Monday, January 10, 2011

Premature Book Review: Twilight (Stephanie Meyer, 2005)

First, I'll pause to let the groaning die down.



All done? Excellent.

I started reading Stephanie Meyer's Twilight after something possessed the wife to start the series. She blew through all four in a matter of weeks, while I read at a more leisurely pace. I finished it several weeks ago, but have been delaying this post. I don't want to offend on either side of the Twilight line. I will go with the belief that honesty is the best policy, with the understanding that it is the most likely to make you shunned.

The story is pretty plain. New girl, Bella Swan, moves to a hick town has to deal with being unknown. She falls for the beautiful outsider, Edward Cullen, then discovers he is a vampire. It seems like pretty standard fare for a teen girl's book. Frankly, I am surprised they are so popular. It is not a great book, nor is it atrocious. I thought the movie sucked. It had a few things going for it, but frankly did not capture the book well at all.

Now, there is every possibility that I do not like vampire novels. I don't particularly like Anne Rice (for numerous reasons), and while I have read none of her vampire books I have read Ramses the Damned and the Sleeping Beauty books, and feel they are example enough to keep me from Le Stat. Also, I did not much care for Dracula. I do enjoy J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla, but at 70-odd pages it is hardly a novel.

Now, Carmilla brings up a point regarding Twilight. Much complaining goes on about Meyer's disregard for Stokeresque vampire canon (typically considered the canon), but if we are going to start a history lesson, Le Fanu's Carmilla (1872) came 25 years before Stoker's Dracula (1897), and Stoker was inspired by the story. Carmilla is able to go out in the sun, though she shuns it, and rather than indicating that vampirism is something supernatural, it is portrayed as being part of nature. In many ways Twilight follows this theme; it just has better science on its side. Also, Carmilla is waiting desperately for the love of her life, and discovers that in Laura, a girl who lives near the Karnstein ancestral home. She first meets Laura when she is quite young, and waits for the girl to mature before pursuing her in earnest. When the day finally comes she knows she can seduce Laura, but wants her to love her; all the while knowing how dangerous that love is. This is the very similar to the story of Twilight.

The primary difference between the two is that Carmilla, aka Mircalla Karnstein, is less altruistic in her intent than Edward Cullen, however both are driven by the one human emotion they have left; love. Cullen is also an oddball. Meyer does not make all vampires into nice guys. Even his family at times sees Bella as meat rather than family. Edward is in fact a killer driven to control his urges for his survival and that of his family. He is not the first bad-boy-gone-good. Wolverine are Conan are both reavers and slayers of men, but we are able to see them as heroes.

I think much of the failings of Twilight can be attributed to the internet. Rather than being just popular teen romance stories they have become rallying points for factionalized teens (and adults) who either want to be "Twi-hards" or want Meyer's head on a lance. I don't think either view serves the books well. They are not terrible books. Should they be the first examples of our culture that we offer the Vulcans when they finally arrive? No. Should they be burned at big parties? No. They are no better or worse than 90% of the novels being published today, in my opinion, and certainly have more to offer than most teen-oriented television. Think of the books like the show Charmed. Cheesy fun that will effect you in no way if you read or ignore them.


Dr. Morbius:

For what it's worth, Dracula could go outside in the sun, too. So could Lord Ruthven in Polidori's The Vampire. The whole death by sunlight thing is an invention of the movies.

My complaint about Twilight--apart from the god-awful tin-eared prose--is that it's a deeply misogynistic book. (I haven't seen the movie). I mean, Edward is a creepy abusive stalker and THAT'S the love of her life? Bella has no self esteem, and no real will or ability to do anything for herself. Seriously, it's a deeply masochistic fantasy and not in a fun kinky way, but in a sick neurotic co-dependent sort of way.

I attribute the success of Twilight to what Scott McCloud calls "The masking effect," in which the creator subtracts almost all distinguishing characteristics from their protagonist in order for the reader to imprint themselves upon them. Compare how Meyer's describes Bella to how she describes Edward. Bella is so vague that any image the mind can conjure is as good as any other. Edward, on the other hand, is described in nearly pornographic detail. This, too, is misogynistic, because it results in Bella being completely defined by the men to whom she's romantically entangled. In any event, this ability to conform Bella to the reader is the one thing that Meyer pulls off with aplomb, but it's not art so much as it's manipulation.

I like vampire fiction, but I tend to like vampire fiction where vampires are, y'know, the monsters (I will admit to a weakness for Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's St. Germain novels, which are deeply researched historicals on top of the romantic vampire stuff). Favorite vampire novels for me include: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, Salem's Lot by Stephen King, The Light at the End by John Skipp and Craig Spector, Some of Your Blood by Theodore Sturgeon, Children of the Night by Dan Simmons, and Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin, among others. I hate, hate, hate Anne Rice's vampires, but I don't much like her writing in general. I couldn't even finish The Witching Hour and I giggled all the way through Exit to Eden and the first of the Sleeping Beauty books. Hardly the effect she was after, I'm sure.

Take care.

Darius Whiteplume:

I do remember now that Dracula could go out in the sun, he just was unable to use his powers, IIRC.

Bella is a rather weak character. I moved around a lot, and never once did being the new kid, even in the hick towns, make me an unwarranted success.

Something I mentioned to the wife, and she disagrees, is that I think Bella is vampirically enthralled by Edward. They mention that he cannot always control his powers, and at times sways Bella without intending to. Maybe he has unwittingly enthralled her?

As for the misogyny, I imagine most romance novels are that way. They are just porn, after all, and we unfortunately live in a world where young girls were saying Rihanna had it coming, re Chris Brown.

You know what would have been awesome? If the Cullens all looked like Nosferatu, but their powers made them appears beautiful. But who am I kidding? We don't have hideous vampires any more ;-)

Dr. Morbius:

Isn't that the Buffy modus operandi? The vampires look normal until they go all bloodthirsty, and get Klingon foreheads and stuff?

There actually IS feminist romance fiction out there, but mostly, you're right.

Darius Whiteplume:

I think that was how Buffy went, though I never got into it for some reason. I like to think of vamps as being hideous all the time, we just see them as they want us to see them. Sort of a "They Live" thing, where the hero figures it all out and arrives to chew bubble gum and stake vamps. That might explain where you get the horrible minion vampires, who I would imagine do not have the power to both control our emotions/perceptions and flay us alive.

Speaking of Sleeping Beauty, it really bothered me that the point of the "school for nobles" was to teach them humility, or some such, but a) that never really happens, but b) Rice never addresses that the rulers are just sadistic assholes. I'd like to think we are supposed to infer the latter, but the book is too plain everywhere else for this to be the bit of hidden irony. I never really got into the third. If I still have it I should give it a try.


Darius Whiteplume said...

I screwed up the dating on this post, and it seems it will always be on top of the queue, so reposting, and adding previous comments before deleting the original.

Lisa K. said...

I've read the first book before the hype started... I was about 16? I got bored pretty quickly. Like you wrote: standard story.
Later I did read the second book when the hype slowly began to spread from over the big pond, since I thought I should give it a second try ('If everyone else loves it, you will love it too') My best friend enjoyed the books to this time, so I got them from her. Nevertheless I could not get the hype then and still do not understand it these days. The books are written so bluntly.

I watched the film on a lazy night and surely was shocked about the low quality... If I was a fan of the books, I would start a letter war on the studios ;)

When I was younger I really loved the film 'Interview with the vampire', which is originally a book from Rice. The film is very different to the book though. I still own a DVD and watch it from time to time. Apart from that I never enjoyed the fictional vampire stories too much. I grew up with Buffy and still watch some episodes whenever I can. But there too I really disliked her relationship with Angel and most of the other vampires appearing. Vampires are supposed to be evil and mischievous, like Spike (who is enjoyable, because he adds a lot of humour). Maybe that's also a reason I do not like the Twilight series (I know it has an evil clan or something, but that does not make up for whiny Edward).

BUT I love the mythology behind vampires. Right now I am reading a biography about Elisabeth Bathory, one of the known 'real vampires'. She's said to have killed hundreds of young girls, because she believed to stay young by bathing in their blood. I also own a book about Vampirism, which explains the religious aspects of natives which later where delivered into our western culture.

(Oh well, now that I think about it I'd say that the vampires in From Dusk Till Dawn are pretty cool. And it is one of my favourites. I always forget that this film has vampires.)

I aggree with you that the books shouldn't be burned ... I am from Germany, so I am convinced that book burnings never bring out the good in people ;) *groaner
To each their own. I rather watch 14 year old girls obsessing over Twilight's Bella than Bratz dolls.

Darius Whiteplume said...

Agreed on the Bratz dolls ;-) especially when you see the "I Dont Read" fan page on Facebook (their grammatical error, not mine, btw). I am interested in "Ingrid Pitt's Bedside Companion for Vampire Lovers" - Pitt played Bathory (sort of) in Countess Dracula, as well as the aforementioned Carmilla in The Vampire Lovers. She was a pretty remarkable woman.

I like my vampires evil too, and I think one of the saving graces of Stoker's "Dracula" is that he is not the focus of the story. It is hard to keep your focus evil, so we tend to get romantic, altruistic vampires like Cullen and Louis, though Louis has the benefit of a substantial, evil vampire foil in Le Stat.

On the whole, I don't care if authors/directors stray from the norm. I enjoyed... I think it was Dracula 2000 where the origin was far from being that of a Transylvanian noble, but rather Judas Iscariot as the original vampire. Personally I have a different take on Judas as a character (I am more of a Last Temptation of Christ guy in that regard), but it is an interesting idea.

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