Sunday, October 2, 2011

the monsters are dead: long live the vampire boyfriend.

About three hundred years ago, vampires trespassed into popular literature to suck the blood of innocents. We called that horror.

About thirty years ago, vampires confessed to their misdeeds, their intentions and their un-lives. We called them tragic.

Twice-three years ago (why not keep the pattern of citation?), they threw off their tragic cloaks and started to sparkle.

Apparently that's sexy these days.

Let's set down a baseline: urban fantasy and paranormal romance aren't the same genre. There's the occasional overlap--sometimes a protagonist needs to make out with a monster to make their quota on emotional conflict, okay?--but the emphasis to each story is different. Urban fantasy is, at its heart, about the city transformed: whether subtly--in alleyways and shadowed corners--or outright, with wolves stalking daylight. Sometimes people fall in love in its course, but love isn't the point. Meanwhile, paranormal romance may incorporate the same elements, but ultimately the story isn't about the setting. The magical city backdrop is only a backdrop for the protagonists to stand on as they consider if and how much they do love each other. And sometimes they shoot monsters while they do it--but that isn't the point either.

So what is the point? Why--the monsters, of course. (We'll use monsters as a general term for all the scary beings who frequent a supernatural story.) It takes a very specific kind of narrative to lure a protagonist into love with his/her worst fear, and paranormal romance usually isn't it. The spotlight in the genre isn't on the twisted workings of the main character's mind and the horror of how they could possibly fall for such a creature. It's on the inherent tragedy of the (often outcast) 'monster' who can only be restored to some modicum of self-worth through love. Sometimes they want it, sometimes they don't, and to be fair, love-as-panacea is a cornerstone of the romance genre anyway. You could make the argument that paranormal romance isn't much worse than the rest when they use it.

Except the key to monsterhood is fear. That makes all the difference.

Take vampires again, for example. (They're probably used to it by now.) They were horrifying, long ago--and they still ought to be horrifying in concept. These are creatures whose (pardon the vitalist phrasing) life-goal is to stab their sharp, hollow teeth into your arteries and drain your blood in order to preserve and animate their corpses. They stalk the dark; they prefer the helpless. That is not reassuring in any way. But paranormal romance's approach isn't to stake the suckers; it's to date them and show them that they're deserving of true joy. Past crimes are often elided entirely in favor of, "well, you've changed--you're different now."

You can put that particular narrative development down to all different reasons: audiences' growing obsessions with the macabre, the anti-hero. But what it comes down to is this: paranormal romance is killing monsters too. A softer approach than the survivors of a horror novel usually take, sure--certainly softer even than the urban fantasy ideal. But it's murder all the same, because the original purpose to the monsters is gone. They aren't scary anymore. Instead, they weep bloody tears into their artfully crinkled gloves. They sulk over tubs of cookie dough. They hang around outside your bedroom window, staring at their cellphones and vaguely hoping you'll call them.

While that's certainly horrifying in a different way, and while we can argue all sorts of things about the point of a monster who engenders no fear--well, you can't really call those real monsters, can you? Not anymore. They're just your typical bad boy with bigger teeth. And so, most of the time, paranormal romance is just regular romance with slightly flashier effects.

The monsters aren't real there. They haven't been in a while.

2 comments:

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  2. I think that is a really interesting point. It's strange, for me at least, though refreshing, to think of the effects of paranormal romance as a genre on the perception of monsters in general. I wonder what it is about our culture today that guides us to a greater awareness of the "sparkling" monsters as opposed to those that instill an innate fear. Part of me wonders if monsters have fundamentally changed or if a greater appreciation (desensitization?) of monsters have allowed us to probe them more completely. Ultimately, I see two questions. One, have all of our original monsters left us? And second, with the death of our original monsters, do we see the birth of more meaningful ones?

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