Why is it that, in our secular modern age, it seems that we just can't get enough of the occult and supernatural? Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series, featuring the love lives of vampires in, of all places, Forks, Wash., has shifted over 116 million copies worldwide; Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," replete with secret religious societies, bloody pentacles and arcane ritual, has been outsold only by the exploits of a certain boy wizard.
Victoria Nelson's spirited examination of the role of pulp Gothic fiction in contemporary culture begins with the familiar argument that the Gothic genre arose as a subversive counterpoint to the bleakness of the Enlightenment. In Protestant societies at least, our sense of the transcendent, once it had been exiled from daily life by all that rationalism, was relegated to the realm of the imaginative grotesque. Enter the Gothic novel, with its guilty nostalgia for the past, its fetishized Catholic medievalism—the ruined castle, the tapestried chamber, the sealed convent—and thrilling dose of supernatural terror. It laid the foundations for a long tradition of popular fiction that stretches all the way from Horace Walpole's "The Castle of Otranto" (1764) through Edgar Allan Poe's tales to Ms. Meyer's urban vampires.
So far, so uncontentious. But Victoria Nelson expands on this thesis to suggest that the Gothic has, in the 21st century, taken a "surprising new turn toward the light," not only "showing signs of outgrowing the dark supernaturalism it inherited from its eighteenth-century ancestor," but doing so in a way that promises to shift it from being the locus of a displaced spiritual sense to the possible harbinger of an actual new faith system. "Is a major new religion born of these fictions looming on the horizon?" Ms. Nelson asks boldly. Precisely what this new religion might be remains unclear, but it would seem to involve a belief in human perfectibility, expressed through the trend of showing ordinary people achieving divine status through transformative relationships with the very creatures—zombies, vampires and werewolves—that would previously have been the object of horror and revulsion.
Ms. Nelson's overview of the origins of the Gothic genre and its later ramification into sub-genres such as the ghost story, vampire tale, esoteric thriller and post-apocalyptic survival narrative is lively and sharp. She is equally at home discussing high and low art, and is at her most persuasive when tracing the literary evolution of specific motifs. She notes that the medieval preoccupation with the image of Death and the Maiden, ubiquitous in the art of the period and in manuscripts such as the late 15th-century "Danse Macabre des Femmes," persists in pulp romance in the figure of the homme fatale, or darkly attractive and sexually dangerous male lover. It is also the underpinning, though artfully concealed, of works such as the Brontës' "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights" (and even, though Ms. Nelson does not mention it, of an apparently much primmer text such as Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice"). Charlotte Brontë's refashioning of Mr. Rochester, from the dark anti-hero into a soulmate who delivers the heroine into "the journey of her true life," anticipates the explicit treatment of this theme in the"Twilight" romances: The demon lover Edward Cullen quite literally offers the heroine the "kiss of death." The twist is that, instead of reforming him, Bella Swan is fated, as Ms. Nelson puts it, "to find her true identity by dying and triumphantly joining him on a transformed dark side." The vampire Bella is an immortal with a shimmering tantric body and superhuman strength. In her radiantly transfigured humanity she comes closer to our traditional ideas of the angelic than the demonic, and taps right into our contemporary tendency to locate the transcendent within ourselves.
Ms. Nelson is right to see the popularity of the "Twilight" series as a reflection of a mass cultural shift away from organized religion, toward an individually mediated spirituality. Yet her wider religious thesis, though she defends it with panache, is not entirely convincing. Are compulsively readable pop novels such as "Twilight" and their movie spin-offs an expression of the zeitgeist? Of course. Do they provide a template for a major new world religion, as opposed to the fan cults they have already inspired? Highly unlikely. The great religions were generally not products of a zeitgeist but of charismatically persuasive individuals with an idée fixe that often ran quite counter to their times—and these were not the sort of individuals routinely content to sublimate their visions in the essentially private and relatively harmless act of writing stories, either.
There is also, inconveniently, a fundamental and crucial difference between the ontological claims made by fiction and those made by the core texts of religious movements. Christianity asserts that its scriptures are divinely inspired, but no one doubts for a second that the "Twilight" series has a purely human origin. The suspension of disbelief involved in engaging with the world of a novel is simply not the same in kind as the belief required when giving assent to, say, the claims to revealed truth in the New Testament. We go to these texts for very different reasons. As Ms. Nelson herself admits, "Twilight" fans "do not want to worship the vampire goddess Bella Swan. They want to be her."
Even if that desire does suggest, as Ms. Nelson hazards, that "the notion of self-deification is somehow in the metaphysical air," the idea is not nearly as radical as her thesis requires. It's impossible to object to the book's conclusion that the idealizing of the human in 21st-century Gothic "turns the top-down religions of the past on their heads," but there is nothing new in this. A rejection of organized religion and the celebration of the figure of the solitary visionary are themes any early 19th-century reader would instantly recognize: They are the hallmarks of Romanticism, to which the 18th-century Gothic was the precursor. What could be more old-fashioned than an out-and-out belief in man? Books like "Twilight" are in fact steeped in nostalgia. Instead of having suddenly evolved into a radical, forward-looking genre, the anthropocentric Gothic as we know it today has stayed triumphantly true to its roots.
—Ms. Lowry is the author of "The Bellini Madonna."
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