Essay: What’s Up with the Twilight Phenomenon?

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I’m 43 years old, and I love vampires. I have always loved vampires.

When I was a child, I used to watch Hammer horror movies with my parents, and ask them why everyone hated the vampire. Admittedly, I was a strange child (as I am a strange adult), but I think the reason I rooted for the vampire was because I “got” the connection between sex and death that the vampire represents. Okay, at that age, it was love, not sex, but the connection between death and “sexual love” (if you will) still applies.

For me, the vampire was a far more compelling love interest than some callow young man who just wanted to marry the heroine and give her babies like everybody else. The vampire needed his paramour as much as life itself, and their love would last for centuries. Talk about romantic!

I read a review of Stephanie Meyer’s novel, “Twilight,” in Entertainment Weekly by one of my favorite writers, Stephen King. He said he could understand the appeal of the subject matter – chaste love for young teens – but he didn’t think Meyer could write. With all due love and respect, I think “Uncle Stevie” missed the boat on this one. That’s okay. Uncle Stevie (as he refers to himself when he address us, the “Constant Reader”) has written some damn good stuff about vampires, in “‘Salem’s Lot,” for example, and in the Dark Tower series.

The vampire is a very rich, fertile source of inspiration and association (especially for something that’s undead) for artists of all stripes. King himself is a very good writer, and his thematic exploration of how vampires prey on the living, especially their own living families, is darkly magical and unsettling.

I think, however, that for Uncle Stevie, vampires don’t resonate sexually, and for me they do. A vampire is like the hero in a Gothic novel: you’re not sure if he wants to rape the heroine, kill her, eat her, or all three, in no particular order.

Vampires conjure up almost Jungian associations of breast feeding: the simple, but all-consuming experience we assume newborn babies have when they suckle: the largely benevolent — but scarily omnipotent — power of the mother and the mother’s breast to feed and comfort or to withhold food and comfort, and the possibility of suffocation under the breasts of that much-larger body.

The unself-consciousness of nursing can become emotionally entangled later in life with the unself-consciousness of orgasm; the nurture from a mother’s breast can remind you of a lover’s emotional nurturing, and the sucking for dear life itself. . . best to leave that to your own imagination for now.

I have only read the first novel of Stephanie Meyers’s series, but I would venture to guess that she “gets” it. When I was a teenager — before I was sexually active — the light touch of a boy’s fingers running up and down my inner forearms would make me dreamy and aroused for days. My body felt exquisitely sensitive, which is how “Twilight’s” female protagonist, Bella, feels after the lightest physical contact with Edward, the vampire with whom she falls in love.

The setting of the book is high school, and the wish-fulfillment of “Bella the outcast” becoming “Bella the girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful and popular” will surely appeal to most teenage girls. Many teenagers will also understand the connection between sex and death on a subconscious basis in the age of AIDS, Hep C and the still scary specter of teenage pregnancy. Even if we take the attraction of those elements as a given, however, there’s a whole other level of depth to the novel that may not be apparent to the casual reader.

I am one of many people around the world who finds the imagery of dominance and submission to be arousing. The typical feminist explanation of a woman’s rape fantasy is that the woman controls the fantasy, so everything that happens to her in the fantasy is of her own choosing, and that the lack of consent frees her from responsibility for her own immoral sexual desire so she can enjoy the fantasy sex without guilt.

Additionally, I find the idea of someone wanting me so much that he has to take me against my will (in exactly the way I want him to, of course) to be very hot. Just for the record, fantasy rape and real rape do not exist in the same universe, and that when a potential sexual partner says no, they really mean it (unless you are playing with safe words, which is a whole different blog entry).

Reading through “Twilight,” I could not help but notice that Edward’s relationship with Bella is often one of loving dominance. He commands her. He compels her. She does what he tells her to against her own judgement because she trusts him. He is as obsessed with her as she is with him, but he’s afraid of losing control because he is just that attracted to her. In addition, she is the only woman who has ever inspired those feelings in him. Pretty heady stuff.

Just when I was starting to find the love story just a tad sedate, however, a threat was introduced that threw all of the qualities of vampire / victim love and dominance dynamics into sharp relief. I’m not going to tell you what it was, in case you haven’t read the book yourself, but having two crazy sexy guys willing to fight to the death to possess you isn’t the worst predicament you could find yourself in, even if at least one of them does want to kill you.

No, “Twilight” has not taken over my life, nor have I bought any fan paraphernalia. However, I have signed up to read the next book in the “Twilight” series at the library, and am eagerly awaiting its arrival. It’s not the next coming, but it is pretty entertaining, and in today’s world, you could do a lot worse.

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Brief Takes: Twilight (The Twilight Saga, Book 1), by Stephenie Meyer

In this exceedingly popular novel, Stephanie Meyer has re-invented the idiom of the vampire to suit that of her protagonist, a bored, almost loveless teenage girl. Bella finds herself becoming increasingly obsessed with one of her classmates, who turns out to be a godlike, dominant, romantic vampire, whose obsession with her matches her own. This coming of age story in our STD times is more concerned with love than lust, but openly acknowledges the potentially fatal outcome of losing control of one’s appetites.

Brief Takes: New Moon (The Twilight Saga, Book 2), by Stephenie Meyer

This is probably my favorite book of the series, although the beginning is horribly depressing. The author really captures Bella’s despair and apathy in a way that resonated all too familiarly with me, then charms the reader by having her Native American friend, Jacob Black, fall in love with her.  It’s deja vu all over again (as Yogi Berra said), however, when she finds Jacob beginning to pull away from her too.  His reason for doing so, however, is the last thing Bella expects.

Brief Takes: Eclipse (The Twilight Saga, Book 3), by Stephenie Meyer

More action than in the first two novels of this series. This book also showcases Jacob’s character, as he comes to empathize with others who are completely different from himself.

Brief Takes: Breaking Dawn (The Twilight Saga, Book 4), by Stephenie Meyer

Some people think the end novel of this series jumps the shark in asking the reader to suspend disbelief, but I believe if we’ve gone for sparkly vampires that can go out in the day and werewolves the size of ponies who can control their transformations, I think we’re gonna buy Bella’s strange pregnancy and her eerie daughter.

Brief Take: Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer

There’s a little more high school and a little less history and philosophy in this book than I’d prefer, but it is an engaging story. Bella, an ordinary, regular teenage girl from Arizona, moves to rainy Forks, Washington, and there meets Edward, a dominant, brooding, extremely attractive vampire. Bella comes to love him with her whole heart and soul, and Edward  confesses that he finds her so delectable that he may not be able to control himself around her. Any allegories to sex are completely intentional, so you can see why so many women love this series of books.

The vampires in Edward’s “family” of choice are almost *too* good and pure, and the family love-fest scenes started to make me sleepy. Luckily some villains show up and the end is more exciting.

“Twilight” could have been a formulaic romance, and it’s not, for which I am thankful. It’s worth reading, if for no other reason than to get to the next book, “New Moon.”

Book Review: New Moon by Stephenie Meyer

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this book is about what happens to Bella, the regular teenage girl protagonist of “Twilight,” when Edward, the vampire she loves desperately, leaves her. She is devastated. She is depressed. She is inconsolable. I myself had a couple of very intense relationships a little like this when I was in my twenties, and I could definitely relate to Bella’s predicament and how author Stephenie Mayer expresses it. In fact, it was so realistic that I was considering not reading any more when Bella finds a new source of comfort: her friendship with Jacob, the Native American boy she has known from childhood. Obviously, he’s not the “perfect” Edward, but Bella begins to suspect that allowing herself some small measure of happiness away from Edward would not be “selling out.”

Jacob, who is 2 years younger than Bella, has his own period of painful growth to endure. Both his physical and emotional progress is laid out for the reader (eventually), as he comes to terms with the kind of adult he is becoming and tries to make peace with it.

This book contains some of the history, mythology and philosophy that the first novel lacked, and it finishes with an even better and more suspenseful flourish. Some Romeo and Juliet comparison is included, which may be appropriate, if cliched, for the age of the characters. Fortunately, Bella is modern enough, and sophisticated enough, to handle the comparisons her mind insists on making without getting too sentimental about it.