Beyond Twilight: Identity, Anxiety and Agency in YA Vampire Novels

“Every age embraces the vampire it needs” – Nina Auerbach


A cruise down the Young Adult fiction aisle at Barnes and Noble quickly demonstrates the resurgent popularity of fiction featuring supernatural creatures in young adult literature. Among fairies and witches, werewolves and trolls, the figure of the vampire stands out on its own, part of the pack, but not, much as the vampire has always stood slightly apart from other traditional monsters. Though most supernatural creatures in young adult fiction these days are at least humanoid in appearance, the vampire remains the one monster most identified and inextricably linked to humanity. Even the werewolf, with his bestial nature, cannot claim to be as close a kin. The vampire comes as close as we can imagine to a shadow self with whom we inhabit the world, us at our worst and, in recent trends, perhaps us striving for our best as we handle the challenges presented by a rapidly changing world (Nelson 1).

The vampire novel is nothing new in Western society, just as the myth is nothing new in the world. Bram Stoker froze and popularized a certain version of the vampire in his Dracula and it is his conception, in some form or another, which has endured. Traces of the Count—aristocratic, elegant, sensual, lonely—can be seen through the history of the vampire in fiction. This fiction is divided, however, along two tracks identifiable as horror and speculative fiction (to include paranormal romance). The vampires of horror novels are generally written by men, are unrepentantly predatory and generally a representation of elemental evil. In speculative fiction, however, vampires are portrayed far more sympathetically—either by being given complex emotional lives from which we can understand the “evil” they do, or by finding themselves in the realm of the “ethical” vampire. Notably, these vampires are far more often written by female authors (Gordon 230-31). More and more, lately, it is the sympathetic, ethical vampire who is being portrayed in fiction, and this is most certainly true of young adult vampire novels. The massive commercial success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight has brought these sympathetic vampires out into the metaphorical sunlight, and now it seems that young adults (and many adults) cannot get enough of them.

The craving for the vampire novel, for these alternate realities which construct worlds in which a reader can explore a wide variety of positions and concepts, has fed into another standard in young adult literature: the series. There is a comfort in the familiar for most people, and a reluctance to let things go that seems to manifest itself in young adults. While series are hardly confined to young adult literature, it is far easier to come up with a popular, enduring adult novel that stands alone than it seems to be with young adult novels. This is nothing new, and certainly not at all confined to fantasy novels or vampire novels. Early fiction aimed at young people often situated itself in series: L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz series, C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House, L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Trixie Belden, The Bobbsey Twins, Pippi Longstocking, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Even after the formation of young adult literature as a genre, series still dominated: Nancy Drew was modernized and new series formed, Sweet Valley High, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, His Dark Materials.

Some of this fascination with novels in a series may well be influenced even farther now by a being well within a third generation raised on television. We expect to be able to tune in to fictional character’s lives. We are reluctant to let them end. We want to know what happens next, when one obstacle has been overcome. Vampire fiction is no different. While there are stand-alone vampire novels within young adult fiction, the most popular and the most enduring have been those located within a series—a continuing world where either an overarching plot binds the series together or a single character comes back for multiple adventures.

This paper examines the particulars  of vampire fiction written specifically for young adults, focusing even more narrowly at times at the subgenre of vampire romance (though for at least two series, romance is actually secondary to the larger plot, which sets those two apart a bit more). I begin by defining the genre briefly and situating it within the larger field of young adult literature. I briefly consider the critical treatment of the genre—which has been lamentably narrow in its focus on Twilight to the exclusion of its predecessors, genre defining works and the variances which came later. Next, I identify the themes which permeate the genre, the questions raised, and the tropes which are seen repeatedly in novels in the genre. Finally, using the critical framework developed, I examine the first novels in five vampire series, four of which are highly popular, one of which I had never heard, but stumbled upon by accident and found myself enchanted, intrigued and wanting more.

These are the five novels I will be examining more closely (in order of publication):

  1. The Vampire Diaries: Awakening (1991) by L.J. Smith
  2. Twilight (2005) by Stephenie Meyer
  3. Boys that Bite [The Blood Coven series] (2006) by Mari Mancusi
  4. Marked [House of Night series] (2007) by P.C. and Kristin Cast
  5. Vampire Academy [Vampire Academy series] (2007) by Richelle Mead

My initial discussion will focus on The Vampire Diaries: The Awakening and Twilight, given the two series are often accused of ripping off one another and their similarities and differences can be cast in sharp contrast. Because The Vampire Diaries was the first young adult vampire series to be published, it set a great many of the themes and tropes in place, most of which are present in Twilight, as well. The three later novels, then, all appear to make a conscious effort to differentiate themselves from the previous two series, handling the issues and tropes in slightly different ways, but always coming back to many of the same questions. Therefore, I will examine the three later novels in relation to their resistance to the generic narrative formed in The Vampire Diaries and reiterated in Twilight, as well as consider their unique deviations and their similarities to one other.

Each of these five novels (and by extension their series) contains a majority of the critical elements of the genre, situating them firmly both within the classic definition of the young adult novel, and within the traditional scope of the young adult vampire novel. Most of them address very similar questions of identity and agency, family and friendship, belonging, changing, love and sexuality, though some of the later novels are more tongue-in-cheek or playfully aware of their own situation on the spectrum, which makes for an interesting read for those fluent in or jaded by the genre.

Defining a Genre

Vampire novels written for young adults can span genres from urban fantasy to magical realism to horror to romance—more often than not combining elements from more than one genre. While it is difficult to define a prototypical vampire novel these days as authors attempt to write a story that has not yet been told a thousand times, some common characteristics find their way into most stories in this genre. Like most young adult novels, early YA vampire novels were fairly short, well under 300 pages. Characters were limited in number, and often only the main protagonists were developed beyond two dimensions. Nearly all of them, even now, still take place in a restricted setting—a small town or an isolated boarding school are common settings. Most novels take place within, at most, a school year, but generally far less time than that.

Beyond these very broad definitional characteristics they share with young adult fiction in general, vampire novels also usually contain at least a couple of “hot topic” items of potential concern for adults evaluating them which are common in most young adult literature. Parents are often absent, or disengaged. Other adult authority figures are quite often ineffectual or outright villainous. They most certainly cannot be relied upon to be of assistance in a crisis. Issues of sex and drugs are latent within the vampire motif anyway—when combined with teenage hormones, these can often lead to controversial readings of sexuality and addiction within the vampire relationship. Vampire novels also often raise issues of self-harm, suicide and body image for critical readers, though these often are not addressed in those terms and teens often do not see the presence of these themes, or interpret them the way a concerned adult reader might.

Issues of race relations underlie almost every vampire/human story, though these are rarely recognized either by the characters or critics. But the vampire is essentially, automatically, Other, even if capable of passing for human. Issues of race are often overlooked, because the vampire in the story is often male, and, in young adult vampire fiction, at least, white. Ergo, he carries with him the privilege of a human white male, coupled with wealth and sophistication accrued over centuries of life. With these points in his “favor,” the issue of “race” can seem trivial, but actually a great deal of critical work has been done examining the vampire as a feared racial Other simply by nature of his existence, and while it is not an element on which I spend much time in this analysis, it is worth mentioning (Brox; Winnubst).

The subgenre of vampire romance is generally defined by some sort of transition or question of transition. Most of the time, one of the lovers is a vampire, one is human, though this can be subverted within narratives where the vampire’s world makes up the world of the story instead of the intrusion of the vampire world into the human one. Where this defining characteristic is challenged, inevitably there is some other sort of transformation which separates the lovers, offering not just the upheaval of new romance in an adolescent world, but an extra layer of some sort of physical transformation or challenge to overcome in order for the romance to succeed. Still, even where the conventional narrative is disrupted, many traditional notions remain: the vampire lover is handsome, wealthy and sophisticated. The male partner is almost always older than the female—sometimes by decades or centuries, but always by at least a few years. Even where the girls are strong and self-reliant, the male partner is nearly always cast into a protective role, at some point—generally due to greater strength, speed or stamina, or, where the two are equal in those arenas, by dint of greater experience (Mukherjea 12). In general, these are not worlds of poverty, struggle and starvation. However, for all their potential luxury, in almost all of these novels, there is some menacing force, an element of danger, and a sense of isolation for at least one, if not both, protagonists. Given how menacing adolescence can seem sometimes, and how very isolating, these themes tie not just into genre expectation, but also to the adolescent experience.

Notable Works That Define the Genre

A disappointing result of the mega-success of Twilight is the lack of critical attention which has been paid to previous and subsequent works within the arena of young adult vampire fiction. In fact, reading some critics, it would be easy to get the impression that no other vampire novels had ever been written for young adults before Twilight.  The majority of critical study of vampire literature in the past decade has focused on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twilight. Critical work before that focused mostly on Interview with a Vampire and Dracula with the occasional inquiry into Polidori’s and Poe’s vampires. While the random article can be found which addresses other narratives (True Blood is popular in media studies articles, though little attention has been paid to the novel series behind it), nearly none of it is targeted at a discussion of young adult vampire narratives which are not Twilight. When such discussion can be found, issues of quality are rarely, if ever, discussed. Ananya Mukherjea in her article, “My Vampire Boyfriend: Postfeminism, ‘Perfect’ Masculinity, and the Contemporary Appeal of Paranormal Romance,” does acknowledge The Vampire Diaries and The Silver Kiss as “examples of excellent genre stories that precede Buffy,” she says little else about them (4). A mention is made of the first book in L.J. Smith’s other vampire series, Secret Vampire (book one of the Night World series), but again, no more than a sentence (Mukherjea 11). Instead, Mukherjea focuses on the Byronic qualities of the Vampire Boyfriend, the equation of biting with sexual penetration and worldly experience, all of which are far more descriptive of the vampires in The Vampire Diaries than they are of the virginal Edward Cullen.

This lack of attention to other series and novels within the genre is regrettable and frustrating. For one, many of the issues discussed as if Meyer first deployed them are present in previous works (most notably, The Vampire Diaries, but also The Silver Kiss). For another, when an entire genre is defined by a work which has received popular acclaim, but mostly negative criticism, work of higher quality often gets tarred by the same brush. Finally, such a narrow focus on one franchise denies a deeper inquiry into commonality and difference across a genre. This critical lack is something which this essay begins to address.

Some of the major criticisms leveled at Twilight, and seemingly by extension the young adult vampire genre, concern Bella’s agency or lack thereof, the novel’s reinforcement of traditional gender roles, concerns of abuse and issues of self-harm and Bella’s arguable death wish, the message being sent when Bella gives up college and a life in order to freeze herself in perpetual adolescence while taking on the duties of wife and mother, the heavily anti-abortion message in the fourth book and the seeming idealized reinforcement of the values that underlie the True Love Waits movement. While it is true that some of these issues are present in other novels in the genre, which I will discuss in comparing them, it is also true that there are a great many of them which contain exactly the opposite messages and scenarios, even while playing within the same tropes and themes. Failure to mention these deviations within the genre and attempts to categorize a genre by the potential failings of one example—however popular—of it strikes me as irresponsible scholarship.

Themes, Tropes and Questions Raised by the Vampire Romance

What themes, tropes, questions and concerns are raised in young adult vampire novels—specifically those with an element of romance? How do they play against each other across the genre? How do they relate to adolescent concerns and lives? In the next section, I will apply several of these themes, tropes, issues and concerns to five specific novels, but because they are so ubiquitous within the genre, I wish to briefly define and touch on the themes themselves before examining them in practical application. Any one of these themes, issues, or tropes could be the subject of an entire essay on its own, and a close reading comparison of The Vampire Diaries and Twilight could easily encompass a dissertation, so I regret that a thorough investigation of each element is not possible within the scope of this essay. Some of them are more vital to the genre and the five books analyzed for illustrative purposes, though, and so those will receive the majority of my analytical attention.

Beyond the parameters for the teen vampire novel set out above, several recurring themes and issues are explored in most novels in the genre. As I mentioned earlier, even when a novel is not explicitly a romance, most YA vampire novels contain at least a romantic subplot. In the context of a more traditional YA vampire romance (such as The Vampire Diaries, Twilight, and Boys that Bite), a human/vampire romance raises the big issues for both the vampire and human of immortality versus death, life versus unlife, choice and agency for both characters but most often the human, gender stereotypes and roles and sexuality. Inevitably, issues relating to feminism often coincide with these other issues, especially when the vampire character is significantly older than the human—how active can a teenage girl be in a relationship with a vampire decades or centuries older than her?

Often in vampire romances, as in any other romance, the love triangle becomes a plot device. Love triangles are ubiquitous plot devices in Western fiction, as it is, insisting on the necessity of choice—often between not just two different lovers, but two different lives. This is one of the central conflicts in two of the series discussed later, and is at least toyed with in two of the other three. The issue of vampiric ethics (the morality of how and on what to feed) plays a large part in teen vampire novels, and in modern vampire novels in general (Gordon 232; Gomez-Galisteo 2; Nelson 3). This also can feed into (no pun intended) the romantic tension and issues of choice—should the heroine decide to be a vampire, what sort of vampire will she be? Is love worth becoming a vampire? Are human/vampire relationships naturally doomed without transformation? Can a teenage girl really be asked, or legitimately decide, to change into another species, to consign herself to living forever, based on a first love and after a short time? Almost every vampire novel which presents “good” vampires also counters them with others in their society who are “bad” and further Othered than even our sympathetic hero or heroine (Nayar 68-69). Beyond her own character, if she chooses to be a vampire and still has a love choice to make…who will the heroine choose—the ethical “good” vampire, or the roguish gothic anti-hero who needs her love to save and reform him? (Bailie 143)

Vampire novels also have recurrent themes of isolation and identity formation. Inevitably, at least one, if not both, of the main protagonists are somehow isolated from the rest of society or their peer group. For the vampire boyfriend, this feeds into prevalent Gothic stereotypes of the brooding loner who is cut off from his own kind for various reasons (Bailie 143). For the female character, isolation can feed into the general isolation adolescents feel—the sense of being alone in a crowd, that no one understands them—though in the fictionalized world, there is generally some sort of reason beyond “everyone feels this way” to heighten the heroine’s isolation (Gomez-Galisteo 3). Within isolation, pulled out of it by peers or love, how do the protagonists reconstitute their identity? How do they transform from loner to hero? These are common questions addressed in these narratives. In contrast to their isolation, most vampire narratives weave within them the idea of family – either reconciliation with family by blood or the creation of family by choice. The protagonists may be loners in some ways at the start, but they will always be formed into some sort of family unit by the end of the novel or series (Nayar 66).

The final issue addressed in nearly every teen vampire novel—whether or not it can be constructed as a romance—is the issue of sexuality. In more recent novels, this exploration is nearly always blatant and sometimes graphic. In older ones, it was shrouded in sensuality, but still addressed. The vampire as a sexual figure dates back to Dracula, though it was almost always a transgressive sexuality. Now, it still raises issues (often around the issues of age, consent, potential violence), but the vampire as a sexually desirable figure has become a literary trope in and of itself. The manner in which these novels handle sexuality and the messages embedded in the narratives about it are vastly different and defy categorization in any standardized way. The one constant that can be applied to the genre is the notion of overwhelming temptation, tapping in to raging adolescent hormones and the potentially unrestrained, predatory monster the vampire has always represented within our subconscious.

Analysis, Comparison and Contrast – Five Enduring Narratives

Published in 1991, L.J. Smith’s series The Vampire Diaries is the first series of vampire novels written specifically for teens that I have been able to find. In many ways it set the stage for everything that has come after—including Twilight, which shares several notable similarities with it. While it might be the first YA vampire novel, its vampire hero, Stefan Salvatore, owes a literary debt to Anne Rice’s Louis, while his brother, Damon, could arguably be a less careless Lestat. Before the 1980s, sympathetic vampires—those from whose vantage point we see the world and who kills either discreetly or not at all while capable of examining the morality of his behavior—were rare (Gordon 231). Rice’s Louis made his appearance in Interview with the Vampire in 1976, but the series did not gain a great deal of recognition until after the publication of The Vampire Lestat in 1985, when the sympathetic vampire trend had begun to gain steam (Gordon 227). While Lestat is not nearly as ethical as vampires have developed to be in recent literature (Nelson defines the ethical vampire as a vampire who wishes to peacefully coexist with humans), he is, nonetheless, a figure of sympathy and a protagonist with whom many readers became enchanted (Nelson 4; Gordon 227).

While Smith did not invent the trope of the repentant, or ethical, vampire, but by writing Stefan Salvatore in that light, she brought the now-familiar character of the sympathetic vampire from out of adult speculative fiction and into young adult. While there have been unrepentantly evil vampires in young adult fiction since, it is this sympathetic vampire who has become the signature character of the genre. Disgusted by what he sees as the evil of his nature, Stefan has not taken a human life—and possibly has never even fed from a human—since the night he was turned in the 15th century. Subsisting solely on animal blood, Stefan is weaker than others of his kind, who gain their power from human blood and killing, but this sets him up to be the vampire hero—isolated and outcast from his own kind because of his refusal to treat humans as they do (Bailie 143). Stefan has lived in shadows for five hundred years, but decides to come forward, to attempt to live among humans and walk in the light.

Of course, when he does enroll in a small town high school in Virginia, he immediately meets seventeen year old Elena Gilbert, who looks just like his first love, Katherine—the vampire who turned him. Elena is the queen bee of the school, but she feels as isolated as Stefan does. Her parents were recently killed, and nothing has felt real to her since. Fascinated by the new boy in town, Elena tries to meet him, but Stefan avoids her. Because the point of view switches between Elena and Stefan through the novel, we are privy to his reasoning and his secrets long before she is—he is afraid of hurting her and the way she reminds him of Katherine hurts (see Appendix I-A).

When Stefan rebuffs her first attempts to get to know him, Elena becomes determined to win him over, going to great lengths to get his attention. When she is attacked and nearly raped by the school bully, it is Stefan who is there to save her, because he has been watching her. He takes her back to his home to let her get straightened up before taking her home, and Elena confronts him about his avoidance of her, wanting to know why he hates her. Stefan finally explains, at least partly, and assures her that he does not hate her (see Appendix I-B).

It is no wonder that accusations of story theft have been rampant among Vampire Diaries and Twilight fans, though interestingly Twilight fans rarely seem to realize that The Vampire Diaries was published 14 years before Twilight, and thus Smith could not have stolen anything from Meyer. But the similarities of the two series cannot be overlooked. Edward Cullen, like Stefan Salvatore, is an ethical vampire. He hates what he is and believes he is damned. He and his family call themselves “vegetarians” and feed only on animals, not people, which makes them outcasts among the greater vampire population for their strange ways. When Edward first meets Bella, he is cold to her, almost cruel, flinching away from her and avoiding being too close to her. Only when he saves her first from an out of control truck and then from men intent on raping her, do they finally begin to truly talk. When Edward finally confesses his secret to Bella and they are able to speak openly about their initial encounter, the conversation sounds hauntingly like Elena and Stefan’s, as Bella expresses her bewilderment at his automatic initial rejection and her presumption of his hatred of her (See Appendix I-C).

Once Elena knows Stefan’s secret, she is determined to keep him safe, but their romance becomes complicated when Stefan’s brother Damon arrives in town, determined to make Elena his. If Stefan is the sympathetic, repentant vampire who offers the illusion of danger under the familiarity of safety, Damon is raw sensuality. What he wants, he usually gets, and the novel is set up to make it seem as if Damon has been stalking and killing the people in Elena’s town for sport. He hasn’t been, but we do not learn that until the third book in the series. The brothers’ antagonism to each other, rooted in their rivalry for both their father’s affection and Katherine’s, is a sharp contrast to the warmth and support of the Cullen household.

If Damon in the early books of the series has a counterpart in Twilight, it is James, the vampire who hunts for sport and sets his sights on Bella, mostly to take her away from Edward. James does not want to turn Bella, true, where Damon wishes to turn Elena, but the threat to the main pair is much the same in these first novels in their respective series. However, where James is defeated at the end of Twilight, Damon has the upper hand at the end of The Awakening. While Victoria, James’s mate, stalks Bella in revenge later in the series, Damon continues to woo and starts to win over Elena before Katherine—presumed dead, but not—strikes out at  Elena in vengeance for taking Damon and Stefan’s love away. Not identical plots, no, but similar enough.

The similarities do not end there. Both Bella and Elena are left adrift without much parental guidance. Elena is an orphan, in classic young adult literature fashion. She has a maiden aunt who cares for her, and a baby sister who is little more than a toddler, but her aunt is unable to control her and their relationship is not one of great closeness. While Bella’s parents are both still alive, they are divorced and Bella’s mother has chosen to go on the road with her new husband, while Bella has moved back to Washington to live with her father. While her father clearly loves her very much, he is not used to having a child to look after, and Bella, like Elena, operates with a great deal of freedom from parental control and authority.

The starker contrast in family in the two novels comes from the vampire families. Here there is a contrast between family of blood and birth and family of affinity. Damon and Stefan are brothers both by birth and in vampiric terms, having both been turned by Katherine as she attempted to create the perfect vampire clan and family for herself. All three of them were motherless with distant fathers (possibly abusive in Damon and Stefan’s case). Katherine spent all of her time only with her maid—no friends, no siblings. Damon and Stefan were several years apart in age and rivals in most things. Katherine’s attempt to create her own perfect family did not go well, and the brothers spent the next five centuries at war with each other, with Damon threatening to kill Stefan any time they came into contact.

In Twilight, the vampire family is far different. In contrast to the traditional isolation exemplified by Damon and Stefan, the Cullens have formed a close-knit clan over the centuries. Carlisle Cullen turned Esme and married her, then set out to save others and give her the children she wanted. Their family is close-knit and unlike the Renaissance aristocracy, steeped in Florentine politics of Damon and Stefan’s world, the Cullens are All-American down to Carlisle’s productive membership in society as a doctor and the family’s love of baseball (Nayar 68).

However, the seeming dissonance between the familial relationships in the two novels is reduced through the arc of The Vampire Diaries. While Damon and Stefan never grow toward the close camaraderie exhibited by the Cullens, Damon’s animosity is show to be more bark than bite, a wall he has erected against expected rejection. Despite his blatant threats, should Stefan get in his way when Stefan’s life is threatened, it is Damon who saves him, not once, but three times, risking his own life to do so. When the brothers are left with only each other in the wake of tragedy, they work to form a closer bond, to reach some level of understanding for the first time in their lives, demonstrating that the bonds of family, perhaps, are as important to them as they are to the Cullens.

Two areas where The Vampire Diaries and Twilight somewhat diverge, however, are in the issues of vampiric transformation and sex. Here, the two novels take opposite positions which are somewhat interesting. Sex itself is never explicitly discussed in The Vampire Diaries. Inferred, yes, hinted at, absolutely, but unlike the other four novels I examined, it is very coy. Instead, sexual exploration follows the pattern of early vampire fiction. The vampires themselves are sexual creatures, masters of sensuality. And sexual fulfillment is demonstrated not through explicit sexual encounters (though the text leaves room for implication of such if the reader wishes to infer it), but through the sexualization of the biting. It is with their fangs that Stefan and Damon both explicitly penetrate Elena, and it is their blood they give her in return. The blood exchange between lovers is a common theme in adult vampire romances, experienced and expressed in nearly transcendental ecstasy which binds the couple, often allowing for the intimate sharing of thoughts, memories and emotions via a telepathic link (Bailie 146).

When Elena realizes the significance of biting for vampires, she offers her blood to Stefan. Bella’s offer, in fact continued entreaties, of sex to Edward echo this, and, like Edward refuses at first, so too does Stefan, though less on grounds of moral purity so much as a fear of hurting Elena. Here again, the parallels in the text are achingly similar, as both vampires demonstrate graphically what they could do to the fragile human girl they love if they, for one moment lost control (See Appendix II A & B). Neither girl is dissuaded. However, Elena manages to come out farther ahead than Bella. Edward agrees to date Bella, but will not give in to her sexual urgings until they are married. Stefan, on the other hand, once Elena goes after what she wants—him, his fangs, his blood—gives in fairly quickly. Their passion is delivered in sparse prose, a fade to black moment that comes back into focus with Stefan and Elena sated and holding each other and vowing eternal love (Smith 302). With Edwards’s moral standards, Bella has to wait until her wedding night, and does not manage to attain the equality with Edward that Elena has with Stefan until she has been transformed.

That transformation is the other sharp divide in the series. While both girls become vampires, Bella is the one who seeks it out. A great deal of criticism has been leveled at Bella for her seeking harm and her lack of agency and her wanting death, but it isn’t suicide she is after, but eternity with a man she loves and a family that provides stability and certainty she never had in her own home. While these may be traditional desires, Bella’s determination to achieve them is no more passive than Elena’s pursuit of Stefan. Elena’s transformation into vampire, however, is something done to her against her will and, mostly, by accident. Where Bella fights marrying Edward and will not agree to it without a promise of transformation, Elena promises to marry Stefan while maintaining that she does not want him to turn her. Ultimately, through some deux ex machina plot convolution, Elena is able to have what she desires—her humanity and Stefan—just as Bella gets both her vampirism and Edward, but the security of Bella’s future is far more certain at the end of her series than Elena’s. Where Bella ends her series secure in her husband and her family, facing an eternal happily ever after, Elena ends on a note of hope and rejoicing, as well, but ultimate uncertainty. Human and vampire, she and Stefan are forced to face a future of inevitable loss unless she chooses to transform again. Given that Elena’s feelings for Damon are equally as unresolved as her feelings about vampirism, Smith’s series ends on an open note that leaves readers in far more control of how they think the future will play out than Twilight fans.

This open ended, who knows what the future will hold uncertainty marks the other pure vampire romance up for consideration: Mari Mancusi’s Boys that Bite. Published a year after Twilight, in 2006, Boys that Bite follows many of the same tropes and examines many of the same issues as The Vampire Diaries and Twilight. However, where the previous two novels are examples of traditional Gothic genre romance, up to and including brooding, Byronic heroes and anti-heroes, Boys that Bite tackles similar issues with a twist and more than a little splash of fun.

The most lighthearted of the five novels, Boys That Bite is a novel completely aware of its precedents and its place in a well-defined genre that includes elements of camp. More similar to the movie version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer than the television show, Mancusi’s novel irreverently pokes at the tropes and trials of the vampire romance and launches a series of novels that seem set to do the same.

In Mancusi’s world, the vampires have gone corporate. Senior vampires—those over 1,000 years old—are the only vampires able to make new vampires and this they can only do once in their lives. Candidates who wish to be vampires must undergo a three month training and then have a vampire mate selected for them via DNA screening to ensure compatibility. The two barely meet before the turning, which is done with a single bite and subdural injection of the vampire’s blood. No need to die, the transition takes place gradually over the next seven days. The vampires are extremely ethical—not only do they not kill, they also do not feed without permission. Willing human donors are assigned to each vampire, and vampires drink only enough from each donor to never cause them harm. Donors, in turn, are well compensated for their services, both monetarily and, often, sexually.

The only little problem in this well-oiled machine is Slayer, Inc. Consciously, blatantly and openly spoofing Buffy in the text, Slayer, Inc., gives the girls it recruits nearly the same speech Buffy is given when told she has been  Chosen to be a Slayer—one girl in all the world in each generation, etc. It is not word for word from the television show, but the characters in the novel have seen the show and often finish the quote for the Watchers, who aren’t called Watchers, but serve the same purpose—to train and guide the new Slayer. The one we meet in the first book even works at the high school, though as a drama teacher, not librarian. Of course, the Slayer isn’t exactly Buffy. Overweight and pimply and badly dressed with no sense of humor, Bertha the Vampire Slayer is not an impressive sight. However, her skills are pretty sharp, and she manages to take out a few of the head vampires in town before being forced to retire due to high blood pressure.

Enter our lovers. Rayne McDonald has gone through the rigorous testing and is set to be turned into a vampire. However, nervous about the whole thing, she asks her identical twin sister to come along to the meeting place with her. Sunny does not know what they are going out for, except to go dancing, so when a handsome stranger, Magnus, comes up to her she thinks he just wants to flirt. Sadly, Magnus has mistaken her for Rayne, and before the misunderstanding can be clarified, he bites her, starting her transformation into a vampire. Sunny, who did not even know vampires existed until now, and who just wants to make it to her next field hockey match is horrified.

The novel flies by quickly and amusingly, with frequent pop culture references, mostly to Buffy and Lost Boys, but also to other traditional vampire motifs. While Magnus and Sunny try to figure out how to stop her transformation, they, of course, find themselves falling in love (they’re perfectly compatible, after all, since Sunny’s DNA is the same as Rayne’s). A trip to Glastonbury to find the Holy Grail, which is being guarded by some Druids who just want to move to London and party, gives them a cure for Sunny’s vampirism, but she is then faced with the same choice regarding transformation as Elena and Bella.

It is in this choice that the few serious moments of the novel come. Sunny loves Magnus and wants to be with him, but how does a relationship between a 17 year old human and a 1,000 year old vampire work? He can’t go out during the day and she has school early in the morning, so she can’t stay out late at night. He’ll live forever. She’ll grow old and die. He might be assigned another mate. She wants to go to college, if she can ever pass geometry.

While the treatment of the tropes are far more lighthearted, to the point of verging on parody, the characters still feel very real and very well drawn. Just when you think you have the stereotype figured out, something comes along to twist it—like Magnus loosening up enough to dance around madly at an open air music festival, or Rayne being pegged as the next Slayer after Bertha’s forced retirement. In the end, Sunny, like Elena, chooses to undo her transformation and face the world uncertainly as Magnus’s girlfriend, not his mate. The series continues for many more books, so it is possible she changed her mind, but the first novel ends with them deciding to figure out how to make it work, and Sunny completely relieved that she does not have to face living forever, or losing all of her friends.

The novel has a very limited scope of characters, focused mostly on the sisters and Magnus.  Everyone else just drops in and fades out. The girls have a single mother, with no father. In a twist on the conventions, their mother is not absent or uninvolved. In fact, she is highly observant and caring, if a little wacky (she’s a former hippie, of course, with daughters named Sunny and Rayne). Her observant qualities pose a problem, demonstrating how getting parents out of the way can be important for young adult fiction. Mom notices the changes in Sunny and grounds her, thinking that she is using drugs. This threatens the trip to England to change Sunny back, and causes momentary panic. However, the convention of twins and the inability of even observant parents to tell them apart saves the day, and Rayne poses as Sunny while Sunny runs off to England unimpeded.

Sexuality is very light in the novel. Rayne is something of a sexual free-spirit, to put it nicely (Sunny calls her a slut). She’s slept with more than a few people, including one of her high school teachers. Sunny, on the other hand, is a virgin, which she gets constantly teased about and feels is something of a burden she’s eager to be rid of when she meets the right guy. However, even upon meeting Magnus, she never goes farther than kissing in the first book. Likewise, where biting is sexualized in The Vampire Diaries, the experience is far more akin to Twilight in Boys that Bite. Realistically, in some ways, the bites hurt and never turn pleasurable, though the agony of venom is not there as it is in Twilight. There is the suggestion that blood donors might like it, but that is not thoroughly explored.

The last two novels I examined were far different than the other three. These two are both the start of series of their own, and while both have strong romance subplots, they are not the main plot device of the story, and while they are not simple, they are nowhere near as complex as those in the first three books. However, both books share similarities to other factors in the other three books and have a great deal in common with each other.

Both P.C and Kristen Cast’s Marked and Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy are set for the most part at exclusive boarding schools for vampire teenagers. Parental figures are both emotionally and physically absent for the heroines of these novels. Both worlds set up a scenario where vampirism is biological and does not involve dying, but is a form of a different species. The vampire world exists separately from the human world, but there are varying levels of human knowledge of their existence. In Vampire Academy, the vampires mostly pass as human, if forced to go among them, but live within their own society for the most part. In Marked, however, the vampyres live openly among humans. In fact, they have an affinity for the arts and so most actors, writers and musicians are actually vampyres and everyone knows it. With their inhuman beauty and talent, very few humans could compete against them.

In Vampire Academy, Rose and Lissa are best friends and compatriots on the run at the beginning from the school. No explicit threat has been identified, but a teacher they trusted very much intimated that Lissa was in grave danger if they stayed. Lissa is the vampire, and one of the royal blood. Rose, on the other hand, is a dhampir—a half-human, half-vampire who is trained to be a guardian for the pure-vampires, the Moroi. The Moroi, like the vampires in Boys that Bite and like Stefan and Edward, are ethical vampires. They do drink from humans, but like Magnus and his kind, they only drink from willing donors. Donors are hired and well paid and well cared for. Unlike in Boys that Bite, the bite of a Moroi is exquisitely pleasurable to the one bitten, something which causes most donors to become addicts.

This is a social construct and a barrier in the girls’ lives, because while on the run, Lissa had no one to feed from. Because her job was to keep her safe, Rose allowed Lissa to feed from her. However, for a dhampir to allow a Moroi to bite is a highly transgressive act. Dhampir who allow Moroi to feed from them are almost always kicked out of training to be guardians and relegated instead to the communes where they serve the sexual needs of the Moroi, becoming what is derogatorily called “blood-sluts.”

The majority of the plot of Vampire Academy is setting up the series and the world. There is a villain and a danger, and through it we learn of Lissa’s ability to heal, but there is a sense of a far greater plot to come. The romance elements are somewhat transgressive, in that both girls fall for boys who are somewhat inappropriate, but there are no real impediments to their desire, either, despite Rose not approving of Lissa’s choice.

Despite the more world-building than plot in the novel, it is extremely well written and the world constructed is intricate and complex. The series is highly popular, and it is easy to see why. Of the five novels, Vampire Academy probably ranks second in quality. The characters are more than repeats of stereotypes. The girls are the central characters with the boys in their lives being highly secondary. Both girls struggle to figure out who they are, where they fit back in their world after the freedom of the human world. Their loyalty and friendship are tested both by their romances and the leaking of the secret that Rose allowed Lissa to feed from her. While sexuality is definitely apparent, it is almost mostly just normalized—they are teenagers. They have sex. It’s all cool, so long as you obey the biting rules. The major conflict revolves around Rose protecting Lissa and the female friendships are far more important than the romances. Both girls have very different powers, but they are both powerful in their own right and complement each other, forming their own unit which is difficult for the males in the circle to penetrate.

Similarly, in Marked, a world is constructed around the world of the vampire. Unlike in Vampire Academy where the girls are what they have been from birth, though, in Marked the issues of transformation arise again. No one knows why certain teenagers begin to change into vampyres. It is theorized to have something to do with a latent gene and an imbalance of hormones, but once it begins, the teenager is marked—a tattoo spontaneously appears on his or her forehead—and found by a Tracker who takes the teen back to the House of Night—an exclusive boarding school for fledglings. There, the fledgling teens undergo a training in arts and languages and religion (the vampires are blatantly pagan, set in contrast to the People of the Faith, clearly meant to represent Christians in this alternate world). Some fledgling’s bodies reject the Change and they die mid-transitions. Those that survive go on to become full vampyres and members of the community.

Marked is the story of one fledgling, Zoey, who begins her transition at the beginning of the novel. Unlike Vampire Academy where Lissa’s parents are dead and Rose’s mother is off being a guardian somewhere, Zoey has a home that is blatantly unhappy. Her mother has remarried a strictly religious man who is emotionally abusive and has isolated the family. When Zoey begins to transition, he tries to stop it with prayer and locks her in her room to keep her from leaving – which will kill her.

Zoey escapes and makes it to the House of Night where she discovers she has a special gift from the goddess Nyx and is poised to fulfill some destiny to save vampire-kind. In the meantime, however, she is dealing with the transitioning process, where her body is no longer her own. More so than any of the other series, Marked blatantly makes its story about the horror of growing up, in some ways, the awkwardness of teenagers trapped in a changing body. Like an adolescent dealing with puberty and a rapidly changing body, Zoey must accustom herself to changes in her looks (pallor, brighter eyes, sharper features, the tattoo), in her senses, in her emotions and in her cravings. All of this is happening to her at once and fast, and her confusion and feeling of being lost is palpable and heartbreaking.

At the same time, in finding her place at the House of Night, Zoey is able to break her isolation. She very quickly makes very good friends and finds a certainty in herself and her purpose that she had been lacking in the human world. Like Vampire Academy, Marked sets up a world and the beginning of a plot more than a full arc, yet. It positions Zoey as different, but accepted, and has her dealing with the first flush of change and the recognition that death can happen to anyone. While being mentored and cared for, she nevertheless has to grow up and take responsibility for herself.

In the mix is a new love interest at the school, but she has inadvertently enthralled her ex-boyfriend who won’t stop stalking her. Where Boys That Bite played with this same scenario in a campy manner, Marked treats it completely seriously, positing real danger both to Zoey and her ex. In the meantime, issues of sexuality are rampant and more explicit than in any of the other books. Zoey’s first introduction to Eric, her vampire love interest, is by walking in on him and his ex as the ex tries to give him a very bloody blow job in the hallway.

Zoey’s absolute disgust at this—not the blood, but that a girl would do such a thing—sets an interesting tone for the sexual exploration of the novel. Where Twilight posits a wait for true love chastity, it never reviles sexuality. Zoey, on the other hand, seems disgusted by the very idea of oral sex (which is, admittedly, probably a valid 16 year old response). But more than that, she has the lowest opinion of any girl who would let herself be “used like that” (Cast 59). When Zoey and Eric are making out later in the book—just kissing—she pulls back sharply and tells him that she is not like his ex, while her inner monologue says she was “making out with him like a slut” (Cast 255). Throughout the novel, she constantly worries about becoming or being perceived as a slut. She is highly sex-negative in this way. On the other hand, Marked is the only novel with an openly homosexual male character, and issues of sexual identity and acceptance are discussed openly and honestly and with a great deal of tolerance.

This sexual uncertainty—of the place of sex in a life—is the one odd note in an otherwise fantastic novel. Its premise is really fascinating and its take on vampires and their world is fresh and unlike anything I had read before in the genre. It is well crafted with description and realistic dialogue. Issues of diversity (there are several characters of color, including Zoey, who is Native American), sexuality, tolerance and acceptance run throughout the novel, as does the questioning of moral absolutes and religion. The novel is the only one for which I found evidence of it being actively taught in high schools, and I can see why. (“An Interview with P.C. and Kristin Cast” 35. All five novels are fun in their own ways, and The Vampire Diaries will always have a place in my heart, but when it comes to quality of writing, seriousness of themes and overall applicability to the struggles of modern teenagers, Marked is by far superior to the others.


While literary trends rise and fall, I believe it is safe to say that the vampire novel is not in danger of disappearing from the literature of either adults or young adults. The fascination the figure holds is an enduring one which has stretched through cultures and centuries and shows no indication of releasing its hold on the human psyche any time soon. If every age embraces the vampire it needs, undoubtedly the figure will continue to morph as time goes on, reshaping to reflect the anxieties and cultural negotiations of the society shaping itself beside the narratives. From horror to romance to mystical meditation on the transformative nature of faith, the vampire is a figure deeply, perhaps permanently, embedded within the human psyche.

It is unlikely that novels which present themselves too close to the narrative structure of

Twilight or The Vampire Diaries (and, by extension into the “adult” world—Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries) will be able to thrive in this saturated market. By revisiting and reviving the themes and structures in The Vampire Diaries, leading to the rediscovery of the older narrative, Twilight and the televised version of The Vampire Diaries have possibly saturated the space for similar narratives. Certainly, the similarity in the very wording and scenes between the two novels (as exhibited in the Appendix) leave little room for too closely similar explorations.

Instead, I would expect to see more novels along the lines of The Vampire Academy, House of Night and Blood Coven series. These series all strive to find a twist on the theme, to create a world that is not just the intrusion of the fantastic into the otherwise ordinary, as in The Vampire Diaries and Twilight. Fans of the genre are calling for greater originality, a new story, and these novels deliver, addressing the critical concerns raised by earlier narratives (most notably Twilight), while still remaining true to some of the inherent tropes of the genre, struggling with the same questions raised by the genre.

Undoubtedly, the figure of the vampire lover is also here to stay, and, while the narratives around him may morph, some figures are too deeply engrained to be easily shaken. Even in the more “hip” narratives of the series which followed Twilight, the male figures often maintain their ties to their predecessors. Like the figure of the vampire itself, these figures of romantic masculinity may be too embedded in our cultural expectations to be shaken easily. But as writers tackle the problems raised by traditional figures in a postmodern world, I expect to see a continued morphing of the character of the vampire lover as the ancient figure glides into a new century and a new world, bringing the cultural baggage of the old along with him, but hopefully learning to discard it, even as the readers who embrace the figure do the same.

The vampire novel allows for the play of identity and independence. The narratives give girls the opportunity to situate themselves in various fields of thought, to pose questions of life and death, ethics and morality, sexuality and love, friendship and family. This thoughtful play takes place within a fantastical genre that allows for the pondering of these questions one step removed from the everyday reality of their lives. Sometimes that step of removal is crucial for critical engagement and nonjudgmental exploration, and that is space and engagement is something adolescents greatly need. The escapist fantasy of genre fiction can also foster imagination and play of a lighter sort, a fact that often gets overlooked when we speak of literature and reading.

Reading anything involves a play of language, senses, emotions and imagination. The expectation that fiction should only be erudite or teach “good” lessons (and what those lessons might be change depending on where critics situate themselves in society and its structures, anyway) is a utilitarian ethic which does more harm than good. By denigrating works which capture teen interest—like vampire novels or dystopian novels or action-adventure novels—but which perhaps have less literary merit in form and originality, we make reading seem like something to be checked off a list of things we did that were good for us today. Reading can be magic, can transport us out of our lives, into another world, another time, another possibility. Vampire novels provide that for a lot of readers, and vampire romance, specifically, gives girls (and women) something to fill a gap in their fantasy which situates them in a long history of readers. To dismiss or denigrate that is short sighted.

Was Twilight a literary masterpiece? I don’t think even its most ardent supporters will claim that. Is The Vampire Diaries worthy of being called high literature? Not likely. But do these novels raise issues of importance? Can they be jumping off points for discussions of vital matters in teen lives? Absolutely. Do later series offer twists and turns on the narratives, bringing in relevant questions on contemporary issues in a manner that is engaging and entertaining at the same time? Undoubtedly. Can tapping into timeless tropes and myths and primal fears and questions be done in a way that is fun for reluctant readers and refreshing for seasoned veterans? Yes. The vampire novel does all of this, and more, and it is something that should be celebrated and examined both in our classrooms and our reading lives.

Even Twilight.

Works Cited

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Cast, P.C. and Kristin Cast. Marked (The House of Night Book 1). New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007. Kindle.

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Mancusi, Mari. Boys That Bite. New York: Berkley Jam Books, 2006. Print.

Mead, Richelle. Vampire Academy. New York: Penguin Books, Ltd., 2007. Kindle.

Meyer, Stephenie. Twilight. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005. Kindle.

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Nayar, Pramod. “How to Domesticate a Vampire: Gender, Blood Relations and Sexuality in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight.” Nebula 7.3 (2010): 60-76. Humanities International Complete. Web. 24 Nov. 2012.

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