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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  1. Over at my blog (the King of Elfland's 2nd Cousin), merriank left a thoughtful comment in response this essay that I wanted to share here in full.

    I'd love to know what everyone thinks!

    Since you have to be a member to comment on the amazing stories post, I thought I would comment here.

    I have loved both instalments of your consideration of the border marches of romance and speculative fiction and think you have been very much on the money as you have considered the links and origins and drivers. As an old ‘Old Skool’ reader who has seen the evolution of the romance genre and loved my SF and fantasy reading alongside romance I wanted to make some observations:

    1. The Old Skool rape/forced seduction romances were written and read at a time when good girls couldn’t be seen to initiate or have sex outside of marriage. Part of the power dynamic and negotiations around agency in these stories is that the heroine gets to have sex, to orgasm and to remain ‘good’ according to the cultural standards of the day. The heroine is never just managing or engaging in her personal relationship with the hero. The hero’s rape behaviour is constructed and never just his personal stuff. This means that heroine is always explicitly negotiating how she stands in her world through this individual relationship and finding power in the most difficult circumstances.

    2. I would really recommend Pamela Regis’ text ‘A Natural History of the Romance Novel’ published in 2003 to anyone wanting to think about these topics. Her analysis of the literary history of the romance genre highlights how much is going on besides the ultimate HEA. One of the things Regis highlights is that these stories have a strong redemptive arc and are often about reconstituting community. I often wonder if the Vampire and Shifter stories are as much about wanting to create community as they are about the individual relationship because they are always about packs and clans or the heroine moving from isolation to having friends. I also think the notion of being made whole through love and connection; of the broken things inside a character being mended by the new relationships and possibility that love creates between the hero or heroine and their world is an important defining feature of PNR and perhaps SFR.

    3. I read somewhere once, that Lois McMaster Bujold said that romance is a fantasy of relationship and SF a fantasy of agency. I wonder if that can be paraphrased as – romance is a fantasy of the power of community/connection and SF of individual power [to change worlds]?

    4. I read most genres and the thing I have noticed as I have come to read more romance than SF lately is that I need to code switch between genres when I read outside of romance. My expectations of the characters and story need to be different in order to engage fairly with the story in front of me. I remember reading Thomas Harlen’s ‘Land of the Dead’ and waiting to see who Gretchen’s love interest would be before mentally slapping myself and code switching. It was fascinating to make that realisation because until then I had been reading the book and waiting for the real story to start.

    5. I tend to categorise not on SF vs SFR or UF vs PNR but on whether a world needs to be made and/or saved or whether a story is about making your way in the world as it is. Sometimes the borderlines shift between these or one become the other but what is going on with personal power is examined and in play in quite different ways in each.

    6. I do think many PNR and SFR writers often need to work on their world building skills, their focus on the relationship can be at the expense of plot and how the world shapes and alters the lives and possibilities of their protagonists. I want them to read books like China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh and write as well as that. I would recommend Martha Wells Raksura books to anyone who likes SFR even thought the romance is not conventional according to the genre. I love how the Queens are the alphas and that Moon codes as female according to genre conventions and that all is perfect and logical in the cultures and world Martha has created.

    1. And for the sake of completeness, here is my answer to merriank (also from my blog):

      I’d like to thank you so much for your fascinating and insightful comment. I’m glad you’ve been enjoying the Crossroads Romance series, and you’ve definitely given me some ideas to think about as I wrap the series up (I’m also going to have to track down that Bujold quote – it would be perfect for a point I’m making in my last post of the series)

      Would you have anything against my quoting your comment in the comments at Amazing Stories? I understand if you’d rather not register there yourself, but I do think your insights would be very interesting in the discussion. If you’d rather I not quote your comment there, then no worries.

      All that being said, I am a big fan of Pamela Regis’ A Natural History of the Romance and strongly agree with your recommendation. As a critical history and overview of romance, it is great. For the purposes of my Crossroads series, I got tremendous value out of Regis’ history, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan’s Beyond Heaving Bosoms, and the collection Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women edited by Jayne Ann Krentz. While the latter may be a little dated now (it pubbed in ’92), I found that it still provides great insight into the authorial considerations and approach to romance. There’s an essay in there (“Beneath the Surface: The Hidden Codes of Romance” by Linda Barlow and Jayne Ann Krentz) that I think is particularly relevant to the code-switching issues you bring up.

      To that point, I definitely think the reading protocols for romance differ significantly from science fiction, which in turn differs from fantasy. Part of PNR’s commercial success, I think, stems from the fact that (a) it builds on well-established conventions in the romance and detective fiction genres, and (b) its blended reading protocols (romance + supernatural fantasy) have been massively popularized through non-literary media (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, etc.). SFR hasn’t been so lucky (yet).

      All that being said, I agree with you 100% that many (but not all) PNR/SFR writers could benefit from some more attention to world-building. When speculative fiction fans complain of the world-building in romance, I always try to keep Sturgeon’s Law (90% of everything is crap) in mind: after all, many (but not all) SF/F writers could have better character development.

      I think that in practice this tension between world-building/plot and character/emotion is one of the biggest challenges in mashing together romance and speculative fiction. Many don’t quite get it right, but I think there are plenty who do. From a more romance-inclined perspective, I recommend J.D. Robb’s In Death series (she has a relatively light world-building touch, yet the series is set in the future and uses a typical detective structure). From a more fantasy-inclined perspective, I recommend M.K. Hobson’s The Native Star.

  2. As someone who read and tried to sell to these markets from the Eighties onward, I have to disagree with some of your research resources.

    The break in attitude about rape in contemporary romance came in the early Eighties with the rise of Silhouette Books, an American-based category romance publisher, whose authors gave an American sensibility to sexuality and power. Gone were the bully billionaires and the timid virgins. Authors like Amanda Quick/Jayne Castle/Jane Anne Krentz/Stephanie James led this change which filtered into historical romances. Also, part of the change was the shift from male editors to female editors in American romance markets.

    The paranormal romance owes its existence, not to Anne Rice, but to shows like BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER; science fiction romance/futuristic romance to STAR TREK fandom. I belonged to the RWA FF&P chapter as well as the seminal newsletter "SF Romance," and that's what all the writers said.

    Also of note was author Andre Norton. When she became ill before her death, almost every author I talked to who wrote "weird stuff" and were of a certain age claimed her as their muse because, for the first time, an author not only said that a woman can have adventures, she have it with a man who was a potential romantic partner.

    1. I definitely agree that the shift between the Old Skool and the New began in the '80s, but from what I've been able to find it seems like that decade was a "transitional" period, with both competing fairly strongly. By the late '80s/early '90s though, I definitely think the writing was clearly on the wall.

      As for the Buffy / Star Trek connection, their importance to speculative romance cannot be overstated: popular media representations like Buffy, True Blood, etc. have popularized PNR in a major way, exposing otherwise ignorant audiences to the conventions of the genre (next week, I discuss how it's a shame that science fiction romance hasn't really had similar non-literary support). But that being said, I think that both the rise of popular supernatural media (Buffy in particular) and paranormal romance took place in parallel. They fed off of each other, but I think it took Rice's work to "pave the way" for both. In a direct sense, I'm sure many writers drew inspiration and confidence from Buffy's success…but both needed fertile soil to grow.

      And I absolutely agree on Andre Norton's influence. She and other writers like Mercedes Lackey, Catherine Asaro, Lois McMaster Bujold, etc. all were massively inspirational, particularly in SFR. What is interesting, however, is that I find Norton's influence most apparent in romantic fantasy (i.e. romance published as fantasy, as opposed to fantasy published as romance). Maybe I'm just not seeing it, but I have difficulty finding much of Norton in the supernatural stories that dominate speculative romance.

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