When it come to romance novels, the trend today is for stories with teeth. And I mean teeth: long, white, sharp, and dangerous. Said teeth might belong to a werewolf, or a shapeshifting tiger, but most often, they’re the fangs of a vampire.
Just what is the appeal of the vampire romance? Bram Stoker made the modern western vampire a figure of both attraction and repulsion. Dracula‘s titular villian was a creature of unmitigated evil, but he, and the book, also seethed with repressed sexuality. That’s the beginning of the appeal, though not all of it.
For one thing, there’s not a whole lot of repression going on when it comes to sex in modern romances. But, more importantly, there’s a force at work even more primal than sex: fear.
Margaret Atwood made a famous statement to the effect that men are afraid women will laugh at them, while women are afraid men will kill them. I don’t need to trot out all the sad statistics about abuse — we all know that a man can be a very dangerous thing for a woman. Which doesn’t stop the endless fascination with them. Adding extraordinary strength, fangs, and need for blood simply moves the problem to a safe distance, one in which it can be looked at and discussed.
Sex and menace: vampires are the total package. No wonder they’re so popular. They’re everywhere in romance fiction: from comic contemporaries riffing on the Buffy-verse to gloomy gothic historicals, the vampire romance is practically a category of its own. Sadly, many of them read like generics, hitting marks, rather than breaking ground. But one author has truly surprised and delighted me.
J.R. Ward is four books into a vampire romance series called the Black Dagger Brotherhood. I skipped the first when it was published, partly because it seemed to be like every other novel on the subject (a secret society of vampires; a mysterious warrior class; a long and lonely struggle; yadda yadda yadda), but also I must admit, because the cover was truly horrible. And the cover copy revealed the all the characters had ridiculous names like Rhage; Phury; Tehrror… ack. Just… no.
But when the second book in the series hit the shelves, I read a review by an author whose own work I enjoy. Hers wasn’t the usual puff paragraph, and it caught my attention. So I braved the amatuerish, photoshop-gone-wrong cover, and tried the first book. Not only did I immediately forget all those extraneous ‘h’s, I was also immediately and immensely impressed.
In a very deft move, Ward keeps her vampires mostly separate from humans. They live amidst the human world, but they don’t mingle. And the certainly don’t see humanity as a walking buffet: Ward’s vampires eat real food, but need the blood of their own kind to survive. Their fight is not against humanity, but against the lessers, a group of soulless beings (really, they keep their souls in jars), created to be the minions of the Omega, the personification of ultimate evil.
While Ward’s unfolding mythology, carefully layered throughout her novels, gives many a contemporary fantasy novel a run for its money, her books (there are four so far) are first and foremost romances. As such, they must meet certain criteria, the most important of which is the happy ending. But within that structure, her stories are broad, deep, raw and real. Her characters suffer pain and doubt; they get hurt; they grieve; they shoot their mouths off and screw up. They make friends, and lose them, and they manage something truly scary: they fall in love. They just happen to be vampires.
Which is not to say that the teeth are tacked on, so to speak. On the contrary: their actions, their motivations, their behaviour all stem from their culture. As does their strength, their odd powers, and their need to taste (not gorge on) blood. It’s hard to pin down that shifting line that divides drama from melodrama, but Ward manages it with ease. What makes her characters vampires is good fantasy; what makes them people is great romance.
Chris Szego reads romance. Along with poetry, mystery, sf, non-fiction of all kinds, cereal boxes (but not horror, because she’s kind of a chicken).