I grew up reading books by L.J. Smith back in the 90s, long before Twilight was written and The Vampire Diaries and The Secret Circle tv shows aired. I loved her books so much that in 2007 I decided to write my MA thesis on them. I called it The Bad Boy Appeal: Female Sexuality and Development in the Young Adult Horror Fiction of L.J. Smith. Like the total geek that I am, I really enjoyed the process of writing my thesis. To this day, Smith remains one of my favourite authors, and on a rainy day, you’ll often find me pulling out my old, battered copies of her trilogy, The Forbidden Game. I’d like to share why her books spoke to me, using the opening of my thesis.
Traditionally horror has been viewed as a masculine genre, saturated with submissive, weak females. Both horror films and literature often depict women dying violent deaths at the hands of a stronger male. More recently, female characters in horror fiction have repossessed their power and authority, equalling the strength and cunning of their male counterparts. This new trend is particularly evident in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with the central heroine having greater physical prowess than anyone else, male or female in the world. This feminist revisionism of horror in the nineties, saluted the Gothic fiction era where horror was considered a woman’s field.
L.J. Smith’s novels were included among the popular Point Horror, Supernatural and Nightmares series of the 1990s and had a target audience of female teenagers. Smith blends the supernatural with romance, directly appealing to the burgeoning sexuality of young women. The lives of her young heroines at the beginning of each novel are usually quiet and mundane. Mary in Daughters of Darkness is complaining about the lack of excitement in the small town she has grown up in, Jenny in The Forbidden Game is preparing for her long term boyfriend’s birthday party, Kaitlyn in Dark Visions is feeling isolated and lonely at school, and Poppy in Secret Vampire is enjoying her first day of summer vacation. Only Hannah in Soulmate is experiencing something unusual; she is seeing a psychologist owing to her belief that someone is going to murder her. Within the first few pages, these girls find their sense of normality shattered by the occurrence of something or someone supernatural. As a result they are forced to grow up immediately and face new and terrifying truths about the reality of the world they exist in.
Smith forces her female characters to confront their inner selves and become self-aware by undergoing perilous journeys towards adulthood. These women meet vampires, werewolves, unearthly shadow men and deadly psychics, and a romantic entanglement follows swiftly. These teenagers are catapulted into extreme situations where their lives and freedom are at stake and as such they must acknowledge the dangerous world surrounding them and their place in a powerful, capitalistic society. In essence the fantastical creatures these girls encounter stand as a metaphor for the difficult teenager years fraught with peer pressure, family rows, relationships, insecurity and terror.
The romantic genre stimulates the budding sexuality of teenagers, enabling them to safely explore new emotions and secret longings. All of the relationships in Smiths’ books are forbidden. The parents are always in the background, allowing the protagonist to freely experiment with their developing identity alone. The principal males are generally attractive, charismatic and brooding and become a target for the girls to assess their individual female power. Through these relationships, Smith’s heroines discover free will and independence, yet also understand the repressive nature of society. Overt female sexuality is still criticised in today’s world, and Smith does not allow her heroines to experience sex, preventing female sexuality like many of her fellow young adult authors to be seen as entirely positive. Smith places her heroines in dire circumstances in order to teach them to navigate their own fears and anxieties to gain control and confidence. The current movement of feminist horror offers female characters a platform on which to demonstrate their power, enabling them to challenge the male other.
I know that right now she is mostly known for The Vampire Diaries, but funnily enough I didn’t get into those particular books growing up, and I do not discuss them in my thesis. I’ve read them in the last few years, but don’t love them the way I do her other works. (Sidenote: L.J. Smith no longer writes The Vampire Diaries and The Secert Circle books. Some deal she signed twenty years ago, now allows her stories to be written by someone else. So if you’re thinking of checking out her work, just remember that the newest novels in those series are not written by Smith.)
I’d like to hear from fans of L.J. Smith. Have any of you read The Forbidden Game, Night World or Dark Visions? Which of Smith’s bad boys captured your heart? Julian from The Forbidden Game is the ulitmate bad boy for me: utterly gorgeous, dangerous, unearthly, and completely in love with a human girl.