I’m never shy about making my dislike of the Twilight phenomenon known to the public at large. It’s not really the books themselves that I get so furious about, as much as the idea that Stephenie Meyer is doing something noteworthy. She’s not. Her success is derivative of, and achieved on the heels of, many authors who came before her.
Be it Bram Stoker or Kim Newman or Anne Rice or Joss Whedon, someone did it before Meyer and did it better. And many did it without turning a woman into a mindless, whiny drone like Bella Swan in the process. There are better human women in vampire fiction than Bella and far more compelling vampires than Edward Cullen. And many of these characters existed in young adult fiction 15-20 years ago, without nearly as much fervor and fanfare. One such example is The Vampire Diaries, which The CW is turning into a series this fall. Sadly, The CW seems insistent upon making it a merger between Twilight and True Blood rather than just letting L.J. Smith’s work be L.J. Smith’s work. (It suited me and many other teenage readers just fine 18 years ago.)
Smith’s books are not high art. Much like Meyer’s, they’re high school-era books, rife with teenage angst and a lot of blood. But Smith excelled at making her heroine, Elena, an intentional bitch. Confident, the most popular girl in school, it actually vexes her when the hot, brooding guy doesn’t fall at her feet like every other guy she’s ever known. And the hot brooding guy in question, Stefan Salvatore, perfected martyrous depression long before anyone had ever heard the name “Edward.” He’s perfectly capable of badassery…it’s just that he’d rather not do it. Which is why Smith created his older brother, Damon, who has no such qualms. And Damon is the kind of vampire you remember, even if the books aren’t quality literature. He’s a snarky bastard who doesn’t give two figs about humanity but begrudgingly starts to do so for Elena’s sake.
But Stefan and Damon are hottie guy vampires, like your Angels and Lestats and, yes, your freakin’ Edward Cullens.
Let’s talk about Alisa Perne.
Christopher Pike was, arguably, the young adult horror writer of my time. If you were still a kid, you were reading R.L. Stine. But you knew you were “cool” and older if you had graduated to Pike. Last Act, Remember Me, Fall Into Darkness…I read them all. In 1994, he kicked off The Last Vampire series. And thus gave teen readers a hottie girl vampire, for whom men (and women!) had come and gone and for whom five thousand years had passed.
Pike did something truly remarkable: He created a vampire mythology out of my culture. He used the stories I grew up hearing, and built this beautiful, terrible series of novels about yakshas and rakshasas and Lord Krishna that is dense with legitimate Hindu myth and philosophy. Alisa was born Sita, in a village in Rajesthan and while a part of me is needled by the fact that she is blond and blue-eyed, even that is something that Pike is allowed to get away with: Because Sita is Aryan. Of the true Aryans who settled northern India. And her life is forever changed when a plague destroys villages in her region and dark magic calls forth a yakshini in an attempt to combat it. From that creature is spawned one being who will forever shape her destiny: Yaksha. And the other who shapes her isn’t Pike’s creation; the other is Krishna. And her struggle with her dual nature goes hand in hand with her love/hate struggle with Krishna.
When I picked up these books, it was the first time I was reading American teen fiction about God and love and grace (and blood and gore and violence!) in a cultural context I wholly understood. Even rereading Pike now, I’m dizzied by how he did it. And by how ruthless and awesome Alisa is.
Simon & Schuster has re-released the first three of Alisa’s adventures in a compilation called Thirst: No. 1, with the second volume to follow next year. And I guess that’s one thing I can thank Stephenie Meyer and her books for: They’re causing publishing houses to dust off some amazing stuff and repackage it for readers today. I hope those readers sink their teeth into Pike, into Smith, and then keep going and discover all the amazing vampire fiction authors I tore through as a teen and continue to love today.