SALT LAKE CITY — He is controlling, obsessive and prone to showing up unannounced. He has a temper that he struggles to control, and he hits all the markers of addiction.
Welcome back, Edward Cullen, hero — or antihero? — of the “Twilight” series. A few things have happened since you and your family were last spotted in town, to include Jeffrey Epstein and #MeToo. The world is a different place now, as Stephenie Meyer herself has acknowledged.
As she prepares to release a new book in the series next month, the bestselling author noted on her website the passage of time since 2005, when the first book was published.
“I’m not the same person I was then. My children have all grown up. My back got weird. The world is a different place,” Meyer wrote. “I can only imagine all the things that have changed for you,” she said to her fans.
Change, they have.
The adolescent fangirls that made “Twilight” an international phenomenon are now young adults, trying to keep their footing amid a pandemic, social upheaval, political acrimony, and a culture that no longer tolerates bad behavior from rich, handsome men with access to private islands.
That former fanbase includes Emma Farr, a Salt Lake City marketing manager who read the “Twilight” books as a teen, but in college wrote a paper critical of the story.
“I was a psychology major in college and I remember thinking through the Bella-and-Edward relationship and realizing it was kind of creepy, and a little bit of an abusive relationship, emotionally,” Farr said.
Edward Cullen, of course, is a self-aware vampire who battles his base instincts and famously asked Bella in the 2008 film adaption of the series, “What if I’m not the hero? What if I’m the bad guy?”
For Edward, it was an agonizing question, one with no clear answer. The bad-guy status is more assured for convicted sex offender Epstein, who died in prison last year, and disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein, whose criminal behavior with women led to the #MeToo movement and heightened awareness of predatory behavior by powerful men. (A New York restaurant owner recently burned the table where both men used to sit.)
Amid that cultural shift, is Edward Cullen welcome in 2020? One satirical website, The Babylon Bee, suggests he won’t be in a headline that reads: “New ‘Twilight’ remake to have Bella immediately report Edward to authorities.”
But many fans, and former fans, say they’re willing to hear what Edward has to say.
‘The defining struggle’
“Midnight Sun” has been a leading seller on Amazon since its publication was announced May 4, even though most everyone knows how it ends. (Spoiler alert: The vampire gets the girl.)
But publisher Little, Brown and Company promises that “Midnight Sun” will be more of a treatise on ethics than a campy romance. “As we learn more fascinating details about Edward’s past and the complexity of his inner thoughts, we understand why this is the defining struggle of his life. How can he justify following his heart if it means leading Bella into danger?” the publisher’s description of the book says.
That’s a noble argument for Edward and Bella to enjoy yet another new life in 2020, but one that writer and former fan Kathleen Walsh dismissed in Marie Claire magazine, saying, “There is absolutely no need for the story to be regurgitated in the year 2020.”
“As a teenager, I could forgive the poorly drawn characters, the hilariously goofy concept of glittering vampire skin, and the lack of discernible plot — beyond repeated declarations of devotion,” Walsh wrote. “But now I see the narrative for what it actually is: a treatise on the importance of gender roles and a romanticization of every relationship red flag I can possibly think of.”
The original “Twilight” exists in a time in which people didn’t identify their choice of personal pronouns, a time in which each male vampire in a family was perfectly matched to one that was female. But to be fair, Edward Cullen is from another generation, having been born in 1901. He was turned into a vampire when he was dying during the 1918 influenza pandemic at age 17, a bit of serendipity that makes his reemergence during today’s pandemic even more unsettling.
In baring their teeth at a largely beloved icon of pop culture, “Twilight” critics overlook the central fact of the story, which is that it’s fantasy, said Lissy Andros, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce of Forks, Washington, where much of “Twilight” is set.
“It is fiction, and he is a vampire; he’s not a normal human. I think a little bit of stalking behavior on his part, if he didn’t do it, would be abnormal,” Andros said.
The Deseret News was unable to reach Meyer for comment.
Andros, 51, was not a typical fan. An office manager in Texas, she read all four books within the span of a week in 2008, and she moved to Forks the following year. Now she is responsible for marketing the town, which has built a fan following of its own and hosts a “Twilight” convention every September. (It may be virtual this year.)
“The ‘Twilight’ saga gets a lot of hate from authors or reporters who don’t understand it,” she said. “If you love the story, you take it for what it is. And at this point, it’s a phenomenon. It’s more than just a story. And now, with ‘Midnight Sun’ coming out, ‘Midnight Sun’ is like the only good thing to happen in 2020.”
Megan Francisco, a Ph.D. candidate in music history in Seattle, was a freshman in high school when the first book came out and says she was obsessed with “Twilight” culture. She remembers going to Barnes & Noble bookstore when “Breaking Dawn” was released and reading the entire book there, as fast as she could, to see how it ended. Even in college, Francisco was excited to see the movie with other women from her dorm. But as the movies were released, between 2008 and 2012, she began thinking differently about the saga.
“I still have the books; I keep them on hand, because they’re really easy reading, simple language. As I progressed further into grad school, I was doing a lot of intense reading, so I would read ‘Twilight’ as a palate cleanser of sorts, to clear my brain.
“And I came to realize, oh, I don’t love these characters as much as I used to. I reread them last year, and I was very much against a lot of the characters, so there’s been quite the transformation,” she said.
Edward she now sees as moody, possessive and controlling. “Almost like a stalker in many ways. It’s quite the toxic relationship,” she said. And, “Bella is incredibly annoying. She doesn’t stand up for herself at all. Her entire life revolves around these two men. She treats Jacob, her friend, terribly. She’s just not a great person.”
Chase Oswald, a piercing and tattoo apprentice in St. Petersburg, Florida, was even younger when she became obsessed with the saga at age 11 after watching her older sister go through a “Twilight” phase. “I had a life-sized cardboard cutout of Edward that I kept in my room. It was kind of terrifying for an 11-year-old,” she said.
Like many “Twilight” fans, she turned to the movies and books during the pandemic, watching the movies twice and starting last week to read the books again. “It’s almost like a comfort thing, but I do wonder, why did I think these were such amazing books?” she said.
“As a young girl, I thought, ‘oh, I want a boyfriend like that,’ but now I wouldn’t want someone telling me what to do like that.“
That said, she is excited to read “Midnight Sun,” and looks on the saga with affection and nostalgia, as the first teen novel that held her interest. “I’d never read anything like it,” Oswald said.
A ‘guilty pleasure’
In 2008, when the first movie came out, Farr and her friend Lakota Gambill were at a Salt Lake City mall when they were approached by a KSL-TV reporter interviewing teens about their love of “Twilight.” Both are slightly mortified that their first morsel of internet fame was related to the franchise, especially as they look back on the books and movies as young adults.
Now a photographer in Pennsylvania, Gambill, 26, says that for many people, a love of “Twilight” is a guilty pleasure, “like listening to Britney Spears.” She said she may read the new book out of curiosity, although she cringes at how the men in the previous books were so possessive toward women. “I hope (the new book) will have grown with our generation, with where we’re at now in our society versus where we were then.”
In Seattle, Francisco said, “I feel like I will betray my teenage self if I don’t read it. I also hope it redeems Twilight a little bit for me.”
As for Farr, who will turn 27 in August, she is interested to see the story from a different perspective, “maybe give (Edward) a chance to not be so creepy, to see the reasoning behind his actions.”
But she won’t be waiting at the bookstore for the Aug. 4 “Midnight Sun” release. “Maybe down the road. I have a couple of other books on my list that I’m finishing.”
And none, for the record, involve vampires. What she’s reading right now: “To Sell is Human,” a professional development book for mortals, by Daniel H. Pink.