Verbal Magazine: The Vampire Slayer of Lisburn

Why is a Northern Ireland writer turning the searchlight on Twilight, the bestselling vampire romance? Clive Price investigates

Verbal MagazineOne Irishman launched a legend – another is confronting it. Dubliner Bram Stoker may have written the definitive vampire novel, Dracula, in 1897, possibly inspired by Celtic mythology. But Lisburn-born Dave Roberts is challenging the latest incarnation in that genre – the smash hit series Twilight.

In his own detailed exposé published by Oxford-based Monarch Books – The Twilight Gospel – Roberts claims to have uncovered ‘the idols of beauty, occult power, consumerism and undisciplined eroticism’ at the heart of Stephenie Meyer’s blockbuster novels. It’s a gruesome list for any concerned parent whose teenage daughters may be among the millions enchanted by the stories – now also on the big screen.

‘The books are an excellent read, and there is much in them that is wholesome and good,’ admitted Roberts, in his ‘thoughtful response’ to what could be the biggest cultural phenomenon since Harry Potter. ‘But the flaws are serious, and the series should be read with caution and thought.’

Now living in England, Roberts has been interviewed on BBC radio stations across the UK about his analysis. A potential audience of more than half a million listeners has been hearing his perspectives. According to his publisher, W H Smith has ordered ‘significant quantities’ of The Twilight Gospel.

Both Meyer and Roberts stumbled on the dark world of vampires from the light of their own religious paths. Meyer is a Mormon from Arizona. Roberts hails from ‘mainstream Christian orthodoxy’, and is well known in religious publishing. His dad used to work for the YMCA in Carrickfergus, and an ancestor of his set up a Methodist church just outside Belfast.

But how bad does Twilight get? Meyer’s characters don’t drink or smoke – nor do they have premarital sex. Time magazine described such limited frolicking as ‘the erotics of abstinence’. So why should Roberts pick a fight with this mother of three whose undead remain untainted by blood-sucking and bed-hopping?

‘When you have a phenomenon like the Twilight agenda with sales of 70 million, the ideas the books contain become part of the spiritual furniture in people’s thinking,' he explained. ‘I just want to be able to say, here are some positive things about these stories – and here are some questions you might want to ask.’

He spotlights assumptions that, ‘if we really think about them, we might not feel completely comfortable with’. Roberts realises Twilight’s heroic couple – the young girl Bella and the ancient vampire Edward – don’t have sex until they are married. So Meyer has kept her side of the ‘morality bargain’, as he puts it.

‘But the descriptions of the erotic behaviour that takes place are so evident, if you’re a 14-year-old girl, you’re having your imagination stirred in a fairly major way.’ Though she’d become a vampire if Edward bit her, Bella still tries to seduce him. ‘She’s not operating from any clear moral universe,' said Roberts.

The Twilight GospelThe designer vampires are extremely beautiful, and the lead characters appear dismissive of those who fall short of their ‘impossible ideal’, as Roberts calls it. ‘It’s Hollywood, pure Hollywood’, he added. ‘If you’re a parent, you might want to look at these books and ask, what are they saying about money, sex and power?’

The undead of Twilight are wealthy, because one of their number, Alice, plays the stock market with magic. But in these tough economic times, it’s another nail in the coffin so far as Roberts is concerned. Alice is ‘the consummate consumer’, he said. ‘There’s no critique offered of that at all’, he says.

On the spiritual side, the novels offer ‘three competing religious worldviews’, according to Roberts. These consist of Christianity, shape-shifting mythologies and Bella’s ‘latent psychic abilities’. The idea of ‘using your mind to alter reality’ is something Roberts feels we should be concerned about.

‘Some people might say, “Oh Dave, it’s only a story”,’ he said, ‘but for a huge number of people it will be another piece in their jigsaw – and make it more legitimate when they come across it in another context’. In his view, Twilight offers an ‘alternative spirituality’ with ‘an elitist view of spiritual knowledge’.

He does recognise at one level, it is just a story. But at another level, Roberts encourages people to question the standards of Meyer’s characters. ‘We shouldn’t be surprised fiction has a point of view’, he said, ‘but we should be ready to respond to that point of view.'

He’s not alone. According to the Daily Mail, the Vatican has slammed the latest movie in the series New Moon as a ‘deviant moral vacuum’. The Pontifical Council of Culture allegedly said the film is a ‘mixture of excesses aimed at young people’. A completely separate study Twilight And Philosophy (Wiley) questions the books’ takes on morality, feminism, free will – and asks whether Edward is a romantic hero or just a stalker.

So what about the author herself? What drives this ‘writer of steamy occult romantic thrillers who happens to be a wholesome Mormon mother of three’ — as the New York Times described her?

Meyer told Time magazine her religious views have not consciously affected her writing, though she admits they could come through unconsciously. She never tries to convey any particular message. However, Meyer confessed to a Mormon website that ‘unconsciously, I put a lot of my basic beliefs into the story’.

Despite what critics say about her characters, she sounds like she tries to keep her own life on the straight and narrow. She told Entertainment Weekly she doesn’t watch ‘R’-rated (‘18’-rated) horror films like Interview With A Vampire and The Lost Boys – which she describes as ‘creepy’.

When her books became hot property, Meyer stunned New Yorkers when she said she wouldn’t do events on Sundays. And her editor was possibly more than surprised when she refused to put premarital sex into the story. Perhaps she shows more responsibility than other authors.

Among her own favourite writers is CS Lewis – another son of Ireland – who deployed all manner of mythic creatures in his Chronicles Of Narnia. And, perhaps similar to Lewis, Meyer creates characters that aren’t overtly religious, but who think about religion, as she put it to USA Today.

However, Roberts pointed out Narnia works differently in that it’s a metaphor ‘full of characters who are symbols of something’. Meyer’s books may be fantasy, but ‘I’d still want to question the ethics by which the characters live’.

He wants the inhabitants of the Twilight zone – and its creator – to think a little harder about issues of spirituality and power. ‘What kind of worldview is being passed on to people?’ he asked. Some might say it depends how deep it sinks into you.

Clive Price is an award-winning writer and editor. His work mainly takes him to Belfast, Derry, Sligo and London.

This article originally appeared in Verbal Magazine (Verbal Arts Centre, Derry). Verbal is distributed to 100,000 homes across Northern Ireland each month inside the Belfast News, Newsletter and Derry Journal. A full pdf version can be downloaded for free from the Verbal Magazine website.