Having just finished the first Sookie Stackhouse book, Dead Until Dark, and being partway through the second, it strikes me that there’s something very unusual, in my romance reading at least, about Sookie’s attitude towards her vampire boyfriend: she’s pretty realistic about the limitations of the relationship.
Sookie often reminds us that Bill is cold to the touch, he’s ghostly pale, and he has an out of date hairstyle that he can never alter. She can’t rest her head against him and hear his heart beating or feel the reassuring expansion of his chest as he breathes. He cannot have children. He doesn’t eat, and he doesn’t care for the smell of food. Sookie has to watch what she eats, because Bill can’t stand the smell of certain things, like garlic, on her person. Not surprisingly, she also finds his diet unappetizing. She’s tired all the time from the late nights with Bill. They’ll never walk hand in hand in the sunlight, take a beach vacation, attend a friend’s wedding, a loved one’s funeral, or indeed do anything together during the day. His nocturnal lifestyle has so far prevented him from having a career or productive work. And, while Sookie has yet to ponder this sobering reality (so far in my reading), he’ll watch her age and die as he remains the young man he was when she met him.
Not all vampire mythologies are as thoroughgoing as Ms. Harris’s. Indeed, some seem to cherry pick the most romantic or appealing aspects of vampire lore, leaving the rest out. The vamps of JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood eat food, have healthy skin, and can procreate, and she always manages (in ways that range from the convincing to the “you’ve got to be kidding me!”) to give her human partners eternal life. But even when the human partner becomes vamp, there are a host of unappealing trade-offs.
Viewing Bill through Sookie’s eyes made me wonder why vampires have become so popular in romance. I mean, it could have been anything: pirates, ducks, mollusks, clones, genetically modified humans, great apes, or canteloupe.
But no, it’s vampires.
Why? Probably there are lots of forces (the turn of the millennium, terrorism, Paris Hilton, who knows) that have led to a renewed interest in vampires in the broader culture, and the folks who put on the Melbourne conference in the above poster would be able to say more. But when it comes specifically to romance, I have some ideas:
1. Power. Vamps tend to be powerful, and are very much like the typical human alpha hero. In this sense, they are just like lairds in kilts, dukes with aquiline noses, or the muscle bound SEALS/cops/billionaires etc. that populate contemporaries. They’re the new alpha. (And this explanation works whether we are saying female readers imagine being loved by a powerful being, or image themselves as the powerful being.)
1b. Un-PC. In fact, you can argue that making a hero a vamp gives authors and readers “permission” to enjoy the un-PC fantasy of being dominated by a crude and boorish hero. (Not all vamps are like this, but you know what I mean). Readers often remark that they let a vampire get away with behavior they wouldn’t excuse in a human man. Think of Rhage cornering Mary against a wall in Lover Eternal, or Mikhail forcefully, um, detaining Raven in Christine Feehan’s Dark Prince, or the many examples, as in Lara Adrian’s Kiss of Midnight, of that trademark vampire technique of sleep-rape.
2. Sex. In real life, anemia can cause a loss of sex drive, and if that doesn’t do it, death certainly will. But vampires are sex machines. Authors exploit the metaphor of blood as the elixir of life, drawing parallels between blood lust and lust. In most of the vampire romances I’ve read, exchanging blood is (or can be) incredibly emotionally significant, and an ultra powerful aphrodisiac, incomparable to regular old human sex, regardless of how adventurous. Maybe 21st century readers are so inundated with sexual imagery in every day life that the rise of vamp romance represents a ratcheting up of sex necessary to achieve the same narrative power a kiss in the old regencies would have.
3. Darkness. Superman is powerful. And all kinds of good guys can be sexy. But vampires are powerful, sexy bad boys. We tend to think of dark characters as more interesting, more complex. We want to unravel them. Maybe the vampire bad boy is the new rake in an era when sexual promiscuity is not all that remarkable and can no longer serve as a marker of a tortured soul. They transgress many of the most central human taboos. One way to look at social mores or moral rules is as strictures, keeping us enslaved in a way. But vampires have a freedom that can be very appealing.
3b. Eternal life. This represents the ultimate transgression. It’s hard to define what make a human being a person, and one of the things I have always found fascinating about vampire lore is the way it poses this question to us. None of the vampire romances I have read have dealt with what seems to me to be a monumental transition between having a finite amount of time on earth and being immortal. This may be because we are limited to conceptualizing immortality as “a regular human life plus more years”. But that doesn’t begin to cut it. Think about the way your mortality provides a horizon for making meaning in your life. I tend to think eternal life would make a person’s life unrecognizable in ways I cannot even articulate.
But … we have a real fear of death and a very hard time at the end of life, especially here in the US. So I think the appeal of eternal life as a fantasy — the h/h will truly NEVER be apart — is a very real part of the draw.
Can you think of the others I’m missing??