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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

 

Scary versus sexy

Here's an interesting article that someone livejournaled. (Searching for my own name does occasionally turn up good stuff. I figure it's because the people who like my book are all such intelligent, witty, good-looking gifts to civilisation. Paragons, every one of them. Also, the author, a Ms Naomi J. Clark, has clearly done her homework and knows about the subject, which, added to a refreshingly sensible attitude towards killing people, makes it a good read.) The article is calling attention to an odd recent phenomenon: for the most part, people tackling the old myths such as vampires, werewolves and what-have-you have tended to make them - well, rather nice, really. It's not so much that they wander around killing people; it's more as if they have an eccentric fetish.

How did this happen? I'd be fascinated to hear people's theories. Here's mine: I think it's a short progression that goes down a few literary generations. Never having been a big monster-fic fan myself, I haven't read every vampire book ever written, but it's not that big a hop from myth to Bram Stoker to Anne Rice to vampirism-as-lifestyle.

Stoker poured fears into his conception of Dracula, and there were several main ones. Threatening foreigners was one - Dracula is definitely Not From Around Here. So was contamination and disease. And, being a Victorian man living through an era where convention and morals were being continually questioned, inevitably sexuality was another fear. I gather (from a source that's Internet so I can't check for definite) that Stoker himself was not altogether comfortable with sex: he's quoted as saying 'the only emotions that in the long run harm are those arising from sex impulses', which pretty much speaks for itself. So Dracula is foreign, and he's contagious, and he's sexual. Scary things, if you're Bram Stoker.

Dracula expresses sexual fear; later writers, most prominently Anne Rice, pick up on the undertone and take some of the fear out. Dracula is sometimes a handsome young man, sometimes a fragile old one, sometimes a leechlike, blood-swollen scarlet-skinned grotesque, spanning the possibilities of youth and decreptitude, corpsehood and vigour, shifting between them as if his antiquity frees him from the one-way-ticket inevitability of the mortal lifeline. Age and youth are states he can visit, not states visited upon him. Conversely, Rice's characters are freed from ugliness and age. It's not that they can experience decrepitude for a while and then escape it again; it's a state they'll never reach. The rot is sponged off, leaving only the sexual temptation.
And with that achieved, Rice does the temptation in a much purer form. It's worth noting, for instance, that Rice also wrote some bestselling sado-masochistic erotica. Having read a bit of both (but by no means all of either), I can see why the style is a match: in both erotica and her vampire novels she's able to take a rather dream-like narrative structure, moving from emotional or sensual high point to high point rather than fixing her attention on rigorous cause and effect. Given this dream-like quality, a gaze that focuses on moments rather than origins, you can see why the fear might get lost. Rice evidently has a strong erotic imagination anyway (as witness the success of her BDSM books); in short, she did what writers always do, which is cherry-pick the things that interest you out of your influences and go with that. In this case, sexuality.
And from here, we move to lifestyle monsters. At this stage, I think a major factor comes into play: youth. I am guessing here, but I have the strong feeling from comments I've seen online that the majority of lifestyle monster fans are young. And it's a curious thing: the older you get, the more the nastiness of violence strikes you. I read A Clockwork Orange with great admiration when I was seventeen; I still admire it, but when I started rereading it last month, there was a big sign in my brain that wasn't there before, saying, 'This is really horrible.' Teenagers are generally nice people, but the capacity to identify with the victim of a situation being described by the aggressor is, at least in my own experience, something that grows on you with age. You become more immune to cool. If you're writing for a younger audience, then sexiness becomes something of a trump card. Hence, the violence inherent in the biting-people lifestyle may be easier to ignore.

This is especially the case when you're writing for girls, I think. Now, I may be just about to show my age here, because when I were a youngun we didn't have no fancy Internet and all t'young lasses may be downloadin' nowadays, but I still have the impression that, while teenagers of both sexes are interested in finding outlets and anchors for their sexual fantasies, girls are likely to be more covert about it. Boys know they're expected to look at porn; girls, not so much. But they still have sexual feelings, and respond to things that speak to those feelings. Hence, a book that's officially 'romance' or 'fantasy' but has some nice sexy scenes in it is going to be a real find. It's titillating, but it's not officially porn. Porn usage is a virginity like any other kind of sex, and I suspect that girls, particularly younger girls who are more likely to be fastidious, may prefer to hold on to their porn cherry. A sensual book that's technically just a novel is the perfect solution.
Add to this the fact that women seem to be more aroused by written material than by pictures, and you've got a big market for erotic fiction with stories that are about something other than sex.
There's yet another reason for this, which is that it's very difficult to sustain a narrative on nothing but shagging. Outside of a bordello, people don't have sex non-stop, and it's a feat of structural engineering to make it seem even halfway plausible in a plot. But most women seem to prefer erotica where the characters have at least a semblance of reality, the sex has at least a semblance of context, and there's some kind of emotional background. If the story is about something fetishistic, that has a sexual overtone but isn't just plain sex, you've made the task easier.
Vampires, which have an erotic history as part of the package, are an obvious choice. But there's another element of fantasy as well, which I haven't seen anyone give a name to but which I generally call 'ego fantasy'. Mary Sue is the classic ego fantasy, but it doesn't have to have violet eyes and ankle-length curls for the term to apply. Basically an ego fantasy is a story where a character does things that gratify the writer's and readers' desires for power, status and specialness, in the same way that erotica gratifies your desire for sexual pleasure: it's fantasy via Adler rather than via Freud.*
Ego fantasy, by its nature, is more driven by either wish-fulfilment or authorial admiration of the character than by psychological realism; the writer's main desire is not versimilitude. With the pull of ego fantasy, distortions can happen.
This isn't to say that there isn't a place for such fantasies, but they tend towards a bottom line. Give a character supernatural or exceptional powers, and there's a risk of it turning into ego fantasy. Take an idea and let it pass down several generations of writers, and you've got the Blurred Photocopy effect thrown into the mix. The original bite fades away, and you're left with - well, like, that would be cool to live forever and fly and stuff.
The mild-to-severe BDSM tone of such stories isn't surprising. Sado-masochism, according to a theory I've heard from various sources, is an eroticisation of one's worst fears. If something frightens you, you have to deal with that fear, and there are a number of ways to do that. You can endure it; you can conquer it; you can eroticise it. The story that gives a child nightmares may end up giving the adult an entirely different kind of thrill. Besides, if you want to denature the horror of an idea, what alternatives are there? You can be revisionist and deny that it was ever frightening, only misrepresented, or you can turn the fear into sexual tension that can be released in arousal.
And at this point, the original, stark, horrifying myth is a long way from home...
* In fact, Adler's theory of the secondary inferiority feeling is based on ego fantasies in real life as opposed to fiction. In order to compensate for feeling inferior, one creates an idealised image of oneself and strives to reach it; secondary inferiority comes from comparing one's real self to the ideal self that one created to compensate for feeling inferior in the first place. Sad business, really. What he'd say about writers who put their idealised self into fiction to compensate for initial feelings of inferiority I don't know; maybe it's a good solution. (Not that I'm particularly knocking the egos of ego-fantasy writers; everyone feels insecure sometimes.)
(Incidentally, there are supposed to be more paragraphs in this, but Blogger is refusing to oblige. Sorry.)

Comments:
Great post.
 
It's probably just backlash. First vampires were all nasty, now they're all nice and misunderstood. Wait for the pendulum to swing back again.
 
Wow, I feel famous! Thanks for reading the article :)

I'm interested to know if people think the trend towards "safer" monsters is just a trend, or if eventually that pendulum will swing back towards horror again.

Naomi
 
Just dropping in here to pass on something I learned from Pandagon--not all modern vampires are nice. There are some pretty damn unpleasant ones, particularly in Gaiman (15 Cards from a Vampire Tarot) and Blindsight, which is more scifi. Just in case anyone reading this is looking to mix it up.
 
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