Book Reviews


A fascination with the unknown, whether it's the missing details in a famous author's life or the truths lurking in age-old myths guarantee that stories about the supernatural will always commend a rapt audience. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has succumbed to two fictional attacks by ghosts and ghouls.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: All writers are grave robbers, but genre fiction writers have to be the most brazen of all. Of necessity, to write a romance or mystery or horror story means sticking to the narrow confines of a formulaic plot and generally digging up literary turf that's been worked and reworked to the point of exhaustion. That's why it's a special pleasure to stumble upon two authors - one a literary phenom - who've breathed new life into what must be the creakiest of genres: the tale of terror.

Dan Simmons' fictional filching begins with the title of his thick novel, called "Drood." Dickens' last unfinished novel, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," has bedeviled generations of writers who've taken a crack at completing what would have been Dickens' first mystery story. Simmons, however, is more interested in the supernatural possibilities lurking in Dickens' skeleton of a plot.

The novel opens on June 9th, 1865, when Dickens, along with his mistress, Ellen Ternan, and her mother actually were passengers on a London-bound train that was derailed. Here's a description of Dickens comforting a trapped female passenger whose arm is sticking through a window.

(Reading) Dickens squeezed the woman's hand. Her pale fingers squeezed back, the first finger closing, opening, and then curling and closing again around his first fingers much as a newborn baby would instinctively but tentatively grasp its father's hand. Oh, Christ, cried someone. Dickens crawled forward to offer his help and finally saw into the space. There was no woman, only a bare arm severed just below the shoulder lay in the tiny open circle amidst the debris.

"Drood" is a giddy scare fest replete with zombies and brain-eating bugs. But to tell you the truth, around page 600 or so, it became a bit wearying, like listening to someone shriek for hours and hours. Maybe that's why I was receptive to turning to tales about calm, controlled vampires in the rainy Northwest. In other words, I finally decided to investigate what all the fuss is about Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series. The "Twilight" series - which is composed of four novels about a 17-year-old human high school student named Bella Swan and her boyfriend, Edward Cullen, who's a vampire - has even been credited, along with the Harry Potter books, by the National Endowment for the Arts for boosting American reading statistics this past year. I've read two of the novels in the series so far, and I confess, I have joined the legions of the bitten and smitten.

If you're familiar with Bram Stoker's "Dracula", you know that vampires are about sex. The whole "I vant to suck your blood" routine is a cover story to cloak co-mingling. And therein lies the brilliance of Meyer's revision of the "Dracula" tale. Because in the "Twilight" series, vampires are still a cover story for talking about sex, but this time round, the emphasis is on abstinence. Edward, whose character is indebted to 19th-century brooding bad boys like Mr. Darcy and Mr. Rochester, is a vampire vegan. In other words, he keeps his fangs, uh, "zipped up." Here's Bella explaining their boundaries in the second novel, "New Moon."

(Reading) Edward had drawn many careful lines for our physical relationship with the intent being to keep me alive. Though I respected the need for maintaining a safe distance between my skin and his razor-sharp, venom-coated teeth, I tended to forget about trivial things like that when he was kissing me.

Much has been made of the fact that Stephenie Meyer is a Mormon and that her series invests "Dracula" with conservative Christian values, but that take doesn't account for the series' power. Because what the "Twilight" books gain from this chaste storyline - at least in the first two novels - is a heady, passionate emphasis on yearning. Desire in these novels isn't just tethered to sex; it's free-floating and intense, and it particularly emanates not from the male vampire, but from our heroine, Bella, who's gutsy and hungry for release from ordinary girly-girl concerns. Meyer's vampire tales aren't so much about "I vant to suck your blood" as they are simply about "I want, I want."

Both Meyer and Simmons are inventive inheritors of the tale of terror, but Meyer is the writer who really proves that "the undead" is a term that refers not just to vampires, but to the supernatural genre itself.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Drood" by Dan Simmons and books from the "Twilight" series by Stephenie Meyer. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close today's show with a final goodbye and thank you to Harrison Ridley Jr., who for over 30 years hosted a Sunday night jazz program on one of our neighbor public radio stations in Philadelphia, WRTI. Harrison played early jazz recordings on his show, a show he called "The Historical Approach to the Positive Music." It became increasingly difficult to find early jazz on the radio, and his devotion to the music made him an institution among jazz fans in Philadelphia. Harrison died last Thursday of complications of a stroke. He was 70. He will be missed by many listeners. We'll go out with his theme, Sidney Bechet's 1944 recording, "Blue Horizon."

(Soundbite of song "Blue Horizon")

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