Zombies, Schmombies! Teen Girls Are Vamping It Up!

It is probably only a slight exaggeration to say that to be an author of young adult books today is to have written, be writing or contemplating writing a book about vampires. But vampires are over! says conventional wisdom. It’s all about zombies and faeries (that’s faeries, with that extra “e,” signifying their paranormal qualities and that they’re not of the Tinkerbell or Tooth varieties) and ghosts and werewolves. Vampires are totally 2005!

But the conventional wisdom is, in this case, wrong. Like the necks they so greedily suck on, vampires have attacked the young adult market in such a way that editors, agents and publishers are throwing up their hands in surrender. Give the people what they want!

“I thought vampires were over at least two years ago, and I was completely wrong,” said Trident agent Jenny Bent, who represents Lynsay Sands, author of best-selling mass-market paperbacks with titles like Bite Me If You Can and The Accidental Vampire. “These trends come and go, but vampires aren’t going anywhere.”

Why they aren’t going anywhere is a more complicated question. Certainly it doesn’t hurt that the vampires of the mid-aughts are, for the most part, stunningly handsome and remarkably human-seeming. In Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series—the books that most editors and publishers agree kick-started this new phase of vampire lust—the main vampire character, Edward, is a gorgeous 17-year-old boy who also happens to be kind, thoughtful, brilliant, funny, caring … and immortal. And he and his adopted vampire family subsist on the blood of animals, not humans, which allows them to live semi-inconspicuously among the residents of a small town in Washington. Bella, the (non-vampire) high-school girl he loves, is sweet and smart and interesting, but—to be blunt about it—not totally in Edward’s league.

“Stephenie has tapped into a new level of yearning in teenage girls,” said Megan Tingley, whose eponymous imprint at Little, Brown publishes Ms. Meyer’s books. “This vampire is sexy, but he’s an old-fashioned gentleman. He doesn’t want to kill her. That’s a new twist on the whole vampire stereotype.

“I think that teenagers are attracted to the forbidden,” Ms. Tingley continued. “The dark side. That’s always happened—they like the bad boy, the mysterious guy. That’s something that’s existed for a long time and will continue to exist.”

So perhaps the vampire stories as told by Ms. Meyer and others are little more than classic romance tales, complete with a stock male character who may seem perfect, but is in fact inaccessible. And conveniently for young adult readers’ parents, Edward and Bella can’t have sex, because, in the midst of passion, it is implied, he would not be able to resist biting her neck. (You see, he’s trained himself not to bite humans—but it takes a lot of self-control. So basically, if they were to have sex, she would have to become a vampire. Which she kind of offers to do—after knowing him for, like, a month!)

Which raises another possibility: that these books are, in some way, escapist fantasies for a generation of teenage girls raised on the competing 21st Century American values of Christian-right abstinence and midriff-baring, Lolita-esque Britney Spears (who of course tried to have it both ways, telling the world she was a virgin when in fact she was boning Justin Timberlake in the tour bus). In that case, why wouldn’t a 19th-century kind of man—who has to keep his girlfriend chaste—seem appealing?

Or maybe these teenage vampires are simply the latest manifestation of that erstwhile, endlessly attractive male figure: he who is brooding, aloof and just a little bit dangerous. (In Heathers Christian Slater’s character J.D. had more than a little of the vampire about him. Perhaps that was why I built a shrine to him in my sixth grade bedroom.)

Audrey Quinn and Katie Bludworth are two Michigan 18-year-olds who run a Twilight fan site called Bella Penombra, and they have quite definite opinions about the appeal of Ms. Meyer’s books. “Part of the appeal is the vampires are always so tortured,” Ms. Quinn, a freshman at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., told me. “They seem to have everything. In Stephenie Meyer’s books, they’re wealthy and beautiful, but at the same time, each and every one of her characters is always tortured. The dichotomy between that is interesting—these beings that are perfect are actually flawed.”

Not paradoxically, it could also be argued that, in their nostalgia for a past that puts agency in the hands of bloodsucking males, Ms. Meyer’s books are fundamentally antifeminist. Best-selling young adult author Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries) has written on her blog: “I didn’t take my husband’s last NAME when we got married. Do you honestly think I’d like a story about a girl considering changing SPECIES for a guy? No offense to any of you, but as a feminist, I just can’t go there.”

And Columbia University comparative literature professor Jenny Davidson, 36, who is the author of a forthcoming paranormal YA book, The Explosionist, argued that vampire books going back to Dracula, Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, often represent anxiety about modernity. “The Stoker novel really is a book about technology and modernity,” she told me. “It really is a book about telegraphs and letter-writing and wax cylinders that you might record madmen speaking onto. And that intersects with the idea that the vampire isn’t modern, the vampire is from the deep past. … The vampire seems to be a place for that intersection—very modern, but very much from the romantic past.”

Zombies, Schmombies! Teen Girls Are Vamping It Up!