Ever notice how things slow down in the summer? Even for the most harried, hard-driving professional, the pace seems to slacken during the summer months. Like it or not, even the most ambitious of us out there tend to stop and smell the roses even during the most grim, ruthless drive to claw our way to the top, no matter what.
It’s a childhood thing, I think. Even the most brilliant of us – you know, the ones who made it through medical school by age eight, and won a Nobel prize before puberty set in – have some experience with the lazy, hazy, crazy daze of summer. It’s a time of diversion, after all, when the child in all of us (or most of us) has occasion to indulge his or her whimsical nature. And there comes a time when even the most responsible, sober-minded grown-up engages in an occasional summertime flight of fancy.
Unaccustomed as I am to being a literary critic, I feel compelled to offer a few words of commentary, regarding just such a summertime indulgence. And, to tell you the truth, I’m a little embarrassed to admit the exact nature of this excursion. For I am a recent survivor – yes, I think survivor is exactly the term I want to use – of that all-encompassing global phenomenon that is sweeping the entire planet: Stephenie Meyer’s recently concluded literary epic, the Twilight saga.
There, I said it. I’m out of the closet. Color me six shades of red, why don’t you. Maybe there will be a 12-step program to cope with this malady, because it is as addictive as the most potent strain of nicotine. “Hi. My same is E.A. Scum, and I’m a Twilight addict.” Something like that. Hope for a new day, and all that.
How did a hard-bitten aging old fud like yours truly get seduced by the dark side of the force, you ask? And thereby hangs a tale. . .
Last summer, I was delivering buses across the country. I may have fallen through the cracks in the sidewalk in this brave new world of global commerce and offshoring of every job worth having, but that doesn’t make me a slacker. And so, to fill my abundant free time, I signed on with a local transport company and headed out on the golden road to fame and fortune.
On one of these runs – ultimately terminating in Ithaca, NY – I was routed up through Las Vegas on I-15 and up through Salt Lake City before heading east on I-80 for the great heartland of flyover country. The only problem was the entire intermountain west was slow-roasting in a blast furnace of midsummer heat that was baking a twenty-state area beginning in California and running all the way to Illinois.
I made a night run to Vegas and got there just as that murderous mid-summer sun was coming up over the yardarm, so to speak. Being a fifteen-year veteran of that community, I knew better than to make the run to Utah in daylight, in what figured to be a scorcher even by Nevada standards. So, I holed up for the day, just like the proverbial desert packrat – you get used to living this way in the gambling capital of the known universe, trust me – and set out on the second leg of the journey in the dead of night again. I figured once I cleared St. George, Utah, it would be all downhill from there. And so the best laid plans went awry.
First of all, I learned something about Utah. Everything is uphill. In both directions. Second, there was no relief from the heat, all the way up the length of I-15. In fact, I didn’t get a break from that furnace until I almost got to Chicago. But, I digress.
It was a brutal journey, that drive through Utah. The sun was vicious. But, as I approached Provo, and due to the lateness of the hour, the brutal heat seemed to be easing off. I was just getting ready to find a truck stop – or better yet a Motel 6 or something like it – when, without warning, my open door to deliverance from these fires of hell slammed shut. I found myself in the mother of all traffic jams, northbound on I-15 with my temperature gauge heading in the same direction.
Something didn’t quite connect with all this. As a veteran of many a southern California commute, I knew full well that traffic jams at this hour should be flowing OUT of Salt Lake City, that is, southbound, not northbound into the city. Wondering what might be causing this, as I envisioned my big, honking diesel being blown clear over the Wasatch Mountains straight to the land of Oz, I saw it.
Off to my right, within sight of the Interstate was a shopping mall parking lot. I later learned that this was the Provo Towne Center. What caught my eye was that it was packed on a weekday afternoon (in the middle of a burgeoning recession) and the lot contained the unmistakable presence of armed troops, replete with Kevlar vests/helmets, M16s at the ready, Humvees and APCs.
As I crawled past this panorama, I wondered if Utah had been invaded.
Soon after, I found the proverbial cheap motel. As I tucked my bus in for the night, I asked the desk clerk – a bored young woman in her early 20s, reading a book as I approached her – if she knew about the presence of what appeared to be army troops at this shopping mall. She did. I stood there. She ignored me. I still stood there.
Heaving a heavy sigh, she put down her book, slid off her stool and said, “Don’t you know? The last volume in the Twilight series is coming out today, and Stephenie Meyer is down at the mall to autograph the first 500 copies sold.”
Now I finally got the picture. The state of Utah called out the National Guard to quell a potential riot. Of what? I asked my distaff companion. Teenage girls, she patiently explained to me. Made perfect sense to me. Nubile young girls running wild in the streets. National Guard called out to quell an insurrection. Happens all the time in California.
And so began the epiphany that led me down the garden path to seduction by the Twilight saga. Eve probably gave no more mind to the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden than I did to this weary desk clerk’s explanation of what held me up on the golden road to nowhere.
My head was spinning. What is Twilight? And who is Stephenie Meyer? I’m an avid reader. I read all the time. And all this was news to me.
She sighed again, picked up her book and handed it to me. Twilight. The series had been a mega-hit, and an expanding work-in-progress for four years and I had never heard of it. All of a sudden the strains of a golden oldie started running through my head:
“Heavenly shades of night are falling. . . It’s twilight time.” Never knew that’s what this song was about.
As an aside, the young lady who enlightened me about the literary world of the 21st century was soon to embark on her senior year at BYU. She planned on going to law school after graduation. And she was reading Twilight. What does that indicate? Another bitter, angry, lady lawyer soon to be suing the wealth (or what remains of it) right out of the country, engrossed in . . . at this point, I didn’t quite know what.
There are moments when you know you’ve become an artifact of a bygone era. This was one of them.
My ignorance was remedied once I got home. After my experience on the golden road, I saw these books everywhere. Massive displays in the most prominent locations in every bookstore you could think of. Twilight books (of course). Twilight action figures. Twilight videos (that came later). Twilight calendars. How did I miss all this?
On a few occasions, I would linger over an outrageously overpriced decaf mocha latte at Borders Books and sit and watch the traffic come and go at these displays. And I observed two things: All the potential patrons were teenage girls, and most were either enormously pierced, enormously tattooed, or enormously fat.
O.K. So I figured it out. Teenage girls were obsessed with this series. It was the literary equivalent of the British invasion in 1964 when the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. But, it didn’t exactly appear to be mainstream. It looked like girls who didn’t quite connect with the rest of the world liked it best. And from what I was hearing, there were girls who lost touch with reality, they were so over-the-top on the subject. Call it a fair sex version of Dungeons and Dragons.
I’ll admit I was curious about all this. But not sufficiently motivated to plunk down upwards of $30 a pop to satisfy the itch. Then one Saturday, at a local library, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to satisfy my curiosity. So, I placed a hold on the first book. A week later it came in. And there began my sojourn into the heart of darkness of the Twilightuniverse.
Now, I’ve always enjoyed a good vampire story. And I’ll offer up two, as examples of just how good it can get when it’s done right. The first is the golden oldie, the mother of all Nosferatu tales. The one and only, the original: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
There’s a reason it has endured for over a century. Once you get past the epistolary style of writing, the whole thing gets under your skin. Actually, the construct Stoker used – a series of journal entries by the various characters involved – works very well as the story progresses.
Dracula was a product of its time. Stoker wrote and published his masterpiece at the end of the 19th century, in the full bloom of the European liberal tradition. And I don’t mean liberalism as we define it today. The European version – in force throughout most of the 19th century – held that man was in control of his destiny, and could, through reason, negotiation and cooperation bring about whatever result he wanted.
In this context, Stoker’s novel was a sensation. And while its outcome was in keeping with the European liberal tradition, there were some decidedly dark overtones along the way. True, his plucky band of fearless vampire hunters destroyed the foul fiend by use of the newfangled contraptions of the day – dictaphones, typewriters, blood transfusions, and such. Against such technological marvels, what chance did the prince of darkness stand? Sure enough, our intrepid band drives the blood-sucking count back to his eastern European lair where they finish him off with a stake through the heart. Not without some casualties along the way, it’s true. But there was more to this dark quest than the tools of the trade, and how effective they were against an ancient manifestation of evil.
On another level, Stoker’s story is a Christian allegory. He may have been a secular humanist, but Bram Stoker knew the value of faith. Dracula was loaded with Christian symbology. The crucifix, the host wafer, holy water – all of them are prominently featured as what they were in the context of the quest, holy weapons enlisted in the destruction of unholy evil. The monster was destroyed, not by these instruments of righteousness, but by God’s grace, empowered by the faith of these latter-day knights templar warring against the forces of darkness.
And the Count himself, while seductive, was undeniably evil. Stoker examines this phenomenon along the way. Just what is it about the unconscionable that is so damned attractive? Lucy Westerna was seduced (and ultimately destroyed) by this magnetic sinister presence. Mina Harker was drawn to him. And Abraham Van Helsing actually admired him. For all that, our courageous band of crusaders knew full well that there was no mistaking he was evil, satanic, and must be destroyed.
My second favorite such novel, which I rate just as high, is ‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King. I’m an unrepentant King fan, despite his overt liberalism. I’ve read everything of his that’s made it into print. Some more than once. He’s been the poet laureate of the baby boom generation in my estimation, and a gifted storyteller whatever you may think of his politics.
‘Salem’s Lot is Dracula inverted. Written in 1975, the local residents of this sleepy Maine backwater have all the modern conveniences. Electric lights, indoor plumbing, even cable television and VCRs were getting their start back then. In King’s world, such creature comforts render belief in the demon all but impossible. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the novel is watching the principle characters wrestle with their unbelief, until, when confronted with the undeniable truth of what’s before them, they must abandon the very rationalism that made Bram Stoker’s vampire hunters such a potent force, and deal with the menace before them with an incipient faith that gains strength and power as the story progresses.
Call it liberalism come full circle, if you like. However, when King mixes this struggle with the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate angst of that time with small town corruption, it makes for a powerhouse of a story, and clearly one of his best. Told you I was a fan.
And then there’s Twilight. My goodness, where can I begin?
Picture a woman who never missed an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer (which I liked, actually), read every Ann Rice novel ever published, then decided she could make a killing writing boring, predictable prose all the while placing a marketing bulls-eye over the heart of every 14-year-old girl in the country, and you’ve got a thumbnail sketch of Stephenie Meyer. Mix this all together with a generous helping of ponderous, tedious storytelling and voila! – say hello to the Twilight saga.
In the traditional world of serious vampire fiction, the bloodsucker was always a vile, loathsome, foul creature of the outer darkness. They suck the blood of their victims, consigning them to an existence beyond the grace of God, condemned to an everlasting hunger for human flesh and thirst for blood. They even smell bad. Altogether, they are thoroughly bad guys.
In Twilight, they’re . . . well . . . hot!
How often can Stephenie Meyer relate to us the chiseled features of Edward Cullen? His marble-smooth chest? His beautiful amber eyes? His lithe, graceful form? Goodness, if that’s all it takes to generate a mega-hit, I can milk any number of stories into a four-book epic.
And then there’s Meyer’s favorite verb – to hiss. He hissed. She hissed. They hissed. Everybody hissed. He will hiss. He had hissed. He has hissed. He will have hissed. Every tense and conjugative form of this overused verb was covered in this epic. Of the more than 2000 pages of text, all this hissing must have covered about 400 of them.
And then, of course, we have the unique happenstance in the Twilight world, that vampires really aren’t evil. Truth be told, they’re addicts, wrestling with their addiction. How’s that for contemporary liberalism? They may be undead. They may yearn for human blood. They may be godless, soulless creatures, living for all time in eternal damnation, but we sure don’t get any sense of this in the Meyer universe. They’re basically good guys when all is said and done. And they’re hot. Did I mention that? Stop being such an intolerant bigot and start embracing this bold and creative alternative lifestyle.
Which is just what our intrepid heroine, Bella Swan does. At first glance, this girl is very nearly perfect. Good grades, shows up on time, never misses school, cooks for her father. Why, I’ll bet she even cleans her room every day and does the dishes. She’s the classic good girl/virgin goddess. Early on, she cuts to the chase – “First thing, Edward is a vampire,” she declares. “Second, I am madly in love with him.” And what was her goal? To eagerly sacrifice her sweet, young body, not to mention her immortal soul, to spend all eternity as one with her creature of the night. Simple, huh? Just what every girl always dreams of, to be taken by force by some ruggedly handsome, magnetically attractive card-carrying member of the Undead.
So, what we have here is a gothic romance. Only we really don’t. Mixed in to this little twosome is a third member of a burgeoning love triangle. Jacob Black – who is secretly a werewolf, whose tribe not so secretly despise vampires, but they form a truce with this particular coven of vampires, who aren’t really all that bad because they drink animal blood, not human . . . They’re vegetarians, you see. Romeo and Juliet meets Rebecca. Sort of. Uh, got all that? Good.
And so, the high drama then commences. Who will the luscious Bella choose? Her bloodsucking prince and love of her life? Of her best-friend, and eternal sidekick werewolf good buddy? That is the question that consumes about 1000 pages of this endless tome.
And then there’s the little matter of what exactly kills these creatures of the night (or late afternoon, whatever). Sunlight doesn’t seem to bother them. They don’t burn in the purifying rays of the sun, they kind of . . . sparkle. No stakes through the heart. Their smooth, polished, marble-like skin is as tough as solid steel. Nothing gets through it. And the crucifix? Host wafer? Holy water? Forget it. They are conveniently forgotten in the fantasy world of Stephenie Meyer. No power of God is necessary to destroy them. Besides which, why would anyone want to? They’re not sinister, they’re seductive. And they’re oh, so hot. If you forget this little tidbit of information during your journey through the Twilightverse, Stephenie Meyer will be glad to remind you. She does so with amazing frequency.
(As an aside, these dark lords also play baseball. That’s right. In the afternoon, no less. While they’re busy sparkling in the sunlight. Could you imagine what the Yankees could do with a pitcher who never has arm trouble, throws a 150-mph fastball and never gets old? Say goodnight, Boston Red Sox! Forever!)
The question invariably comes up: Why all the hysteria (not to mention massive financial success) of a tale so worn-out, predictable and essentially trite? What do we have here that has caused such a stir in the world of contemporary fiction? It’s really very simple. What this amounts to is your classic good girl/bad guy mini-drama. It is successful for one reason and one reason alone: Women like bad guys. Teenage girls even more so. Case closed.
This is not a new phenomenon. We can’t even relate it to the recent collapse of the country, or its bleak future. The good girl/bad guy scenario has been with us from time immemorial. It begins when Daddy doesn’t show up for his baby girl’s childhood. Let’s face it, he’s the first man she will ever love. And if he’s abusive, or worse yet, missing in action, baby girl will conclude that it’s her fault – often confirmed by Mommy and Daddy both – and conclude if only she could love Daddy better, he will love her back.
Spin it any way you want. That’s it in a nutshell. If Daddy is MIA, baby girl will go out and find her own wandering terror to close the circle and make her life complete. The abuse she suffers certainly won’t be enjoyable, but it will be familiar. And the inevitable mindset persists that no matter how abusive he gets, she can love him back to sanity. Taming the wild beast is an extremely seductive prospect in the minds of emotionally stunted young girls. Sadly, the rabid success of the Twilight saga merely confirms this condition is alive and well in what passes for 21st century America.
As for me, 2000 pages of the literary equivalent of the First World War was quite enough. Literary carnage to no purpose with no end in sight is about as far as I can go. I’m not indulging in any videos, or pay-per-views, or anything else that contributes to the financial success of this abomination. When the film series comes to TNT at 4:00 in the morning, I may tune in to see if the on-screen version is as hideous as the literary one. Beyond that, I’m grateful to have survived my journey into the world of literary tedium and escaped reasonably unscathed.
But it was instructive. How else would I ever have been able to gaze into the nerve pulse of today’s youth? Particularly the female variety. Who knows? Most of these girls will graduate high school, get married, settle down and have kids of their own. Some of them will be girls. And what floats their boat in another thirty years is something I’m grateful I won’t be around to see.
I mean, how much worse can it get?