The undead have come alive

The vampire genre has taken the literary world by storm with the Twilight series and many others

Crystal Wong, ArtSci ’10, is an avid reader of the Twilight series, which has sold more than 85 million copies worldwide.
Crystal Wong, ArtSci ’10, is an avid reader of the Twilight series, which has sold more than 85 million copies worldwide.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is still alive today ... as a vampire,” reads the tagline of author Michael Thomas Ford’s Jane Bites Back. The book was released on Dec. 29 and tells the story of an undead Jane Austen, frustrated by a 200-year writer’s block and 116 rejections of an unpublished novel.

The idea for Ford’s novel came from a conversation he had with his agent about the state of publishing today with the ubiquity of vampires in the literary world.

“[My agent] remarked that the only books consistently selling well were about either Jane Austen or vampires,” Ford said in an e-mail to the Journal. “I joked that in that case I should do one about Jane Austen as a vampire.”

Austen novels have been steadily popular since her first novel was published in 1811, but fiction dealing with the undead has had a far longer lifetime.

Ford said he thinks people are drawn to vampire fiction because they’re attracted to the idea of living forever, either because they fear death or because they think it would be fascinating to spend eternity watching the world change.

“There’s also a strong sexual element to vampires,” he said. “Unlike other monsters such as werewolves or mummies ... vampires don’t just kill you. They seduce you.”

Ford said vampire readership cuts across all groups of people.

“Men, women, adults, teens, gay readers, straight readers and everything in between can find something in vampires that appeals to them. ... It’s easy to mold [vampire fiction] into something for everyone,” he said. “They’re like the Jell-O of the supernatural world.”

Heather Cyr, a PhD candidate in the English department who specializes in theories of monstrosity, the fantastic and young adult literature, said vampire fiction originates from mythology and oral fiction stories. But the vampire we think of today actually originated in England in the early 1800s.

Long before Bram Stoker’s Dracula, John Polidori published his short story The Vampyre in April 1819 in “The New Monthly Magazine.” The Vampyre was the first story written about an aristocratic vampire named Lord Ruthven, Cyr said, adding that it was different from the German vampiric folklore commonly told before that time.

Later in the mid-19th century, vampires were written about in magazines, serialized newspapers and penny dreadful (a type of British publication featuring lurid serial fiction).

Cyr said vampire fiction appeals to people in a number of ways.

“We’re interested in powers that we don’t have, especially the facet of control,” she said. “Vampires are a lot slicker than other monsters that we think of. ... They can pass in society.”

Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, for example, describe a family of vampires who pass as humans in society. Usually cited as the catapult to the vampire genre’s recent success, the Twilight series has sold more than 85 million copied worldwide and is translated into 38 different languages.

What’s unique about Twilight, though, is that it appeals to a large portion of the American population that’s strongly Christian, Cyr said. The main character Bella is portrayed as a typical American girl.

“There’s an extremely Americanized, heteronormative ideal of the female body as something that needs to be pure,” she said. “Bella is the American girl next door.”

Before sexual intercourse can occur, Cyr said Edward Cullen—Twilight’s male protagonist—also has to marry Bella.

“The first two novels are concerned with, ‘Will we, won’t we?’ and the tension surrounding Bella’s virginity,” she said. “It’s the danger of sex—danger of teen sex—Bella’s pregnancy is dangerous to her life. Teen pregnancy is shown as a monstrosity.”

Cyr said Bella is represented as an abused woman after she has sex with Edward because of the intensity of their love-making, adding that she has very little agency until the end of the book series.

“Bella is a white, virgin, American-middle class girl who needs protection from her father, Edward, Jacob and other men,” she said. “It appeals to the damsel in distress Victorian paradigm.”

Like any other monster story, Cyr said the monster is a reflection of the culture that creates it.

“These stories can be seen as barometers for understanding our culture,” she said.

But unlike other complex monsters in literature, the Twilight vampires are more two-dimensional, Cyr said, adding that the book centres around teen angst rather than the destruction of society.

“While Twilight does speak to certain fears in society, mostly American—sex, teen sexuality, security, protectionism ... they don’t necessarily embody the same complex mirroring of society that other monsters do,” she said.

Despite its two-dimensionality, Cyr said Twilight offers a new way of looking at an older narrative.

“Twilight represents a new American mythology,” she said. “Vampire cowboys and wolf Indians.”

What’s most interesting about Twilight, Cyr said, is the popularity surrounding the book series itself.

“It’s an interesting question about how it’s going to evolve,” she said. “Shape-shifting has a much more interesting internal crisis in terms of what direction it’s going to go in.”

There are new vampire novels every day, Cyr said, adding that she checks every so often to see what’s selling. The Southern Vampire Mysteries (True Blood) and Vampire Diaries series are two other popular works that have been recently made into television series.

“It must evolve from this point as far as its popularity is concerned.”

Crystal Wong, ArtSci ’10, said the only vampire fiction she’s read is Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series.

“I was intrigued by the idea of humane vampires,” she said. “These vampires strive to defy their vampire nature and to be more in touch with their human side.”

Wong said she thinks Edward is like a pedophile with stalkerish tendencies, but there’s a lot about his character people find attractive.

“I think he’s rather sweet, caring and loving,” she said. “Sure he overreacts, but who wouldn’t want a significant other to lovingly dote on you and want to take care of you?”

Wong said she thinks Twilight is popular with women because many can relate to its characters.

“Twilight resonates with many women because Bella is a relatable and nondescript character,” she said. “Anyone could be Bella.”

In an age where chivalry is believed to be dead, Wong said she thinks Edward’s devotion to Bella is rare.

“Perhaps women find the historic notions of courtesy, generosity and valour attractive,” she said. “Just like how retro fashion is back in these days, we want our boys and men to be gentlemen.”

Wong said vampire fiction is popular because of its fantasy elements.

“The reader can imagine him or herself as being part of this other world, with a different lifestyle, following different social norms and rules, accomplishing different things, and having supernatural powers,” she said. “Living an entirely different life that may or may not be possible is an exciting prospect as compared to every day human life that is more or less predictable.”

Despite the public’s fascination with vampire fiction, Wong said it’s likely to fade.

“We’ve seen a history of vampire fiction being popular in the past and present: Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Interview with the Vampire, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and now Twilight, True Blood and The Vampire Diaries,” she said. “Like all things, the popularity of vampire fiction will come and go but will probably come back again in the future.”

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