Vacations and vanity

What is our obsession with paranormal romance?

trueblood_poster1In some ways, you have to admire Twilight. It’s one of those series that has come around at just the right time, hit just the right note with its fans, and apparently, had just the right studio in Summit Entertainment. It’s the latest in one of these odd trends that happens within science fiction and fantasy, and indeed culture as a whole, every now and again. Harry Potter did it, Buffy touched on it, and you can name any other fad over the last 20 years that’s seen titanic levels of popularity over the last few decades – all of them not only rode the zeitgeist, but also propelled it forward themselves.

In Twilight’s case, this popular mechanism on which it road to phenomenal fervour among the public is the paranormal romance genre, or to use its old name, urban fantasy. Long considered to be somewhat less-than-attractive as a prospect for publishers and (perhaps to a lesser extent) studios, paranormal romance enjoyed a boom in the years shortly before Stephenie Meyer brought out her unsettling romance saga. In fact, veteran author Kelley Armstrong describes this in her column within the Library section of SciFiNow issue 40 (page 081). “It wasn’t always this way. When I was writing Bitten in the Nineties, I learned not to admit it was about werewolves or I’d get well-meaning lectures on marketability. They had a point. The first editor who was interested in Bitten checked sales of recent werewolf novels… and quickly lost interest in mine.”

Then of course, as Armstrong rightly says, Jim Butcher found success with his Dresden Files novels, Charlaine Harris with her Southern Vampire Mysteries and others began to get noticed. Perhaps this was something to do with Potter inspiring a new interest in the fantastic, but also perhaps not. The widespread love for the Twilight films would suggest something a little deeper than that, and the fact that Syfy is releasing its own home-branded films with a skew towards the sub-genre definitely points towards the fact that there are broader reasons for its appeal.

True Blood is a definite marker of this. It’s one of the few shows that has managed the almost unprecedented feat of actually increasing its audience, consistently, from episode to episode. Such is its current support that if you walk around almost any Tube station in London, you’ll see Stephen Moyer’s glowering face and Anna Paquin’s suggestive, prostrate form staring back at you from posters and billboards. Charlaine Harris herself has her own explanation for why these particular novels and television series have found such broad favour, as she told me in April. “It came to me when I was watching a show about a woman who had 22 plastic surgeries, and I thought ‘people are so interested in looking the same as they would at their peak condition forever’. Vampires do that, so they’re the embodiment of what people really want, or what people seem to want, which is to look young forever.” This outlook would suggest a huge amount of narcissism on the part of those who become obsessed with the sub-genre, something Harris agreed with. “I really think so,” she replied, before highlighting the more enthusiastic fans who often say that they actually want to be vampires.

While there may be an element of this in the ardent fan base, however, it seems unlikely that it’s the overriding factor behind such a huge burst in appeal among the film-going and book-buying public. Indeed, Orion Publishing has opened an imprint specifically dedicated to the sub-genre, while a publicist for Gollancz told me that Harris’s new Southern Vampire Mysteries was guaranteed a spot in the top ten bestsellers list upon its publication, purely from pre-orders alone. PC Cast, the hugely successful author of the House Of Night and Goddess Of Partholon series, has a more general explanation for its popularity, one more grounded in modern social circumstance as opposed to personality types. “It’s such a wonderful escape,” she said in a telephone interview, also published in issue 40’s Library section. “Isn’t it a great fantasy that you can delve into, with limitless possibilities, and immortality and hot heroes and strong heroines, and a great world? It’s a fun vacation, it’s a fun holiday that costs nothing.”

Whatever the reasons behind it, paranormal romance has never been so popular in any sphere of entertainment that you care to consider. The true test of its worth and strength the of the genre, however, will be if it survives the conclusion of True Blood on television, and the release of Breaking Dawn’s second part.

This article originally appeared in the print edition of SciFiNow, issue 40 by James Rundle. To buy a copy of the magazine or subscribe, go to www.imagineshop.com, or call our subscriptions hotline on +44 (0) 844 844 0245.