The Better To Bite You With

Vampire romances flirt with the most dangerous animal: men.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.

Vampire romances flirt with the most dangerous animal: men.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).

9 replies »

  1. I’m not sure why it’s a deft move to keep vampires separate from humans, and not have them see mortals as prey. Vampires are essentially monsters and a source of terror; if you remove that, they don’t “work” anymore. I think it’s a literary mistake to have them form their own civilized society where they don’t act as predators (unless you do it in order to make a clever point, as in “I Am Legend”).
    You must have a stronger stomach than I do… I would never have picked up a book with characters named Phury, Tehrror, etc 😛


  2. hey chris–
    nice piece. it reminds me of something joanna russ (i think) wrote about slash–how slash was primarily written by women for women as a way of imagining sex without the risks women face. anyway, that’s just a half formed thought.


  3. In a market that is saturated with Anne Rice style vampire romances (maybe even saturated with Anne Rice?) it’s refreshing to hear there’s a new take on the genre.
    I’m surprised that Android would want to read more of the same-old, same-old and is willing to pass judgement on a book that he hasn’t read.
    Thanks for bringing to my attention a book I also probably would have avoided – I’ll have to see if I can get a used copy or maybe see if it’s available through the public library.


  4. Mr.Dave: actually, “Dark Lover” doesn’t sound like “a new take”, but a lot like something Anne Rice would write. I share your dislike for her writings. Her vampires aren’t really monsters either, and she misses the point in my opinion. A vampire is a creature that rises from the grave to drink human blood. Still, if you want “a new take” on the myth, read “I Am Legend” 😉
    As for my alleged prejudice: you also pass judgment every time you choose to buy a book and not the one next to it at the bookstore. For every book you read, there’s another one you won’t have the time to read. Therefore, you must pick your books carefully! (preferably, pick books without characters named “Tehrror”)


  5. Hey Android,
    I think we are talking about different things. You are talking about how you think vampires should or should not be used in books, while I (and I would also guess the author of this article) was talking specifically about the genre of “vampire romances” and how this book seems to find a new take on that genre.
    I guess I should have figured that out from your first comment when you said that vampires should be only be used as monsters that are a source of terror. I guess what you were actually saying was not simply that this particular book made a “literary mistake” but that the whole genre of “vampire romance” is a literary mistake. So, yes, I guess it was wrong of me to fault you for criticizing a book you hadn’t read. There really was no need for you to read it to form an opinion about it because you already hate that whole genre.
    As for “I Am Legend” wasn’t that the book that was adapted into an old black & white movie with Vincent Price? … Yes I see it was – I just looked it up on IMDB: it was called “The Last Man on Earth” and it was released in 1964.
    I see the “The Omega Man” (1971) with Charlton Heston was also based on the same novel, although it must be pretty loosly based because as I recall the people weren’t vampires – they seemed more like H.G. Wells’ Morlocks or the bomb-worshiping mutants from “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.”
    It seems “I Am Legend” was originally published in 1954. That hardly seems very new, but I guess it is newer than Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But since you recommend it so highly, and since I’ve already seen two movies based on it (and I see there is now another new version being made with Will Smith) maybe I should read it too.
    Anyway, I did enjoy the first two books by Anne Rice, before she let the Lestat character take over completely – changing him from an interesting anti-hero to a more generally heroic figure and making Louis out to be a whiny, miserable loser. I don’t have a problem with Vampire romance novels per se, but I got tired of Anne Rice in particular and it did sour me on vampire/werewolf/demon romance novels for a while.


  6. Dave: I meant “new take” as compared to the traditional view of vampires. Of course it’s not a recent book 😉
    I haven’t seen Charlton Heston’s movie, but I do know it’s only loosely based on the book. In “I Am Legend”, they are vampires indeed (part of what the protagonist’s does daily is trying to figure out what works against vampires and what is just a myth). And then, there is an interesting reversal at the end of the book… though it was spoiled on the back of the Spanish language edition I read.
    You’re right I don’t like the entire vampire romance genre. I’m not even sure a thrilling vampire book or movie can be made nowadays; the genre has had so much exposure, it’s impossible to frighten people with these creatures anymore.


  7. I think the whole issue of overexposure is very intriguing. Vampires are such a specific subset of horror that it surely should have been tapped out years ago… but somehow people still find new things to add.
    For myself, at around the time I fell in love with Firefly/Serenity, I was convinced that Buffy/Angel had no appeal for me. I’ve since fallen into the whole world (just wrapped up Buffy Season 3!) but not necessarily for the vampire side of things – more for the way the story develops and (especially) the way that actions have consequences (and these consequences make sense). So I guess my point is that maybe the overexposed vampire can be used if all the other parts of your story are done smartly.


  8. I don’t know if there’s any kind of horror monster that hasn’t been overexposed or seemingly tapped out. (When the Three Stooges were meeting Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy or Frankenstein’s monster, I think that was pretty much the end of those monsters’ original scariness.)
    But somehow, old monsters keep coming back. They get re-envisioned and presented in new ways. Writers find new ways to use them or to make them scary again. Who would have thought that mummies could be scary 10 years ago? But I think The Mummy was pretty successfully revived by Hollywood.
    What I think is peculiar with vampires – and perhaps new – is that people now fantasize about becoming vampires. I can’t think of many monsters that have changed from horrifying to heroic in quite the same way (maybe werewolves come close?) Is there any going back? I think it is possible. All that’s really required is someone with a new and compelling vision of a vampire. Something that touches on modern fears or revives old fears about disease, contagion, or perhaps being the victim of a powerful predator.
    There’s probably no going back to the old rising bloated corpses of family and friends, or the old satanic agents of evil and temptation, or even the diseased, rat-faced Nosferatu of yesteryear. Those versions of vampires have done their work. There will have to be another re-envisioning of vampires before that monster will scare us again. Right now it seems to be zombies that are capturing the imagination of horror fans everywhere, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some talented person pulled off something new and frightening with vampires.
    Actually, the vampires in I Am Legend are a lot like the zombies that appear in films today. Maybe zombies have replaced the role that vampires used to play in horror?


  9. Sorry, I just realized that I was thinking of Abbot and Costello meeting all those famous movie monsters, not the Three Stooges.
    I guess the Three Stooges only ever met Hercules. And maybe Snow White.


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