Monday, October 3, 2016

The Cozy Book Corner No. 10: The Dark Hero: The Fascination of the Metaphor

Welcome to my Monday 
bookish feature!

In each weekly post, I explore 
my thoughts on several 
book-related topics.


Now that October has rolled around, many people are turning their attention to the upcoming Halloween holiday. Thoughts of pumpkin carving, trick or treating, spooky decorations, and decisions about what costume to wear to this year's parties come to mind. Those of us with a literary bent will also be thinking of what Halloween-related books we might read this season.

In my case, I don't like the horror genre at all. I do, however, enjoy reading paranormal romance and urban fantasy, which I review at my other blog, A Night's Dream of Books. All three of these genres have their roots in the Gothic Literature of the 19th and earlier centuries.

The quintessential 19th-century Gothic novel is arguably Dracula, by Bram Stoker. This novel set in motion the tradition of literary vampires. I'm not interested in reading this book, however, since I dislike the type of vampire portrayed therein. I do, however, enjoy reading about the vampires in contemporary paranormal romance novels. Although I don't review them on this blog, I would still like to address here the reasons for their great popularity. The question has been asked before: what is it about vampires in romance novels that is so fascinating?  There are several books on the subject of the Twilight obsession, for instance.
I think that the Twilight phenomenon, and indeed, the whole subject of vampires, has deeper, psychological roots.  I read an article dealing with this a couple of years ago.  You can find it here.  The author, Michael De Groote, a staff writer for "Deseret News", makes an excellent point that all men are vampires.  This might sound ridiculous, but he means that romantic vampires are metaphors for that part of a man's personality or psyche that can hurt a woman very, very badly.  The metaphor also encompasses a man's superior physical strength.  In other words, men have a terribly great capacity to hurt the women they are close to, most especially those who are in a romantic relationship with them.  Of course, some people might immediately point out, women can hurt men, too.  However, I would say, in answer to this objection, that a man's capacity to hurt a woman is far greater than that of a woman to hurt a man.  A man can inflict inner scars on a woman, scars that, although invisible to the eye, often take years to heal.  Sometimes they never do heal...  Furthermore, men have been known to kill their wives or girlfriends with a single blow.  They are also much quicker to kill with weapons.  Wars are started by men, after all, as we all know.  Little boys have an innate potential for violence that little girls might at times try to emulate, but are not entirely able to.  Has there ever been a female equivalent of Hitler in the history of the world? I sure can't think of any!

So Edward Cullen, the male vampire in The Twilight Saga, for instance,  is a metaphor for that part of a man that can inflict great harm on a woman.  All other fictional, romantic vampires are also metaphors -- Christine Feehan's Carpathians, for example, as well as Amanda Ashley's dark heroes.  What do they all have in common?  They strive to control the monstrous part of themselves.  They try to keep the women they love safe....from themselves.  This, I believe, is the heady attraction that pulls Isabella Swan toward Edward Cullen.  This is what pulls the readers of The Twilight Saga, most of whom are female, toward Edward Cullen, as well.  For we the readers readily identify with Bella.  We become Bella as we read. 

Is there anything more attractive, to a woman, than a man leashing his great physical and mental powers in order to be gentle with her?  In spite of considering myself a feminist, I cannot help but be obsessively attracted by the idea of such a man.  Perhaps this is an innate trait in all human females that no amount of feminist proselytizing can ever do away with.  Yes, I, along with my fellow feminists, want to find my own power, and be independent.  And yet....I am totally fascinated by the thought of a powerful, wildly attractive man controlling his own power in order to avoid hurting fact, taking every precaution so as not to do so. 

Feminism or not, we women still love to read romance novels, and there's nothing dearer to our hearts than the stereotypical "happily ever after".  It's what moves us to tears, whether or not we're willing to admit it.  At the end of the day, after the corporate grind is over, we can kick back with a good romance novel, and enjoy being sweetly ravished by a dark hero who is intent on pleasing us, on making sure that we are not harmed, especially by him.

I believe there's another very important aspect of the vampire ethos, however, and that is a woman's innate compassion.  Where a man might simply write off another man as incorrigible, a woman will be more willing to give him a second chance, as well as the benefit of the doubt.  So the heroines of the vampire romances we so love to read will always strive to see the good in their vampire boyfriends.  The boyfriends appreciate this, of course, and it makes them fall even more in love with their human girlfriends.

This all goes back to the old fairy tale of "Beauty and the Beast".  We women still nurture the fantasy of redeeming a bad boy with our love, of seeing the good buried in him.   So we have the enduring myth of the romantic vampire, going through lonely centuries, enduring his own inner torment -- the realization that he is a monstrous anomaly --  until he finds that woman who is willing to give him a chance, who is able to go beyond the monster to find the good man in him.  I know I keep referring to vampires as male, but the thing is, most of the ones I've encountered in vampire romances are male.  I don't know about other readers, but I prefer vampire romances in which the woman is human, and her love interest is a vampire.  I believe that's because of the reasons I have detailed above.  

Every writer of vampire romance has her own unique take on the vampire myth.  Some adhere to the traditional version, with all the trappings of superstition such as the vampire's inability to stand the sunlight, which will, in fact, destroy him in a burst of flame, the use of crosses and garlic, sleeping in a coffin, etc.  Other writers create an entirely new world for their vampires.  Some of them even use humor in their stories, like Lynsay Sands and Kerrelyn Sparks.  I love the brooding, tortured vampire, as written by Amanda Ashley.  Stephenie Meyer has traveled a middle road.  Her vampires are not entirely of the traditional sort, except, of course, for the Volturi, who actually enjoy killing.  The Cullens, while not entirely in the brooding category, carry with them a sense of morality and social responsibility that brings them into very close affinity with Ashley's vampires.  Meyer's fertile imagination has created a very original reason for their avoidance of bright, sunny days -- they sparkle in sunlight; therefore, this would reveal them for what they are.

Along with the allure of the man who controls his dark urges to protect his beloved is the whole aura of darkness and mystery surrounding the vampire.  The heroine of a vampire romance is also attracted to this.  Even though mystery has been touted as a feminine attribute, which fascinates and attracts men (thus the phenomenon of the 'femme fatale'), women, too, are pulled in by it.  The lure of the unknown, the possibly exciting, the unusual, the fantastic -- this fascination is one of the characteristics of the human species.  We are innately curious.  We want to explore, discover, experience, that which puzzles us.  When coupled with the possibility of romance and love, the lure is nearly overpowering....

Another dark hero is Erik, from The Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston Leroux. However, he is more of a romantic hero in modern re-workings of the novel. Although he is not a vampire, he is surrounded by mystery and the darkness of his own despair, because of his deformed face.  As originally written by Leroux, he is no more than a horrible monster who must possess Christine, the opera singer he is obsessively in love with, no matter who or what he destroys in the process.  Not so the Phantom as reinvented by Andrew Lloyd Webber.  In the famous musical and movie, Erik emerges as a man tortured by his darkness, who nevertheless loves Christine enough to ultimately free her so that she can go away with the handsome, young Vicomte, who is not tortured by any inner darkness. 

Numerous fan fiction writers, including myself, have attempted to rectify what we see as Leroux's failure to have Christine fully accept and love Erik,  in spite of his deformity and inner darkness.  We have thus written stories in which this is exactly what happens.

It was the Lloyd Webber Erik, the fan fiction Erik, who lured me to the romantic vampire's lair -- the hidden domain of the man who thinks of himself as nothing more than a monster, the man who is completely unaware of the polished diamond he carries within -- his true, inner goodness.  Only his soul mate, that woman who is brave enough to venture into the monster's lair, can awaken him to his true self.  Only that woman can bring him back to who he really and truly is -- a man who is not a monster at all, and instead, one capable of love and all the virtues he cannot see in himself...  His soul mate, then, becomes a mirror for him, since, in many of these romances, the vampire casts no reflection in a real mirror.  His soul mate thus gives him his true reflection back to him.  His soul mate is his only hope, his only salvation.  Interestingly enough, this ties in quite well with the current spate of books about the return of the Sacred Feminine. 

Here, yet another reason for the hypnotic allure of these tales emerges -- the theme of the woman as savior of the man.  This is a woman's true power -- not the power of brute strength, but the power of love.  It is the power to see the best in a man, to urge him toward the light, and out of the darkness. 

Christine should have reflected Erik's true nature to him in this way.  Leroux, perhaps because he was a male himself, failed to see the inherent beauty and power of such a concept, and wrote a story of twisted obsession, nothing more than a typical tale of horror.  Had he been a woman, he would have immediately latched on to the opportunity to write a sublime romance instead. 

Lloyd Webber is a male, someone might object, and yet, he has turned the original story into the romance it should really have been in the first place, although, alas, there is no happy ending; at least, not for Erik.  Could it be that, since Lloyd Webber is a child of the century that gave birth to Carl Jung, who brought forth the concept of the animus (a woman's inner male), and the anima (a man's inner female), he was able to see what Leroux could not?  This is definitely food for thought...

The dark hero's soul mate brings him out of the pit of despair and darkness he has thus far been trapped in.  Able at last to love, because he himself has been loved, he is transformed, even if he remains a vampire, even if, as in the case of Erik, his physical deformity is not cured.  At the end of the story, the hero is no longer mysterious, no longer as dark as he seemed.  For he has become that most wonderful of creatures -- a man eternally united with his beloved, eternally devoted to her....

To reiterate, I find it very interesting that, at this point in time, in which we have already gone through several waves of feminism, this type of literary fare should still appeal to many of us women. I'm beginning to wonder, even as I fondly recall the previous paranormal novels I've read, whether this is altogether healthy, in an emotional sense. Why should women in particular be so willing to find the best in a man, in spite of obvious evidence to the contrary? In other words, why are women  still attracted to 'bad boys', in this age of increasing female power? (Although it's very obvious that we still have a long way to go....) Why, when first meeting a man, we seem to feel an instant attraction to brooding, silent types, ignoring the nice guys who would obviously not be "high-maintenance"? Could it be that we, like men, love a romantic challenge? It would seem, though, that we have a much harder obstacle to overcome -- that of 'transforming' a man, who is not exactly the loving type, into one who is. We think we can polish 'a diamond in the rough'. Why should this be so?

Perhaps this whole idea of the transformation of a dark hero by a woman's love works only in the realm of fantasy, and not in real life.

In a paragraph above, I mentioned women's innate compassion. Unfortunately, this very compassion can often override a woman's self-protective instincts. So she might give a man chance after chance after chance, when he has not shown any signs of changing, and never will. This is why emotional and other types of abuse are so prevalent in male/female relationships.

Perhaps a first step in dealing with this deplorable situation is to stop romanticizing the dark hero. But this is not easy at all.... So we women continue to be 'swept away' by these tortured, brooding men who end up really being as sweet as we had hoped they would be.

Perhaps what we need to do is to readily identify which men really are 'a diamond in the rough', and which ones only appear to be. In fiction, of course, they are all dark heroes with hidden hearts of gold. And they all think of themselves as monsters, until that 'special woman' comes along to let them know that they aren't. So it seems that there's one very important factor here: distinguishing -- in real life -- between those men who are aware of their inner darkness, and those who are not, and, even worse, refuse to acknowledge any personal flaws at all.

I can see that I will need to explore this theme further in future posts. It has so much to do with psychology, stereotypical gender roles, and even politics, whether in the board room, the office secretarial pool, or the national political scene.

Meanwhile, as Halloween approaches, I'm turning to my collection of unread paranormal romances, to see which one I might pick In my own defense, I will definitely stop reading any book in which a dark hero crosses any abusive lines!

What are your thoughts 
on this topic?
Please leave a comment
and let me know!