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'Drood', 'Twilight' Offer Old Horror, New Thrills

Feb 23, 2009 (Fresh Air)

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All writers are grave robbers, but genre fiction writers are the most brazen of all. Of necessity, to write a romance or mystery or horror story means sticking to the narrow confines of a formulaic plot; exhuming stock character types; and, generally, digging up literary turf that's been worked and reworked to the point of exhaustion. That's why it's a special pleasure to stumble upon two authors — one a literary phenom — who've breathed new life into what must be the creakiest of genres: the tale of terror.

Dan Simmons' fictional filching begins with the title of his thick novel, called Drood. Dickens' last unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, has tempted scores of writers into taking a crack at completing what would have been Dickens' first mystery story. Simmons, however, is more interested in the supernatural possibilities lurking in Dickens' skeleton of a plot: In this melodramatic page-turner, Simmons interweaves biographical facts from Dickens' life with appearances by ghosts, zombies, brain-eating bugs and an Egyptian demon, named Drood, who's forcing Dickens to write his unholy memoirs. The novel opens on June 9, 1865, when Dickens, along with his mistress, Ellen Ternan, and her mother, actually were passengers on a London bound train that derailed. Here's a description of Dickens comforting a trapped female passenger whose arm is sticking through a window. Workers around him are prying open the window to free her:

[Dickens] squeezed the woman's hand. Her pale fingers squeezed back, the first finger closing, opening, and then curling and closing again around his first fingers much as a newborn baby would instinctively but tentatively grasp its father's hand. ...

"Oh, Christ!" cried someone.

Dickens crawled forward to offer his help and finally saw into the space.

There was no woman. ... Only a bare arm severed just below the shoulder lay in the tiny open circle amidst the debris.

That passage should give you a taste of Simmons' zest for the creepy crawlies. Guillermo del Toro, director of Pan's Labyrinth, has bought the film rights to this novel, and he'll have a blast depicting the maze of catacombs and sewers beneath Victorian London that compose Drood's and Dickens' imagined secret universe.

Drood is a giddy scare fest, but to tell you the truth, around page 600 or so, it became a bit wearying, like listening to someone shriek for hours and hours. Maybe that's why I was receptive to turning to tales about calm, controlled vampires in the rainy Northwest; in other words, I finally decided to investigate what all the fuss is about Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. Everyone is reading these novels: from all the girls in my daughter's fifth-grade class to most of my college students and their parents. The Twilight series — which is composed of four novels about a 17-year-old human high school student named Bella Swan and her boyfriend, Edward Cullen, who is a vampire — even has been credited, along with the Harry Potter books, by the National Endowment for the Arts for boosting American reading statistics this past year. I've read two of the novels in the series so far and, I confess, I have joined the legions of the bitten and smitten.

If you're familiar with Bram Stoker's Dracula (or seen the katrillion movies made from it), you know that vampires are about sex. The whole "I vant to suck your blood" routine is a cover story to cloak commingling. And therein lies the brilliance of Meyer's revision of the Dracula tale. Because, in the Twilight series, vampires are still a cover story for talking about sex, but this time round the emphasis is on abstinence. Edward, whose character is indebted to 19th-century brooding bad boys like Mr. Darcy and Mr. Rochester, is a vampire vegan. In other words, he keeps his fangs, uh, "zipped up." Here's Bella suggestively explaining their boundaries in the second novel, New Moon:

"Edward had drawn many careful lines for our physical relationship, with the intent being to keep me alive. Though I respected the need for maintaining a safe distance between my skin and his razor-sharp, venom coated teeth, I tended to forget about trivial things like that when he was kissing me."

A lot has already been made of the fact that Stephenie Meyer is a Mormon and that her series invests Dracula with conservative Christian values, but that take doesn't account for the series' power. Because what the Twilight books gain from this chaste storyline — at least in the first two novels — is a heady, passionate emphasis on yearning. All kinds of yearning. Desire in these novels isn't just tethered to sex; it's free-floating and intense and it particularly emanates from our heroine, Bella, who's gutsy and hungry for release from ordinary girly-girl stuff. Meyer dramatizes — and, for some of us, reawakens — that adolescent feeling of wanting so badly to be lifted out of the high school cafeteria line and transported into some other life that's somehow larger, more vivid. Her vampire adventure tales aren't so much about "I vant to suck your blood," as they are simply about "I want, I want." Both Meyer and Simmons are inventive inheritors of the tale of terror, but Myers is the writer who really proves that the term "the undead" refers not just to vampires, but to the supernatural genre itself.

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Drood
By Dan Simmons
Hardcover, 784
Little, Brown and Co.
List Price: $26.99

Twilight
By Stephenie Meyer
Paperback, 544 pages
Little, Brown Young Readers
List Price: $10.99

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