Bite Me, Biker Style

In the days when I had 16 years, Farrah Fawcett hair, and leg warmers, my friends and I spent hours dividing potential boyfriends into categories of good and evil. We were like ruthless versions of the Angel Gabriel, though our goal was not to banish, but to lure, sinners — the restless bad boys, the ones who ranged through high school looking for sex and trouble. I scored for the prom: My date had loose black curls, a pair of leather pants, and was voted best dancer in the senior class. He even had a red car. He was pure, addictive testosterone in a youthful package.

It took years, but I finally learned a thing or two about the disappointments of undiluted testosterone; my husband combines his male birthright with the ability to cook and do dishes. We’re equal partners in life, facing diapers and plumbing problems together, just like an article in a women’s magazine. Imagine my surprise when I fell into a headlong addiction with dangerous men who not only wear leather but drink blood.

“Wrath was six feet, six inches of pure terror dressed in leather. His hair was long and black, falling straight from a widow’s peak. Wraparound sunglasses hid eyes that no one had ever seen revealed. Shoulders were twice the size of most males’.” — J. R. Ward, Dark Lover

Wrath is the first vampire hero in J. R. Ward’s phenomenally successful series. He’s mean, leather-bound, and liable to violence. If you met him on the street, you would instantly assess him as unlikely to drive a minivan and as for diapers? I don’t think so.

But what J. R. Ward gives us in her brutal biker-esque men (Wrath, Zsadist, Rhage, and Vishous, not to mention an alcoholic cop named Butch), is the fantasy washed clean. As she writes of Wrath: “With a face that was both aristocratic and brutal, he looked like the king he was by birthright and the soldier he’d become by destiny.”

What’s really interesting here, I think, is the label “soldier.” What vampire heroes do for amusement is kill lower versions of vampires (the kind that indiscriminately suck blood). Ward’s heroes fight “lessers.” Christine Feehan’s wildly popular series features a super race of “Carpathian” vampires, who spend their time battling other vampires, those who’ve fallen off the wagon and started drinking humans for lunch. Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunters chase “daimons,” who go for souls along with blood. In the last few years, books featuring leather-bound warrior vampires have sky-rocketed up the charts. Combat skills are clearly an important part of the package. From Feehan’s Dark Demon: “His eyes glittered dangerously, and she recognized the predator? Natalya stared at him, utterly mesmerized by his masculine beauty as he fought a battle against so many. She had never seen such a demonstration of power or skill.”

So what’s the attraction? What’s the lure of a leather-wearing man who sucks blood? It would be easy to dismiss the vampire hero as a hankering dating from cavewoman days. Maybe we’re all secretly longing for a man who saunters home with a water buffalo over his shoulder. Certainly, strength is emphasized. Even Caridad Pineiro’s British punk vampire (coming in 2008 as part of her series The Calling) is muscled: “Blake stood at the mouth of the service alley for the restaurant, resplendent in all his punk glory. His black leather jacket strained against the broad width of his shoulders.” Never mind the fact that most punks don’t spend hours in the gym. But whether his hair stands up or not, the crucial point is the vampire’s ever-ready ferocity. Here’s Aidan Savage, hero of Feehan’s Dark Gold: “Long blond hair flowed to his broad shoulders, and unusual golden eyes regarded him with the unblinking stare of a cat. He exuded power. Power and strength. Danger clung to him like a second skin.”

I know who wants to look just like Aidan Savage: the bounty hunter, Dog. Dog has the shoulder-length blond hair, the tats, the leather, and the meanness. In his just-published memoir, You Can Run but You Can’t Hide, he talks about his years in prison, his addictions, and his penchant for violence — and the hand-to-hand fights by which he brings down dangerous criminals. “I’ve been tossed through windows, pushed through walls, and shoved through doors. Does that make me a tough guy? You bet.”

The truth is while Dog may have manifold virtues, beauty is not one of them. He’s got all the accoutrements: the hair, the weapons, the leather?but he’s no king.

Still, I think the key to the popularity of vampire warriors is echoed in Dog’s happy claim to being a “tough guy.” Every week Dog gets into legal hand-to-hand combat. But if a hero doesn’t happen to be a bounty hunter, hand-to-hand combat is happening in Iraq. And that’s tragic, rather than sexy. These days, romance writers hesitate to put their warriors in the military (except perhaps the Navy, as with Suzanne Brockman’s popular SEALs), because they’re liable to end up in Iraq. In the sand. Dead in a less-than-armored Humvee.

But in a novel, the warrior hero can live — and fight — for centuries, since he’s immortal. Generally, the heroine ends up ageless too, which is a nice touch. What’s more, vampire princes are rich (think about 300 years of compounded interest).

So why is it that American women, myself included, have suddenly time-warped back to cave dwelling? What’s with our desire to read about dangerous men? I’d suggest that, in fact, this paranormal lust has a lot to do with fear of terrorism. After all, the Iraq war sprang from fear, fear born of 9/11. Never mind the fact that such attacks would presumably be large scale. The fear itself is personal: It will be my plane, my house, my children. Who could protect me? A supernatural hero would be welcome. Here, from Teresa Medeiros’s The Vampire who Loved Me: “As the stranger’s greedy gaze raked over the ample swell of Portia’s breasts, Julian bared his teeth and growled, the primal sound lifting every hair on her nape. The man lurched into a clumsy trot, barely missing a lamppost as he cast a terrified glance over his shoulder. ‘It appears I’m not the only beast prowling the streets of London tonight,’ Julian said.” The key to Medeiros’s delicious hero is his ability to defend Portia (and her bosom) from attack.

Our culture is deeply fearful of “beasts.” My husband is a literature professor who has never owned a pair of leather pants. Still, I would hope that between the two of us we could take a bloodsucker out using household chemicals, as we’ve done with other infestations. But there’s no getting around the fact that if the U.S. is suddenly hit with a plague of daimons/lesser/vampires, it would be nice if my spouse could morph into a 600-year-old superhero with a silver bullet in his gun. Until that happens, I’m curling up with one of J. R. Ward’s books when I feel a nervous qualm. Rhage will do:

“Black leather trench coat fell from his shoulders to his ankles. Black wife-beater was tucked into leathers. Shitkickers topped him out at six-eight or so? He gave off the vibe of a guy who’d smile while he set the record strai