Review: The Twilight of the Gothic? Vampire Fiction and the Rise of the Paranormal Romance (Winner of the Allan Lloyd Smith Memorial Prize for best book in Gothic criticism)

Posted by Donna Mitchell on September 25, 2015 in Blog, Donna Mitchell, Reviews tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Twilight of the Gothic?: Vampire Fiction and the Rise of the Paranormal Romance.

Joseph Crawford.

Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2014.

ISBN: 978-1-78316-064-8

Reviewed by Donna Mitchell

Winner of the Allan Lloyd Smith Memorial Prize for the best book in Gothic criticism, Joseph Crawford’s The Twilight of the Gothic?: Vampire Fiction and the Rise of the Paranormal Romance traces the historical development and rise in popularity of the paranormal romance and examines the reasons behind the divisive reactions to the genre. He begins by identifying three phases in its development – prehistory, consolidation, and generic maturity – and divides his research between them. Specifically, he uses the figure of the outsider to unite his reading of the texts in order to examine the changing cultural status of the Gothic hero and the textual implications of this transformation.

The Twilight of the Gothic (Large)Chapter one begins with a discussion of the various overlapping elements in eighteenth century Gothic and romance fictions despite the fact that, as an established literary genre, the Gothic novel predates the romance novel by over a century. Radcliffe’s influence on the Gothic romance is explored in terms of how she shifted the main focus from the hero to the heroine and how, in doing so, she created a literature of fear that illustrated how dangerous and predatory the world could be for young, unmarried women. Crawford also identifies the problematic nature of the Radcliffean villain who would have to evolve from his role as a demonic persecutor to that of a demon lover before he could become the hero of the text. The creation of the Byronic hero and anti-hero are considered through John Polidori’s The Vampyre (the first vampire novel to unite vampirism with seduction), Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (which created the hero whom the heroine must save from himself), Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (which presented the vampire as protagonist rather than villain). Even at this early point in the study, Crawford stresses that the character analysis of the 1970s’ Gothic villain and romantic hero were almost identical and suggests that this unification inspired the plot revision in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula to include Mina Harker’s uncanny resemblance to a long lost love, which has since become the new standard version of the Dracula legend.

The second chapter discusses the Ricean influence on the genre in greater detail as Crawford examines the influence of The Mummy’s success on the changing shape of the paranormal romance. Lori Herter’s Obsession is identified as the first romance novel to feature a human-vampire coupling and is discussed alongside its sequels and Dark Shadows inspiration. Other sympathetic vampire figures of the 1970s and 1980s are deliberated in this chapter as well as the heroine’s changing task from that of freeing the hero of his vampirism to transforming it into a force for good rather than evil. Series such as L.J. Smith’s The Vampire Diaries are noted for their introduction of a socially integrated vampire protagonist whose human equivalent is the ordinary man with feelings of alienation that could be easily placed within a world of monogamous domesticity as required by his heroine.

Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series is the focus of the next chapter as Crawford credits it with embodying the complex evolution of Gothic fiction at the turn of the century, and in doing so, maintaining a continued commercial success. He analyses how Hamilton’s portrayal of vampires as people with human desires and not demonic corpse-monsters made their romantic liaisons with her heroine more acceptable to her readers. From here, the study moves on to discuss the huge success of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer franchise and its inescapable influence on most vampire-themed films and television shows created after 2000. Crawford pays particular attention to the paradoxical portrayal of the vampire figure as an evil, ruthless monster in the early series and a loveable, self-sacrificing hero by the final episodes. Most importantly, he notes that the series was responsible for presenting the vampire as a mainstream figure who is redeemed from monstrosity by the power of the heroine’s love, and furthermore, that the vampire romance became really popular for the first time during these years.

Christine Feehan’s Dark series and Charlaine Harris’ The Southern Vampire Mysteries are considered in relation to their chronological position in the years leading up to release and huge success of Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight series. Specifically, the focus of chapter four is divided between Feehan’s domestication of her vampire to that of a figure of traditional patriarchal conservatism and Harris’ presentation of a mundane version of the supernatural world. The depiction of desire and the power of Bella’s desire in particular begin the discussion on Twilight. Meyers’ reverse of the terms governing the supernatural link between her two main characters is compared to earlier texts to stress the element of self-sacrifice in the novel. Additionally, Bella’s ability to be the exception to every rule and Edward’s appearance as a twentieth-century American fangless vampire created what Crawford terms a fantasy of ‘difference without difference’ that appealed to many readers who had little or no interest in vampire fiction. He also makes the interesting contrast between the typical romance author’s depiction of the vampire bite as a pleasurable, quasi-sexual experience for the victim and Meyers’ vampire bite as an unavoidable means to an agonizing, certain death.

Noting first that essentially all vampire romances before Twilight relied on the reader being attracted to the idea of a vampire lover, Crawford spends much of the next chapter analysing the controversy surrounding Meyers’ series and what it says about sex, gender, and romance in contemporary popular culture. He names ten main points of controversy and five key channels that fed the debate including professional and amateur reviews of the books and films, opinion pieces on the franchise and its fan culture, open discussions in real life, online forums, and university programmes, internet fan fiction, and books, scholarly articles and academic essays. He also identifies the debate’s core issue as being the divided reading of Edward’s behaviour towards Bella as either psychotic and/or abusive to some people or protective and/or romantic to others. Other issues such as the Mormon controversy and certain feminist readings of the Twilight texts are also explored in this section. He then considers the consequences that have arisen as a result of Twilight’s popularity and lists them as: a huge increase in the publication of paranormal romances from 2006 and 2012, an increased prominence of paranormal romance in the adult category romance market, and the publication of Gothicized versions of classic literary texts.

The final chapter deliberates the huge movement of paranormal romance franchises from novel series to popular television shows such as True Blood and The Vampire Diaries. Crawford tracks the various alterations that have been made to their characters and plot development, and suggests that they provide a good early indication of what the next wave of Gothic fiction may look like. His epilogue explores some of the positive consequences of Twilight’s success including the willingness of the American film industry to finance big-budget adventure films with young, female leads such as Snow White and the Huntsman and The Hunger Games, as well as the significant rise in erotic romance fiction for women, often with Gothic or sub-Gothic themes.

By linking contemporary paranormal romance texts back to their roots in traditional Gothic fiction, Crawford provides a thoughtful and comprehensive guide on the unification of Gothic fiction and the romance novel. In doing so, he offers his reader a thorough analysis of the genre as well as some food for thought on the possibilities of future developments. His seemingly effortless attention to detail and intertextual discussion of features that unite the two genres confirm his deserving position as winner of the best book in Gothic criticism.

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