Monday, July 18, 2011

Vampires and the Other in Romance Fiction

I have to take responsibility for the recent columns here on Novel Spaces about love with animals and human/vampire romances. I triggered this month's theme when, in a conversation with my fellow Novelnauts about romances, I said "No one would be charmed by a love story between a man and a sheep, why is a romance between a vampire and a human acceptable?"

I mean, come on, a scorpion is more likely to be compassionate than a vampire. At least scorpions are living things while vampires are demons that consume humans and cloud human minds so folks think they look like people. The trick doesn't work if the human isn't looking directly at the demon, which is why vampires are invisible when … Wait. Vampires aren't real, right? Right. The point is, fictional as they are, vampires prey on humans. If they were capable of any form of love at all, they might love us the way we might love a perfectly grilled porterhouse steak. So why are they the subject of so many romances?

The question has vexed me for a while, and I've given it a lot of thought; thought that's led me to Omar Sharif, bodice-rippers, and Anne Rice, among other things. At their core, romance novels are fantasies. While everything that takes place in even the most solidly grounded contemporary seems straightforward, a lot of the story is metaphorical. Symbolic, if you will. More's going on than just the perfect, inevitable HAE. Through romances readers are free to explore things – relationships – outside their experience or comfort zone.

It's difficult to believe that the era of the bodice-ripper romance is less than forty years behind us. At one time all romances were sweet, sex-free tales of finding the perfect husband who would protect and care for the heroine. I'm sure someone in that bygone era knew sex would sell, but at a time when a woman's virtue was her greatest asset, working sex into the relationship was difficult. Unless, I imagine some bright junior sales exec posited, the woman had no choice. But premarital sex without choice couldn't be rape – it had to be something the woman wanted (but was maybe ashamed of wanting) – with the result that for a decade secretaries and nannies and au pairs had to stumble through convoluted plots to reach a level of physical satisfaction that would in this age qualify as a sweet romance. Embarrassing as they are by today's standards, bodice-rippers paved the way for modern contemporary romance and erotic romance.

Dark and mysterious men have been a staple of romance for centuries; preferably dark and mysterious men of noble heritage. However, when the romance marketplace was overwhelmingly white; "dark" meant Omar Sharif. There was a whole sub-genre devoted to OSLAs (Omar Sharif look-alikes); stories that seem quaint to us now, but were daring in their day. Though interracial romances may never be a big part of the romance market, multicultural romances of all types, and I think the AA romance market, were in many ways made possible by these dark and mysterious pioneers.

These days there are few boundaries people are willing to admit frighten them. You can't say the thought of a relationship with someone of another race or culture triggers a frisson of fear without sounding like a racist. So vampires (and werewolves and selkies and fallen angels) have become the universal "other." A metaphor for whomever the reader might find both frightening and forbidden-fruit sexy.

Bram Stoker's Dracula was shocking in its day, and banned in many places. Not because it was scary or violent, but because it was considered erotic. "Erotic?" you query. "There's no sex." Reading Dracula with 21st century sensibilities, the eroticism is easy to miss. A modern tale with a similar sexless erotica is Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire. Some of the most intense tales of domination and submission you'll ever read.

So while I find the idea of romance between a woman and a timberwolf to be more likely that a woman/vampire romance (because mammal/mammal makes more sense to me than mammal/undead-corpse-animated-by-a-possessing-demon) I can respect the role the vampire (or shape shifter or alien) plays in both romance fiction and the imaginations of romance readers. The intriguing other.


Charles Gramlich said...

Having written a few vampire human romance stories myself, I suppose I take it as normal these days. Hum, don't know what that says about me.

Terence Taylor said...

Boy, I'm not out the door five minutes, and you post on vampires? For shame. ;)

I think the answer is much simpler. Girls like bad boys. There was a time when the black, brown or Latin guy down the street was the baddest you could get, once motorcycle bums and swashbucklers wore thin and were accepted into mainstream culture as familiar icons.

Now that guys in the suburbs even all dress and act like thugs, whether rap or Gotti inspired, the last bastion of the other leaves the human realm altogether. We had alien love in the eighties, with Starman and the Man Who Fell to Earth among others, robot love in the nineties on from Centennial Man to the new we have vampire love stories, even zombie love stories. Gals love the outsiders.

The real scary question is what's next? What will women readers turn to when the undead can't give them enough of a thrill of the unknown and dangerous? I shudder to think... ;)

KeVin K. said...

Charles, that you're writing human/vampire romances doesn't say a thing about you except you're writing. What I'm wrestling with is why you -- and most of the major markets -- see this as normal. It may not be you, it could be me; vampires evoke about the same reaction from me as 4-inch cockroaches.

Terence, you know I had to wait until our premier vampire hunter had left the building before treading on his turf. Besides, you write *real* vampires that neither sparkle nor pout angstfully.

Jewel Amethyst said...

KeVin, great post. I agree with Terrence, good girls like bad boys and yes the "other" is the bad boy icon of today.

In response to Terrence, I think we'll see a recycling of bad boys stereotypes as the vampires and shape shifters wear thin. Wasn't Count Dracula written in the 19th century?

Liane Spicer said...

I'm a girl. I like (fictional) bad boys. I don't like vampires - at least not in romantic hero roles. I've read all the rationalizations for the popularity of the genre and come to the earth-shattering conclusion that... I still don't like 'em.

Vampires are not 'bad boys'. They're blood-sucking demons who dine on people. Hello?! What's wrong with this picture?