At the end of the lecture on Sedgwick, I told the group that in many ways Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown (2013) was the opposite to the Sedgwick text, My Swordhand is Singing (discussed here). This meant that following my lecture, my first question in the seminar was: ‘How does this text differ from Sedgwick’s novel?’ There were the obvious differences: it is set in the USA during the twenty-first century, the vampires are far more humanised and attractive, and the protagonist is young woman. However, it was the similarities within the text were particularly interesting in light of understanding YA Gothic.
As in My Swordhand is Singing, the protagonist had a difficult family. In both cases, the mother had died when the lead character was young, leaving them with an alcoholic father and significant guilt issues. The trope of the dead mother recurs throughout Gothic texts. As I mentioned in the first lecture, traditionally the mother was seen to provide emotional and moral sustenance within the household. An absent or dead mother was a sign that the protagonist was now vulnerable to nefarious outside sources. In the case of both Sedgwick and Black’s novels, the death of their mother forces them to grow up faster and take on responsibilities more associated with adulthood. Peter regularly has to take on his father’s responsibilities when Tomas has been drinking too much. Tana takes on a protective role towards her sister, Pearl, and takes the role of the mother in regards to running the household. Moreover, both their fathers appear to hold some resentment towards their children and both Peter and Tana believe that their fathers hold them responsible for the death of their wife. This means that neither character is strongly emotionally connected to their father allowing them to leave their homes in order to fight/ fall in love with vampires.
Unlike Sedgwick’s novel, the vampire is a figure of desire who is preternaturally attractive rather than a bloated corpse. In Black’s text, it is a vampire, Gavriel, who is the main object of Tana’s affections. Throughout the novel, she realises that despite the danger he poses – he is both a vampire and insane – she is falling in love with him. Black repeatedly draws attention to Gavriel’s appearance making it clear that apart from his red eyes, he looks like a beautiful, teenage boy. As with many supernatural love interests, he has the prerequisite full lips, high cheek bones, and scintillating eyes. Yet, although Black includes both Tana’s ex-boyfriend, the bad boy Aiden, and Gavriel, as with Sedgwick, students agreed that romance was not the main driving force in the novel. Instead, the novel follows Tana’s attempts to save both Aiden and Gavriel, before she gets caught in Gavriel’s plot to kill his maker, and then finally she finds herself having to save Pearl.
The focus on the heroine rather than the romance, especially her need to save her little sister, show the influence of YA dystopian novels. Black’s novel was published after Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games series (2008-2010) following which dystopia had become the new ‘buzzword’ in YA publishing. Black’s novel fuses YA Gothic with YA dystopia via a heady mixture of consumerism and youth culture. The premise for The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is that vampirism had once been a ‘gift’ given only to a small number of people and vampires acted like feudal lords. In response to this as an act of rebellion, a young vampire starts biting humans haphazardly in order to spread vampirism. In Black’s world, vampirism is an infection spread through the bite (rather like in Meyer’s Twilight series). Having been bitten, the individual starts craving human blood. If they can resist drinking human blood for eighty-eight days (an almost inhuman task), they will remain human, if not they will die and come back a vampire. Those who are bitten are said to have ‘gone Cold’. As the vampire infection spread, the American government set up Coldtowns: highly policed urban spaces that are surrounded by walls. Here vampires and those who have gone Cold are confined.
The narrative centres on one particular Coldtown which is ruled over by Lucian Moreau, a beautiful, blond, flamboyant vampire. Capitalising on the fact that the human population are at once entranced and disgusted by vampires, he sets up cameras around his mansion and creates a reality television empire. (In the novel, the two most popular reality television shows are Hemlock the Bounty Hunter, who kills/ captures vampires and is a play on Dog the Bounty Hunter [2003-2012], and Lucien Moreau’s vampire show). The parallels between Lucien and Anne Rice’s Lestat are clear. In Queen of the Damned (1988), Lestat decides to become a rock star. You can visit ‘the nearest record store and ask to see the album which has only just arrived – also entitled The Vampire Lestat, with predictable modesty. Or if all else fails, switch on your cable TV, if you don’t disdain of such things, and wait for one of Lestat’s numerous rock video films which began to air with nauseating frequency only yesterday’ (Queen of the Damned, pp. 13-14). Lestat embodies the rise of MTV culture in the eighties. Lucien, however, is a vampire for a new age.
In this way, whilst the Coldtowns can be read as prisons or internment camps, they can also be viewed through Michel Foucault’s description of the Panopticon. The presence of the guards armed with flame throwers suggests a prison. However, the desire of Lucien and the other vampires to present themselves for visual consumption, and the desire of the humans to consume the vampire as a beautiful dead object, confuses the power structure. Reality television and social media at once empower and imprison both human and vampire alike. This is made clear in Black’s novel as an industry arises from vampirism – there’s a mall on the outskirts of the biggest Coldtown and young people flock to enter it in order to have to chance to party all night and perhaps live forever. (I am purposely paraphrasing the tag line from Lost Boys , here). As part of this, Goth(ic) is also presented as something to both perform and consume. Death, and an obsession with one’s own death, is romanticised throughout the novel. Through its depiction of popular consumer culture and social media, the text critiques and celebrates how subcultural identity is formed.
Within the text, the twin, Midnight and Winter, epitomise the need to create your own narrative through the use of social media. They sport fake names, blue hair, and an unhealthy desire to be turned into a vampire before their next birthday by going into a Coldtown. After she is attacked by a ‘cold’ Aiden, Midnight vlogs about the experience. Black writes:
‘Tana had to admire the way Midnight was able to turn what happened
into a madcap story, into a part of the Legend of Midnight. Even the
not-so-good stuff was spun on its head to be enviable […]. But standing
in front of Midnight, knowing what actually happened, Tana could see
that Midnight wasn’t just telling a story to other people, she was telling
a story to herself’
(Holly Black, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, p. 98).
Social media becomes a way of creating a new version of yourself. Midnight and Winter accessorise their Goth-persona with their social media presence. In many ways, their clothing and piercings act like the latest filter on SnapChat or Instagram. Our discussion of their characterisation during the seminar led me to ask, are Winter and Midnight actually Goths? Or just performing Goth? Which led to one student answering, “Is there a difference?” Black’s novel, with its depiction of consumerism and capitalism gone full-vamp, seems to suggest that the distinction is no longer clear.
At the end of the seminars, I asked the students whether they would want to be a vampire, in Black’s world. (It was universally agreed that Sedgwick’s vampires held no temptation). Some of the answers were flippant. (“Of course, flawless skin every day is too much to resist”). To the heartbreaking. (“You’d watch everyone you loved die”). Regarding Black’s novel and the presence of the Coldtowns, one student commented that they wouldn’t want to be a vampire because whilst it looked like freedom in the form of rampant hedonism and eternal life, your incursion in the Coldtowns meant that you were far more constrained than in your human life. Vampirism in Black’s is the ultimate gilded cage.
That sounds like an interesting discussion Kaja. I love this novel. The twin’s catch phrase ‘no more birthdays’ is particularly ripe for discussion re: vampirism and romanticising death and Rob Latham’s work is very pertinent to the wider theme of consumerism at work here. Social media is really given a very ambiguous and subversive treatment in relation to damaged teens and subcultures. It’s a brilliant novel to teach I think and it sounds like your class was very pertinent to current debates!