Monday, 15 September 2008

Intertextuality and the Vampire Romance

Vampire Romances are a fascinating aspect of the Romance Genre. They have mysterious heroes that are tortured by a traumatic past. As Anne Stuart explains, “At the heart of the vampire myth is a demon lover who is both elegant and deadly, a creature whose savagery is all the more shocking when taken with his beauty and style.”[i] In vampire romances the stakes are high- not only if the heroine fighting for love, she’s fighting for her hero’s soul and her life. Vampire romances invoke an older, intertexual tradition of attraction between a Maiden and Death.

Stories of maidens and Death are not new. The “Dance of Death” motif in the 14th century was a popular motif in France. Then, During the 15th century in Germany, another, more erotic narrative depicted images of “Death and the Maiden.”[ii] These images show a corpse or skeleton representing death embracing a young maiden, who passively accepts his embrace. In Niklaus Manuel Deutsch’s Death and the Maiden painted in 1517, Death is a rotting corpse who kisses the maiden, and gropes her without shame.[iii] In Hans Sebald Beham’s Death and the Maiden a voluptuous nude woman is embraced by a winged Death, who whispers seductively in her ear.[iv] Another Death grabs a naked, submissive maiden, pointing to her demise in Hans Baldung’s Death and the Maiden.[v] In each of the paintings it is clear that even the young maiden is susceptible to Death’s inevitable embrace. But even morso, there is a sense of inevitability in the paintings, where the young maiden does not fight death, but accepts it, even welcomes his embrace. There is also an unrepentant sexuality to the paintings, where death is either groping the maiden, or the maiden is naked in such a way that highlights a sexual bond between the female and Death.

Another more modern narrative of death and the maiden is Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” In the story Arnold Friend, a strange unknown man with alluring qualities, persuades Connie, a young girl, to leave her house and come with him in his car. A close reader concludes by the end of the story that if Connie goes with Arnold, she will die. And yet, what makes the story most compelling is the sense of the inevitable. Arnold Friend’s seductive quality, and the way Connie knows she shouldn’t go with Arnold, yet does anyway, is both disturbing and fascinating.[vi] In “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” the narrative of the inevitability of death is told, and also the connection between death and sex appeal is made.

How then, does Vampire Romance fit into all of this? Vampire Romances have a hero that is a fallen angel- with aspects of both life and death. Anne Stuart, author of vampire romances explains, “The heroine’s attraction to the hero is never in doubt,”[vii] just like the attraction of Death in Death and the Maiden is not in doubt. Yet in vampire romance novels the authors twist the previous narrative tradition. There is still a sense of the inevitable in vampire romances, but the inevitable isn’t the eventual death of the heroine. Rather love is the inevitable consequence of the eroticism and attraction between a hero intimately connected with death and a heroine with life. Conflict in the vampire romance centers around the hero’s struggle with not wanting to damn his love (either by making her a vampire or killing her), and his eventual conquering of his monstrous instincts because of his love of the heroine. Love is the force that conquers the vampire’s monstrous nature, and prevents the hero from destroying the heroine. By rewriting the traditional Death and the Maiden narrative, romance novel authors create a new text that is life affirming and love affirming. They send the message that love transcends death.

[i] Anne Stuart, “Legends of Seductive Elegance,” in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), 85.

[ii] Randy Nelson, “Monsters, Heroes, and the End of Fairy Tales,” Davidson College Metafiction and Intertextuality class, September 10, 2008.

[iii] Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, Death and the Maiden 1517.

[iv] Hans Sebald Beham. Death and the maiden; la mort se saisissant d'une femme nue et debout.

[v] Hans Baldung (1484/5-1545). 1517. Death and the maiden.

[vi] Joyce Carol Oates, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?," in Retellings, ed. M.B. Clarke and A.G. Clarke (NY, NY: McGraw Hill, 2003), 186-197.

[vii] Anne Stuart, “Legends of Seductive Elegance,” in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), 86.

Pictures from The First is Death and the Maiden by Niklaus Manuel Deutsch painted in 1517, and the second is the frescoe of Berne.

On another note, how eerie is it that the Death and the Maiden Paintings echo some romance novel covers in the way the two figures are positioned? Am I the only one seeing the similarity?


Laura Vivanco said...

I haven't read many paranormal romances, but I have the impression that there are now some romances where the heroine is also a vampire and/or she has some other paranormal power. Does that change the dynamic you're describing? I wonder if it might, because it could make the novel more like a romance between super-heroes than one in which the hero's vampire nature is so closely linked to death for the heroine.

As I said, though, I haven't read many paranormals, so that's mostly speculation on my part.

Deborah Lutz's book has quite a bit about the dynamics of dangerous lovers and death. There's a link to a pdf of the first chapter or so on the page I just linked to.

JC said...

You are right, and I would argue that the story where the female is a vampire is another narrative, that is commenting on an entirely different dynamic. My focus on this essay was specifically when the male is associated with death and the female is not.

I'll take a look at Deborah's book. Thanks!

Lise said...

JC, I am a romance and erotic romance author, with a particular affinity for all things pararnomal, but particularly vampires. No doubt a result of my attraction to tall, dark, handsome, mysterious and tortured men. I happened upon your blog while jumping around looking for the name of an author of vampire romances and was fascinated by the depth of thought you have given to the genre, as well as your interest in genre romance fiction, in general. It is reassuring to know that there are other voices in the world beyond the "bodice ripper bashers" who belittle romance fiction. Given the breadth and depth of the subject matter, the specificity of genres and sub-genres and sub-sub-genres, as well as some amazing writing, great worldbuilding and wonderfully entertaining books out there (I will join you in applauding the awesome Laurell K. Hamilton and her Anita Blake world). Glad to see that you are exploring them from this perspective.

I'll be adding your blog address to my favorite!

Sandra Schwab said...

JC, have you heard of Schubert's "Der Tod und das Mädchen"? And then, of course, there's whole dead or dying woman-cliché in 19th-century art and literature. (E.g., in Tennyson's "Lancelot and Elaine" it's quite clear that Elaine chooses death as her substitute lover since she can't have Lancelot => see her 'Song of Love and Death': "I fain would follow love, if that could be; / I needs must follow death, who calls for me; / Call and I follow, I follow! let me die.") (Gives you the creeps, doesn't it?)

The depiction of vampires in paranormal romances has its roots in revisionist fantasy (Anne Rice! whee!). Have you already looked into that? Two or three really useful sentences on The Vampire Chronicles as revisionist fantasy can be found in Roz Kaveney's article "Revisionist Fantasy" in THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FANTASY, ed. by John Clute and John Grant, as well as in Kaveney and Grant's article on Anne Rice in the same encyclopedia. I'm currently working on a chapter on revisionist fantasy for my doctoral dissertation in which I've mentioned Anne Rice's vampires as an example for the rewriting of older material. :)

Chris said...

I think the whole "Twilight" business is a perfect example of this, isn't it?

When you were describing the paintings, you reminded me of the Flash Girls song, "Death on Hennepin."

JC said...

Sandra, I had not found that article! Thank you! Truthfully, I've found that I'm wading through A LOT more vampire material than I anticipated... some of it helpful, but much of it not. So when people give me specific recommendations, I appreciate it.

I am aware of that painting, and am planning on using it in my research.

Chris, Twilight is a perfect example, and I feel I'm going to have to use it, even though I have some personal problems with the story, despite it's addictive qualities.

As for the song, interesting connection!

Rachel said...

Very interesting topic! We review a ton of Vampire fiction/romance etc. There is so much material out now, it is almost mind boggling.

I would like to extend an invite to you to join our community forum and post your query there if you like.
The link to "The Blood Bank" is :

I think you would get some very interesting feedback.

Hope this helps!

Xandra Gregory said...

First off, thank you for addressing romance from an academic perspective. As an avid reader and writer of it, I love seeing romance given the literary attention it should be getting.

Many many moons ago in my undergrad studies, I had a professor who connected the medieval art variances of death and the maiden to the sad reality of the fates of young women in the middle ages--that sex could and did often lead to death through the dangers of childbirth. The vampire is a sexual creature, but not necessarily a "fertile" one, thereby circumventing the risk of death through childbirth for the maiden.

Just something to think about. I wish I knew whether that prof ever did something beyond class discussion on the "death and the maiden" thing.

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