times her age, though of course he looks seventeen, which is a good deal if you can get it.
This is how a lot of teenage romance works, it’s true: hormones, pheromones, and pretty faces. But I don’t think it would have killed Meyer to give these two a little prosaic chemistry. Our heroine Bella doesn’t seem to have a lot of hobbies or conversation, though she seems to like music, and her undead beau Edward has had decades to master piano composition and performance, so that helps. Still, it’s hard to root for a romance where the two seem to have so little in common, where the magnetic forces are Edward’s preternatural beauty and Bella’s improbably delicious blood.
Fortunately the prose is lively and charming enough to entertain over the course of 500-plus quick-reading pages. The setting is vivid and full of character; I really want to visit the lush Washington forest myself now. Edward’s vampire family is colorful and interesting, and all of them are falling over themselves trying not to lose control and murder Bella, which is weird and fun. There’s even a local native tribe, the Quileute, who know Edward and his family are vampires, which starts to become central to the plot in the second book (I’m 300 pages into that one) and gets very interesting indeed.
I’m actually rooting for Quileute boy Jacob Black to become a viable romantic rival to Edward; he’s much sweeter and has a lot more personality. The thing with Edward is that most of his scenes with Bella involve him either struggling to make out with her and not give in to the temptation to kill her (which you can read as: he’s trying not to take her virginity, or his for that matter — yeah, he’s been a vampire for the better part of a century and has never fallen in love before…uh huh), or else being kind of an asshole because he’s worried about killing her or about some other vampire killing her. “I shouldn’t be with you…it’s not safe,” that kind of thing. “You should go live your life — I’m wrong for you.” Blah blah blah. It’s really kind of a drag. Even after we find out that Jacob has some secrets of his own (which of course we see coming from the minute we meet him), he’s still more appealing in my book. The two of them have fun together. They’re best friends, and there’s clearly an attraction. If it weren’t for Vampire Superman, who knows?
Anyway. I’m looking forward to the movie, not because I think it’ll be amazing (doubt it) but because I think it’ll be entertaining, which is the same reason I like the books. The only drawback is that I can skim the romance in the books, and in the movie theater I’ll have to sit through it.