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Posts Tagged ‘Gothic’

“Safe Sex with Defanged Vampires: New Vampire Heroes in Twilight and the Southern Vampire Mysteries” by Chiho Nakagawa

Although we are witnessing a surge of vampire novels and movies today, this popularity is not merely a contemporary phenomenon. Many vampire-themed stories have been written since the publication of the first popular vampire novel, Dracula (1897), and many TV shows and films have been produced, notably including Nosferatu (1922), Blood and Roses (1960), TV series Dark Shadows (1966-1971) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), its spin-off Angel (1999-2004), and Underworld (2003). Of contemporary vampire media, two examples are of particular interest to popular romance scholars, both because of their extraordinary popularity and because of their distinctive deployments of romance plots: the Twilight saga, which started as a series of novels and has been made into a series of films, and Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries (SVM), sometimes also known as the Sookie Stackhouse Novels, after its female protagonist, which has been adapted into the HBO TV drama series True Blood. Borrowing many conventions from romance novels and Gothic fiction, both of these series portray a romance between a human female and a male vampire; however, in a startling departure from the dominant traditions in vampire fiction, in which vampires signify transgression—excess of sex or deviation from some sexual norm—the vampires do not show any deviation from decency. Edward Cullen in Twilight and Bill Compton in the SVM usually do not kill humans, and (with one notable exception, for Bill) they do not attack humans sexually, either. Quite the contrary: they display almost perfect control over their “natural” urges. No longer dark or horrifying, these vampire heroes are almost defanged.

In reading these vampire novels, I will take the same position as Linda Barlow in reading romance novels: that is, I will treat them as “psychological maps which provide intriguing insights into the emotional landscape of women” (46). By analyzing the heroes (or hero-villains) of these new vampire romance novels in the context of Gothic novels and romance novels, I hope to explore the emotional landscape of women today. More specifically, I will argue that these two vampire stories reflect contemporary women’s lowered sense of danger concerning sexuality as such, yet heightened sense of danger in terms of the boundaries of self. Targeted at young adult audiences, Twilight thus ends as a fairytale in which the man makes every effort to talk the woman into sex and marriage by convincing her that the horror stories girls hear about men are not always true. Targeted at a more mature audience, the Sookie Stackhouse Novels offer a warier lesson, as Sookie realizes that her vampire hero is indeed not to be trusted, and worthy of being feared. Unlike Twilight’s Bella, that is to say, Sookie finds that her safe hero is not really defanged, but that his fangs are merely retracted. This realization is crucial to her acquiring a more mature perception of both sexuality and self, one appropriate to an adult woman negotiating the risks of contemporary romance.

Vampires of the Past and Vampires Today

Vampire stories in the nineteenth century offer us glimpses into illicit desires, allowing the writers to talk about sexuality in a way that otherwise cannot be done. Even in the absence of explicit descriptions of sexual acts, nineteenth-century vampire stories offered their authors the opportunity to hint at, or even revel in, a variety of sexual transgressions. Those celebrations of illicit desires can be seen in some of the earliest examples of vampire story: John William Polidori’s “The Vampyre” (1819), for example, in which male-to-male desire comes to the forefront, and then, about fifty years later, Sheridan Le Fanu’s story of female-to-female desire in another vampire story, “Carmilla” (1872). In these older stories, the fatal penetrations of a vampire’s bite displace/replace the unspeakable sexual penetrations they signify, a technique still employed in contemporary popular novels, where actual sexual acts might presumably be named or portrayed, perhaps in order to give an air of ominous significance and meaning to them that goes beyond the merely physical. Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles, for example, plays with vampires’ transgressive sexuality, invoking both male to male desire and child sexuality. The Southern Vampire Mysteries can also be placed in this tradition, since many of its vampire characters show a variety of sexualities.

The characterization of today’s vampires has deep roots as well. The most enduringly influential presentation of the vampire remains Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Building on Polidori’s model, this fin-de-siècle Gothic novel molded what used to be a folkloric monster into a dark hero; in the process, it softened, or at least modulated, the figure’s transgressive sexual overtones. As Christopher Craft argues, vampire attacks confuse the “gender-based categories of the penetrating and the receptive” (261), but in Stoker’s text, the potentially homosexual desires that link Count Dracula and Jonathan Harker are lessened through the novel’s deployment of female vampires. What remains, however—giving a model for writers to come—is a novel that plays in memorable ways with the thrills, fears, and pleasures of sex more generally, as though even heteronormative sex were, in the vampire context, shadowed by a deliciously and exotically transgressive quality. Count Dracula’s national and class exoticism, as an aristocrat who hails from the backwoods of Europe, serves to emphasize his Otherness: a Byronic, “dangerous lover” figure, in Deborah Lutz’s terms, whose erotic allure “represents the paradoxical fascination and repulsion of sex that is desirable because it is dangerous, because it might lead to pain, expulsion, and/or death” (85).

We need not read the fin-de-siècle vampire text in exclusively sexual terms, however. Vampires in these novels might also be said to represent the British Empire’s latent fears of the colonized, with the mysterious deaths that vampires cause suggesting the Empire’s fears and guilt coming back to haunt it (in this case, quite literally). These cultural and sociopolitical overtones endure in contemporary American popular fiction, although they naturally play out somewhat differently in a nation of immigrants. As Count Dracula represents antiquity and exoticism to the English readers, for example, vampires in the United States are also often associated with something old and exotic—and, in the process, they allow authors to emphasize the antiquity and exoticism, or the sunny modernity, of specific American locations. Anne Rice, for example, sets New Orleans as the capital of American vampires because of its exotic atmosphere, especially in antebellum periods with its aristocracy and slavery, while Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which featured a mix of immigrant and homemade, all-American vampires, played the contrast between these figures and his setting, fictional “Sunnydale,” California, for both horror and humor. Buffy even has an episode in which Buffy encounters the one and only Count Dracula, and while he manages to exert his hypnotic influence on Buffy, he seems comically out of place in a bright, West Coast suburb.

Both of the series I am considering here offer elaborate negotiations with Otherness, trying by turns to emphasize the alluring exoticism of the vampire characters and to Americanize them. In Twilight, for example, the heroine’s move from sunny and scorching Phoenix, Arizona, to gloomy and overcast Forks, Washington, a setting that has its own traditions of exotic horror (it recalls the 1990-91 TV series Twin Peaks) and which seems a believable home for sun-avoiding vampires, who find the environment quite favorable. The Cullen children, Edward Cullen’s vampire siblings, keep to themselves and stand out as a distinct group in a school cafeteria, rather like an ethnic or racial group in any American high school. However, the Cullens are not exactly foreign; the patriarch of the family, Carlisle came from seventeenth century England but the Cullen children were born, raised, and turned to vampires in the United States. They are, at heart, Americanized vampires, a fact that is emphasized when Dracula-like Romanian vampires, Stefan and Vladimir, visit near the end of the series, only to find themselves at odds with both the physical environment and with the other vampires in the New World. In the Sookie Stackhouse Novels, as a nod to the influence of Anne Rice’s work, New Orleans is the vampire capital of the United States. But although New Orleans retains some of its exoticized, Old World flair, Harris seems more interested in its place within a broader Southern context. Sookie’s first love interest, Bill Compton, used to be a Civil War soldier when alive, making him a hundred-percent Southern homeboy, and the first personal favor she asks of him is to talk about his Civil War experience to a history group to which Sookie’s grandmother belongs. Harris’s vampire heroes are still “Others,” yet if they are immigrants, they are primarily immigrants from the past (which is, at least proverbially, a foreign country).

Upon finding habitats in the U.S., then, vampires have lost some Otherness, a natural progression for outsiders in the land of immigrants. Indeed, if the vampires of both series evoke the image of cultural and racial minority inside the United States, they do so not in a mode of guilt or anxiety (as in the fin-de- siècle texts) but in an almost upbeat fashion: these “immigrants” have succeeded in assimilating to American society and values, their acculturation made evident by their success in the stock market or other investments. [1] (Each of the Cullen families, for example, has accumulated considerable wealth, impressing people with their expensive foreign cars.) New vampires maintain an old charm by remaining slightly foreign, slightly aristocratic, but they are also comfortably Americanized.

Heroes and Hero-Villains

The reduced foreignness and Otherness of vampire heroes in those stories points to broader changes in the “darkness” (in a non-racial sense) of their previously dark heroes. The hero-villain in the Gothic holds mysteries, which normally means unspeakable secrets; for example, aside from being an egomaniac, he could be a wife-beater, a murderer, a demon, and of course, a vampire. It was Mario Praz in The Romantic Agony (1933) who coined the phrase, the “Fatal Man,” to describe one prototype of main characters of the Gothic. Praz’ s example is Schedoni in Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian, and he sees the Fatal Man to be a descendent of John Milton’s Satan. He describes the Fatal Man to be of “mysterious (but conjectured to be exalted) origin,” marked by “traces of burned-out passions, suspicion of a ghastly guilt, melancholy habits, pale face, unforgettable eyes” (61).

In Praz’s account, the Fatal Man normally takes the position of the main character in Male Gothic, in which he pursues his insatiable desires—whether for power, for sex, for money, or for knowledge—using all the means available to him. This figure was memorably transformed into an actual hero (as opposed to simply a main character) in Jane Eyre’s hero-villain, Rochester. As Robert Heilman insists, Rochester is not simply a hero or a villain; he is a hero-villain—a hero with some villainous aspect, which must be resolved (or dissolved away) before the conclusion of the novel. This duality seems linked to Rochester’s masculinity: that is, Rochester is the Male as Other, a figure who has never entirely left the genre of popular romance. In their classic studies, both Janice Radway and Tania Modleski argue that sociopolitical conditions under patriarchy produce a psychological distance between men and women, and that romance novels represent this distance by having the heroes’ “masculine behavior” (Modleski 60) and their rejection of expressing emotions, as much as their access to power, make them seem “Other” to women. Ontologically alien to the heroine, the hero is difficult or impossible for her to read—until, that is, she finds a way to see through this cold and hard surface and discover that the hero is, in fact, sensitive and affectionate, and not “fatal” after all.

As many critics have argued, in romance fiction since the 1980s this distant hero figure has been supplemented by a new, more emotionally available presentation of man: a transformation in the genre that takes place in part by the addition of the hero’s point of view to the romance novel, and in part by an actual change in his behavior. In a study of the “hero’s presentation” from the 1970s to the 90s, Dawn Heinecken asserts that the romance hero has become “less silent, more emotional, and more overtly tender and caring” (158). The new vampire hero belongs to this new generation of men. Edward Cullen and Bill Compton express their feelings often enough to avoid major misunderstandings; as Bonnie Mann bluntly puts, “Edward gets it,” a sharp contrast both to earlier romance heroes and to real life teenage boys who are clueless about girls’ feelings (140). Indeed, both Edward and Bill always try their hardest to understand their girlfriends’ emotional lives, often putting concern for them ahead of their masculine code of behavior. Each may go away for a period of time, leaving their girlfriends to interpret physical distances as emotional distances, but on their return, each soon explains himself and clarifies the situation, easing the heroine’s anxieties: hardly the behavior of an ontological Other.

Safe Vampire Heroes

Whether they feature the dark alpha heroes of the past or the softer, caring heroes of today, romance novels have to end happily. In the former case, as Jayne Ann Krentz insists, the heroine must conquer or tame the hero to achieve their happy ending; in the case of a softer, caring hero, Heinecken explains, the heroine has to heal him. Theoretically speaking, a vampire love story might fit into either category: after all, vampire heroes are traditionally aristocratic and powerful, and the need to feed on blood gives the vampire hero plenty of reason to be a brooding hero, if he has any conscience at all, or to be sheer, terrifying evil if he continues to indulge his appetite.  (Angel, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, torments himself for what he has done as a vampire before he regains his soul by a gypsy’s curse; over the course of the series he is arguably both conquered and healed by the heroine.) In the Twilight and Sookie Stackhouse Novels, however, what has to be solved before the conclusion of the story and the consummation of love is neither the heroes’ cold and distant attitudes nor his emotional wounding, because their boyfriends are, on the whole, conscientious, peace-loving creatures.

Edward Cullen in the Twilight saga, for example, belongs to a family that feeds only on animals, and he himself exhibits incredible self-control, subduing his desires—for blood and for sex—to the point that Bella does not have to worry about her safety at all, at least from him. Throughout the Twilight saga, Edward keeps trying to make Bella admit that he is a dangerous hero, but he only makes her feel safe, and his repetitious warnings serve mostly to remind us, by contrast, of how unthreatening he really is. As Carrie Anne Platt points out, Bella’s physical vulnerability reflects “social anxieties surrounding adolescent [female] sexuality” (80), but Edward behaves like an ideal boyfriend that a girl’s parents dream of. Because he sees Bella as easily “breakable” (Eclipse 466), he treats her like fine china until her transformation, preaching and practicing “mind over matter” (Twilight 300). Bella may find herself in occasional dangers because of her vampire boyfriend, but if Bella is a “magnet for trouble” (Twilight 174), this is so that Edward may repeatedly rescue her. The love affair itself is not a flirtation with death. As Bella aptly comments, Edward in fact belongs to a “fairy tale, rather than the world of horror stories” (BD 479). The safe vampire is less a dark hero than he is a knight in shining armor.[2]

In the Southern Vampire Mysteries, we see a parallel to the Cullen family’s decision not to drink human blood. Here, vampires have “come out from the coffin” (Dark 1) and live among humans upon the invention of artificial blood called “TrueBlood.”[3] Indeed, the vampires themselves are sometimes at risk from evil humans; on the day of their first meeting, Sookie saves Bill, the vampire hero of the series, from the Drainers, people who rob vampires of their blood to sell. Bill is so damaged and battered that Sookie coos, “poor baby” (Dark 10). This power inversion, however, is shortly corrected: Bill saves subsequently Sookie from those Drainers, who come back to attack her, and kills them. Since he is “mainstreaming,” i.e., attempting to live among humans, he does not kill to eat, but he can kill to protect her and himself. This killing does not disturb Sookie, and the peaceful feeling he can give to her is “priceless” “no matter what this creature beside [her has] done” (Dark 50). While witnessing the proof of his ability for violence, Sookie does not believe he would hurt her, “even if [he] were really mad at [her]” (Dark 166): a selective and controlled practice of violence, that is to say, establishes Bill to Sookie as a savior and protector. In this series, however—unlike the Twilight saga—the heroine’s faith that her vampire hero is harmless turns out to be incorrect, a turn that I will discuss shortly in the context of the third of the Southern Vampire Mystery novels, Club Dead.

Animalistic Sex and the Significance of Virginity

In both the Twilight series and the Southern Vampire Mysteries, vampires thus suppress and control their animalistic aspects in order to assimilate into modern American society. These animal aspects include both the thirst for human blood and sexual desire; in fact, the two are linked. Edward refrains himself from kissing Bella because he is worried that his sexual drive triggers his desire for blood, while in the Southern Vampire Mysteries, bloodsucking functions as foreplay. Bloodsucking is thus no longer a metaphor for sexual intercourse but a sexual act itself, and, in turn, this suggests that sexual desire, like the desire to feed, is irresistible. Edward’s abstinence and the “vegetarianism” in both series paradoxically crystallize the libidinal and hedonistic nature of bloodsucking and sex, and as a result, these novels reinforce the old and traditional view that sex is instinctual, uncontrollable, and potentially fatal. The attraction between the hero and the heroine is described as comparable terms. Both heroines feel an instant attraction for their “own vampire[s]” (Dark 1), while in return, Bella attracts Edward with her smell, and Sookie also possesses special fragrance irresistible to Bill. None of the complex negotiations, ambiguities, or misunderstandings of non-paranormal human relationships are on display in these novels; indeed, we do not even see the preliminary dislike that was once so common between the heroes and heroines of popular romance.[4] Attraction, compatibility, and true love are all somehow one.

This conjunction of attraction and true love is central to another motif in these series: the heroines lose their virginity to their vampire heroes. Like the construction of sex more generally in the novels, their use of the romantic convention of virginal heroines is curiously old-fashioned. What can we make of it? Romance writers such as Doreen Owens Malek and Brittany Young have defended this motif in the genre, arguing that virginity loss creates more drama and power to a story (Malek 118) and that this motif encodes an ideal of female autonomy and self-possession: as Young explains, the heroine “makes the choice to give [the hero] the gift of virginity” (122, my emphasis). From a more skeptical standpoint, however, one might observe that the traditional emphasis on female virginity in popular romance “enlists sexuality under the banner of love” (Cohn, 29), suggesting as it does that sex outside the context of “true love” remains somehow sinful, or at least unfortunate. It is thus notable that although many contemporary popular romance novels, according to Abbi Zidle, acknowledge the difference between love and lust in women, and even the existence of multiple true-love interests (30), in these series, a more traditional view of sex and virginity still seems to hold. In the words of romance author and critic Jayne Ann Krentz, who defends the virginity motif, there are “high stakes involved” (Krentz 112). And if popular romance generally embraces an “idea of selfhood as sexual” (Cohn, 35) those stakes include the selfhood of Bella and Sookie, a psychological issue we can distinguish from the more obvious moral and political issues bound up in female virginity.

Psychological Barriers

If the attraction between hero and heroine is instantaneous and instinctual and if the romance hero does not pose any threats, theoretically speaking, there lies no obstacle in consummating love. Where are the problems to be solved, the misunderstandings to be clarified, the mysterious pasts to be overcome? In their place, these new vampire romance novels offer heroines’ psychological barriers as obstacles. The concept of “boundaries of self,” familiar from critical accounts of Gothic, helps clarify what is at stake. Eugenia Delamotte argues that Female Gothic is concerned with the boundaries of self, signified in negotiations at the thresholds. According to her, Gothic episodes in which a heroine has to fend off an intruder threatening to come in, or struggle to escape from an underground cellar, all symbolize women’s anxieties about the boundaries of self: “terrors of separateness and the terrors of unity,” the “fear of being shut in, cut off, alone,” and the “fear of being intruded upon” (19). These new vampire novels also express the concerns with the boundaries of self of these heroines, who reject men or people in general, raising emotional barriers against them.

When we first meet Bella, her emotional barriers seem realistic enough. A social outcast in Phoenix, where the sun shines all year around and is inhabited with tanned blond girls, Bella does not “fit in,” either physically or socially. She does not “relate well to people [her] age,” the novel tells us, or to people in general (Twilight 10); even when she finds herself surrounded with admirers and friends in perpetually overcast Forks, Washington, she keeps to herself without finding a friend whom she can truly trust. Because the Twilight series is paranormal fiction, however, Bella’s emotional barriers can also be represented supernaturally. Edward, who can read the minds of others, cannot read hers, and other vampires cannot use their supernatural powers to harm her even while she is human, a power that becomes even greater when she turns into a vampire herself.

Sookie’s barrier is likewise literalized in supernatural terms. A telepath, Sookie cannot build any connection with others because their thoughts and feelings are oppressively transparent and overwhelming to her. What she calls “disability” makes her particularly stay away from men, rejecting any sexual advances from them. As a result, she has kept her virginity until the age of twenty-five, and has already given up on having a relationship, thinking that she will just “grow old and die” (Dark 56). In order to cope with her ability as a telepath, Sookie has to consciously reject hearing and understanding people’s minds; this training in shutting others off develops into a barrier against vampires’ supernatural intrusion. Thus, like Bella who intrigues Edward because of her blocking ability, Sookie surprises Bill Compton with her immunity to his hypnosis. In effect, these series return to the notion of an unreadable, gendered Other—but this time, it is the heroine who stands aloof and resistant. These heroines’ emotional barriers are the symbols of their isolation and alienation, but also of their obstinate defense of the boundaries of self against romantic approaches. To balance out softened heroes, we have hardened heroines.

In a more literal sense, barriers and thresholds hold a particular significance in vampire lore. On the one hand, DeLamotte argues that vampirism “represents the threat of physical violation—a transgression against the body, the last barrier protecting the self from the other” (21). On the other hand, vampires cannot enter a house unless invited, or so the convention runs. Between these two extremes we find vampires’ legendary propensity for psychological violation. Because they cannot enter houses uninvited, vampires have to have the mental ability to manipulate and intrude upon human minds so that the physical intrusion becomes possible; in other words, a psychological penetration precedes a physical penetration. Although the convention of “no entry unless invited” is not employed in Twilight, Edward does have the ability for mental intrusion, i.e., to read people’s minds, and what intrigues him most about Bella is that he cannot read her. In the Southern Vampire Mysteries, vampires do have to be invited into a house, and they do hypnotize humans in order to do so—but sometimes in these novels, blood consumption also serves as an invitation into the psychological domain, reversing the trope. When injured, for example, Sookie has to drink Bill’s blood to heal, resulting in the first penetration that prepares their eventual sexual encounter.[5] Sookie lowers her guard, and then she realizes how she “reveals herself” to Bill (Dark 33). Not every blood-drinking incident in this series is as symbolically fraught as this one, but clearly this (inverted) human/vampire bodily penetration promotes the emotional and psychological dissolutions of boundaries, which ultimately leads to a sexual union that combines physical and psychological aspects.

Sex as Psychological Mediator

In these vampire novels, sex becomes a means to “share” feelings, rather than simply to exchange bodily fluids. In the world in which dangerous vampires are not so dangerous, the heroines’ special abilities concerning “penetrability” complement the relative lack, or unwillingness of vampires to “penetrate” in creating a necessary obstacle to be overcome. Before the intrusion and invasion can occur, the heroines have to learn the mistake of their ways by spending time with the patient and conscientious vampires so that the heroines’ boundaries of self stop being a problem. Here, again, we see a role inversion from traditional romance; the one who has to be understood and healed is now the heroine. Bella learns to trust others and to make friends, mostly with the Cullens; Sookie Stackhouse has to be healed by opening up about her painful past, in which she was sexually molested by her uncle. Bill Compton is a perfect healer and avenger who helps Sookie prepare herself to love a man.[6] Pamela Regis suggests that in the romance novel, “intimacy” is a means to conquer the barrier of gender, both physical and emotional (180). In the Southern Vampire Mysteries, this intimacy is achieved in a profoundly literal way, as the “blood bond” established through drinking and being drunk (a mutual “penetration”) establishes a psychic bond. After sex, as well as blood-sharing, the heroines literally can feel the vampires’ feelings. To borrow a metaphor from more traditional vampire narratives, these heroines have opened a door, psychologically and physically, and invited their vampire heroes into their inner place.

Bella’s impenetrability might also be understood in a religious context. The author of the Twilight series, Stephanie Meyers, is a Mormon, and the saga can be read as an allegory of indoctrination to Mormonism, in which a non-Mormon “gentile” girl from a dysfunctional family finds faith with the guidance of a Mormon man, who advocates abstinence until marriage, and finally becomes assimilated into a close-knit “beautiful family,” united “forever and forever and forever.”[7] On the physical level, Bella seems willing to step up her relationship with Edward further, and she even suggests that their roles are reversed; “you make me feel like a villain in a melodrama—twirling my mustache while I try to steal some poor girl’s virtue” (Eclipse 453), but unlike Sookie, Bella remains unreadable to Edward even after losing her virginity and being transformed into a vampire. As Penelope Williamson argues about romance and the heroine’s virginity, the “heroine does not lose her innocence along with her virginity” (130), and Bella’s continuing psychological “impenetrability” is a vivid instance of that ongoing innocence and the inalienable power of her separate selfhood. Indeed, when Bella becomes a vampire herself, a transformation required for her to safely give birth to her half-vampire child, her power is amplified. Bella’s impenetrability is no longer limited to herself but expanded to protect her “family” from outside threats. Williamson argues that in late 20th-century romances, “through the hero’s lovemaking” the heroine “discovers the power and potential of her woman’s sexuality” (130). In keeping with the generally conservative ethos of Twilight, Bella does not become a sexually powerful or exploratory wife. [8] But she does acquire a new, particularly womanly power through her sexual experience—or, to be specific, through maternity. Once Bella becomes a mother, she can protect her family.

In both of these vampire series, then—and in sharp contrast to earlier, more transgressive vampire narratives—sexual intercourse and blood-sharing lead to the building of the familial bond. Bella gets pregnant immediately after her first sexual encounter, followed by her transformation, and Sookie has her first sex soon after her Grandmother, her only close family member, dies.[9] Sex is a way to create a family or create a substitute for a family. In other words, these new vampire romance novels uphold the traditional fantasy of emotional bonding and merging of self through sexual intercourse. What were once transgressive acts of sex with (or penetration by) vampires are now safe and morally and socially legitimate. In keeping with the other ways that the vampire narrative has been Americanized, these series present sex with vampires as an expression of what conservative discourse in the United States commonly refers to as “family values.”

Rich Vampires and Poor Heroines

In her 1999 study of “Changing Ideologies in Romance Fiction,” Heinecken links the changing construction of the romance hero, with his newfound emotional accessibility, to a new construction of sexuality. In late 20th-century romance novels, she posits, sex is “no longer a mere physical act” but rather an “expressive form of communication” (168). The heroes and sexual encounters in these new vampire romances—especially in the Southern Vampire Mysteries—might both seem to follow this new model, but as we have seen, the ideologies of the series remain remarkably conservative, especially in their construction of the romance heroine’s career prospects or financial situation. In Twilight, Bella does not have any future plan other than marrying Edward. She has a chance to get a college education, but she does not seem to take that path at the end of the series. Repeatedly Bella insists that she does not want to be one of the girls who get married and have children right out of high school, but she does exactly that. Naomi Zack insists that the popularity of Twilight indicates “what young women aspire to in ‘having it all’” (122), yet Bella has only Edward (and later, Renesmme). He is the “only raison d’être” for her (158), as Abigail E. Myers says, and we can understand this from an economic standpoint, as well as a psychological one. Bella is, after all, a lower-middle class girl marrying into a rich family, without any financial independence. In the Southern Vampire Mysteries, Sookie has a job (she is a cocktail waitress), but she too goes out with a rich man, and at one point memorably envies the financial help Bill gives to his descendents while she is struggling financially. The class difference between the heroes and the heroines in these new vampire romance novels looks back to the much older model of romance narratives described by Jan Cohn in Romance and the Erotics of Property (1988); it does not correspond to the more feminist worldview Heinecken saw emerging at the end of the twentieth century. Those men in these new vampire novels may have nearly equaled women in their emotional capacity, but women have not correspondingly increased their social or economic power.

Similarly, the reduced Otherness of vampire heroes do not indicate that the codes of behavior for men and for women have become less different, or that men and women no longer live in separate worlds. Quite the contrary: although these safe heroes share more feelings with the heroines—an ideologically progressive development—they do still live in different worlds, a gendered difference that is underscored by the difference between vampires and humans. Only marriage can bring these disparate worlds together. This union is accomplished in the Twilight series, but the Southern Vampire Mysteries present a more challenging, adult narrative, lacking this comfortable closure. The poor heroine who does not “want anyone owning” her (Gone 98) has to keep fighting to find a more equal relationship with a powerful man—and in the process, she rediscovers the danger that he—as both man and vampire—actually poses to her.

No Longer Safe

As the Southern Vampire Mysteries progress from novel to novel, Sookie learns that the safe vampire, Bill, is not as safe as the reader has come to believe. Normalized for us through his profession (he is a computer programmer and vampire census worker), Bill remains both male and a vampire, and the dangers posed by both of these natures become painfully clear when, in a momentary loss of self-control under physical stress, Bill forcefully sucks blood from Sookie and rapes her. The novel handles this assault in an interesting way. As a rule, Sookie turns a blind eye to Bill’s violent tendency; from quite early in the series she has known his nature, which makes him lose his personality with the scent of blood. She is, in fact, less wounded emotionally by this assault, based on presumably uncontrollable urges, than she is by learning that Bill originally approached her with an ulterior motive, under orders from a vampire boss who wants to exploit her telepathic ability, a fully conscious decision. In effect, she regards his emotional encroachment of her boundaries—her blind trust and emotional attachment—more seriously than his physical encroachment. It is the emotional betrayal that makes her feel a pain that is “tied up with a rage so profound” (Definitely 185) that she has never felt before because the “structure” that her emotion is built upon since she has met him is “torn down” (Definitely 187). Rather than flee from this risk into a safer, more secure relationship, Sookie moves on to romances where the risk is more clearly visible, right from the start: first a brief affair with the weretiger, Quinn, and then another vampire lover, Eric Northman, a man who looks “kind of like the guys on the cover of romance books” (Dark 105). “Blond and blue-eyed, tall and broad shouldered,” (Dark 105), Eric is a thousand-year-old Viking with an accent occasionally peeking through. Arrogant, narcissistic, power-hungry, emotionally inaccessible, Eric is thus more exotic than Bill, and a more traditional romance hero.

With this invocation of “romance books,” the Sookie Stackhouse Novels step into the realm of metafiction—in fact, there are many references to popular romance fiction in the series. Sookie and her grandmother read romance novels in their spare time, and there is another character, in addition to Eric Northman, who not only looks like a romance hero but also competes for “Mr. Romance” (well-known a cover model competition) at a romance readers’ convention.[10] Like a romance reader gazing at attractive cover models, Sookie turns a fetishizing gaze on naked weretigers and shapeshifters; she mentions that she wants to “remember the sight” of a man’s naked body because she wants to “recall it at [her] leisure later” (World 251), and her distant cousin Claude is such a “treat for the eyes” (Doornail 20) that every time he appears, Sookie and all the other women stare appreciatively at him, despite his conspicuous lack of interest in women. More importantly, however, the series’ turn from Bill, who seems like a “new model” romance hero, but is not really safe, to Eric, the “old school” arrogant romance hero, suggests that the gender negotiations in romance novels, especially of the older, more traditional variety, remain a useful model to keep in mind when confronting the dangers of adult sexual relationships. Sookie’s growth as a woman entails learning that a safe man does not exist, that to be a woman is to learn how to manage a difficult man, and that it is a dangerous illusion to believe that one’s own emotional barriers are a woman’s only obstacle to full sexual happiness.

As the series progresses, Sookie’s love life becomes more and more complicated. Bill’s vampire obligation comes before his romantic interest; Quinn, a weretiger, is bound by his family obligation; and Eric’s priorities lie in the political power game he pursues in the vampire world. Sookie treads more carefully with Eric, since “trust [has] gotten [her] burned in the past” (Family 17), a clear reference to her experience with Bill. She may have opened up her barriers to accept Bill, but now she has to lift up her guard again to protect herself; indeed, in one novel, Dead Reckoning (2011), she goes so far as to cut off her “blood bond” with Eric, an attempt at restructuring and reestablishing her boundaries of self. Eric softens to Sookie to the point that his subordinate worries that he is not practical when it comes to her, but he never unequivocally puts her before his political ambitions. Even when the two marry, in Dead and Gone (2009), the marriage fails to stabilize their union, in part because Eric tricks Sookie into marrying him, and in part because their vampire-style marriage, as with all the other marriages in the vampire world, is of a matter of ownership, not of idealized emotional union.[11] Occasional appearances of Bill tangle up her love life still further, for he always has a “special place in [her] heart” (Family 33). It is Bill, not Eric, who comes to rescue Sookie when her life is critically in danger, and she confidently states that he still loves her even after her marriage to Eric (Gone 224). Refusing simplicity, the series refuses to present Sookie’s original psychological obstacle as the only barrier between her and a happy and safe relationship. No man she is involved with is ever free from other obligations that complicate their relationships, whether their vampire customs or political considerations, and the vampire world remains dangerous, in multiple ways. In short, in this series, romances are never simple or straightforward, and for a woman who believes that marriage is not, in fact, supposed to be “like a settling back in a La-Z-Boy” (Gone 98), exciting but never-comforting romance adventures may continue to unfold.

Conclusion

The Twilight and Southern Vampire Mystery series both show a new breed of vampire heroes, and they both locate the obstacles to true understanding and the consummation of love, at least initially, not in those new heroes, but in the heroines. Things develop quite differently as each series goes on, in part because of their contrasting audiences. Aimed at a Young Adult readership, Bella’s story is a traditional story of a woman who transforms from a daughter to a mother and a wife—a regression, politically speaking, from the feminist outlook of Buffy the Vampire Slayer a decade before, and one that depends on readers’ willingness to commit to the series’ fairytale ending, in which the heroine and the hero end up eternally free from adult obligations (in addition to freedom from mortality). Sookie Stackhouse, by contrast, does not get a fairytale ending. After suffering disappointment and betrayal with her first love, she finds herself married to a vampire who is explicitly compared to a “romance hero,” a man who is, and remains, both attractive and terrifying, with a world of his own outside of their relationship. (Where Bill had to confront Sookie’s “Otherness,” Sookie must negotiate Eric’s.) Awakened from the dream of a safe, “defanged” vampire lover, this romance-reading heroine has to face the numerous, ongoing, unromantic problems involved in adult love, including the crucial issue of keeping her own integrity and owning her own life while in a relationship. Safe vampire heroes, that is to say, are young women’s fantasies, but safe vampires may not be able to stand the test of more mature readers, especially when they are readers of popular romance.

Works Cited

Ames, Melissa. “Twilight Follows Tradition: Analyzing ‘Biting’ Critiques of Vampire Narratives for Their Portrayals of Gender and Sexuality.” Bitten by Twilight: Youth culture, media, and the vampire franchise. Ed. Melissa A. Click, Jennifer Stevens Aubry, & Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. 37-53. Print.

Barlow, Linda. “The Androgynous Writer: Another View of Point of View.” Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. 45-52. Print.

Botting, Fred. & Dale Townshead. Gothic: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies Vol.III. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Click, Melissa A., Jennifer Stevens Aubrey, & Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz, ed. Bitten by Twilight: Youth Culture, Media, and the Vampire Franchise. New York: Peter Lang, 2010.

Cohn, Jan. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-Market fiction for Women. Durham: Duke University Press, 1988. Print.

Craft, Christopher. “‘Kiss Me With Those Red Lips’: Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Gothic: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies Vol.III. Ed. Fred Botting & Dale Townshead. London: Routledge, 2004. 259-86. Print.

DeLamotte, Eugenia. Perils of the Night: A Feminist Study of Nineteenth-Century Gothic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Donald, Robyn. “Mean, Moody, and Magnificent: The Hero in Romance Literature.” Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. 73-80. Print.

Gelder, Ken. Reading the Vampire. London: Routledge, 1994.

Gravett, Sandra L. From Twilight to Breaking Dawn: Religious Themes in the Twilight Saga. St. Louis, MO: Chalice, 2010.

Harris, Charlaine. All Together Dead. New York: Ace/Penguin, 2007.

—. Club Dead. New York: Ace/Penguin, 2003.

—. Dead and Gone. New York: Ace/Penguin, 2009.

—. Dead as a Doornail. New York: Ace/Penguin, 2005.

—. Dead in the Family. New York: Ace/Penguin, 2010.

—. Dead to the World. New York: Ace/Penguin, 2004.

—. Dead until Dark. New York: Ace/Penguin, 2001.

—. Definitely Dead. New York: Ace/Penguin, 2006.

—. Dead Reckoning. New York: Ace/Penguin, 2011.

—. From Dead to Worse. New York: Ace/Penguin, 2008.

—. Living Dead in Dallas. New York: Ace/Penguin, 2002.

Heilman, Robert B. “Charlotte Brontë’s ‘New’ Gothic.” From Jane Austen to Joseph Conrad. Eds. Robert C. Rathburn and Martin Steinmann, Jr. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1958. 118-32.

Heinecken, Dawn. “Changing Ideologies in Romance Fiction.” Romantic Conventions. Ed. Anne K. Kaler & Rosemary E. Johnson-Kurek. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999. 149-72. Print.

Housel, Rebecca. “The ‘Real’ Danger: Facts vs. Fiction for the Girl Audience.” Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians, and the Pursuit of Immortality. Ed. Rebecca Housel & J. Jeremy Wesnewski. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. 177-90. Print.

Housel, Rebecca & J. Jeremy Wisnewski, ed. Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians, and the Pursuit of Immortality. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. Print.

Kaler, Anne K. and Rosemary E. Johnson-Kurek. Romantic Conventions. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999. Print.

Krentz, Jayne Ann. Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. Print.

—. “Trying to Tame the Romance: Critics and Correctness.” Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. 107-114. Print.

Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women. New York: Routledge, 1982, 2008. Print.

Malek, Doreen Owens. “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: The Hero as Challenge.” Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. 73-80. Print.

Mann, Bonnie. “Vampire Love: The Second Sex Negotiates the Twenty-first Century.” Bitten by Twilight: Youth culture, media, and the vampire franchise. Ed. Melissa A. Click, Jennifer Stevens Aubry, & Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. 131-45. Print.

Meyer, Stephenie. Breaking Dawn. New York: Hachette, 2008.

—. Eclipse. New York: Hachette, 2007.

—. New Moon. New York: Hachette, 2006.

—. Twilight. New York: Hachette, 2005.

Myers, Abigail E. “Edward Cullen and Bella Swan: Byronic and Feminist Heroes. . . or Not.” Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians, and the Pursuit of Immortality. Ed. Rebecca Housel & J. Jeremy Wesnewski. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. 147-62. Print.

Praz, Mario. Trans. Angus Davidson. The Romantic Agony. 1933 London: Oxford University Press, 1970. Print.

Platt, Carrie Anne. “Cullen Family Values: Gender and Sexual Politics in the Twilight Series.” Bitten by Twilight: Youth culture, media, and the vampire franchise. Ed. Melissa A. Click, Jennifer Stevens Aubry, & Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. 71-86. Print.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984, 1991.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

Shaw, Marc E. “For the Strength of Bella? Meyer, Vampires, and Mormonism.” Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians, and the Pursuit of Immortality. Ed. Rebecca Housel & J. Jeremy Wesnewski. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. 227-36. Print.

Toscano, Margaret M. “Mormon Morality and Immortality in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Series.” Bitten by Twilight: Youth culture, media, and the vampire franchise. Ed. Melissa A. Click, Jennifer Stevens Aubry, & Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. 21-36. Print.

Williamson, Penelope. “By Honor Bound: The Heroine as Hero.” Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. 125-32. Print.

Wilson, Natalie. “Civilized Vampires Versus Savage Werewolves: Race and Ethnicity in the Twilight Series.” Bitten by Twilight: Youth culture, media, and the vampire franchise. Ed. Melissa A. Click, Jennifer Stevens Aubry, & Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. 55-70. Print.

Young, Brittany. “Making a Choice: Virginity in the Romance.” Krentz. 121-24.

Zack, Naomi. “Bella Swan and Sarah Palin: All the Old Myths Are Not True.” Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians, and the Pursuit of Immortality. Ed. Rebecca Housel & J. Jeremy Wesnewski. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. 121-29. Print.

Zidle, Abby. “From Bodice-Ripper to Baby-Sitter: The New Hero in Mass-Market Romance.” Romantic Conventions. Ed. Anne K. Kaler & Rosemary E. Johnson-Kurek. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999. 23-34. Print.


[1] Natalie Wilson argues on the implications of race and ethnicity in her article, “Civilized Vampires Versus Savage Werewolves: Race and Ethnicity in the Twilight Series,” pointing out the use of stereotypical “savage” image of Native American in representation of the Quileutes. I agree with this reading, and I have to point out that the Cullens as new immigrants do not necessarily contradict her reading, for they do seem to acquire their “ultra-white, ultra-privileged” lifestyle through their assimilation efforts they have made in the United States. In the SVM, too, these two contrasting images are clear, too. As opposed to “aristocratic” vampires, weres and shapeshifters, especially a clan of werepanthers, who are mostly construction workers and mechanics, evoke the image of working class people who live under deprived conditions.

[2] Some critics offer various analyses of Edward both in positive and negative lights. For example, Edward can be read as a self-sacrificing savior and Christ figure, according to Sandra Gravett. Yet more important is the argument that Edward is not a caring tender boyfriend, but a controlling and overbearing stalker. Rebecca Housel goes as far to say, “In any world other than the fantastical one created by Meyer, Edward would be jailed” (188). For more detailed analyses of the power issue between Edward and Bella, see, for example, Platt’s “Gender and Sexual Politics in the Twilight Series,” Melissa Ames’ “Twilight Follows Tradition,” and Abigail E. Myers’s “Edward Cullen and Bella Swan: Byronic and Feminist Heroes…or Not.”

[3] As one can tell by the phrase “come out,” the vampires and shapeshifters (who come out in the ninth book, Dead and Gone) are evocative of minorities, especially sexual minorities. Harris consciously uses this analogy to take up the issue of the civil rights of vampires and shapeshifters occasionally. Characters sometime react with “I am Christian” statements in denying the accusation of being vampires or shapeshifters, suggesting these supernatural characters represent people with unChristian lifestyles. However, the main character Sookie is unhesitatingly straight, and her love interests respond to her as traditional heterosexual heroes.

[4] In Twilight, the view that a marriage is based on an animalistic and instinctual bond is further confirmed with the werewolves’ habit of “imprinting,” whereby they instinctively find their future mates.

[5] This process is repeated in her second union with Eric. After sharing each other’s blood, they form a “blood bond,” which enables them to understand each other’s feelings and thinking, and that bond eventually leads to their vampire marriage.

[6] However, Bill Compton’s solution to Sookie’s pain—to have her uncle killed—gives her the first moment of hesitation regarding the safety of Bill. And she does regret her decision later. Sookie wonders if she “should have cut and run” when she found out he was capable of violence (Family 33).

[7] Some critics offer analyses of Twilight in the contexts of Mormon teachings. Marc E. Shaw and Margaret M. Toscano both point out the ending with the happy vampire family is a supernatural version of the Mormon teaching of an eternal marriage, “forever and forever and forever.”

[8] Sandra Gravette points out that Bella “shows herself as the model of a timid virgin” (41) once she becomes a wife, contrary to her former sexually-curious self.

[9] In a later development, Sookie discovers and unites with her lost (non-human) family members while she goes through various troubles and disappointments in love.

[10] To a lesser degree, especially in the movie adaptations, Twilight also offers the objects of female gaze with always half-naked Jacob and other werewolves, suggesting the way in which the movies are consumed.

[11] Their marriage becomes more strained in Dead Reckoning, when she learns that Eric may have to fulfill an arranged marriage with another vampire, set up by his superior.

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“A Little Extra Bite: Dis/Ability and Romance in Tanya Huff and Charlaine Harris’s Vampire Fiction,” by Kathleen Miller

With the phenomenal commercial success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and the profits earned internationally by the Swedish art-house film Let the Right One In, vampires—and more specifically, vampire-human romance narratives—have become big business. Demand for such works has prompted numerous publishers and media conglomerates to “stake” their claim to this burgeoning genre. And while much critical attention has been paid to some of the gothic vampire stories in modern settings—particularly to the American UPN-TV network’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer—others have, so to speak, swooped beneath the scholarly radar. Among these are such popular titles as Tanya Huff’s Blood Books and Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries, despite each having inspired long-running series of novels, legions of devoted fans, and multi-media spinoffs.[1] In fact, Huff’s and Harris’s works have appealed to global audiences, although both are tied to very specific cultural landscapes: Huff’s Canadian mysteries are set in Toronto, while Harris’s tales are located in the fictional town of Bon Temps, Louisiana.[2] The TV dramatization of Huff’s novels, Blood Ties, was relatively short-lived, airing for only one season on Canada’s Space and Citytv networks and two seasons on Lifetime Television in the US, but True Blood, the adaptation of Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries, has garnered high ratings and, in effect, has “resurrected” the HBO cable network.[3]

Some of the attraction of Huff’s and Harris’s texts undoubtedly rests in their capacity to translate well into different media and genres, and thus to reach diverse audiences. Both series, which are full of action and suspense, have been marketed as general fiction, as science fiction, and as mysteries. These novels and their television adaptations are, however, also courtship narratives that borrow heavily from the romance tradition and, perhaps less obviously, narratives that focus on issues of physical ability and disability.[4] As scholarship by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Mary Klages, and Martha Stoddard Holmes on the literature of disability helps us to see, feminist statements in Huff’s Blood Price and Harris’s Dead Until Dark come filtered through the texts’ compelling narratives of disability. Each work advances a red-herring theory that vampirism is actually a disability, a form of chronic illness; nonetheless, despite their “disability,” the vampires prove to be “hyper-able”—destined to live eternally, impervious to most bodily threats, and uncannily gifted as lovers. Yet vampires are not the only ones to challenge categories of ability and normalcy in these texts, for the central human characters are disabled heroines, who also prove extraordinarily able. Huff’s female protagonist, Vicki Nelson, has a degenerative eye condition, while Harris’s protagonist, Sookie Stackhouse, identifies her telepathy as a “disability.” Vampires prove to be appropriate suitors for these heroines because each partner is “othered” by society. Through their status as heroines with seemingly disabling “differences,” Vicki and Sookie display their various abilities, including their strength, insight, and romantic desirability. Furthermore, negotiating and embracing their disabilities leads them to challenge existing notions of gender roles and to construct new alternatives for female accomplishment. Much like that of the supernatural vampire, the disabled female physical body becomes extraordinary, as it helps the protagonists to counter threats of violence and to protect themselves and those around them.

According to Pamela Regis in A Natural History of the Romance Novel, the romance novel is a “work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more of its heroines” (14). Regis claims that all romance fiction contains eight elements that mark the genre: a definition of the social background, the meeting between the heroine and hero, their mutual attraction, the barrier between them, the point of ritual death (the moment in the text when it seems impossible for the heroine and hero to reconcile), the recognition that eliminates the barrier, the declaration of love made by the heroine and hero, and their betrothal (14). In the case of the humans-meet-vampires tales, the first novels of each series—Huff’s Blood Price and Harris’s Dead Until Dark—display many, if not all, of these key romance elements while constructing compelling courtship plots that both complement and further the texts’ corresponding elements of mystery and terror. In Huff’s Blood Price, Vicki (Victoria) Nelson, a former police officer, solves crimes perpetrated by supernatural villains, while negotiating the advances of two different figures: the charismatic vampire and writer of historical romances, Henry Fitzroy (the illegitimate son of Henry VIII); and her hard-boiled former partner on the police force, Mike Celluci. Similarly, the heroine of Harris’s first vampire mystery Dead Until Dark, Sookie Stackhouse, attempts to catch a local killer as she sorts out her feelings for Bill Compton (a Civil-War-era vampire) and his rival—a false suitor—her boss, Sam Merlotte (a shapeshifter).

Vampire romance narratives such as these texts, which grow out of the female gothic romance tradition, are often read through a feminist lens. Feminist critics have, in particular, fastened upon and drained every last drop of meaning from the American television program Buffy the Vampire Slayer, conceived by Joss Whedon, while analyzing it as an example of “girl-power.” Although Buffy has been lauded as a feminist text and thus as an antidote to the misogynist contagion allegedly spread by Meyer’s Twilight, the genre of vampire romance in general has received far more negative than positive attention. A part of Buffy’s popularity as a feminist icon stems from its manipulation of the romance genre. While the series features many prominent romance plots, the show does not focus primarily on the courtship or betrothal of its heroine. Ultimately, Buffy does not marry, or commit herself, to any of her suitors—Angel, Riley, or Spike. On the other hand, Twilight, whose dominant narrative arc focuses on the courtship of Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, has received much censure of its romance plot, perhaps growing out of widespread academic disapproval of the romance genre.[5] To varying degrees, Kay Mussell, Jan Cohn, Jeanne Dubino, Janice Radway, and Ann Cranny-Francis have all taken the romance genre to task for glamorizing its heroines’ “passivity” and “powerlessness” and for reducing its readers, by extension, to childlike helplessness (Regis 5). For critics of the romance novel, the vampire romance narrative, which often couples a vulnerable human heroine with a dangerous, physically superior and much older male vampire, only exacerbates the gender inequality which they see the romance genre itself as fostering.

Gothic romance fiction, of which vampire fiction is a part, goes back to the eighteenth century and to the female gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe (Modleski 15). This genre has received harsh criticism from scholars such as Tania Modleski and Diane Long Hoeveler, while in her In the Name of Love: Women, Masochism, and the Gothic, Michelle Massé goes so far as to suggest that women’s masochistic desires lie at the heart of gothic romance. Massé asserts that the genre encourages women readers to repeat cultural trauma, especially through the genre’s “happy ending” of romantic betrothal, which allegedly reifies dangerous social ideologies about submission, love, and power between the genders (2). While I do not claim that all vampire romance fiction—or all female gothic fiction—possesses a feminist agenda, I do contend that a wholesale dismissal of these genres as sexist, misogynist, and harmful to female readers is reductive and insulting to their audiences. Like any other fiction, gothic vampire romances have the potential to offer both their heroines and their readers numerous alternative romance trajectories and diverse depictions of gendered relationships. As Pamela Regis, who persuasively argues in defense of the romance, has stated, “The [romance] genre is not about women’s bondage, as the literary critics would have it. The romance novel is, to the contrary, about women’s freedom. The genre is popular because it conveys the pain, uplift, and joy that freedom brings” (xiii).

In the case of vampire romances such as Blood Price and Dead Until Dark, as well as their television adaptations Blood Ties and True Blood, the texts present readers with messages of female freedom and gender equality, rather than merely stories of submission and gendered power imbalances, through the texts’ compelling narratives of disability. As mentioned previously, in these works, vampires are categorized as having a form of disability, although each work ultimately cites a supernatural cause, rather than a disease, as the cause of the hero’s vampirism. In all cases, though, despite their “disability,” the vampires prove to be “hyper-able.” While endowing male vampires with hyper-abilities may seem to support the feminist accusation that a gendered power imbalance exists at the center of gothic romance, both Vicki and Sookie are disabled heroines, who also prove extraordinarily able.

When readers meet Vicki, she has a degenerative condition known as retinitis pigmentosa, or “tunnel vision,” which can lead to permanent blindness. After her failing eyesight disqualifies her from street work and forces her into a desk job, Vicki leaves the police force and begins working as a private investigator. Her visual impairment certainly qualifies as a contemporary category of disability. Sookie’s “disorder,” on the other hand, does not correspond to the usual definitions of disability in late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century legal, medical, and educational discourses. According to these definitions, disabilities “designat[e] a socially-constructed category that groups together people with a wide variety of physical and mental differences, including limb deficiencies, neuromuscular and orthopedic dysfunctions, sensory impairment, mental impairment (including both mental illness and mental retardation), and chronic or terminal illness” (Klages 1). Sookie does not have such an impairment or deficiency; she is a telepath, someone with the extra “ability” to read minds. Unlike Vicki, whose glasses offer a visible sign of her physical challenge, Sookie possesses a faculty that is invisible. Sookie herself, however, labels this mental power a “disability” (2) and sees it as a marker of her “physical and mental difference.”

Mary Klages, Martha Stoddard Holmes, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson have all noted that historically, as a literary trope, disability has signaled pity, inferiority, weakness, vulnerability, monstrosity, and barriers to marriage. In nineteenth-century British fiction, characters such as Charles Dickens’s Tiny Tim and George Eliot’s Philip Wakem evoke sympathy; while Dr. Frankenstein’s “patch-worked” creation becomes a “monster,” and disabled women such as the eponymous heroine of Dinah Maria Craik’s Olive are denied the ability to reproduce, if they can even find (able-bodied) suitors at all. Although Garland-Thomson demonstrates that depictions of disability in contemporary fiction have altered significantly over time—disabled women are also powerful figures for African-American writers such as Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde (Garland-Thomson, Extraordinary 103-134)—discomfort with, and discrimination against, disabled bodies has continued well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In Blood Price and Dead Until Dark, however, it is through their status as heroines with seemingly disabling “differences” that Vicki and Sookie display their various abilities—their strength, alternative insight, and romantic desirability. Furthermore, negotiating and embracing their disabilities leads them to their greatest professional and personal successes, as they challenge existing notions of gender roles and construct new alternatives for female accomplishment. Much like that of the supernatural vampire, the disabled female physical body becomes extraordinary, as it helps to defeat threats of violence and to protect both the heroines themselves and those around them.

In these works, disability functions as a reclamation of the female body (which has often been viewed as “other,” or as “always and already” deformed), even as it contributes to the reinvention of the vampire romance genre.[6] Here it is worth noting that Vicki and Sookie do not have readily apparent physical disabilities. However, in spite of their invisible impairments, both heroines are clearly described as experiencing an experience of social disablement. The texts suggest that disability is an identity that is ascribed to their female bodies, one linked to stigma and prejudice in their interpersonal relationships, professional endeavors, and educational opportunities. Over the course of the novels, with the assistance of their “othered” vampire suitors, disability becomes an identity that Vicki and Sookie willingly adopt, yet only once it has been removed from its common associations of dependency, incompleteness, vulnerability, and incompetency (Garland-Thomson, “Integrating” 261).[7]

The field of Disability Studies remains a relatively new academic enterprise, despite the fact that, as Lennard J. Davis writes:

As 15 percent of the population, people with disabilities make up the largest physical minority within the United States.… [If] the population of people with disabilities is between thirty-five and forty-three million, then this group is the largest physical minority in the United States. Put another way, there are more people with disabilities than there are African Americans and Latinos. (xv)

Earlier discussions of the female body and race in feminist and gothic scholarship often involved the types of questions and issues that are now being explored by Disability Studies scholars.[8] While Disability Studies has received far less critical attention than Women’s Studies, the two prove to be highly compatible fields of enquiry and activism. In Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson asserts that both feminism and Disability Studies work to challenge existing social relations; resist interpretations of certain bodily configurations and functioning as deviant; question the ways that differences are invested with meaning; examine the enforcement of universalizing norms; interrogate the politics of appearance; explore the politics of naming; and forge positive identities (22).

Further, Disability Studies illuminates the long history of misogynist writing about the female body, dating back to Classical Greece. In the fourth book of his Generation of Animals, Aristotle states that anyone who does not take after his or her parents is a monstrosity, since in these cases Nature has deviated from the generic type. He cites the first deviation as when female was formed instead of male (Garland-Thomson, Extraordinary 19). Rosemarie Garland-Thomson notes that here Aristotle sets up a masculine “generic type” against which all physical variation appears as different, derivative, inferior, and insufficient. This establishes the Western tradition of viewing woman as a “diminished man,” one who is monstrous, and is the first step on a “path to deviance.” She writes:

The definition arranges a somatic diversity into a hierarchy of value that assigns completeness to some bodies and deficiency to others. Furthermore, by defining femaleness as deviant and maleness as essential, Aristotle initiates the discursive practice of marking what is deemed aberrant while concealing what is privileged behind an assertion of normalcy. (Extraordinary 20)

In both Blood Price and Dead Until Dark, the fictional heroines challenge the superiority of the what is deemed normal and the inferiority of the gendered female body, through their exceptional dis/abilities, as well as through the elements of the romance plot.

The Blood is the (Love) Life: The Power of Romantic Vision in Blood Price and Blood Ties

In Tanya Huff’s Blood Price, readers first encounter Vicki Nelson through her visual impairment: “She took off her glasses and scrubbed at one lens with a fold of her sweatshirt. The edges of her world blurred until it looked as if she were staring down a foggy tunnel; a wide tunnel, more than adequate for day to day living. So far, she’d lost about a third of her peripheral vision. So far. It could only get worse” (16). Unable to perform the duties of a homicide investigator—due, in particular, to her night blindness—she has quit the police force, where she formerly was known as “Victory” Nelson. For Vicki, her disability is accompanied by great uncertainty. Although her condition may not ultimately lead to complete blindness, it is nonetheless irreversible and incurable, and her response is to feel anger. As she tells her doctor, “‘My condition […] as you call it, caused me to leave a job I loved that made a difference for the better in the slime-pit this city is becoming and if it’s all the same to you, I think I’d rather be bitter’” (45).

In an attempt to reclaim her life (and pay her bills), Vicki becomes a private investigator, at first suffering through boring and unchallenging cases. But after the city of Toronto experiences a series of mysterious, unsolved homicides, Vicki is hired by Coreen Ferguson to track down her boyfriend’s killer. The bodies of the victims have been drained of blood, and so the media begins to report that the killer is a vampire. In actuality, the killer is a demon—an evil being summoned by a sociopathic college student who, in a clever homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho and The Birds, is named Norman Birdwell. The nerdy and socially isolated Norman plans to use this demon to wreak vengeance on all those who have taunted and rejected him. With her intelligence, perseverance, and courage, Vicki identifies the killer. And with some help from her two romantic suitors, Mike Celluci and Henry Fitzroy, Vicki defeats both Norman and the malevolent forces he has summoned. As Vicki begins her new career, she embarks on a journey of personal, professional, and romantic discovery that enables her, despite her literal blindness, to see herself, and the world around her, with more accurate vision.

A large part of Vicki’s past, her life as an able-bodied detective, was her relationship with her former partner, known merely as “Celluci.” Vicki and Celluci were not only partners, but friends. And for four of the eight years they worked together, they were lovers. As the novel opens, readers learn that in the eight months since she has left the force, she and Celluci have had no contact; yet when they start working the same murder cases, their paths cross again, and their bantering “friends-with-benefits” romance resumes. There are, nonetheless, numerous barriers to Celluci and Vicki recognizing and declaring their mutual affection, in order to reach the betrothal stage that romance fiction requires. Their complicated relationship is explored, but not resolved, in Blood Price. One obstacle to their romantic union is Vicki’s uncertainty about the parameters of their new relationship. She fears that if they become a couple, and fail, she will lose a good friend; whereas “lovers are easy to get […] friends good enough to scream at are a lot rarer” (47).

Perhaps a more difficult and significant obstacle to overcome is Celluci’s attitude towards Vicki’s disability. Unlike some narratives of disability that deny female characters’ sexuality and desirability, Blood Price shows Celluci physically attracted to Vicki: “Sometime later, Vicki shifted to reach a particularly sensitive area and decided, as she got the anticipated inarticulate response, that there were times when you really didn’t need to see what you were doing and night blindness mattered not in the least” (40). Thus, Huff provides her heroine with a healthy sexual identity, despite her disability.

Vicki’s disability, however, creates other difficulties. Early in the novel, Celluci is established as the epitome of a natural-bodied strong male, aware of his own power and authority: “[Vicki] looked down at the toes of her boots, then up at Mike. At five ten she didn’t look up to many men but Celluci, at six four, practically made her feel petite” (14). His new consciousness of her physical limitations increases his controlling and paternalistic behavior, as he cautions her against taking certain cases, invades her personal space (by pushing her glasses back onto her face from the tip of her nose), and attempts to take over management of her body (telling her what vitamins will “cure” her condition). Ultimately, his concern leads him to infantilize her, as he tries to force Vicki into dealing with her disability in a way that makes sense to him, a way that will allow her to lead a “normal” life (46). Upset that she has continued to track a murderer, despite her retinitis pigmentosa, he shouts, “’You are no longer on the force, you are virtually blind at night, and you are more likely to end up as the corpse than the hero’” (78). Ultimately, Vicki does not allow Celluci’s anxiety over her safety to restrict her actions; instead when he urges her to be careful, she asks him, in turn, to stop being a “patronizing son of a bitch” (116).

Celluci cannot understand, in particular, Vicki’s decision to leave the police force. He sees nothing wrong with Vicki accepting a demotion to a desk job—a role that would supposedly better suit her “diminished” abilities—and erupts in anger:

‘[Oh] no, you couldn’t stand the thought that you wouldn’t be the hot-shit investigator anymore, the fair-haired girl with all the answers, that you’d just be a part of the team. You quit because you couldn’t stand not being on the top of the pile and if you weren’t on top, if you couldn’t be on top, you weren’t going to play! So you ran away. You took your pail and your shovel and you fucking quit! You walked out on me, Nelson, not just the job!’ (47)

Clearly, Vicki’s exercise of autonomy presents a psychological and emotional barrier for Celluci, who associates her reaction to her medical condition with a “betrayal” of both their professional and romantic partnerships.

In addition, Celluci proves unable to accept the supernatural aspect of the killings, which further divides him from Vicki. His character exemplifies the hard-boiled, rational masculinity of the detective novel tradition, and he routinely taunts Vicki for her acceptance of theories that suggest the crimes could be supernatural in origin. Even after he witnesses the death of Norman Birdwell and the materialization of the demon lord, he refuses to acknowledge fully what he has seen: “This was worse than anything Celluci could have imagined. He hadn’t seen the punk with the assault rifle disappear into thin air. He didn’t see the thing standing in the middle of the room smiling. But he had. And he did” (266). Moreover, he continues to trust in the power of the police force to stop the demon (267). When he files his report of the night’s events, he leaves out pertinent information related to the killings and concludes, “‘It won’t do my arrest record any good, but the killings will stop and I figure [Norman] got what was coming to him’” (270). Unlike Celluci, though, Vicki begins to see the world (and crime) differently, in large part due to her physically altered sight. As Celluci chooses not to join her in these new beliefs, Vicki’s romantic vision of him changes. Prior to her disability, Vicki perceived Celluci as a valued partner, both on-and off-the-force; however, now she acknowledges that he lacks some of her professional and personal abilities and insights.

On the other hand, Vicki’s second suitor, the vampire Henry Fitzroy, encourages Vicki’s acceptance of the supernatural. He also prompts her to forge a new relationship to her disability and to the world around her, as she arrives at a fresh understanding of her own identity. Interestingly, Henry, the four-hundred-and-fifty-year-old vampire who was the bastard child of Henry VIII, is a writer of historical romance novels and a romantic at heart. After many years of bachelorhood, he wants something “more” in his life (23)—a connection to another human being beyond casual sex and blood feeding (53). Huff uses the character of Henry to mock critics of the romance genre cleverly and good-naturedly: “Henry […wondered…] why some people had less trouble handing the idea of a vampire than they did a romance writer” (124). In Blood Ties, Henry becomes an author of graphic novels, a genre typically thought of as more masculine than the “feminine” romance. Regardless, both versions of Henry are empathic; ready for, and receptive to, the world of feeling, intuition, and emotion—the world that Mike Celluci disdains.

Much as Mike’s imposing height (which evidences his paternalism) illuminates gendered hierarchies in Vicki’s relationship with him, so Henry’s centuries-old existence lends his relationship with the mortal Vicki some inequalities in terms of knowledge, experience, and power. Huff, however, introduces elements that illuminate Vicki’s potential equality in the relationship. Henry is, for example, shorter than Vicki (160). In addition, while her disease makes her unable to see in the dark, Henry is hyper-sensitive to the light. They make good crime solving partners, for their conditions are the yin and yang of disabilities. Also, Vicki accepts Henry’s disability—i.e., his vampirism—and does not judge him or try to curb his nature.[9]

As with Celluci, Vicki and Henry have a mutual physical attraction. When Henry is wounded and needs blood to survive, Vicki allows him to drink from her. He says, “‘I could feel your life, and I could feel the desire rising to take it’” (218). Vicki too remains haunted by their intimate exchange, saying to herself, “Wonderful. The city—the world even—is about to go up in flames and I’m thinking with my crotch” (223, emphasis in original). Although she and Mike worked together while being romantically involved, their relationship was not allowed to “interfere” with their work (66). Yet her inability with Henry to compartmentalize her professional and personal desires enables her to transform. Through her partnership with Henry, Vicki changes from a no-nonsense, emotionally closed-off cop who hates and resents her disabled body, into a receptive and aware woman who has the potential for a fulfilling romance, and who embraces the alternative insights that acceptance of her new dis/abilities and new identity provides.

Over the course of the novel, Vicki experiences transformations in her understanding of her disability, of her world, and of new possibilities for romance. She takes on the unsolved murders to prove that, despite her condition, she is a fully functioning member of society (84). Soon, she no longer “sees” herself as a cop, but rather in a more important role, as a “one-woman chance of stopping Armaggedon” (227).

Early in the narrative, Vicki hesitates to give full credence to the existence of vampires, but she comes to accept whatever will keep her safe: “‘And it’s not that I believe in vampires[.…] I believe in keeping an open mind. And, she added silently, grimly, her mind on Tony and his crucifix, ‘I, too believe in stayin’  alive’” (81, emphasis in original). On first reading newspaper reports of vampires, she “tilted her chair back, she scrubbed her glasses and let her world narrow into a circle of stucco ceiling. More things in heaven and earth … She didn’t know if she believed in vampires, but she definitely believed in her own senses, even if one of them had become less reliable of late” (30). Eventually, the protagonist’s acceptance of the supernatural fuses with her coming to terms with her diminished eyesight. As someone who has always worked intuitively (72), she must learn, now more than ever, to rely on her senses and her gut feelings. Her cases with Henry strain reason and credulity, as she uncovers what cannot be seen or readily understood, even with the (able) naked eye.

Metaphors involving sight and knowledge appear throughout the text. When Mike taunts her about believing in vampires, she responds, “‘At least I’m not so caught up in my cleverness that I’m blind to outside possibilities!’” (40, emphasis added). The idea of vision recurs, with the narrator commenting that “In eight years on the force, she’d seen a lot of strangeness and been forced to believe in the existence of things that most sane people—police officers and social workers excepted—preferred to ignore. Next to some of the cruelties the strong inflicted on the weak, vampires and demons weren’t that hard to swallow” (106, emphasis added). Vicki realizes that the evil she has witnessed does not vary greatly from the monstrosities of supernatural or otherworldly violence; during her final confrontation with Norman and the demon lord he has summoned, Vicki is grateful for her decreased vision: “she attempted to breathe shallowly through her teeth, glad for the first time she couldn’t really see” (262). Though she may not literally see the clear outlines of Norman and the demon in the darkened room, her ability to open herself to alternative forms of sight and vision—to refuse to be “blind” to supernatural possibilities—allows her to solve the murders and eventually to defeat the demonic evil. As Henry proudly observes, Vicki does not have tunnel vision; she will adjust her “worldview” to fit the facts of the situation (92).

Though the violence has abated by the end of the novel, the courtship plot has yet to be resolved. Despite his inability to articulate his feelings, Celluci clearly cares for Vicki and visits her in the hospital, where she is recovering. Fishing for information, he refers to Henry as her “new boyfriend” (270)—an assumption Vicki neither confirms nor denies. It is clear to the reader, however, that she no longer feels bound exclusively to Celluci. The narrator says this of Vicki’s reaction to Celluci’s police report and to the outcome of the case: “[She] wasn’t sure she agreed so she kept silent. It smacked too much of an eye for an eye. And the whole world ends up blind” (270, emphasis in original). Whereas Celluci thinks that Norman got what he deserved and is content to hide or deny the supernatural nature of the case, Vicki is less sure about this righting of the scales of justice. She is also unwilling to explain away the supernatural elements of the murder mystery. Thus, it is apparent that, like the reader of vampire romances, she is unsatisfied merely with Celluci’s blind world view.

On the other hand, the end of the narrative also opens the possibility of a romantic union between Henry and Vicki, though readers know their courtship will not be smooth. Aware of the potential power differential between them, Vicki says, “With four hundred and fifty years of experience, he had enough cards already” (271); yet she ultimately leaves room for romance: “Would he understand what she was offering? Did she? ‘We can have dinner’” (272). When Henry asks whether she believes in destiny, she replies, “‘I believe in truth. I believe in justice. I believe in my friends. I believe in myself.’ She hadn’t for awhile but now she did again. ‘And I believe in vampires’” (272). Her belief signals recognition and serves as a form of declaration—a declaration of openness and of romantic potential, perhaps even of eventual betrothal. Disability, which traditionally has been the barrier to literary courtship, is not the obstacle here; instead, it illuminates and undermines Celluci’s machismo and strengthens Vicki’s bond with Henry. Rather than reifying stereotypical gender roles, it opens up new possibilities, with both male suitors. Furthermore, disability leads to the female protagonist’s professional success, financial independence, and personal fulfillment, as she develops a “second sight” for the supernatural, one that actually heightens her crime-solving abilities, making her now, more than ever, “Victory” Nelson.

Till Death Do Us Part: Mind-Reading and Romance in Dead Until Dark and True Blood

In Charlaine Harris’s Dead Until Dark, Sookie Stackhouse lives in a society in which vampires have “come out of the coffins.” In other words, they have become legal citizens, as Japanese scientists have developed a synthetic blood that makes it possible for vampires to live in the open without the need to hunt humans for sustenance. Set in the fictional town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, the narrative links human prejudice against vampires to the history of slavery, racism, sexism, and homophobia in the American South. The opening credits of True Blood, Alan Ball’s television adaptation of the novels, feature an eerie montage of erotic and religious images, including one of a noticeboard outside a church that reads, “God Hates Fangs.” (Of course, this sign alludes to actual prejudices that exist outside the text, playing on similarities between the words “fangs” and ”fags.”) In this not-so-brave new world, Sookie must negotiate her relationships with humans and vampires, while at the same time struggling to confront her “disability.”

Although Sookie may not fit the qualifications for disability as many contemporary readers or viewers would conceive of it, the amended Americans with Disabilities Act of 2008 reads that “disability depends upon perception and subjective judgment rather than on objective bodily states” (6). The law acknowledges that

being legally disabled is also a matter of ‘being regarded as having such an impairment.’ Essential but implicit to this definition is that both ‘impairment’ and ‘limits’ depend on comparing individual bodies with unstated but determining norms, a hypothetical set of guidelines for corporeal form and function arising from cultural expectations about how human beings should look and act. (Garland-Thomson Extraordinary 6-7)

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson explains that, although these expectations may reflect physiological norms, their “sociopolitical meanings and consequences are entirely culturally determined” (7). Hence, Sookie, who views herself as “disabled,” along with the surrounding inhabitants of Bon Temps who categorize her abilities as mental impairment or “craziness,” dictate a culturally determined reading of Sookie’s telepathy as a “disability” (2).

Moreover, Sookie’s mind-reading does, initially, impair and limit the quality of her life. As the novel begins, her parents are already dead, but readers learn that her telepathy had caused fear, confusion, and estrangement in her family:

My parents didn’t know what to do about me. It embarrassed my father, in particular. My mother finally took me to a child psychologist, who knew exactly what I was, but she just couldn’t accept it and kept trying to tell my folks I was reading their body language and was very observant[.…] Of course she couldn’t admit I was literally hearing people’s thoughts because that just didn’t fit into her world. (51-52, emphasis in original)

Sookie’s brother, Jason, a self-absorbed, highly promiscuous “party-boy,” also rejected his sister and her uncanny abilities. At school, moreover, Sookie’s telepathy caused problems, for her teachers thought she was learning-disabled and inflicted on her a series of invasive tests (52). As her inability to concentrate limited her opportunities for higher education, she was forced to take menial jobs in order to be financially independent. Her telepathy has continued to cause difficulties at the bar where she works as a waitress; she must consciously keep her mind out of her co-workers’ thoughts: “I never listen to Sam’s thoughts. He’s my boss. I’ve had to quit jobs before because I found out things I didn’t want to know about my boss” (4). Perhaps most troubling to Sookie is her feeling that her telepathy has cut her off from romantic relationships. At twenty-five, she has remained a virgin, because

sex, for me, is a disaster. Can you imagine knowing everything your sex partner is thinking? Right. Along the order of ‘Gosh, look at that mole … her butt is a little big … wish she’d move to the right a little.’ […] You get the idea. It’s chilling to the emotions, believe me. And during sex, there is simply no way to keep a mental guard up. (25)

Although Sam briefly serves as a false suitor in Dead Until Dark, her ability to read his thoughts, as well as her discomfort over complicating their work and personal relationships, leads Sookie to forgo this courtship with a human man. Instead, the narrative ultimately focuses on the romance of one woman, Sookie, and one “man,” Bill.

Sookie’s feelings about her disability and her potential for romance transform when she meets Bill, the vampire. Bill is immediately fascinated by her, saying, “You’re different […] What are you?” (13). Although he cannot identify her telepathy, he senses her otherness. He proves unable to “glamour,” or control her mind, and this resistance to his supernatural charms marks her as independent and desirable. Furthermore, the difference he senses in Sookie constitutes a feeling of commonality between them; neither is precisely like a “normal” human. Sookie, too, is attracted to Bill, and her interest in him, coupled with her disability, enables her to save Bill’s life. When they first meet at Merlotte’s, the bar where Sookie works, Bill is sitting with a criminal couple, Mark and Denise Rattray. Worried for his safety, Sookie “lets her guard down” and reads the Rattrays’ minds. She realizes they plan to drain Bill’s blood and sell it illegally (vampire blood is said to have healing properties and to increase sexual potency). With this knowledge, Sookie follows, attacks, and stops the Rattrays. Thus, the heroine saves the (dead) hero’s life.

What had been deemed an obstacle to romance—i.e., Sookie’s “disability”—now becomes a significant point of attraction and aid in her courtship with Bill. He, in turn, provides a safe space for Sookie’s romantic exploration, as she cannot read his thoughts:

I did something I ordinarily would never do, because it was pushy, and personal, and revealed I was disabled. I turned fully to him and put my hands on both sides of his white face, and I looked at him intently. I focused with all my energy. Nothing. It was like having to listen to the radio all the time, to stations you didn’t get to select, and then suddenly tuning in to a wavelength you couldn’t receive. It was heaven. (12, emphasis in original)

Since Sookie is not subjected to the constant onslaught of Bill’s mental chattering, she does not need to divide her attention or keep up her guard, as she does with other residents in Bon Temps. Ironically, it is precisely this unknowability that allows her to come to know and understand Bill, through his words and deeds.

In fact, her lack of access to Bill’s mind often leads to the pair’s more conventional romantic complications and miscommunications. Like most couples, Bill and Sookie cannot read each other’s thoughts, and Dead Until Dark wittily and poignantly illuminates the psychological barriers present for most courting couples—barriers Sookie has not experienced with other people. In her previous relationships, she has remained distant, because of her easy entry into others’ private feelings. Now she can both learn from and share with a partner, at their mutual discretion. For example, as Bill tries to remember what it was like to be a “regular” person, he enquires about Sookie’s childhood. Here, she narrates the difficult memory of her Uncle Barlett’s sexual abuse, a secret she has kept hidden for many years and which has made her uncomfortable around men, especially in intimate situations (158-160). Now, she must be vulnerable and open, as she cannot rely upon receiving information through her telepathy. Her relationship with Bill provides her with a previously unknown sense of freedom and pleasure; the day after they make love for the first time, Sookie says, “boy, did I feel powerful. It was hard not to feel—well, cocky is surely the wrong word—maybe incredibly smug is closer” (146).

Even though Sookie is liberated by being unable to hear Bill’s thoughts, she does not “abandon” her disability. As she drinks Bill’s blood (in order to keep up her own strength after he feeds from her), these transfusions, which supposedly have healing properties, do not diminish Sookie’s “illness,” but instead enhance and focus her telepathy. This proves fortunate, for Sookie will need heightened abilities to protect her from a world in which she is under constant threat. Much like Vicki who dates the older powerful Henry, Sookie’s involvement with Bill places her in a relationship that presents danger and possibility of power imbalances. For example, Bill introduces Sookie to the worldly, predatory head vampire of the Bon Temps district, Eric. When Sookie uses her telepathy on Eric’s mind, what she “reads” confuses and terrifies her: “it was like suddenly being plunged into a pit of snakes, cold snakes, lethal snakes. It was only a flash, a slice of his mind, sort of, but it left me facing a whole new reality” (202).

Eric soon becomes fascinated with Sookie’s telepathic powers and forces her to read the minds of his employees in order to find out who is embezzling from his club, Fangtasia. Afraid to resist Eric’s commands, Sookie uses her telepathic powers reveal the embezzler, the vampire Long Shadow. Infuriated, Long Shadow subsequently attacks and nearly kills her. Unlike the cold dread that first overcomes Sookie when she catches a glimpse of the evil in Eric’s mind, this harrowing experience causes her to become more assertive and aggressive. She forces Eric to negotiate new terms for any future telepathic services she may perform for him and she makes him agree to not retaliate against any future disloyal workers (206). Thus, Sookie’s relationship with Bill introduces her to more significant foes and causes her to develop new strengths.

Sookie will need this increased autonomous status to fight the series of brutal murders raging through Bon Temps. They represent the romance narrative’s point(s) of ritual death. In this case, however, the deaths are not ritual, so much as literal; a number of local women, women who have had sexual relationships with vampires, have been found raped and strangled. Sookie’s brother Jason, who had been involved with all of the murdered women, remains the police department’s prime suspect. But Sookie, whose romance with Bill has increased her confidence in herself and in her abilities, embraces her telepathy and tries to use it to clear her brother, by listening in on the thoughts of the residents of Bon Temps.

When this method proves futile, Sookie takes refuge at home. She too is a target, since she has had a sexual relationship with Bill; in fact, the killer murders her grandmother in an attempt to get to Sookie. When Sookie realizes the murderer has been in her house again, she abandons traditional means of protection, saying, “I might not have the rifle, but I had a built-in tool. I closed my eyes and reached out with my mind” (275). Using her telepathy, she locates the real murderer, Rene Lenier, and begins probing his thoughts. Although Rene has seemed a perfectly “normal” man—holding a respectable job while dating Sookie’s friend Arlene, and caring for her children—Sookie learns that his able-bodiedness and mental stability are an illusion. By delving into his twisted mental processes, she uncovers his motive for the murders—anger toward his sister, Cindy, who dated a vampire—and uses this information to taunt and distract him, until she is able to kill him with his own knife. Rene’s murderous rage and violence has made him monstrous. Thus, through her understanding and acceptance of her difference, Sookie not only challenges notions of gender and disability, but she solves the mystery, clears her brother, and protects both herself and the townspeople. Interestingly, True Blood, the television dramatization, uses the violent confrontation in Dead Until Dark to advance the romance plot, rather than to focus chiefly on the power of Sookie’s disability to secure her safety. Whereas in the novel Sookie defeats Rene on her own, in the adaptation both suitors, Sam and Bill, come to her aid. While neither man succeeds in killing Rene, both help Sookie to foil his murderous plot and protect herself.

By overcoming her view of her disability as a “barrier” and cheating (ritual) death, Sookie achieves union and freedom with Bill. Further, she gains self-acceptance and greater understanding of her own potential. At the novel’s end, recognition, declaration, and betrothal come in quick succession, as Sookie awakens in the hospital to find Bill watching over her: “‘Soon we’ll be back to normal,’ Bill said, laying me down gently so he could switch out the light in the bathroom. He glowed in the dark. ‘Right,’ I whispered. ‘Yeah, back to normal’” (292). In these closing lines, Sookie acknowledges that normalcy is no longer her desired state. She now understands that no one is “normal”; the human and the vampire condition alike are states of disability, in which we all learn to negotiate our wants and desires both in spite of and, in large part, because of our extraordinary bodies.

Although Blood Price and Dead Until Dark advocate messages of female empowerment and ability through their heroine’s status as “disabled” characters, their transformations of dis/ability are not complete. Much like, in vampire literature, whenever someone is turned into a vampire, lingering traces of the individual’s original humanity remain. Similarly, these texts, along with the television adaptations of them, still re-inscribe certain cultural notions of desir/ability, namely as embodied in their heroines’ physical appearances. Vicki has an athlete’s body that can be maintained with little effort (30). Sookie tells readers, “You can tell I don’t get out much. And it’s not because I’m not pretty. I am. I’m blond and blue-eyed and twenty-five, and my legs are strong and my bosom is substantial, and I have a waspy waistline” (1). The creation in both novels of conventionally attractive, young, blonde, shapely heroines, as well as the casting of stars such as Christina Cox (Vicki Nelson, Blood Ties) and Anna Paquin (Sookie Stackhouse, True Blood), reaffirms conventional standards of able-bodied, western ideals of beauty. In True Blood, moreover, Paquin often appears in revealing, provocative clothing, and the camera frequently surveys her body in a heavily eroticized and objectifying gaze. However, in their depictions of the strength, power, and romantic success of their heroines, Blood Price and Dead Until Dark do challenge cultural notions of disability, even as they reclaim the vampire romance for new generations of readers—especially for those who appreciate feminist messages with a little extra bite.

Works Cited

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Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. Print.

—.“Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory.” The Disability Studies Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. Leonard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 2006. 257-282. Print.

Davison, Carol Margaret. Anti-Semitism and British Gothic Literature. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004. Print.

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Harris, Charlaine. Dead Until Dark. New York: Ace Books, 2001. Print.

Hoeveler, Diane Long. Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998. Print.

Huff, Tanya. The Blood Books, Volume 1: Blood Price and Blood Trail. New York: Daw Books, 2006. Print.

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Reynolds, Mike. “True Blood Sucks Up Record Number of Viewers.”  Multichannel News. New Bay Media. 16 June 2009. Web. 27 June 2009.  http://www.multichannel.com/article/294650-_True_Blood_Sucks_Up_Record_Number_Of_Viewers.php

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[1] The Blood Book series consists of five novels—Blood Price (1991), Blood Trail (1992), Blood Lines (1992), Blood Pact (1993), Blood Debt (1997)—and one short story collection, Blood Bank (2006). At present, there are nine books in the Southern Vampire Mysteries: Dead Until Dark (2001), Living Dead in Dallas (2002), Club Dead (2003), Dead to the World (2004), Dead as a Doornail (2005), Definitely Dead (2006), All Together Dead (2007), From Dead to Worse (2008), and Dead and Gone (2009).

[2] In 2007, Penguin USA re-released Huff’s books with new promotional covers, in conjunction with the debut of the novels’ television adaptation, Blood Ties. Harris’s books have been translated into numerous languages including Serbian, French, and Russian.

[3] Despite only modest ratings for their Canadian broadcasts, the two seasons of Blood Ties were released on DVD. Further, the show’s rights have been purchased internationally, and the program has aired in the US, the UK, Spain, and Latin America. In the US, the second-season premiere of True Blood was seen by 3.7 million viewers, becoming the most-watched HBO cable network TV program since the finale of The Sopranos two years earlier (Reynolds par. 1). The encore presentation drew 5.1 million viewers (Reynolds par. 4).

[4]The TV dramatizations of both Blood Ties and True Blood make the most of their sources’ romantic plots, emphasizing the works’ love triangles and sex scenes. For example, the promotional material for Blood Ties highlights the central dilemma of the heroine, Vicki Nelson, whose loyalty to one suitor conflicts with her growing attraction to another. Advertisements for True Blood feature a provocatively clad Sookie Stackhouse lying beneath her lover, who has just punctured and penetrated her neck.

[5] For example, see Christine Seifert’s “Bite Me! (Or Don’t).”

[6] Rosemarie Garland-Thomson contends that the concept of disability has been used to cast broadly “the form and functioning of female bodies as non-normative” (“Integrating” 260), even when discussing those female bodies which are ostensibly able-bodied.

[7] Garland-Thomson notes that similar language is often used to represent female bodies.

[8] See Judith Halberstam’s Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters, H.L. Malchow’s Gothic Images of Race in Nineteenth-Century Britain, and Carol Margaret Davison’s Anti-Semitism and British Gothic Literature for discussions of racial and sexual difference, configured as monstrosity and disability, in the gothic genre.

[9] Readers do not know whether or not Henry, in turn, accepts Vicki’s disability, because she does not inform him of her retinitis pigmentosa.

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