Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Of Men and Monsters

Paranormals allow us to read about characters who are extremely unusual and may be termed ‘monsters’ in the sense that they resemble humans, and are yet non-human. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a couple of definitions of ‘monster’ which are relevant here: ‘Originally: a mythical creature which is part animal and part human, or combines elements of two or more animal forms, and is frequently of great size and ferocious appearance’ and, now obsolete, ‘Something extraordinary or unnatural; an amazing event or occurrence; a prodigy, a marvel’.

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. [...]
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.
Dorothy Owens Malek says of the human alpha hero that:
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.


  1. AWESOME Post!!

    The one thing I love about romance with Alpha males is that I'll get the HEA. That the heroine will tame the beast with love. In real life (personal experience), it's not like that at all.

    The fantasy is safe, but more importantly it's fun. Not to mention the fact that in real life it can sometimes spice up things with one's very own BETA hero. *grin* Not necessarily a bad thing. LOL

  2. As I said on the AAR Back Fence message board in relation to this topic, it seems ironic to me that Romance is more tolerant of relationship that cross the species/alien barrier than those that cross the race barrier or even the class barrier.

    But apart from the sexuality and sense of danger, I've always thought the best of these stories highlight the humanity behind the monster. Could Beauty have continued to love the Beast if he'd stayed in monstrous form? Perhaps so. Luckily, we don't have to be "shocked" by this uneven match for long, as the Beast becomes a handsome prince.

    In Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," the monster becomes gradually more human until a blind man could not tell the difference between man and monster. The tragedy of "Frankenstein" is that the monster must die alone, without a companion. It was not his fault he was hideous and not to Frankenstein's credit that he grew into an intelligent sympathetic being, who longed for human companionship

    "But that cannot be; the human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union."

    Where is a romance heroine when you need one?

    Love is coming to accept the monster inside our human partners, just as paranormal heroines come to love the human inside their vampire/werewolf lovers.

    Alas, it is so seldom the heroine who becomes the monster that the hero has to accept. One exception is the animated movie, "Shrek." One expects the ogre to assume "loves true form," but instead, the beautiful princess becomes the ogre. Having read so many romance novels, how could I see that coming? : )

  3. I really liked that about Shrek too. If the characters change to become beautiful, it does give the externals a lot of importance. Then again, if the two remained different species there could be practical problems. So I liked it in Shrek that they ended up the same species but not 'beautiful' by other people's standards.

    I think you're right that some of these novels bring up the issue of everyone's dual nature (monster (uncontrolled nature/the body) and human (culture, the mind)). Maybe it even goes back to the body/soul dichotomy. And yes, I definitely think that others of these paranormals could be interpreted as a comment on racial divisions, and how to create a society where different species/racial groups live side by side, and how they can find love together despite the differences and barriers that come between them.

  4. Could Beauty have continued to love the Beast if he'd stayed in monstrous form? Perhaps so. Luckily, we don't have to be "shocked" by this uneven match for long, as the Beast becomes a handsome prince.

    Am I the only person to find it deeply unsatisfying when the Beast does become a handsome prince? This, for me, is the appeal of paranormal romances - he's a monster, and he stays a monster, and she loves him anyway.

    As well as Shrek, I'm reminded, too, of a book by Mary Webb - 'Precious Bane' - in which the heroine has a hare-lip, and by classical standards of beauty is a 'monster'. Towards the end of the book the villagers try to drown her as a witch, as I remember (I haven't read it for a long time). Mind you, she has, according to the hero, 'the figure of an apple-blossom fairy', so she's certainly not monstrous all over.

    Fabulous blog, btw! I'm reading all the archives and loving them.

  5. I accept the transformation of the Beast in Beauty and the Beast on the prosaic grounds that it would surely be a bit bristly to kiss him as he was. And would Beauty and the Beast have been able to reproduce if he'd remained in beastly form? Of course, that's only an problem if they wanted to have offspring, but lots of people do, so I think it could be an issue. But that's just me looking at the story from a purely pragmatic viewpoint and ignoring the deeper levels of meaning.

    And thanks for the compliments, Monica and Immi. I'm glad you're enjoying the blog.

  6. Am I the only person to find it deeply unsatisfying when the Beast does become a handsome prince? This, for me, is the appeal of paranormal romances - he's a monster, and he stays a monster, and she loves him anyway.

    No, you are not. In the Disney version, it was not satisfying to have the Beast turn into a bland-looking pretty boy because I'd gotten used to the Beast. The thing about the majority of paranormals, however, is that the monsters are quite beautiful to look at (I've only read one that isn't). The vampire becomes more beautiful to lure unsuspecting humans to trust him, to accept his embrace, to give him everything. The beauty is a lie because the vampire exists to snack on the lifeblood of humans. People who are drawn to Death are drawn to the vampire.

    In most werewolf/shapeshifter novels, the human form is the natural form and the animal is the unnatural form. Those who are drawn to the primitive, the savage and the wild are drawn to the shapeshifter.

    At least in theory. Paranormal romances have played around so much with the myths of these monsters, one doesn't know what to expect anymore. And the hero is nearly always attractive in whatever form he takes, so the question of whether the heroine can fall in love with a killer is yes, but whether she can fall in love with an unsightly creature is never in question.

    However, in Shrek 2, Shrek is transformed into a handsome dude, and one finds one misses the green skin and the little ears. Thankfully, he is restored to ogreness at the end. I think romances should offer us this sort of variety more often.

  7. In addition you could argue that by describing the hero in terms of a beast, romance, a mostly female genre, marks the male as the Other. In contrast to 18th- & 19th-century literature, in which the Other (i.e. the woman) often ends up being dead (hello Bronfen & Over Her Dead Body!), in romance the Other eventually becomes the familiar.

    (As an aside: "beastly" names aren't such a novelty; they've been around for quite some time by now -- just think of Victoria Holt's THE DEVIL ON HORSEBACK or Laurie McBain's DEVIL'S DESIRE!)

  8. I hope this isn't too much of a tangent issue, but this post makes me think yet again about the alpha male. I have a short story online that is deeply romantic (in intention at least) and I was genuinely surprised that most of my readers who say they enjoy the story are men. This should not have been surprising to me, because I know I love the romantic parts of stories (usually in an action/adventure setting) more than anything. Being male, why should I be the only one like this? But then I started thinking, "why are so few of these men reading the Romance genre?" What is it about the way the genre is written or marketed that keeps men away?

    This post makes me think that maybe the problem for many men is the alpha male. We certainly like our fantasies of He-Men and James Bonds who can conquer the world and sleep with every woman he ever meets. But, in the real world, the alpha male of a Romance is exactly the kind of guy I always hated in my life. He is the arrogant jerk bad boy and the kind of person you never want to be. Yet here he is, held up as the great object of desire.*

    So this leaves me with two questions. 1) Is the alpha male really one reason that men read the Romance genre in such low numbers? 2) What is the difference betwee the genre's alpha male and the James Bond type that men dream of being? I don't think it is the fact that the alpha man is always "tamed" at the end. I usually like the guy at the end myself. It's the jerk at the beginning that I always have a problem with.

    * I am trying to avoid the whole bad boy / nice guy debate, which while potentially interesting has likely been discussed... ad nauseam. I am not questioning whether or not the alpha male is in fact a fantasy guy for many women. I am wondering if this fantasy guy is the problem for many men.

  9. What is it about the way the genre is written or marketed that keeps men away?

    I suspect that clinch covers, and/or covers in lurid pink/purple with flowers, and/or covers featuring semi-naked men (assuming the male readers don't want to be thought of as gay) might put men off. The romantic suspense covers tend not to look like this, and the stories may be closer to the action/adventure stories which you mention, and which men presumably already read in relatively large numbers.

    This article, which was printed in various newspapers suggests that:

    With the expansion of romance novels into science fiction and military tales, though, the male following is increasing, said Nicole Kennedy, a spokeswoman for the group. The 2004 market survey indicated that male readership jumped from 7 percent of romance readers in 2002 to 22 percent in 2004.

    I have no idea how male romance readers would tend to feel about alphas, and in any case there seems to be some debate about what constitutes a 'real' alpha. Some people would say that the 'alpha jerk' isn't a true alpha, and then there are those who distinguish between the alpha (who's the leader of the pack) and the 'lone wolf' type of hero. There was a discussion about what an alpha really is in a 1998 item from All About Romance.

  10. Thanks for the links, Laura. I will follow them up. The marketing you mention is clearly a barrier for many men. Heck, it's a barrier for me, and I am the guy reading romance blogs. But I do think there is also something about the stories themselves that don't attract men. This seems to be born out by the fact that adding more SF and military was necessary to bring in more male readers. What is it exactly?

    I would still hazard a guess that something about the characters as traditionally conceived is also a barrier. I think if we could figure out what, if anything, about the people does not appeal to men while it does appeal to women, it could be a really interesting insight. What do you think about the following thought experiment? Could one take a romance hero, put him in a military war zone, write the book from his POV, cover the book in guns and silhouettes of naked women, in short change all the other trappings to be classically male-focused, and yet leave the character - his desires, manner of expression, needs - the same as he exists in the original romance and still have the story primarily be a romance, could one do this and have the readership flip from 80% women to 80% men? I don't think it would quite work. Sure the people buying the book would probably change, but I don't think the buyers would recommend it to their friends. The readers would find something not quite satisfying about the hero in his new setting. There is something about that traditional alpha male, which I think many men don't identify with. When I read Pride and Prejudice, I enjoy it because I feel for the heroine, but Mr. Darcy never has much appeal. I only care about him because I care about her. He is not quite yet the classic "the kind of man that men want to be and women want to be with."

    Thinking out loud.

  11. I think if we could figure out what, if anything, about the people does not appeal to men while it does appeal to women, it could be a really interesting insight.

    There hasn't been much, if any, research done on male romance readers, I think, so yes, it would be interesting. Of course, not all female readers of romance like alpha males either. You'd probably have to do a bit of analysis of how the male readers see themselves in comparison with what they perceive to be the norms of masculinity in their culture. For example, do the male romance readers think they're more sensitive than the norm? Do they think of themselves as 'alpha males'?

    I did read about some research that's been done into women's preferences regarding men's appearances/personalities (based on looking at photos, not on novels):

    Most women like a feminised face, but those who rated themselves attractive went for the classic masculine face.

    [...] "A masculine face is linked to high testosterone levels, which demonstrates good genetic qualities.

    "Those women who prefer masculine men are selecting genetic benefits for their children, despite the fact that high testosterone levels can also increase the likelihood that the male will have an affair.

    "Those men with a feminine face tend to be associated with stability and caring," he added.

    Women who considered themselves highly attractive were more willing to take a risk with a highly testosterone-charged male, and were less likely to fear such a man straying.
    BBC news, 2005

    I don't know if this could in any way relate to reading preferences, but it does suggest that a person's looks may affect their opinion of who they find attractive. Maybe it would also affect who the reader could easily identify with. Throw in the fact that some readers like reading about things in romance that they know are fantasy and would not choose in real life, whereas other readers prefer to read about heroes they'd like in real life, and I think the whole area looks extremely complex.

    Luckily there's such a range of romance novels (different types of hero, different sub-genres etc) that there's already likely to be something out there to appeal to a wide variety of readers (if they know where to find it and aren't put off by things like misleading covers).

  12. In the Disney version, it was not satisfying to have the Beast turn into a bland-looking pretty boy because I'd gotten used to the Beast.
    Indeed - and bland he certainly was. For me, though, the appeal of the Beast was largely how vulnerable his 'beastliness' made him. This made him so much more interesting, to me, than the typical 'alpha hero' who is handsome and successful and desired by everyone. It's the same with Shrek, and with Angel in 'Buffy'. They're monsters, and their monstrousness makes them vulnerable. When the heroine comes to love them you don't feel 'well, who wouldn't love them?', you feel that she's the only one who's managed to see through the monstrousness to the real person within.
    I'm a little ashamed that the only examples I've been able to think of come from TV and films, rather than books! To my disappointment, several of the monster-heroes from the books I've read don't have that extra dimension of vulnerability. They're very much 'monster as sexy beast'.

  13. One of the sensible advantages of a remote historical setting for stories with paranormal elements is the environment of belief within that setting.
    Here there be dragons, indeed.

  14. What about vampires in a Regency or Victorian setting, for example? They're in a historical period which is not so remote, and had seen many scientific advances. I think sometimes authors play with expectations, and enjoy mixing elements of the modern and the historical. For example, while I'd generally associate science fiction with the future, because of the supposed technological and scientific advances which are possible in that setting, quite often the societies portrayed have elements which are pseudo-archaic (e.g. they have features which seem to resemble those present in medieval society/medieval legends, such as the bards and dragons of Pern). I do agree that if an author's using a distant historical settings for a paranormal she/he can draw on myths and legends and have characters who believe in them with unquestioningly, but in a way, the paranormal in a modern (or relatively modern) setting is more uncanny, because it emphasises the otherness of the paranormal being. So I think there could be advantages to both sorts of setting.

  15. I would still hazard a guess that something about the characters as traditionally conceived is also a barrier. I think if we could figure out what, if anything, about the people does not appeal to men while it does appeal to women, it could be a really interesting insight.

    I tend to think it's because the romance novel is written primarily by women, the heroes in them have been written to appeal to a woman's parameters for sexiness, desirability and compatibility. If I don't fall a little in love with the hero myself, then the novel is not as good for me. And what straight male reader wants to feel drawn to the man?! To think about it another way, you only have to picture Ursula Andress coming out of the surf in "Dr. No" to see part of the appeal of James Bond to men.

    I do think, as Laura says, that is also partly because of the silly covers -- and the rather embarrassing titles as well. But primarily I think it is because most romances hold men up as unrealistic paragons of physical and economic perfection. There are not a lot of "regular guys" in classic romantic fiction, though I wish there were. To me, an alpha hero is one who is very intelligent, maybe a bit ruthless, but not perfect. I like Mr. Darcy, actually. He is not charming and supercilious, and he manages to say all the wrong things at the wrong time. Who cannot feel exasperated with him and yet sorry for him at the same time?

    If there are not a lot of romances out there for men to enjoy, well, there aren't a great lot out there for me to enjoy either. But, as Laura said, there's something for almost everyone.