Leader: Stories with bite

18 November 2009

“How old are you?”

“Seventeen,” he answered promptly.

“And how long have you been seventeen?”

“A while,” he admitted at last.

THUS Edward Cullen begins to reveal to Bella Swan that he is not a typical small-town teenager — though the spotless, pallid skin was already a bit of a give-away. Bella’s interview with her 104-year-old vampire does not put her off, fortunately for the Twilight series, which has sold 70 million books since 2004, and for its author, Stephenie Meyer, and her publisher, Little Brown, where an intern rescued Twilight from the slush pile. The film of the second book in the series is released today.

Until recently, there has been surprisingly little reflection on this successor to the Harry Potter phenomenon, something to do with the attributes of a vampire, perhaps. Whereas J. K. Rowling attracted criticism from the Vatican (since retracted), among others, for her use of magic in the Harry Potter stories, Meyer’s Bella can wander into compromising situations with the undead with apparent approval. One reason for this is that Meyer, a Mormon, holds a firm line on sexual abstinence before marriage. The first novel, in particular, contains a great deal of quivering and swooning, but unusually, it is the man who holds back, for the practical reason that he might release his latent savagery and end up eating his girlfriend. You cannot have your cake and eat it.

There is now a Christian commentary on the series, The Twilight Gospel by Dave Roberts (Monarch). He counsels caution, but finds enough that is “wholesome and good” to offset the “idols of beauty, occult power, consumerism and undisciplined eroticism”. The “good” vampires at the heart of the story have eschewed human flesh, though they are still tempted by it, introducing the themes of restraint and respect for others in the books. It is, none the less, a disturbing thought that a generation of girls just too old to dream of being vampire-slayers wishes to be carried off by one.

A rich seam of fantasy has run through adolescent literature for many decades, particularly in the United States. Boys have long dwelt in a world of superpowered males and pneumatic females. The Twilight series can be seen, in some ways, as the girls’ revenge for the years spent worrying about how they might look in Lycra. Increasingly from now on, boys must worry about how closely they resemble Edward, or his screen representative, Robert Pattison. And even then, they cannot hope for success: another of the themes is the rejection of the nice, well-meaning boys at school in favour of an older, richer, more dangerous model. (During a temporary break-up with her vampire, Bella dates a werewolf.) The only chance for ordinary mortals is to wait until the girls grow up enough to realise that immortality can be attained without swapping bodily fluids with their boyfriends. Even the Vatican might approve.

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