The rise of paranormal romance, 2007

This article ran in The Courier-Mail in January, 2007.

A QUICK look at the new releases section at Rosemary’s Romance Books in Brisbane’s CBD and one thing is quickly apparent: vampires are hot. Real hot.

Just ask Melbourne’s Keri Arthur, whose five-book Riley Jenson Guardian series is being published in the US, UK and Australia in quick secession this year. Arthur made her mark in recent years with a small-press paranormal romance series starring Nikki and Michael — a psychic and a vampire, respectively — and a further five titles firmly anchored in the realm of paranormal romance before Bantam picked up her Riley series. Riley and her brother are werewolf-vampire hybrids, who work for a secretive organisation that polices Australia’s supernatural community.

Arthur has struck at the right time. Paranormal romance — stories in which the tropes of genre romance novels are mixed with supernatural characters like vampires, werewolves and witches — consistently account for more than half of Rosemary’s bestseller list. The kicker is, unlike most category romances, a happy ending is not guaranteed.

The owner of Rosemary’s, Rosemary Potter, says the genre was a hit as soon as she opened the store in 2002. “Customers were ecstatic to find the paranormal romance not carried by the chains,” she says.

The genre has grown at the expense of military romance, which she says no longer offers the escapism it once did. “With Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s a lot more real now. When I started someone said to me you weren’t likely to have a navy SEAL dive through your window, but now I feel that actually could happen. I know I can walk down an alley and not be mugged by a vampire.”

She says romance category stalwart Nora Roberts has entered the supernatural domain, as has Australia’s Sara MacKenzie, who made her name with historical romance.
A few blocks from Rosemary’s, at Pulp Fiction, browsing the shelves provides a similar appreciation for just how widely the genre has spread. Patricia Briggs writes about a shapeshifter circulating in the company of werewolves and vampires; Kim Harrison about a witchy detective; Charlaine Harris about a psychic waitress; Julie Kenner about a soccer mum who moonlights as a demon hunter a la television heroine Buffy the Vampire Slayer. From Gothic romance to sexy thriller to vampire chick lit, the common thread appears to be a sassy, though vulnerable or afflicted, heroine, and a love interest who invariably has more going for him than the average mere male. Of course, dating werewolves and vampires comes with its own issues: picnics sans sunlight, perhaps, or full-moon hairiness, and invariably a supernatural libido.

The paranormal romance genre as we know it can trace its roots to Anne Rice, who rejuvenated the genre of vampire fiction with the success of Interview with the Vampire (1976) and the Vampire Chronicles that followed. She added another series about the Mayfair witches, set in New Orleans, and the two collided and apparently concluded in 2003’s Blood Canticle.

Rice’s star vampires were invariably male and often bisexual, if not homosexual. It was Laurell K. Hamilton who really cashed in, some 20 years after Lestat took his first turn on the shelves, with her necromancer and vampire killer Anita Blake starring in Guilty Pleasures (1993). Hamilton imagined a world in which supernatural creatures were acknowledged and legislated, and while her Anita Blake series has evolved, or devolved, into an R-rated sexcapade, her influence is indisputable. A new series from Hamilton is centred around fairy folk.

At Dymocks Brisbane, bookseller Chris McDonough shows the chain stores have cottoned on. Sherrilyn Kenyon, Christine Feehan, Kelley Armstrong and the other usual suspects are in evidence alongside the lighter fare, like Mary Janice Davidson’s Undead and Unwed, and further explorations like Jim Butcher’s noirish supernatural detective series The Dresden Files. A flick of McDonough’s hand indicates there are titles in the erotic section, too. A bit of vampire BDSM, anyone?
Pulp Fiction’s Ron Serdiuk says the growth of paranormal romance could be due, in part, to the success of Buffy. “It sexed up the image of the vampire,” he says. “There might be a new generation hungering for more of the same. Vampires are still selling in their own spooky right, with L.A. Banks (Vampire Huntress series) and The Historian (by Elizabeth Kostova).”

For Arthur, vampires and werewolves are the “ultimate bad boys”. “I love books that draw me into dark and dangerous worlds where the hero is confronted by things beyond the norm. A world where success is not always guaranteed and there’s always a price to be paid,” she says.

“Vampires and weres feed into this love of the unknown. They’re dark and dangerous creatures who can destroy without thought or reason.

“But I guess in many ways they are also tragic creatures, and there’s something very compelling about that combination for a writer.”

And other Australians have felt the attraction. Arthur name-checks Sara MacKenzie, New Zealander Narlini Singh, Shannah Jay and Brisbane’s Denise Rossetti (who writes erotic fantasy for Ellora’s Cave, a chiefly online US small press).

And she reckons there’s plenty of life left in the Undead.

“. . . the popularity of TV series like Supernatural, Medium, and The Dead Zone, as well as the rise of new series like Heroes, The Dresden Files, and True Blood suggest the genre will be around for a little while yet.”

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