Crossroads: The Power in Paranormal Romance

Happy Valentine’s Day!

In my first draft of this week’s essay, I started to trace the history of the paranormal romance all the way from the Gothic novel, through to noir, into romantic suspense, urban fantasy, and to the ass-kicking, leather-jacketed heroine that fills bookshelves today. While there’s nothing wrong with that approach, I came to realize that the history of paranormal romance is less important than its current shape.

Yes, our paranormal romance is obviously shaped by the past, and by the Gothic tradition, noir aesthetic, and romance novel conventions that have contributed to it. But with so many authors writing so many variants on it, paranormal romance has come into its own in our culture and staked out a clear territory (and yes, any terrible puns in this essay are absolutely intentional).

A Speculative Fiction Reader’s Definition for Paranormal Romance

Two of These Are Not Like the Others
Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison War for the Oaks by Emma Bull
Moon Called by Patricia Briggs Jill Kismet by Lilith Saintcrow
Primary Inversion by Catherine Asaro Touch the Dark by Karen Chance

Last week I mentioned the semantic clarity of the romance genre. Unfortunately, our speculative corner generates taxonomic confusion. In the long-held (and accepted) view of the romance community, “paranormal romance” is any romance with speculative elements, whether those elements are ghosts, vampires, werewolves, or spaceships. If it doesn’t exist in our mundane reality (or at least doesn’t exist yet), then the romance world would judge it “paranormal”.

But for speculative fiction fans, that’s a problematic way of looking at it. After all, one of our fandom’s defining debates lies in how best to segregate science fiction (science! spaceships! aliens!) from fantasy (magic! faeries! elves vampires!), with plenty of readers interested in one (pfui! magic is impossible!) or the other (bleh! science is cold!), even as many read from both.

But if we’re to explore how romance interacts with speculative fiction, we have to take a more systematic look at its speculative roots than most romance discussions tend to. To group fantasy-oriented paranormal romance with its science fictional cousins would over-generalize, and thus dilute many interesting insights that could otherwise be gleaned. So for the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to think of “paranormal romance” as “fantasy” and “science fiction romance” as “science fiction”.

A similar taxonomic question relates to the relationship between paranormal romance and urban fantasy, since in the minds of many readers the two are synonymous. I strongly disagree: there are numerous urban fantasies that have little to no romantic dimension, just as there are some paranormal romances which lack the urban setting characteristic of urban fantasy. Consider Megan Lindholm’s Wizard of the Pigeons, Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, or China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station. We’d be hard-pressed to call any of these paranormal romance, yet they remain indelibly urban fantasy.

However, while not all urban fantasies are paranormal romance, many paranormal romances (I would even say most) are urban fantasies. This has led to some tension among writers who self-identify as fantasists as opposed to romance writers. I am sympathetic to this tension, since it often stems from perceptions of self, the background from which they approach their work, or from their desire for perceived legitimacy (after all, even in the literary ghetto people perceive a hierarchy). But paranormal romance and urban fantasy are certainly not mutually exclusive: one can write a book that fits comfortably into both traditions, and a great many of today’s urban fantasists have done precisely that.

Those who stridently reject the label of “paranormal romance” in favor of “urban fantasy” may have a point when discussing individual titles – many “borderline” books can stand without their romance component, or lack the happy ending which defines the romance genre. However, I have found that when reading such “borderline” series (and they almost always are series), the narrative structure of the series as a whole and the language employed begins to more closely resemble paranormal romance than pure urban fantasy.

This might be a contentious view, so readers and writers of both urban fantasy and paranormal romance may take issue with some of my conclusions, and they may feel that I have misappropriated titles, series, and authors for the point of this analysis. If so, drop me a comment! We might agree to disagree, but I’m interested to hear read your thoughts!

Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan Paranormal and the “New Skool” of Romance

In Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan (of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, one of the most intelligent and funniest romance blogs) delineate two schools of romance for the uninitiated:

  • Old Skool (their spelling), exemplified by the historical and contemporary romances of the ’70s which could best be generalized as “bodice-rippers” with a problematic popularity of rape (or “forced seduction” as the apologists would have it), and;
  • New Skool, which really came into its own in the ’90s, with more assertive heroines juxtaposed against less brutal, more sensitive heroes.
Old Skool vs New Skool
Captive Passions by Fern Michaels Kitty and the Midnight Hour by Carrie Vaughn

The shift between these schools is perhaps most marked by the ways in which they each navigate the power dynamics at the heart of romance. Paranormal romance, whose ass-kicking heroines really got going in the ’90s, is clearly a product of this New Skool and marks both a reaction against and compromise with the power dynamics often found in the old school.

Anne Rice and the Foundation of Paranormal Romance

Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice I attribute the rise of paranormal romance to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. In many ways, Rice’s Louis de Pointe du Lac and Lestat are to paranormal romance what Georgette Heyer’s Justin Alastair, Duke of Avon, was to heroes of Georgian/Regency historical romance: a highly sensualized, genteel model of urbanity who displays an anachronistic attitude to personal power.

When coupled with the sexual motifs pioneered by Bram Stoker in Dracula, Rice canonically established vampires as sexual metaphor in the modern consciousness. However, her Vampire Chronicles aren’t romances: they lack both the defining canonical love story at the heart of romance (though a reasonable argument can be made that the Lestat/Louis/Armand’ relationship counts), but more importantly they lack the genre’s required happily ever after.

Yet the importance of the Vampire Chronicles to paranormal romance cannot be overstated: Louis and Lestat brought vampires out of the shadows, diminished the degree to which we see them as horrific, and through their hedonistic (and often angsty) sensuality made vampirism sexy. With Louis as a hyper-sensualized sympathetic vampire (in a Varney the Vampire or Barnabas Collins mold), and Lestat as the unrepentant bad-boy contrast, Rice establishes an interpersonal model that will feature prominently in later paranormal romances, including Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series, Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries, and Kim Harrison’s The Hollows.

Varney the Vampire by Thomas Preskett Prest Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

When Sexy Vampires Aren’t Enough

Though Anne Rice may have made vampires hot, supernatural sexiness wasn’t enough to drive paranormal romance to such ubiquitous popularity. Romance is all about power, and without a broader narrative or social context, sex and magic offer little insight. It takes more than sex and magic to make a good story, and in this case it took Laurell K. Hamilton’s socially-conscious creation of Anita Blake in the early ’90s to bring paranormal romance into the big time.

Indemnity Only by Sara Paretsky Hamilton’s creation of Anita Blake is significant because it coupled the sexy supernatural of Anne Rice with the hard-boiled female detective fiction pioneered by Sara Paretsky in her V.I. Warshawski mysteries. By fusing Paretsky’s hyper-localized, urban, hard-boiled style of detective fiction with Rice’s sexualized supernatural, Hamilton was able to simultaneously explore her heroine’s social and moral power, while metaphorically and literally exploring her sexual and psychological power.

Outside of the bedroom, Anita Blake and most of her paranormal romance sisters tend to be powerful, assertive, and confident – or to become so over the course of their adventures. Whether we’re discussing Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson, Lilith Saintcrow’s Jill Kismet, Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan, or Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville, the narrative structure either adopts Lilith Saintcrow’s “angry chick in leather” as the starting point, or as the heroine’s eventual end-point.

However, it would be premature to think of paranormal romance as a purely progressive, empowering genre: like any rich genre with such deep literary roots, it is too broad for that, and its explorations of power more complex.

An Old Skool Flavor to the New Skool

One of the key differences between Wendell and Tan’s New Skool of romance and the Old Skool is a shift in the hero’s brutality, moving the lovers’ initial romantic interaction into a more consensual context. But while paranormal romance has often explicitly empowered its heroines outside of their personal relationships, its supernatural elements reintroduce an element of rape. Consider:

However, has rape really disappeared from the landscape? Perhaps not. The rape of the heroine may have shifted focus; instead of violating the heroine’s hoo hoo, rape may be visited instead on her will. This sort of metaphorical breach is especially pervasive in paranormal romances, in which heroines are often changed or transformed without their consent, even against their express wishes, by the hero.
Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels

Dark Lover by J.R. Ward One can argue that paranormal romances ranging from Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series or Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries, to J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood, Karen Chance’s Cassandra Palmer books, Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark-Hunter novels, or Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld all explore the tensions between the heroine’s agency in the platonic and sexual spheres.

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer The massive popularity of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight in particular marks a step away from the “angry chicks in leather” stereotype so common in paranormal romance. For all of the series’ problems (and they are legion), one might argue that Meyer inverted the power dynamics of traditional paranormal romance by creating a “doormat” heroine outside of her sexual relationships, but imbuing her with the sexual desires and drive more commonly found in an alpha hero. As a commentary on power and its expression in a gendered world, it makes for an interesting (though I think regressive) counterpoint, and judging by the success of the even-more problematic Fifty Shades of Grey, may mark a cultural reaction against the values which came to the fore in the ‘90s.

A return of the Old Skool? It is premature to judge, but its development will be interesting to watch.

Of Metaphor and Meaning in Paranormal Romance

There are, of course, different opinions as to what the supernatural actually means in paranormal romance. The psychosexual metaphor – taken right out of high school readings of Dracula – may well be right, and no doubt is a big part of the genre’s conventional symbolism (and its fun). But there may still be more to it than that.

Dracula by Bram Stoker A compelling case can be made that vampires, werewolves, witches, etc. all represent different archetypes for the exploration of more existential issues, such as death, personal control, the environment, and spirituality. If romance is an exploration of power, such long-standing archetypes give us the opportunity to navigate deeper power dynamics, ones which extend beyond the personal relationships which dominate the surface of the stories. Though most romance readers probably wouldn’t think of it this way, the supernatural elements excite and frighten due to their metaphorical and cultural legacy.

Though some people in the industry argue that vampires/werewolves/whatever are over, I disagree. Admittedly, I myself have grown tired of these supernatural devices, but considering their popularity over the centuries, I think we’ll continue to see them (outside of YA, which moves in much faster cycles and where I think vampires are done for the next several years).

If the supernatural elements remain, and if paranormal romance continues to utilize them, it raises an interesting question: how will these devices be used to enhance or contrast the power dynamics paranormal romance otherwise explores? The New Skool brought us hard-nosed heroines often conflicted by the sexual dimension of their power. What will the New New Skool bring us?

Of course, there is a lot more to romance and speculative fiction than paranormal romance. Next week, I’ll be taking a closer look at a niche within a niche, namely the growing field of science fiction romance. Until then, do you read paranormal romance? Why, and what about it really piques your interest?

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Chris Gerwel is a science fiction, fantasy, and horror writer. Raised in New Jersey, he spent ten years in Central & Eastern Europe in the market research industry, and today when he isn’t reading or writing speculative fiction, he works in the software industry. He lives in northern NJ, with a beautiful wife and a rambunctious puppy, and also writes the weekly blog The King of Elfland’s 2nd Cousin.

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