I was pondering my continued enjoyment of werewolf fiction, especially in the wake of the polarized reaction to my review of Bitten, and started to wonder why were-predators and vampires seem to be still the dominant paranormal motif in romance. There are other paranormal creatures – faeries, were-amphibians, were-birds, demons, ghosts, incubi and succubi, for example – within the paranormal romance shelves, but the predominant creature, both in continued fascination and in number of titles, seems to be the weres and the vamps.
Why is that? There’s a lot of questioning as to why the Twilight series sustains its audience (which grows weirder and weirder with every movie release, holy hell) and why vampires remain so alluring, and why these creatures pair so well with romance. I think that the allure of vampires is related to the allure of were-predators: each metaphorically details and resolves a deep-seated human fear or struggle.
With vampire romance, beneath (heh) the resolution of the attraction and courtship, there’s obviously death. Whether the vampirism is explained by a virus or the creature in question is actually dead, putting aside the “Ew, necrophilia” questions, vampire romance negotiates and conquers or destroys death.
I’ve talked about why paranormal romance is so popular and related that to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, and I think that same resolution of fear is, in part, what makes vampire romance so continually interesting to readers. I think (and many people disagree with me here) that paranormal romance became superbly popular in the US market following 9/11/01, for two main reasons. First, the evil is easily identified. Either he wants to exsanguinate you, or he gets really hairy in compliment to her lunar cycle, but the otherness and the potential intent to harm is pretty easy to spot. Contrast that with the kid and a backpack on the subway who might be a student or might be ready to blow himself and his neighbors to bits. The easily identifiable evil is a comforting contrast.
Then, there’s the resolution of that otherness. Either the Other is tamed by the Power of Lurrrrve™ and the protagonists united through conversion (she becomes a vamp, he becomes a were, etc) or the Other is destroyed because it’s the antagonist preventing the happy ending. And when a paranormal creature is destroyed in romance, it’s not just a duel with a handkerchief in the dew. The offending Other is chopped into pieces, set on fire, beheaded, and possibly sent to an entirely other dimension, depending on the world building and mythology at work. There is no ass kicking like paranormal villain ass kicking.
So when that taming and uniting or destroying happens within vampire romance, death is being vanquished at the same time. The unification with the heroine is symbolically a return to life. In Kresley Cole’s world, the vampires regain their heartbeats when they meet their mated other – a physical return to life. With Feehan’s Carpathians, they see in color after eons of monochromatic vision, and eventually indulge in requisite doggy style sexxoring. Nothing says back to life like backin’ that ass up, right?
With were-predators, I think, the issue being negotiated with the happy ending is anger. Combining animal instinct, predatory violence, and a code of rules and behavior that are both similar and separate from human society, were-predators can make for some amazing romance fiction. Instead of death, it’s rage and anger that are tamed and directed, or vanquished all together, and I think that for women particularly, that’s compelling. Were heroines come to terms with their violent side and have a proper and sanctioned outlet for all that unladylike rage and anger. Were heroes are isolated, even in a pack, and their rage must be tamed or redirected, or destroyed altogether, lest that anger and rage dominate the person. Emotional and psychological balance often factor into were romances, as well. Perhaps, even, it’s not so much anger as it is insanity that’s being negotiated in were romances.
When I was pondering this in 140-or-less on Twitter, Syzygy Magazine (NSFW) proposed that the vampires and the weres were recast archetypes which never go out of style, thereby extending their popularity as they reappear in other subgenres. The vampires are “the same brooding, wounded noblemen that dominate the period romance market, while the weres are “the tough, somewhat dangerous wilderness-connected archetype that usedto be rendered as cowboys.” I’m not sure I agree that the popularity can be explained simply by recurrence of archetype, and certainly there are broody weres up and down the joint, but that’s definitely a factor in their sustained popularity.
So what comes next? (heh.) What paranormal creature will rise (heh) to equal the vampire and the were in stature and publishing frequency? Are succubi and incubi the next big thing, or are their predatory sexual natures not that threatening? Ghosts are about death, but they’re also not entirely corporeal – something that troubled many a JR Ward fan. Zombies? Syzygy suggests that zombies represent the underclass; I think they represent decomp.
Are faeries the next big thing, or are they too complex to capture the romance reader imagination for repeated readings, since their mythology involves a very large and complicated society already? Maybe there isn’t a creature that captures, conveys and recasts a basic fear as much as vampires and weres do already.
What I’m most curious about is what creature could come next that would attract repeated readings of similar mythologies and characters as much as weres and vamps. Readers of were romance and vampire romance so often go after more of it, and seem to revel in re-experiencing the mythology and the courtship within it in books from a huge variety of authors. In fact, it’s that repeated reading of similar creatures that made me wonder if the attraction to the creature is tied to an underlying issue. Is there a similar issue that imbues a different paranormal creature? I’m not saying that we’re all neurotic morons who have our knickers tied into origami about death and anger. I do think, however, that the commonalities are revealing, and the enduring popularity of both vampires and weres indicates that more is being revisited than just a fangsome, hairy courtship.