April 19, 2012
(+++) SCARES BY SMITH AND COMPANY
The Vampire Diaries: The Hunters, Volume 2—Moonsong. Created by L.J. Smith. HarperTeen. $17.99.
The Vampire Diaries: The Return, Volume 3—Midnight. By L.J. Smith. HarperTeen. $9.99.
The Vampire Diaries: Stefan’s Diaries #6—The Compelled. Based on the novels by L.J. Smith and the TV series developed by Kevin Williamson & Julie Plec. HarperTeen. $9.99.
The Secret Circle, Volume 3: The Divide. Created by L.J. Smith. Written by Aubrey Clark. HarperTeen. $17.99.
The Ivy #3: Rivals. By Lauren Kunze with Rina Onur. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
L.J. (Lisa Jane) Smith hit it big in the supernatural-fiction genre 20 years ago and has become something of a cottage industry in the intervening decades. Smith wrote The Vampire Diaries as a four-volume series in 1991-92 and The Secret Circle trilogy in 1992. Soon enough, she was discovered by television, which adapted both series and began inexorably expanding them – into, among other things, book series that spin off from the originals, are written by ghostwriters (no, not real ghosts, despite the thematic material), are sometimes copyrighted by Smith and sometimes not, may or may not have her involved in them, and generally take a fairly superficial young-adult genre and make it even more so. Smith is entitled to laugh all the way to the bank: her success puts her in a very rarefied authorial world, and the commercial viability of her works is one that many authors strive for but few achieve. Indeed, Smith’s work and the books spun off from it are in a sense beyond criticism, since the novels are designed to appeal to an existing, TV-saturated fan base rather than to break into significant new narrative territory or (heaven forbid) indulge in character development or complexity of any sort.
So fans of the TV series will be delighted with Moonsong, which begins: “Dear Diary, I’m so frightened I can hardly hold this pen.” No! Wait! That is the beginning of Midnight. Actually, Moonsong begins, “Dear Diary, I’m so scared. My heart is pounding, my mouth is dry, and my hands are shaking.” How could anyone possibly confuse one of these series with the other?
The point, of course, is that it does not much matter which series a reader has in hand: character names may differ, and some specific plot circumstances may not be the same, but the basic approach remains identical throughout. You either enjoy this or you don’t; it’s a very binary response. Just to keep things more or less straight: Moonsong keeps the Elena-Stefan-Damon triangle very much alive (so to speak), now in the context of Elena attending Dalcrest College, the school where her parents met. Everyone seems to be getting along well in the early part of the book, so there will certainly be something upsetting coming along soon enough; and indeed, students start to disappear from campus mysteriously, and Elena and friends urgently need to figure out what is happening and who at the college is a friend or an enemy. In Midnight, Celestial representatives have some interesting dealings with the devious Damon, as when a Guardian tells him (with thinly veiled sarcasm): “Our job is really only to try to keep the peace here – and you can see how well we succeed. It’s a matter of too few of us; we’re insanely understaffed.” Throw in some wolf transformations, Master Keys stolen from the Celestial Court, orders stemming from a source of supreme evil, a thriving slave trade, and a number of comments along these lines: “Her mood and the dynamics of the situation had just been turned upside down.” Stir briskly, and you have this particular potboiler, originally published last year and now available in paperback. The Compelled is a paperback original, and its focus is the attempt by the vampire Samuel to take revenge on Stefan and Damon, who find they must turn to a coven of witches for protection – and must prevent Samuel from gaining power that would let him control humans and vampires alike.
And speaking of witches and covens, The Secret Circle: The Divide has Cassie Blake adjusting to her newfound power within her coven, while also dating Adam (her soul mate; there are lots of soul mates hereabouts) and making new friends. But just as a mysterious enemy is making students disappear over at Dalcrest in another series, it turns out that in this one, a mysterious enemy is launching unpredictable attacks, and anyone could be his (or her or its) next victim. Just as in other sequences, Cassie and her friends do not know whom to trust, whom to avoid, whom to fear and whom to attack. And Cassie, who has great powers, learns (like so many other protagonists) that they come with great responsibility: the Circle itself is in danger, and Cassie alone may be able to save it. If she fails, it could be sundered forever.
The sensibilities that inform Smith’s own books and the many more that are Smith-derived are scarcely unique to them. They are not even unique to the supernatural genre. The Ivy, for example, contains many similar concerns, issues and worries even though it is supposed to be a (thinly disguised) real-world story based on the experiences of Lauren Kunze and Rina Onur as Harvard undergraduates. The first book, simply called The Ivy, was all about money, connections, clothes, boyfriends – and (of course) only in the most incidental way about education. The central character, Callie Andrews, had to deal with having brains, beauty, great roommates and plenty of determination and drive. Tough life. Classes were shown to exist mainly for making social connections, the library primarily for study dates – with classwork not being the main thing studied. And getting into the right parties was at least as important as getting the right (perfect) grades. There was more of the same in the sequel, Secrets, and now there is even more in Rivals, in which Callie (now in her second semester) just has to improve on her B’s in class and also on her friendships and social life, to which she gives even lower grades (a bigger deal, since they are clearly more important than learning). Just as in teen-oriented books tinged with the supernatural, the plot here primarily involves the protagonist negotiating her way among various superficially presented types, including (in Rivals) a hard-edged Harvard Crimson managing editor and a beautiful transfer student – plus the obligatory two boys between whom Callie will find herself and her heart tugged, if not torn. It would be nice to say that two Harvard graduates write more stylishly than L.J. Smith and her imitators, but it would be untrue. And in fact it is irrelevant: Kunze and Onur surely aspire to the sort of material success that Smith has attained, not to any kind of literary quality. Style – writing style, that is – is scarcely the objective.