There are no doubt plenty of reasons for the popularity of paranormals, including the fact that they open up new scenarios and plot possibilities, and they allow authors to world-build (and if set in a 'historical' setting they’re less likely to be termed ‘wallpaper’ historicals or, if set in the contemporary period, to be critiqued for inaccuracies, since the world depicted is clearly a fantastical one). From an academic perspective, however, the popularity of these stories emphasises two important, and interconnected, aspects of the genre.
The first is the relationship between romance and fairy/folk tales, which was discussed by Sandra not that long ago. The second is that the presence of the monster underscores the existence of those two poles of romance which were described by Northrop Frye:
We may think of our romantic, high mimetic and low mimetic modes as a series of displaced myths, mythoi or plot-formulas progressively moving over towards the opposite pole of verisimilitude, and then, with irony, beginning to move back.Romance has always had its share of heroes who were dangerous, powerful and almost mythic in nature. In Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, Linda Barlow and Jayne Ann Krentz wrote that
A careful analysis of the physical description in most romance novels will demonstrate that, from a large lexicon of common descriptive codes, authors consciously or unconsciously choose those that best illustrate the particular archetypes with which they are working. Heroes associated with demons, the devil, the dark gods, and vampires tend to be dark-haired, with eyes that are luminous, piercing, penetrating, fierce, fiery, and so forth. Blond heroes are less common, but there is usually a fallen-angel quality about them. (1992: 24)In the same essay collection, Mary Jo Putney observes that,
As Jayne Ann Krentz says, the male protagonist of a romance is often both hero and villain, and the heroine’s task and triumph is to civilize him, to turn him from a marauder into a worthy mate whose formidable strength will be channeled into protecting his woman and his cubs (sorry – his children). (1992: 100-101).Putney is referring to Jayne Ann Krentz’s observations in yet another essay in the collection:
The hero must be part villain or else he won’t be much of a challenge for a strong woman. [...] Any woman who, as a little girl, indulged herself in books featuring other little girls taming wild stallions knows instinctively what makes a romance novel work. Those much-loved tales of brave young women taming and gentling magnificent, potentially dangerous beasts are the childhood version of the adult romance novel. The thrill and satisfaction of teaching that powerful male creature to respond only to your touch [...] (Krentz 1992: 108-109)These quotations seem to simultaneously offer (a) an explanation of why Pride and Prejudice is so much more popular than any other of Jane Austen’s works (Henry Tilney and Mr Knightley, to give just two examples, are not dangerous, brooding or threatening, while Mr Darcy’s pride and reserve may be interpreted this way), (b) suggest a reason for the profusion of heroes named Wolf, Raven* or otherwise described as moving with panther-like grace, or as being a magnificent male animal, and (c) also hint at a possible reason for the popularity of the paranormal romance.** A werewolf hero may literally end up ‘protecting his woman and his cubs’, and the teeth and power of some vampires may make them rather like some of these powerful, dangerous animals too, though the vampires of the ‘elegant and deadly’ (Stuart 1992: 85) described by Anne Stuart, with ‘his pale skin and deft, delicate hands’ is clearly closer to the spirit world, a sort of ‘fallen angel’ (Stuart 1992: 85) than an animal.
While reading the werewolf novellas on Kelley Armstrong’s website, I was reminded of romance’s links with the fairytale. As Sandra observed, ‘romance fiction employs various elements of fairy tales’, particularly that of Beauty and the Beast. We may also see a connection between fairytales and romance in the figure of the wolf/werewolf. The fairytale wolf in Little Red Riding Hood may be a fearsome creature, but he also embodies sexuality. Zipes says of the Perrault version of the tale that:
the moral tells us that young girls, who are pretty, well-bred, and courteous, should never talk to strangers or let themselves go. Otherwise, they will be swallowed by wolves. In other words, they must exercise control over their sexual and natural drives or else they will be devoured by their own sexuality in the form of a dangerous wolf. (Zipes 1991: 24).Perrault himself is really quite explicit about this:
Moral: Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say "wolf," but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.In many modern romances, however, the wolf and Little Red Riding Hood live happily ever after in a state of sexual fulfillment.
Vampires too are associated with sexuality:
Modern critical accounts of Dracula, for instance, almost universally agree that vampirism both expresses and distorts an originally sexual energy. That distortion, the representation of desire under the defensive mask of monstrosity, betrays the fundamental psychological ambivalence identified by Franco Moretti when he writes that “vampirism is an excellent example of the identity of desire and fear”. (Craft 1984: 107)Paranormal romances whose heroes are vampires, werewolves or other dangerous, powerful and extremely sexual non-human (or not-quite-human) creatures are set in a fantasy world which is quite clearly signalled as fantasy. This may well be an important factor in their popularity, since the human ‘alpha male’ whom the vampire or werewolf so much resembles is still true enough to life that he may be criticised for his actions (e.g. forced seductions) and the reader may be accused of having unhealthy sexual desires. Laurie Gold at All About Romance has recently elaborated on some comments that Jill Marie Landis made to her on this issue:
In her view some of the aspects that drew many readers into reading romance initially are so politically incorrect at this point that they dare not be used any longer. So when readers crave something that's missing from their current reading, they're actually missing what they think they don't want. And that plays, in part, into the current emphasis on Paranormals...and Romantica too. [...]Dorothy Owens Malek says of the human alpha hero that:
Years ago, when Futuristics and Paranormals were struggling, readers complained that they were the last refuge of the Alpha hero. At this time most of the Futuristics were about space warriors, pirates, etc. [...] Then again, with historicals sounding more alike, with fewer Medieval warriors, and fewer politically incorrect, readers who missed that type of hero rediscovered them in Paranormals.
We may want a caring, sensitive, modern man in our lives, but we want a swaggering, rough-hewn, mythic man in our books. He provides the best foil; the more obdurate the hero, the sweeter the triumph when the heroine brings him to his knees. [...] I’m always amused when [...] critics accuse romances of being unrealistic – talk about missing the point! Of course they’re unrealistic, that’s why we like them. (1992: 75)and Mary Jo Putney adds that:
The theme of the man who is “saved by the love of a good woman” is common in both life and romance. In reality savior complexes are dangerous because they encourage women to stay with abusive mates [...]. What matters in a romantic context is that healing the wounded hero is a fantasy of incredible potency (1992: 101)Put this type of 'mythic' hero, this type of fantasy, into what is clearly a world outside the norms of everyday life, however, and the danger of the reader being misunderstood is minimised. She knows, and any observer knows, that what she is reading is fantasy. She is not endorsing or accepting a dangerous ‘savior complex’ in the real world, because she is accepting this sort of behaviour only in the context of the fantasy. It may also be easier to accept the exploration of sexual fantasies in this context, because it is marked as ‘fantasy’. Just as in the past, when the sexual nature of the vampire was hidden, and the fantasy provided a safe space to explore sexual desires, so the fantasy of the man who is also a monster allows the reader to accept behaviours which she might not find quite so acceptable if depicted taking place in the real world.
* I’m most certainly not the only person to have spotted this about heroes’ names. For example, Sherrie Holmes at the Word Wenches recently said that:
I’ve noticed a trend I find highly amusing: the tendency of romance writers to give super macho names to their heroes. These names frequently project the subliminal power of dark, hulking animals: Raven, Wolf, Hawk, Falcon, Lyon
** Contemporary romances make up the bulk of romance sales (according to the RWA 1,371 in 2003 and 1, 468 in 2004), but paranormal romances have seen a very significant increase from 120 in 2003 to 173 in 2004.
- Barlow, Linda & Krentz, Jayne Ann, 1992. ‘Beneath the Surface: The Hidden Codes of Romance’, in Dangerous Men, pp. 15-29.
- Craft, Christopher, 1984. ‘"Kiss Me with those Red Lips": Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker's Dracula’, Representations, 8: 107-133.
- Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, 1992. ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).
- Krentz, Jayne Ann, 1992. ‘Trying to Tame the Romance: Critics and Correctness’, in Dangerous Men, pp. 107-114.
- Owens Malek, 1992. ‘Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: The Hero as Challenge’, in Dangerous Men, pp. 73-80.
- Putney, Mary Jo, 1992. ‘Welcome to the Dark Side’, in Dangerous Men, pp. 99-105.
- Stuart, Anne, 1992. ‘Legends of Seductive Elegance’, in Dangerous Men, pp. 85-88.
- Zipes, Jack, 1991. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization (New York: Routledge). First published in 1983 by Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.