“For this one night, could we try to forget everything besides just you and me?” He pleaded, unleashing the full force of his eyes on me. “It seems like I can never get enough time like that. I need to be with you. Just you.”
Need I add that such statements rarely issue from the lips of mortal men, except perhaps when they’re looking for sex? Edward, however, doesn’t even insist on that — in fact, he refuses to consummate his love for Bella because he’s afraid he might accidentally harm her. “If I was too hasty,” he says, “if for one second I wasn’t paying enough attention, I could reach out, meaning to touch your face, and crush your skull by mistake. You don’t realize how incredibly breakable you are. I can never, never afford to lose any kind of control when I’m with you.” As a result, their time together is spent in protracted courtship: make-out sessions and sweet nothings galore, every shy girl’s dream.
Yet it’s not only shy girls who crush mightily on Edward Cullen. One of the series’ most avid fan sites is Twilight Moms, created by and for grown women, many with families of their own. There, as in other forums, readers describe the effects of Meyer’s books using words like “obsession” and “addiction.” Chores, husbands and children go neglected, and the hours that aren’t spent reading and rereading the three novels are squandered on forums and fan fiction. “I have no desires to be part of the real world right now,” posted one woman. “Nothing I was doing before holds any interest to me. I do what I have to do, what I need to do to get by and that’s it. Someone please tell me it will ease up, even if just a little? My entire world is consumed and in a tailspin.”
The likeness to drug addiction is striking, especially when you consider that literary vampirism has often served as a metaphor for that form of enthrallment. The vampire has been a remarkably fluid symbol for over a hundred years, standing for homosexuality, bohemianism and other hip manifestations of outsider status. Although the connection between the bloodsucking undead and romance fiction might seem obscure to the casual observer, they do share an ancestor. Blame it all on George Gordon, aka Lord Byron, the original dangerous, seductive bad boy with an artist’s wounded soul and in his own time the object of as much feminine yearning as Edward Cullen has been in the early 21st. Not only did Byron inspire such prototypical romantic heroes as Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester (a character Meyer has listed as among her favorites), he was the original pattern for the vampire as handsome, predatory nobleman. His physician, John William Polidori, wrote “The Vampyre,” a seminal short story that featured just such a figure, Lord Ruthven, patently based on the poet. Before that, the vampires of folklore had been depicted as hideous, bestial monsters.
Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula was the English bourgeoisie’s nightmare vision of Old World aristocracy: decadent, parasitic, yet possessed of a primitive charisma. Though we members of the respectable middle class know they intend to eat us alive, we can’t help being dazzled by dukes and princes. Aristocrats imperiously exercise the desires we repress and are the objects of our own secret infatuation with hereditary hierarchies. Anne Rice, in the hugely popular Vampire Chronicles, made her vampire Lestat a bisexual rock star — Byron has also been called the first of those — cementing the connection between vampire noblemen and modern celebrities. In recent years, in the flourishing subgenre known as paranormal romance, vampires play the role of leading man more often than any other creature of the night, whether the mode is noir, as in Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series of detective novels or chick-lit-ish, as in MaryJanice Davidson’s Queen Betsy series.
The YA angle on vampires, evident in the Twilight books and in many other popular series as well, is that they’re high school’s aristocracy, the coolest kids on campus, the clique that everyone wants to get into. Many women apparently never get over the allure of such groups; as one reader posted on Twilight Moms, “Twilight makes me feel like there may be a world where a perfect man does exist, where love can overcome anything, where men will fight for the women they love no matter what, where the underdog strange girl in high school with an amazing heart can snag the best guy in the school, and where we can live forever with the person we love,” a mix of adolescent social aspirations with what are ostensibly adult longings.
The “underdog strange girl” who gets plucked from obscurity by “the best guy in school” is the 21st century’s version of the humble governess who captures the heart of the lord of the manor. The chief point of this story is that the couple aren’t equals, that his love rescues her from herself by elevating her to a class she could not otherwise join. Unlike Buffy, Bella is no hero. “There are so many girls out there who do not know kung fu, and if a guy jumps in the alley they’re not going to turn around with a roundhouse kick,” Meyer once told a journalist. “There’s a lot of people who are just quieter and aren’t having the Prada lifestyle and going to a special school in New York where everyone’s rich and fabulous. There’s normal people out there and I think that’s one of the reasons Bella has become so popular.”
Yet the Cullens, although they don’t live in New York, are rich and fabulous. Twilight would be a lot more persuasive as an argument that an “amazing heart” counts for more than appearances if it didn’t harp so incessantly on Edward’s superficial splendors. If the series is supposed to be championing the worth of “normal” people, then why make Edward so exceptional? If his wealth, status, strength, beauty and accomplishments make him the “best” among all the boys at school, why shouldn’t the same standard be applied to the girls, leaving Bella by the wayside? Sometimes Edward seems to subscribe to that standard, complaining about having to read the thoughts of one of Bella’s classmates because “her mind isn’t very original.” But then, neither is Bella’s. In a sense, Bella is absolutely right: She’s not “good enough” for Edward — at least, not according to the same measurements that make Edward “perfect.” Yet by some miracle she — unremarkable in every way — is exempt from his customary contempt for the ordinary. Then again, by choosing her he proves that she’s better than all the average people at school.
Such are the tortured internal contradictions of romance, as nonsensical as its masculine counterpart, pornography, and every bit as habit forming. Search a little deeper on the Internet and you can find women readers both objecting to the antifeminist aspects of Twilight and admitting that they found the books irresistible. “Sappy romance, amateurish writing, etc.,” complained one. Still, “when I read it, I just couldn’t put it down. It was like an unhealthy addiction for me … I’m not sure how I could read through it, seeing how I dislike romances immensely. But I did, and when I couldn’t get ‘New Moon’ I almost had a heart attack. That book was hypnotizing.”
Some things, it seems, are even harder to kill than vampires. The traditional feminine fantasy of being delivered from obscurity by a dazzling, powerful man, of needing to do no more to prove or find yourself than win his devotion, of being guarded from all life’s vicissitudes by his boundless strength and wealth — all this turns out to be a difficult dream to leave behind. Vampires have long served to remind us of the parts of our own psyches that seduce us, sapping our will and autonomy, dragging us back into the past. And they walk among us to this day.