As I was waiting for the Northern Line in Elephant and Castle I saw an advert for The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013, punctuation my own), another spawn of the Twilight saga (2005-8). Set in high school, the latter is a literary series-turned-film franchise about a human-beast romance. Set in a generic American high school, it invokes the popular “fantastical versus the everyday” theme. The main characters are Bella, a high school human, and Edward, a fellow student and hundred year old vampire. It is one of the best-ever-selling series in the UK, having shifted 8 million copies in print alone since its release in 2005 to 2012. Unfortunately, I don’t really understand what all the fuss is about – having read the first novel in the series to satisfy my curiosity – and have deep reservations about the role of the series in literary and film culture as a whole.
The prevalence and popularity of the Gothic nowadays really surprises me. I remember when it was the province of outcasts and alternatives. As a teenager I became enamoured with the literary Gothic, though it is probably incarnated most memorably for my generation as trench coat-wearing, eye-liner loving goths in secondary school, quite often with suspect personal hygiene. Although I was extremely unfashionable, I did not adopt it as a social identity, being inexplicably averse to trends and cliques of any kind; individual to the end. I was drawn to its deviant style and departure from mainstream culture, always one to desire to be different, and it never occurred to me to be interested in N*Sync or whatever other girls liked.
Intellectually I was fascinated by the romance, darkness, and excitement of this hidden world. Fantastical elements are woven into the fabric of the storyline, emotions intensely heightened and a number of the characters bestowed with unusually alluring beauty. This is not to say that any of them are in possession of the kind of bland universal attraction that Bella from Twilight is apparently bestowed with, inducing all men to fall at her feet whilst stubbornly having eyes only for a pallid centurion domestic abuser. True Gothic beauty is somewhat ethereal, sometimes striking, and a gentle backdrop rather than unavoidably tacked on to every page.
Of course, the Gothic genre originally stems from post-Romantic realist novels like The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764) and The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe (1794) which were most certainly not very beautiful. They were wild and full of strange and disturbing happenings, and developed into many icons of modern popular culture. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) – the doctor, not the monster – is ubiquitous as the ultimate experiment-gone-awry, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), the sinister, aristocratic inhabitant of a mouldering Transylvanian castle, haunts many on a dark night.
As all genres that are living now have evolved over time rather than stagnating and dying, twentieth-century incarnations have included films such as Sleepy Hollow (1999) and From Hell (2001), both starring the indefatigable Johnny Depp, anything by Tim Burton, and the book series Mervyn Peak’s Gormenghast (1946-59) and Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (1976-99). Rice’s novels are a particularly stirring example of the modern (especially vampire) Gothic genre, populated by bisexual creatures of the night suffering from existential crises. Really do check out Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in the film version of Interview with a Vampire for a foray into strangely titillating nineties vampire horror. Sadly, in her later years Rice renounced these early novels in favour of a new-found devotion to Catholicism, distancing herself from the erotic horror and debauchery of these charming vampires (no, I’m not kidding).
In contrast to Rice’s aversion to the seedier aspects of literature, one modern subset of the Gothic has branched off into the disturbing quagmire of the horror genre. For reasons that are best explained by someone else, like in the Gothic, a focus on dark and disturbing themes, lust and supernatural happenings have also been absorbed into horror cinema and literature, but the latter is much less romantically inclined, in favour of brutality, beasts and breasts. I have no problem with this; horror, whilst often a bit slow and predictable for my tastes – though this is by no means exclusive to this particular genre – has its unique merits and influence.
And yet, I do have a serious problem with the Gothic – vampires in particular – being appropriated by one unnamed author (Stephenie Meyer). Now it seems that the undead have been appropriated by mainstream mass culture and become synonymous with the Gothic, stripping the genre of its multifarious facets and appeal. Offerings like True Blood (2008-), The Vampire Diaries (2009-) and Twilight are a testament to this assertion. While in possession of an extremely prominent and interesting background that is unusually devolved into popular history, vampires are not to be confused with the genre as a whole. Ghosts, demons, werewolves and homunculi are just a few of the other beings that populate the rich and varied Gothic genre.
Not only have vampires been elevated to deified status in modern culture by Twilight – though I must clarify, mainly among girls and up-to-middle-aged women – but female insipidity, mildly abusive teenage flings and cheekbones that would cut butter seem to be nearly all that is left of a formerly fearsome and powerful predator. I found both Edward, and Bella in particular, rather insipid, and couldn’t believe that the former sparkled in the sun. He and his brethren can walk around perfectly well in daylight, so the crucially defining feature of vampires has vanished, and they are such in name only.
The virginal maiden or swooning damsel, once a side character overshadowed by the swashbuckling male protagonist and his band of followers who sought to kill the beast, has now taken centre stage and also taken the beast for herself. Is this a triumph for feminism, female appropriation of the male canon, if you will? No, it is patriarchal Mormon doctrine swaddled in the guise of the American publishing and cinema cash cow. The ever-billowing pre-teen market needs constant fodder to feed its eager pre-pubescent audience. When I was young, my sisters and I were happy watching clean-cut programs like Sabrina (1996-2003), Lizzie Maguire (2001-4) and, of course, the irreplaceable Pokémon (1997-) with little if any focus on sexual attraction. While dark romance was once the province of awkward teenagers pining for love, now it has regressed to the level of childish fantasy and adults who simply won’t grow up.
All of this sounds quite grand and I don’t mean to portray Twilight and its ilk as anything other than drivel. I also see no need to distinguish between any of the other offerings like The Vampire Diaries. No, I bring up Twilight simply to illustrate how alternative cultural forms like the Gothic genre can be appropriated by the mainstream machine, chewed up and spit out as a quivering remnant of its former self. Its aesthetic integrity is diluted by the fact of universal appeal to the masses. Nothing is sacrosanct if it can make money for the media moguls. Admittedly the TV series True Blood did manage to suitably capture some of the savagery and bestiality that the Gothic – and vampires – are so well-known for, but then True Blood is obviously aimed at an older audience. Twilight is repugnant for its target market of children, though there are admittedly many cases of adult obsession with the dreary couple.
Mainstream “inspiration” from other genres is very common, and another contemporary example would be the endless wave of comic book/superhero adaptations that have swept the Hollywood film industry. I have absolutely no problem with this sheer entertainment and loved Thor (2011), The Avengers (2012) and The Amazing Spiderman (2012) in particular. In the case of Twilight and it’s clan, however, it’s a case of mainstream appropriation of subcultural forms of artistic expression meets the distribution of age-inappropriate material to pre-teens for economic gain by the industry. A weakened society and a loss of traditional moral signposts has been the result of more relaxed American attitudes to explicit sexual content filtering through into once stiff-lipped British culture. It is revealing that Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James (2011), the UK’s top best-selling book, began as Twilight fanfiction. The popularity of this sado-masochistic-erotic novel is staggering and shows no signs of slowing, but it is thankfully not aimed at children. Though it would be unthinkably totalitarian to restrict access to Meyer’s book and immediately make it twice as popular, the author must certainly be laughing all the way to an empty grave, as she struggles to stuff her many dollars in her pocket along with a well-thumbed Mormon prayer book.