Whenever someone mentions to me Southern Gothic, I either think of Flannery O’Connor or “I bet you can squeal like a piggy.” Children of the Corn, Poppy Z. Brite, The Walking Dead –– there’s a whole culture to be found in the genre.
Southern Gothic novels are horror stories set in the rural Southeastern area of the United States. It’s like if you take Gone With the Wind and replace most of the plot elements with deteriorating plantations, hoodoo priests, zombies, and creepy, pitchfork-wielding townspeople who are most likely thinking of ways to sacrifice you to their gods for a better harvest.
But awesome a genre as Southern Gothic is, I don’t really find myself thinking about teen romances. That’s kind of the one area where I don’t think Southern Gothic extends to. Not that it’s stopping anyone from mentioning Beautiful Creatures.
Calling Beautiful Creatures a Southern Gothic is evidence that some book-reviewers never actually read the books they are supposed to be reviewing.
Published in December 2009, Beautiful Creatures found a modest amount of popularity. It had enough readers to convince film-makers to produce a movie in 2013. The novel managed to generate some hype in 2012, with most of the readers getting pulled in by news of the upcoming movie.
It’s about a 16-year-old boy named Ethan Wates. He lives in the small Southern town of Gatlin, a backwards, outdated place that he’s lived in all his life. Just as he thinks his life is never going to be interesting, a strange misfit named Lena Duchannes moves to Gatlin. It turns out that Ethan has been dreaming about her for some time, and both he and Lena find that they have a strange connection to each other.
Rather than reading the book for its story, I find myself being more interested in the implications that it unintentionally points out. For one, while reading this book, I found myself thinking about the gender roles in the Young Adult genre.
It’s an unusual choice to have the protagonist of a Young Adult Paranormal Romance be a male. Most of the time, the protagonist will be a female — probably because the paranormal romance genre wants to make the protagonist more relatable to their chosen demographic. The only other YA Paranormal Romance with a male protagonist is probably Sam from Shiver (by Maggie Stiefvater).
It’s interesting to note that both Ethan and Sam share the same traits: they are sensitive, love to read books, are deemed ‘different’ from their peers, and are comparable to 30-year-old women. Their characterization brings questions of whether or not it’s okay for them to be similar to 30-year-old women. Did the authors intend for the heroes to be feminine? Or were they just too lazy to research the typical teen-male psyche? And what is the typical teen-male psyche, anyway? Is there even a difference between writing a female’s perspective and a male’s? What is the line between a feminine and a masculine personality, anyways? And is it all right for readers to deem both Ethan and Sam as too wimpy, sissy, etc. — or is that just enforcing gender roles?
Of course, my guilt of considering Ethan a tad bit girly all vanished as soon as I read an interview with Margaret Stohl.
When asked by a reader on what she based the romance in her story, Stohl answered, “Kami [Garcia] and I like to say we based Ethan on the OPPOSITE of every boy we dated when we were in high school. Some of the romance borrows from my own life, as I’m sure it does from Kami’s as well. But also, Ethan and Lena became real people to us while we were writing them, so it really felt like their love story more than anything else. And what’s not to love about love? It sort of gives everyone a little more hope for the world, don’t you think?”
This basically means that Ethan Wates is not a character, nor is he a protagonist. He is, in fact, a fantasy. He is the idealized version of a teen boy. He has no perceived flaws, nor does he go through any character development. His only purpose is to fulfill the authors’ visions of the perfect male.
The other characters themselves aren’t up to scratch. The side-characters are stereotypes of corn-fed cheerleaders, jocks, and hicks. The setting itself is a stereotype. The Southern culture that this book is praised for is nothing more than a ridiculous set-up for its protagonists to constantly poke fun at. If the nature of the Southern setting wasn’t so asinine, I’d find it to be a rather offensive depiction of the Deep South.
The heroine of Beautiful Creatures is Lena Duchannes. For a heroine who appears in a book published in 2009, Lena has the amazing gift of managing to remind me of every stereotypical I’M NOT LIKE OTHER GIRLS ‘CUZ I’M SO DEEP AND MEANINGFUL AND DIFFERENT DUUUURP heroines I’ve ever read in a Young Adult Paranormal Romance. She’s a beautiful loner who’s the anomaly of her kind. She name-drops Bukowski and claims that she’s a big fan of his, without ever actually giving the readers an indication that she actually read anything that he wrote. Heck, it doesn’t even have anything to do with the story — besides informing the reader of how SMART AND DEEP AND AWESOME Lena is.
I’m sorry, but Lena isn’t a character either.
I refuse to say anything about the plot of this novel, as seeing that you can’t really talk about something that didn’t even exist in the first place. But then again, unicorns don’t exist either and I still talk about them — so I suppose I could at least discuss the concept of the plot of Beautiful Creatures.
I find it rather fascinating that the book is at least 600 pages of pointless tripe. It’s the same length as The Book Thief, and The Book Thief has an actual plot. The concept of the plot of Beautiful Creatures, however, is built on the same-old formula of the technically illegal tryst of a paranormal being and a human, two apparent wunderkinds drawn to each other for a deep, mysterious reason, and the physical inability to ever form a romance. The only twist in this tired, overused book is the lore of the featured paranormal being.
But, as seeing that the mythos is the only remotely interesting and original thing in the story, I probably shouldn’t spoil that.
Beautiful Creatures is the apotheosis of bathos. The problem is that it’s too self-delusional to even realize that, and it thinks of itself as a dark and haunting tale of romance. The whole framework of this book is akin to a middle-grade novel, and if you just took out the high-school part of the book, then you wouldn’t really find any changes. There’s so many anvils that the authors insist on beating into the readers’ heads. I found my own head beaten to a bloody pulp by the it’s okay to be different moral that the protagonists kept spouting. Heck, the morals were so obvious that I probably would’ve even had time to dodge the hammer — if I wasn’t too busy shaking my head in disbelief at just how stupidly the novel was approaching the issue.
However, I can’t bring myself to say that I hate Beautiful Creatures. I look down on it, and I don’t condone any of its sheer stupidity or ignorance, but I don’t dislike the book at all.
See, if there’s ever a prize for MOST ATMOSPHERIC BOOK OF THE YEAR, then I’d give it to Beautiful Creatures. Its prose isn’t too terrible, and there are a few sentences in the text that actually comes off as profound. The authors have certain mastery in manipulating the tone and mood of the book, and if they actually got their heads together enough to write a real Southern Gothic, they’d probably nail it. Even though Beautiful Creatures isn’t dark or haunting at all, I wouldn’t blame any readers for getting fooled by the delicious, lovely atmosphere that the book glosses its story with.
I still wouldn’t recommend this one, though. Sure, borrow it from the library as a tutorial on how to use mood and tone. Sure, borrow it to have something to laugh at. Borrow it to have something to give you more confidence about the quality of the latest story you’re writing. Or, like me, you could also borrow it to have a textbook on the don’t-dos of writing a book.
But either ways, I would not recommend this to you for the quality. Maybe for the lack of quality, but no sir, definitely not for quality.