Paranormal Romance: Notes towards a definition II

Continuing my tentative exploration of the hybrid, shape-shifting nature of the genre of paranormal romance below, here’s an extract from my plenary talk at the Company of Wolves conference. I hope you find this interesting and helpful (there are references to pictures; I’ll try and make these available soon):

From my talk, ‘The Call of the Wild: From Preternatural Pastoral to Paranormal Romance’:

My own talk is about a rather disturbing hunger I have acquired. I have an unhealthy passion for novels of paranormal romance—a newly emerged genre born from the coupling of two genres themselves thought to be rather unsavoury. Paranormal romance is an uneasy intermodulation of Gothic horror and romance fiction. Other genres often intrude, too—noir detective and science fiction, for instance. This will lead me to bring in ideas of genre, and how different literary kinds bring with them different perspectives, with hybrid genres being particularly intriguing in this respect. And, in the background, the genre of pastoral, with its concerns with our relationship to nature, is crucial.

[. . .]

Paranormal Romance: an unhealthy addiction

I have been reading Paranormal Romance fervently, compulsively, addictively since around 2010, when Sam George and I planned the first Open Graves, Open Minds (OGOM) vampire conference. I did a rough count lately and realised I’d read over 250 such novels—and most of these are written for young adults.

Just to give you an idea of the variety of paranormal romances, here’s some of my collection [pics 3 and 4]. You may be able to spot that there are some recipe books at the top of this case; there’s also a book on cannibalism and one on poisons. I call this my ‘appetites’ section—it’s my grim little joke about the connection between pleasure and danger that these novels explore, which is one of the themes of this talk.

How can I explain the strange delights of reading about the anguished and improbable love affairs of teenagers with vampires, werewolves, fairies, pixies, trolls, witches, ghosts, and even zombies? How can I justify them as an object of literary analysis? The Twilight phenomenon and the ubiquity of Gothic Romance books, films, and TV shows; the vast amount of such fictions with similar generic traits, many in fact predating Twilight, does surely raise interesting questions about the social significance of these texts. But why study them as literature? Many might argue that this type of mass culture is of low quality and that such ephemera are the realm of cultural studies rather than literature. I am no relativist; I really don’t think that Dan Brown is as good as Jane Austen and that it’s all a matter of subjective taste. I maintain that when you do literary studies you take into account questions of aesthetic value in ways that more sociological approaches might bracket. And I also think that some paranormal romances are worthy of this kind of literary attention. Of course, the cultural significance of this trend is also of interest—and not entirely separable from the first question.

For the literary scholar, a new genre has emerged, or an interesting collision or mating of genres has taken place and this itself is of interest for those interested in literary form and how kinds of writing emerge and mutate. The typical Gothic text of darkness and evil now flirts with the much-maligned genre of romance fiction (the word ‘romance’ and its relation to genre has a complicated history of its own, of course). The monster has become tamed, domesticated, or feminised, and transformed into the lover. Thus there has been a significant and dramatic shift away from Gothic as pure horror.

But back to the question of value (though I won’t attempt here the complex argument that aesthetic values have something like an objective justification). Many of these books do have a certain literary value in terms of, say, originality, seriousness, authenticity, stylistic achievement. Some people might argue that this over-attention to young people’s fiction is a symptom of a general retreat from adulthood. I don’t think so—the authenticity I claim for them includes their complex handling of some very adult issues in sophisticated ways. Paradoxically, adult works which inhabit this same loose generic space are often more formulaic, more conservative, and less challenging. Commercial and pedagogic reasons may be at work here, perhaps—it’s worth thinking about further.

So it’s important for me that the texts be rich enough to award a properly literary-critical approach, rather than being data for an analysis that belongs more to cultural studies. Thus, they have to have some particular quality rather than being typical; there should be enough stylistic individuality and interest in the prose to sustain critical scrutiny. Few of these texts are likely to become classics, yet some are, I think, worthy of the attention paid to some contemporary ‘literary’ fiction. But the emergence of significant new genres is itself of literary interest and the interplay of genre formation and historical-social context can teach us much about how literature transforms itself. The recent proliferation of texts that can be assembled as gothic romance or paranormal romance is such an occasion.

So, as a significant example, the concerns of autonomy and subjectivity are central to much paranormal romance. Dark and monstrous urges—the bloodlust of the vampire, the pack mentality of the werewolf—are opportunities to explore aspects of instinct and responsibility. Their adult counterparts typically retreat into essentialism (though there are exceptions and interesting qualifications and ambiguities), but Young Adult Dark Romances often explore complex ideas of subjectivity, choice, bad faith, and determinism. Since the traditional Gothic monster has always represented ‘the Other’ (that is, those excluded or execrated for their race, sex, or sexuality), the new sympathetic monster of these texts inevitably turns our attention to the politics of identity and to ideas of tolerance and assimilation of outsiders. All these issues become intertwined and scrutinised in the best paranormal romance.

This new genre has emerged, born, as new forms often are, from a risky mating of earlier genres. The Gothic novel itself emerged from the fusion of two types: the traditional Romance, with its chivalry, mediaevalism, and extravagant non-realistic plots, and the new novel, which focused on character and subjectivity. The dominant mode of Gothic later becomes that of horror and will include the monstrous vampire. This new genre of postmodern romance actually recalls some of the characteristics of the Gothic novel of the late eighteenth century. But it also, in its turn, embraces detective fiction, fantasy, fairy tale, the action thriller, and science fiction—which is interesting, as this last is usually in opposition to the irrational mode of Gothic in some ways. But it’s characterised most of all by a fusion of Gothic with romantic fiction in the everyday sense that we associate with Mills and Boon and the like. I’m going to try and show how these encounters with different forms bring with them discordant perspectives on the world and may reflect the clash of values in our uncertain modern world.

The uneasy coupling of horror and romance humanises horror in quite special ways, focusing on agency (which the inexorable doom of horror often denies) and on the human intersubjectivity found in the mainstream novel. At the same time, it desentimentalises romantic fiction, revealing the darker aspects of eroticism and even humanity as a whole.

This form has many of the trappings of Gothic, but the plot is subordinated to the movement towards amatory consummation of romantic fiction; the setting tends to be contemporary; it seems to assume a female readership; and, crucially, it centres on love affairs between humans and supernatural creatures.

Of course, in the YA novels—which are mostly aimed at teenage women—a primary function is mediating the anxieties of encountering the opposite sex, but there is something in the form, in the very nature of its mixed origins, that makes them especially suited to exploring less personal issues too.

Kinds of monster

Now let’s meet some of the candidates for the contemporary demon lover.

Monstrous lovers have been around from antiquity, but I would trace our contemporary literary demonic lovers from Milton’s Satan, through Lovelace in Richardson’s Clarissa [pic 6], to the vampire created in Byron’s image—or self-image—by Polidori [pic 7] and, separately, to the dark Lovelacean heroes of the Brontës, Daphne du Maurier, and Mills and Boon. Here’s Laurence Olivier showing his tender side as the quintessentially demonic lover, Heatchcliff, in the 1939 William Wyler film [pic 8]. But note how the pose is also somewhat vampiric (the book actually talks of him as ‘vampire’); you’ll see this image of the monster at the bedside repeatedly.

The vampire, with its own fluid crossing of boundaries, has enabled this commingling of genres—leading us, incidentally, to think in broader terms than the Gothic paradigm. It’s fair to say that the Gothic romance began with love affairs between tamed, sympathetic vampires and humans. But, since then, all kinds of supernatural species have been found in the arms and beds of humankind. Romantic vampires have initiated a whole legion of other paranormal lovers—werewolves, werecats, succubae, faeries, angels—the odd merman [pic 9], as in this tempting erotica by Cassidy Beach. Even zombies can now be seen lurching up as lovers. There are also Richelle Mead’s funny and smutty stories [pic 10] where the female protagonist and narrator is the monster herself—a succubus, whose vocation and means of subsistence is to drain the energy of male humans through sex; ‘lust is her greatest weapon’. Which she is fine with until she falls in love with a man.

There are even ghosts as lovers, as in Kendare Blake’s very scary, very powerful Anna Dressed in Blood (2011)—distinctive because of its male protagonist and female demon lover. I’m not sure how these affairs are consummated. I think even the cover is scary [pic 11].

Other species of paranormal lovers have distinct relationships to nature. Vampires, a curious one—despite the animality of Dracula (who, in fact, has lupine characteristics, as do his East European blood-sucking progenitors), despite the compulsive ferocity of their blood lust, modern literary vampires are often somewhat outside of nature, above the animal with their immortality and the cold perfection of their marble whiteness or sparkliness.

Faeries are wild nature; zombies too brutely material (being dead and in a messy state); angels very much beyond nature (though, as lovers, something corporeal haunts them); ghosts, of course, not at all physical; witches often celebrate a species of new age essentialist feminism that associates femaleness with nature. But weres are fine metaphorical vehicles for exploring the animal within us. Wolves in particular have a close relationship with the pastoral, which literally concerns the tending of domestic animals, and the wolf is the shepherd’s eternal foe, from at least the Old Testament onwards (and then there is the Christianisation of this, with Christ as shepherd of the human Flock).

The different kinds of paranormal lover stand in for different epistemological stances as much as do different modulations of genre, and themselves can be said to identify sub-subgenres, depending on which creature dominates the text.



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2 Responses to Paranormal Romance: Notes towards a definition II

  1. Lucy Northenra says:

    This is very pertinent and lively material and would make a good intro to a book. You really should get a proposal in Bill. I feel more favourable to the p.r. term reading this. I like ‘amatory’ as more however and it reminds me of early women writers such as Eliza Heywood. Maybe ‘dark amatory fantastics’ or D.A.F. I still don’t much like the ‘paranormal’ tag. You explain the commingling very well here and the generic hybridity of course. Still pondering things.

  2. William the Bloody says:

    Thanks, Sam–that’s very encouraging! There could well be a book from my research; I have enough material, I think. Still have one on 18th-century dialogues to write! I chose ‘Gothic romance’ at first because it quite clearly indicated the meeting of two forms and because it fitted in nicely with Fred Botting’s thesis. But, as you say, it has been applied before to Radcliffe and so on (and there’s another mid-twentieth-century usage). ‘Amatory’ is nice; the problem lies with the, by now very old, ambiguity of ‘romance’ (and the derogatory aspects of that, as you said below). ‘Paranormal’ doesn’t actually bother me too much, though it’s not strictly accurate, and ‘supernatural’ would be more exact.

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