Hoorah for abstinence

2010-01-27 00:00

POPULAR writing, particularly for the teen and preteen market, seems to need a regular “Big Thing” (BT). For years, while she produced her ever-fatter Harry Potter books, it was J. K. Rowling. Now, it seems to be Stephenie Meyer.

For a long time I’ve been passing her books in bookshops, vaguely aware that they are for teens and about vampires. Neither bit of ­information made me stop. But then I began to speak to teachers and school librarians about them, and ­realised that they were indeed the latest BT, helped along by the fact that the four titles in the Twilight ­saga — Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse and Breaking Dawn — are being filmed in sequence. Teachers are worried. They are unconvinced that this hormonally enriched high school ­saga with added vampires (of whom, more later) is particularly edifying.

Still, not wanting to miss out on a BT, even one not aimed at my reading profile, I decided to have a go at ­Twilight. After all, I’m a Harry Potter fan, if not a fanatic. And I won’t say who I borrowed Twilight from, ­simply that it’s not only teens who read Meyer.

The story of Bella Swan who goes to live with her father in the United States’s overcast and rainy Pacific North West and meets vampire ­Edward Cullen across a crowded classroom certainly rollicks along. The twist, and what has probably made the books such a hit in the ­morally conservative U.S. is that ­Edward is a vegetarian ­vampire — or at least one who ­abstains from ­human flesh and blood. Should he succumb to the ­luscious Bella, she would, of course, become one of the undead. It’s what they both want, but they know it is wrong.

In fact the whole thing is a not very coded message that, if you are a teenager and unmarried, abstinence is best. I wouldn’t have thought that would bother teachers although, as I have said, the writing is erotically charged. I must confess I haven’t read the rest of the saga and don’t plan to, but I don’t think I’m giving much away if I say my informants tell me that only when Edward and Bella truly commit for ... er ... life, do they get it messily and vampirically ­together.

Meyer has followed her Twilight saga up with The Host, which is being presented as adult science fiction. I’m not sure how adult it is and the writing is deeply plodding, although I don’t want to hurt the author’s feelings: when Stephen King called it “not very good”, Meyer was apparently very hurt. Although the money must have helped to ease the pain: sales are predictably good.

However, the idea is interesting. There is a planet out there, inhabited by Souls, who are busy colonising the universe planet by planet. If they are to survive, they need host bodies — alien plants, strange animals or ­humans. They come along and take over the bodies they meet. Souls are predominantly gentle, horrified by the human capacity for violence, and they see their presence as a benign one. Humans unsurprisingly see it differently when the Souls come along and take over Earth — or the U.S., which seems to be the same thing for Meyer.

If a Soul takes over an adult ­human, it is sometimes hard to make the previous personality go away: memories intrude. And when Wanderer (cutely nicknamed Wanda) takes over Melanie, she can’t make her host vanish as she is supposed to. And she finds out that Melanie was desperately trying to get back to her human boyfriend and her younger brother when she was captured. So, eventually, Wanda takes the ­journey for her, or with her, as they are sharing a body, and finds a group of humans hiding out in the desert. Among them are Melanie’s boyfriend, Jared, and her brother, Jamie.

It gets complicated. Melanie still fancies Jared, but Wanda is more ­attracted to Ian. And there they are, locked in this one body. You can see it could be tricky. Although even in Meyer’s adult universe, sex is still a bit of a no-no it seems. Even kissing leads to problems, which is probably just as well, as Meyer seems to have one of her own when it comes to writing about the physical side of things. For instance: “I broke away from his mouth to breathe, and his lips scorched their way down my throat”. Perhaps Meyer was having a vampire flashback.

At more than 600 pages, The Host is profoundly overwritten. Meyer has difficulty reaching a resolution. What she has created is not obviously destined for a happy ending, but that is what she wants, so she forces it to fit. But she is a competent enough storyteller, and if she is encouraging readers, who are the critics to carp?

As with J. K. Rowling, or Enid Blyton or whoever is the current BT, the problem comes in weaning readers onto something with a bit more substance. My advice to parents and teachers who are anxious about the Meyer factor would be to let the kids read it, and then drop a John Wyndham novel in their path. I was reading Wyndham when I was the age of Meyer’s presumed target audience. My personal favourite was, and is, The Crysalids but I wouldn’t be ­dogmatic about it. Try The Midwich Cuckoos or The Day of the Triffids if you prefer. Now, there’s real science fiction. They still don’t come much better.

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