Stephanie Gallon interviewed Dr Bill Hughes. Dr Hughes is one of the founders of the Open Graves, Open Minds research project. His research areas are paranormal romance, the Byronic hero and the undead. His latest publication is Open Graves, Open Minds: Representations of Vampires and the Undead from the Enlightenment to the Present. You can follow his blog here.
Q: Can you give us a two sentence summary of what Open Graves, Open Minds (OGOM) is?
A: The Open Graves, Open Minds: Vampires and the Undead in Modern Culture Research Project is led by Dr Sam George at the University of Hertfordshire, in collaboration with Dr Bill Hughes. The Open Graves, Open Minds project relates the undead in literature, art, and other media to questions concerning gender, technology, consumption, and social change, and was initiated by a prominent and exciting conference in April 2010.
Q: Next year OGOM is hosting a conference on werewolves and shape-shifters. These are obviously not Undead creatures. Why are they linked to the Undead so often?
A: Pure opportunism in a way on our part! It gave us a chance to explore long-held interests in feral children and in eighteenth-century ideas of origins, of language and society. And two of Sam’s PhD students are researching the werewolf. But also, like the Undead, shapeshifters exhibit that crossing over between animal and human, culture and nature, and they too have become part of that rehabilitation of the monster in paranormal romance. Simply, as monsters, these creatures, whether feared or loved, can play the same part in representing difference (racial, sexual, etc.) as the Undead do. However, in East European folklore, the vampire and the werewolf are not clearly distinguished in any case. And that moment in our cultural history when Universal Studios brought the Undead to the cinema screens also brought werewolves, so they have become closely linked ever since.
Q:Last month you gave a talk at the University of Sunderland about paranormal romance and the undead lover. Why do you think there’s been such a surge in paranormal romances in recent years?
A: The dangerous, demonic lover has a long history and has been attractive for—well, centuries. But I think that the way that the politics of difference has become—largely—accepted into the mainstream is a significant force behind the particular way in which the genre of paranormal romance has emerged. Outsiders were once represented as destructive, alien, threatening monsters; now, they can become potential lovers, their otherness tamed and assimilated.
There is also the way that different genres have combined to generate this new species of text. Genres represent different ways of looking at the world; often, the clash of genres involved in this very hybridised form may be a way of setting off contrasting perspectives on the world in an age that has lost many of its certainties.
There are also specific issues involved in the two branches of the genre, which are aimed respectively at young adults (mainly female) and older women. I’m venturing into dangerously presumptive psychology here, but the adult subgenre, with its independent women who love dominant and dangerous males, may be a way of acting out female desires and anxieties in an era where many feminist values have been accepted. Likewise, young adult paranormal romance confronts similar anxieties about growing up and inviting those strange monsters—boys—into one’s life. I’m simplifying grossly, of course.
Q: Why is it the vampire that is so often turned in to the love interest with these kinds of texts? Are there any creatures of the night who have remained safe?
A: Since their resurrection from folklore into a literary figure, their amorphous nature has made them extremely flexible as an image for all sorts of concerns. Their otherness, as I’ve said above, when tamed and humanised coincides with the (incomplete) assimilation of others into mainstream society, though often it is the simple otherness and danger of the opposite sex that is explored. Their darkness, their nocturnal aspect, their tragic compulsions all enable them to be configured as the Byronic hero (and often now, the female counterpart of this). The orality of the central biting motif and the exchange of blood has obvious erotic connotations (the best vampire paranormal romances always have a powerful biting scene between lovers!). And then there is the utopian promise of superhuman strength and speed, enhanced sensory experience (particularly in love), and eternal life—all these attractions play a part.
The human protagonists of paranormal romance have lately embraced shapeshifters, demons, succubi, angels, djinn, dark fairies, pixies, merfolk, trolls, and even the hardly tangible ghost. Revenants have returned to their loved ones, healed of their wounds and beautiful, but it seemed impossible that the grotesque, shambling zombie could become a lover. Yet Daniel Waters, in his powerful Generation Dead series, and Isaac Marion in Warm Bodies have managed to create convincing romances with zombies. I don’t know about mummies, though, and I think ghouls have no chance. Though that tempts me to write a smouldering ghoul-human love story myself.
Q: Are there any tropes or story lines that you consider essential or unique to the paranormal romance?
A: Genres are fluid things, and the history of genre theory shows the mistake of trying to define them in terms of fixed essences. But a paranormal romance must at least have a love affair between a human being and a monster (or, occasionally, two monsters, but humanised in a way that the reader can identify with them). I think, too, that it is crucial that the Gothic mode and the genre of romantic fiction are in symbiosis. I would also hesitate to include texts that are high fantasy; these books are distinguished by their contemporary, usually urban, settings, where either the marvellous intrudes into our world or the characters enter into another world and return transformed. It must be remembered, too, that the label ‘paranormal romance’ (and associated near-synonyms such as ’dark romance’, dark fantasy, and ‘Gothic romance’) comes from marketing departments rather than literary theorists. As such, they certainly signal and identify certain expectations of readers, but more work needs to be done in clarifying these issues. There are certainly certain images and tropes that recur, too—often to the point of cliché—but they’re not necessarily unique to the genre.
Q: You also talked about the Byronic Hero as a lasting trope in Gothic. Why has this trope lasted when so many others have become dated? Are there any good examples of contemporary Byronic heroes?
A: I’ve talked above about the contemporary twist to the appeal of the dangerous lover, but the excitement that mysterious men with immense vitality offer to women—especially when their own prospects for adventure are constrained—has apparently lasted for three centuries at least. And the Byronic hero (who has roots in Milton’s Satan and Samuel Richardson’s Lovelace) also invites sympathy. But I can only be very tentative and speculative about this longevity. Joss Whedon’s brooding Angel is my favourite contemporary Byronic hero.
Q: Do you prefer Lord Ruthven or Edward Cullen?
A: I’m not actually keen on either—they’re both somewhat colourless. Ruthven is at least interestingly dangerous, yet I almost prefer Edward’s humanity.
Q: What’s your favourite Gothic text?
A: If I can have a Gothic(ish) novel that transcends the genre considerably, it would be Wuthering Heights. If you’re being more strict, then The Mysteries of Udolpho. From contemporary paranormal romance, I would pick works by Daniel Waters, Holly Black, or Maggie Stiefvater. And there are Marcus Sedgwick’s powerful YA Gothic novels (though these have little in the way of romance plot).
Q: Jekyll or Hyde?
A: Am I Jekyll or Hyde, or which do I prefer? Like most people, I’m a mixture of both, though I’m not in the habit of trampling small children. My preference would be for the two as intermingling traits (and they are the same person anyway!).
Q: Vampires or Werewolves?
A: Vampires, definitely; they’re sexier (despite being dead and despite the libidinous animality of weres). And they have more of the transcendent about them. Although, as representatives of the parasitic nature of capitalism, I should hate them. But werewolves are too tied to their biology, which makes were fiction suspiciously reactionary at times, portraying human beings as bound to instinct and hierarchical structures (apart from the wonderful Shiver series by Maggie Stiefvater, which challenges that ideology brilliantly). And I’m not a dog person; maybe werecats at a pinch.