Killer Sequels

By Poison Ivy,

The world and characters an author creates can be tremendously seductive. When we finish a novel we love, we hate to leave that world. And thus is born that abomination, the sequel. If “Son of Kong” or Spider-Man 3” springs to mind, you might as well know that Hollywood did not invent the sequel, nor the series. In the 19th century, Louisa May Alcott wrote sequels to her classic bestseller Little Women. Fifty years before, Sir Walter Scott wrote direct sequels to his novels, and related novels in series. The 20th century was littered with novels that had sequels or were part of series. Today, Sherrilyn Kenyon and J. R. Ward write sequels and series, and so does just about everybody else.

Including Stephenie Meyer. I spent too much of today laughing myself silly on sites devoted to tearing apart and analyzing Meyer’s Twilight, both the first novel and the series of sequels. And I have to admit, most of the criticism made sense. My personal favorite is the chapter-by-chapter exegesis called Mark Reads Twilight So You Don’t Have To.

I finally read Twilight this weekend and liked it very much. Why? Because it reminded me of old-fashioned romances from years ago in its sexual restraint and in its celebration of innocence. The heroines of those romances often were mere teenagers (Bella), and they fell in love with men who were much older both in age and in worldly experience (Edward). Those men wrapped the heroines in the comfortable luxuries of a rich man’s life, and were obvious wish-fulfillment figures. But there was a downside. The men were utterly controlling and did not allow the heroines to make any decisions for themselves. Harlequin of course was a major perpetrator of such romance novels, but other publishers produced similar tales featuring weak-minded, helpless young females who were very glad to have their lives ruled by strong-willed, older men. No romance hero of that ilk ever was poor and domineering; they always were rich and domineering. Apparently, that was their excuse. They ruled vast estates or ran huge corporations, and they expected to rule women, too. Harlequin still carries on that tradition with their laughably but irresistibly titled books about The Billionaire’s Secret Virgin Pregnant Bought Mistress, or whatever. The titles provide the thrill that these stories will have the unequal power dynamics of the bad old days. But if you actually read those romances, you’ll find that their heroines are modern, strong-minded women who don’t go for domineering men at all. Times have changed the romance novel world.

Another common element of romances many years ago was the hero blaming the heroine for her sexual appeal, claiming that she was seducing him—even though of course back then the heroines were all innocent and virginal and had no clue what these horny men were going on about. This shows up as a major element in Twilight, and is rightly criticized as classic abusive behavior. I always thought those old romances with the blamer heroes were abusive. I’ve never understood why anyone could read Margaret Way’s novels. (If you think it is unfair of me to mention her, remember Morgan Wade’s Woman by Joan Hohl, the classic spouse-abuse-as-love romance that I’ve discussed before. Joan learned better and wrote far more enlightened books later. As far as I know, Margaret Way’s men are still blaming everything on the women.)

Why am I citing the specifics of these old school romances, instead of about sequels? Because if there is no sequel, the reader does not have to see the sorry results of domineering and abusive male behavior. And the equally sorry results of women deciding to be passive, manipulative, shallow, and selfish. (Oh, yes, Bella comes in for her share of criticism, too.) The first Twilight novel ends without a specific solution to the vampire/human love affair, because Bella after all is a teenager, and at only 17 is too young to participate in an adult relationship with Edward or with any other male. She also has time to grow more gumption, to decide that perhaps she does not need a superhuman to keep her safe from everything life offers. To tell Edward that he should not act like a creepy stalker and watch her secretly as she sleeps. And so on. If Twilight, like a standard romance, were just one book, the reader could put it down and imagine happiness in the future. Whatever the reader construed as happiness.

Instead, the vast success of Twilight and the unfinished nature of this near fairytale teen story were too tempting. And so readers have to suffer the torture of seeing beloved characters run into the ground in sequel after sequel. Just as moviegoers have had to suffer through too many “Lethal Weapon” sequels, too many “Star Trek” sequels, etc. That’s the depressing negative to sequels. Years ago, I read a bang-up Gothic novel by Virginia Coffman, Moura. It was a terrific book. But the author was enticed to write a sequel to Moura that basically threw out every attractive or distinctive element of the original. And then she wrote more sequels. Sigh. She was perfectly within her rights, but as a reader, my sense of ownership of the characters in the first novel was outraged. According to many people, that is what has happened with Twilight.

I haven’t heard the same criticisms of the Harry Potter series, but that was written for a younger crowd, and did not pit a helpless girl against a powerful vampire. All series have their ups and downs, but the key problem with sequels is that readers have different ideas from the author about what should happen. And since readers get invested in the characters, they can get very disappointed if the events of the sequel feel wrong to them. That’s why sequels can be killers. The question is, are any authors listening?

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