Sunday, February 10, 2019

Comparing vampires: a Mormon author versus a Mormon novel

… just because we’ve been … dealt a certain hand … it doesn’t mean that we can’t choose to rise above — to conquer the boundaries of a destiny that none of us wanted. To try and retain whatever essential humanity we can.” 
– Vampire Edward Cullen in Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight.”
Twilight presents an interesting literary dilemma. What category do we place Stephenie Meyer’s successful novels of love between vampire Edward and klutzy, attractive mortal, Bella Swan, who spends most of the four-novel series pining to become undead?
For those unfamiliar with the series — “Twilight,” “New Moon,” “Eclipse” and “Breaking Dawn” — it involves high-schooler Bella Swan, who moves to rainy, overcast Forks, Wash., to live with her dad, Charlie, the local police chief. She becomes drawn to the hyper-beautiful Cullen clan, led by youngish doctor Carlisle. Bella develops a bond with Carlisle’s “son,” Edward, who is hesitant to act on but unable to resist their clear romantic attraction. Bella learns the clan — Edward, Carlisle, wife Emse, and couples Emmett Cullen and Rosalie Hale, and Alice Cullen and Jasper Hale — are vampires. The clan has — through self-control — shed most bloodthirsty tendencies and are “vegetarians,” meaning they consume animal blood.
Most of the series — in a nutshell — involves Edward, the Cullens and other allies saving “damsel in distress” Bella from various vampire threats, including a sinister, “Deatheaterlike, for you Harry Potter fans,” clan of elite, watchdog vampires called The Volturi. Later in the series, Jacob, a younger friend of Bella’s, is revealed as part of a clan of wolf-like shape-shifters. Bitter enemies, the shape-shifters and vampires reach an uneasy truce with a shared goal of protecting Bella.
In Breaking Dawn, the final and best novel of the series, Bella becomes a vampire and unites with the Cullens, the shape-shifters, and other vampires to repel an attack from the Volturi, who want to destroy Bella and her family for a reason disclosed later in this essay.
So, back to the question: What genre is Meyer’s Twilight series? It’s a paranormal romance for teens and those ubiquitious Twilight moms who seek a mostly chaste romantic thrill in middle age. Meyer, a devout Mormon who tags the Book of Mormon as a favorite, is a splendid writer who can craft a page-turner, but take away the horror elements and Edward is basically a good-hearted Fabio with fangs. Bella is the wench on the paperback cover in the supermarket without the heaving bosoms. Despite its PG-rated writing, Twilight is a hot tale between the lines, with lust and passion to the extreme. It’s amazing how chaste Meyer makes it all seem. She protectively guides avid 11-year-olds, such as my own daughter, demurely through a bout of very rough sex between newlyweds Edward and Bella in Breaking Dawn. (The film adaptation of Twilight loses some of the characters’ nuances but retains the feminine fantasy that drives the series’ success.)
A consistency in the paranormal romance genre — teenage zombie love stories are another current, hot genre — is a make-it-up-as-you-go-along attitude to the horror elements. Twilight can’t honestly be called a horror tale — there’s no consistency to traditional vampire lore. The biggest plot hole? There is no human check on a Meyer-created vampire’s thirst or savagery. No cross can stop Meyer’s vampires. They glitter — rather than wither — in the sunlight. No human-propelled stake can pierce a vampire’s heart. Reading while the evil Volturi vampires casually snack on unwary tourists, a reader must wonder, why don’t these Twilight vampires take over the earth and keep the humans as livestock? There’s nothing to stop this sinister option — one that Dracula, Lestat, or Carmilla never had.
But then there’s a paradox: Twilight is also a morality tale. Although Meyer favors no religion in her books, analogies to Christian teachings — many favored in Latter-day Saint lore — are everywhere. (In fact, there is a LDS modern-day vampire tale, Eugene Woodbury’s “Angel Falling Softly,” published by Zarahemla. The two novels have similar themes, and will be compared later in this essay.)
The vegetarian vampires, the Cullens, have chosen to be in the vampire world but not of the vampire world. The term “in the world but not of the world” is familiar to most active Mormons. We’ve heard it since we were Sunbeams. The Cullens acknowledge their savage vampire world but make a conscious decision to avoid what they regard as a sin, attacking and eating humans. Animals, however, are on the earth to feed them. Free agency is exercised. And it’s a difficult choice. The smell of human blood creates a desire in Meyer’s vampires akin to torture if not satiated. But the Cullens spurn it. Family patriarch Carlisle regards it as less a choice than a matter of self-control. In fact, the gentle Carlisle has become a doctor, deliberately exposing himself to human blood to heal humans.
The Cullens, despite differences of opinion over whether they can be saved, clearly have moral values. They have love for humans. Wrong behavior exists. To some, God looks over all creatures, even “monsters.”
In Breaking Dawn, Bella’s transformation must be considered an analogy to the Atonement. She endures agony so horrific that it almost — but not quite — reaches parody. The suffering is required to bear her and Edward’s half-human, half-vampire daughter, Renesmee. The child is only the second recorded offspring of a male vampire, female human mating. To deliver Renesmee, Bella must die and suffer immense torments. But then she awakes, with a perfect, immortal body.
Bella’s body transformation after she becomes a vampire is akin to how many Latter-day Saints regard exaltation. Here’s how Bella describes her change on pages 482-483 in Breaking Dawn:
“I was never going to get tired, and neither was he. We didn’t have to catch our breath or rest or eat or even use the bathroom; we had no more mundane human needs. He had the most beautiful, perfect body in the world and I had him all to myself, and it didn’t feel like I was ever going to find a point where I would think, ‘Now I’ve had enough for one day.’ I was always going to want more. And the day was never going to end. So, in such a situation, how did we ever stop?
“It didn’t bother me at all that I had no answer.”
Admit it, Meyer just defined “eternal life” more clearly than the average ward Gospel doctrine class can.
As mentioned, there is a Latter-day Saint vampire novel, Woodbury’s “Angel Falling Softly.” It’s a sexier tale, with vampiress Milada Daranyi prowling both the wards of Sandy and the night life of Salt Lake City. The pale, uber-sexy teen-like Milada is a corporate big-shot prepping to buy a Utah medical research firm. Milada rents a Sandy home with a cool, shaded basement. Naturally, the ward members arrive.
Enter bishop’s wife Rachel Forsythe. Milada, who toys with most of the ward members, is drawn to a close, even passionate relationship with Rachel. Rachel’s young daughter, Jennifer, is dying. As Rachel begins to understand what Milada is, she concocts a desperate, dark plan to keep her daughter alive. At no time does she seriously entertain or consult priesthood authority. Instead, she trusts her mortal instincts.
Angel Falling Softly has caused some controversy. Fantasy author and conservative LDS columnist Orson Scott Card has scorned the novel. Some LDS bloggers share Card’s disdain. What fuels the criticism is probably the R-rated sex scenes, including lesbianism, and a resolution that tests the Gospel-comfort homily that “families are forever.”
But that test is a strength of Woodbury’s tale. As LDS blogger Moriah Jovan writes in her online review, “It’s a character study of the things we, as Latter-day Saints, might do when pushed into a corner with no apparent way out. It also asks if we have faith in what we say we believe.”
Twilight and Angel Falling Softly are distinct tales. Angel Falling Softly is clearly for adults, Twilight for youngsters, teens and moms. Angel Falling Softly is a regional novel, read by at best thousands. Twilight is an epic, read by millions. Angel Falling Softly is overtly religious, with clear LDS doctrines. Twilight’s religious lessons are allegorical.
In Angel Falling Softly, Rakosi, Milada’s late creator, created vampires to satisfy his thirst, greed and loneliness. Twilight’s patriarch Carlisle creates vampires to save a dying individual. Angel Falling Softly probes human society, with Milada’s curiosity directed at her human, LDS neighbors. Although Angel Falling Softly is written by a male, it’s most interested in females. Other vampires are limited in character, and in the background. In contrast, Twilight’s Bella is interested in her vampire friends, and later shape-shifters. Twilight’s female writer is mostly interested in male “monsters.” And the humans in Twilight, including Bella’s parents, stay in the background for most of the series.
Finally, the sun’s impact on a vampire differs in both novels. In Twilight, the vampires glitter and dazzle in the sun. In Angel Falling Softly, their skins burns, sheds and eventually regenerates.
One parallel to the novels is the decency of the main vampires. The Cullens have clear moral values that extend to humans. Early in Angel Falling Softly, Milada risks her vampire cover to save a young boy’s life. Also, Milada’s sister Kamilla — like Carlisle — is a doctor. Although Kamilla has a small role in Woodbury’s novel, both she and Twilight’s Carlisle contrast Edward and Milada, who at points in both novels are convinced they are without souls and beyond redemption. Nevertheless, both Edward and Milada establish close, intimate relationships with humans who believe otherwise. And both Edward and Milada choose to preserve human life — a clear contrast to the roles occupied by past literary vampires.
Accumulated wealth through a clan’s shared sacrifice is also a theme in Angel Falling Softly and Twilight. Milada’s clan, that includes her sister and others, have through time accumulated massive wealth. So have the Cullens. Their virtue is rewarded materially. This is important when contrasted to the novels’ nomadic vampires.
In Angel Falling Softly, Rakosi, Kamilla and  Milada’s uncouth creator, is long dead, having willingly expired in poverty. The nomads in Twilight are poor, thirsty wanderers, picking off unwary humans savagely.
Questions of redemption dominate the climax of both tales. In Angel Falling Softly, young Jennifer is clearly a vampire. Rachel’s choice will lead, it seems, to her losing her daughter. Milada’s decision to help her is as much for having another eternal companion as it is for pity. She’s lonely.  In fact, in a perceptive passage, Milada sensibly asks Rachel why she worries about Jennifer’s death if she knows they will be together after death. In Twilight, Renesmee’s birth in Breaking Dawn underscores what many characters wonder: If a monster can create life, isn’t there a creator for the monsters?
Both Angel Falling Softly and the Twilight series do not have secure happy endings. A sequel to Angel Falling Softly would be intriguing. One wonders how Rachel Forsythe’s choice plays out.
And in Twilight, the Cullens, shape-shifters and their allies survive a tense showdown with the evil Volturi elites, but there’s no guarantee of eternal safety. The Volturi represent tradition — and control. They try to destroy the Cullens because they fear Renesmee’s new life in their world. They see paranormal children as new minds they cannot control, and therefore must destroy.
In these new vampire tales of romance, love, despair, hope, eternal life and exaltation, life has been preserved, but evil, and uncertainty, still exist.
-- Doug Gibson
-- Originally published in 2009 at StandardBlogs

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