If you’ve read any of my previous posts about vampires, you know how I feel. And, it’s complicated. I am absolutely obsessed with them and have spent a lot of my life reading about them, learning as much as I can about them in folklore and literature, as well as how they are perceived in popular culture. On the one hand, I think vampires are sexy and interesting and they are some of my favorite fictional characters. On the other hand, I have some concerns about how vampires are depicted in paranormal romance in relation to the acceptance of violence against female protagonists. You can find my 4-part blog series, “With This Ring, You’ll Be Dead: Violence Against Female Protagonists in Romantic Vampire Fiction” over at Speculatve Chic, as well as my thoughts on vampires and white privilege. Sexy yes, but monsters nonetheless.
Edward Cullen is a monster. This may come as a shock to some of you. Or, maybe not. Some of you automatically assign him to that category because he is a vampire. Vampires are monsters. But some of you many not think of vampires that way because of the way they have been portrayed in popular fiction, and particularly in paranormal romance. Traditionally, and by tradition I mean folklore and myths, vampires were undead creatures who rose from the grave to feast on the living and thereby create more of their kind. They infect the living with their disease of undeath and cause villagers to panic and perform strange rituals when burying their dead. Vampires or vampire-like creatures appear in some guise or manifestation in almost every culture worldwide. So, if you think vampires are something Anne Rice invented in the mid-70s, you’re off by a couple thousand years.
Speaking of Anne Rice, her vampires were monstrous at times, but they were still attractive, well-dressed, wealthy and powerful. They led interesting lives, fell in love, felt remorse and loneliness, befriended humans, and even became rockstars. But she still made a point of making them visibly different from humans and capable of unspeakable acts of violence and murder. While there were guidelines in place to limit exposure to humans, vampires were still expected to drink blood and kill humans at least occasionally. Vampires are pretty and interesting, but don’t get too close if you value your life.
I’m not sure why, but many folks who haven’t read the Twilight Saga assume that because the vampires sparkle in sunlight they are somehow less dangerous than other monsters. In fact, I would argue that many people don’t even think about the vampires in the Twilight Saga as being monsters at all. To be fair, some of the doubt around Edward Cullen’s monstrousness comes from how Stephenie Meyer wrote him in the narrative and the way he is portrayed on film. Just because he refrains from drinking human blood and tries not to kill people doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to do what comes naturally to him. In fact, Edward makes it clear that he is dangerous and could easily slip back into his natural vampire habits if given the right amount of temptation. Edward and his family choose not to feed on humans. And, much like a freshman who decides to become vegetarian at college, they must fight the urge to take a bite of turkey or ham when they come home for Thanksgiving. Every day is Thanksgiving for a vampire and humans are the buffet.
His human love interest, Bella Swan, could be played by a lemming in a wig given how desperate she is to die in the arms of a vampire. Technically, Twilight is a love story. But it is the story of an unhealthy love, in which a teenage girl falls in love with a literal monster and continually puts her own life at risk in order to maintain their relationship.
Stephenie Meyer has this to say in the dedication of Midnight Sun, which is an alternate perspective on the Twilight Saga told from Edward’s POV:
This book is dedicated to all the readers who have been such a happy part of my life for the last fifteen years. When we first met, many of you were young teenagers with bright beautiful eyes full of dreams for the future. I hope that in the years that have passed you’ve all found your dreams and that the reality of them was even better than you’d hoped.
Given the fact that Meyer’s narrative romanticizes the idea of willingly dying in order to be with the one you love, and that stalking is okay as long as you really care about the person, and the best way to live your life is to live in denial of your true nature, then I hope her young impressionable readers were able to find healthy relationships that didn’t put their lives at risk out of a sense of loyalty to a handsome partner with extremely controlling behaviors.
One of my good friends recently used my blog series in her classroom, and after several of the young women read the articles, they were shocked to realize that they didn’t actually think of vampires as being monsters. They viewed them as they had been written by some of their favorite authors: ideal partners. When my friend shared that with me, my emotions were all over the place. First, I felt a sense of validation because I realized that what I had written wasn’t just me ranting into the void. And second, I almost hated to be right. What I had proposed in those blog posts was that there was a certain level of danger in normalizing romantic relationships with monsters, but vampires specifically, because they are essentially serial killers. In Meyer’s Twilight Saga and Deborah Harkness’ Discovery of Witches series, vampires are portrayed as being the ideal sexual and life partners, to the extent that they also normalize violence against female protagonists and make excuses for abusive and predatory behavior.
Again, just to be clear, I am fascinated by vampires and I find them sexually appealing in many ways. However, as an adult woman who has been in several abusive relationships and have learned from those mistakes after finding the courage to walk away, it deeply concerns me that none of the female protagonists walk away from these abusive relationships. Even when the vampire warns the protagonist about the dangers of being close to them, this somehow encourages the protagonist to go against all of her instincts telling her she should be afraid and to run, and instead, insist on becoming that monster’s main squeeze.
So, when I read Midnight Sun, I was confused by the fact that I actually began to like Edward. And then, it dawned me; I liked him because he was honest about being a monster. His perspective is wonderfully unsettling. When we finally get to see what is going on inside Edward’s head, we get a real horror story. Think about all the novels you’ve read that are told from the POV of a serial killer. Some of the most horrific stuff you’ve read, right? Okay, now put an extremely handsome face on that serial killer and have him fall in love with one of his potential victims. By his own admission, humans are drawn to him because of his physical attractiveness, and since he is able to hear the thoughts of the people around him, he is disgusted by how often women and some men lust after him. Mainly because he thinks they are stupid for not being afraid. He feels relief whenever people feel uncomfortable around him, especially when he wants to control them. Edward is quite manipulative and makes use of his attractiveness as tool to essentially do as he pleases and come and go as he likes while attending Forks High School.
One of the most iconic scenes in the Twilight novel and movie, is when Bella has to share a lab table with Edward in their biology classroom. He spends most of the class covering his mouth and nose, not breathing, giving her dirty looks, and staring at her like she has a second head. When that scene is told from Bella’s POV, we get a lot of internal dialogue about the fact that she thinks Edward hates her on sight and is confused by what she could have possibly done to earn his hatred. Well, she wasn’t entirely wrong about his first impression of her. We learn that Edward’s weird reaction is due to the fact that Bella smells like the most delicious thing he’s ever wanted to eat. Even after Edward eventually tells Bella that his initial attraction to her was because of how delicious she smelled, she writes off his craving for her blood as a character flaw, and convinces herself that he would never really hurt her.
If she could have heard what was going on inside Edward’s head during that class period, she might not have been so quick to think about forming a lasting bond with him. And, it is this interal dialogue he has during biology class that made me fall madly in love with this handsome predator. In the first chapter of Midnight Sun, Meyer allows us to peer behind the curtain and witness Edward Cullen’s thought process the first time he meets Bella Swan. It is terrifying, and I love it.
I desperately want to share the entire scene with you word for word, but then I’d be robbing you of the opportunity to read the internal thoughts of a vampire –a monster– in the throes of bloodlust. I will however share some of my favorite lines with you, and you can judge for yourself if Edward Cullen is a monster or not:
I knew what had to happen now. The girl would have to come sit beside me, and I would have to kill her.
The innocent bystanders in this classroom, eighteen other children and one man, could not be allowed to leave, having seen what they would soon see.
I flinched at the thought of what I must do. Even at my very worst, I had never committed this kind of atrocity. I had never killed innocents. And now I planned to kill twenty of them at once. (p. 11-12)
Does that sound like the beginnings of a romantic relationship to you? It shouldn’t because during the first encounter Edward has with the girl who will eventually become his wife, he has a murder fantasy about her, calculating step-by-step how he would need to kill everyone else in the room first so he would be able to savor killing her and drinking her blood.
Let’s examine this scene again, but with Edward’s thoughts in mind.
I’d like to point out that the title of this video clip, that was most likley uploaded to YouTube by a fan of the series, implies that they think this is a romantic first meeting of people who are obviously destined to be soul mates and live happily ever after. As I’ve mentioned before in other posts, in order to have a happily ever after with a vampire, they will eventually have to murder you. Perhaps it will be the sexiest murder ever, but you will nevertheless be dead in some fashion or other.
If you’re a weirdo like me, and if you decide to read the novel, you will probably share my hope that Edward will somehow invert the narrative and live out his fantasy, embracing the true monster he really is. Each time he admitted his desire to kill and how easy it is for him to literally crush the humans around him, I liked him more. As much as I love paranormal romance featuring sexy vampires who are smoking hot and excellent lovers, it was just as thrilling to see the deviant inner workings of a monster with the face of a young man who would easily be at home on the covers of teen heartthrob magazines.
Edward Cullen is so monstrous at times in this retelling of the “love story” between himself and Bella, that I can almost forgive him for sparkling in the sun.
Back in March, when we first went into quarantine and I wasn’t sleeping and my anxiety put me on an all junkfood diet, I allowed myself to be pulled into a very deep rabbit hole. By which I mean, I started watching Shonda Rhimes’ hit TV show, Scandal (2012-2018). I had just finished watching all five seasons of How to Get Away with Murder (HTGAWM) that were available on Netflix (you can now watch all six seasons), so I was excited to watch another Rhimes show with a woman of color protagonist in a position of power. I mean, there aren’t exactly a ton of those to choose from, so I decided to invest some downtime during quarantine to what I thought would be mind candy. To be fair, both shows provide equal measures of suspense, stimulating romantic intrigue, and lots of violence and murder. I was hooked after watching the first episode of HTGAWM, but I gotta be honest, even though I enjoyed watching the first few episodes of Scandal, it didn’t really get interesting for me until Jake Ballard showed up and became my new TV boyfriend. Buckle up, this is a long post.
Warning: Spoilers, Sweetie
Jake shows up in S2: Ep. 14: “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” and meets Olivia Pope at a coffee shop in a seemingly random situation, in which both of them lie to each other about what they do for a living. His timing couldn’t be better, since Olivia has been on a relationship break from her main squeeze, President Fitzgerald Grant. There was a spark of hope for me that Jake would become enough of a love interest for Olivia that she would stop seeing Fitz, but let’s face it, you’d need a goddamned firehouse to separate those two. No matter how many times each of them say things are over between them, we all know better.
Things start to get interesting in the next episode when Olivia goes to the Pentagon to talk to Jake Ballard while investigating the murder of a young woman who slept with important men in DC to gain information that she sold to the press. Her friend, David Rosen, is being accused of killing her. Turns out, Captain Jake Ballard works in military intelligence. While Olivia questions him as if he is guilty of something, Jake turns on the charm and asks her out two times during her visit. They both have professions that prevent them from sharing certain details about what they know or don’t know. While he’s concerned about her questions, you also get the sense that he sees her as a much needed challenge.
While making plans for a date with Olivia over the phone, we learn that Captain Jake Ballard is full of secrets, because he has surveillance cameras in Olivia’s apartment and is watching her from the comfort of his living room on an enormous flat screen TV. This super shady behavior puts him in the villain category. However, his directness, take-charge attitude, flirtatiousness, and dark sense of humor make him very sexy. I mean, beyond his tall, dark and handsome appearance.
Their first date doesn’t go as well as Jake planned, because first, Olivia is late, second, he hates the restaurant she chose, and refers to it as “a place where dates go to die.” Third, Olivia refers to their date as a meeting, which he corrects her about, and fourth, she leaves before the end of the date when she gets a call from her team of super spooky problem solvers.
Jake’s next big secret is that he’s friends with Fitz. Old friends. They were in the navy together. In fact, Fitz hired Jake to watch/stalk Olivia, but I get the sense that Fitz doesn’t know that Jake is also spending time with her in person. And, Fitz hasn’t told Jake that his relationship with Olivia has essentially been business up front, party in the…well, you get the idea.
Jake continues to watch Olivia, and his interest quickly becomes more than the assignment Fitz gave him. To say that Jake becomes obsessed with Olivia would be an understatement. And, much like the handsome and charming stalker/serial killer, Joe Goldberg, in Netflix’s You, Jake’s inappropriate behavior started plucking at my heart strings. Don’t judge me. Stalker or not, Jake Ballard is a super sexy man with a high profile job in the government. Each detail we learn about him makes him more and more appealing. At least, up to a point.
There’s a scene in which he’s watching Olivia while she’s crying in her bedroom. While watching her, he’s concerned about her well being, and calls her to ask her out on a second date. Which she turns down, most likely due to her feelings for Fitz after their latest encounter. Olivia is in her bathrobe sitting on the edge of her bed. After she hangs up with Jake, she goes to her closet and starts getting dressed. Jake has the opportunity to watch her undress, but turns off his TV instead. Placing him in the not-so-sure category. I mean, he is watching her without her consent as a favor to her emotionally unstable lover, but he sets boundaries based on the feelings he’s developing for her.
Is Jake a villain? It’s too soon to decide. Should Olivia has sex with him? Absolutely.
Olivia keeps making plans and then canceling on Jake. However, it is clear that his interest in her is strong enough that he is willing to be patient. Also, Fitz suspects that Olivia is seeing someone new, because he witnesses her laughing while on the phone with Jake. When Jake checks in with the President, Fitz demands to know who Olivia is dating, which puts Jake in an awkward position. Not only has Fitz essentially confessed to his relationships with Olivia, but Jake is the guy Olivia is technically dating. So, he lies to Fitz, and tells him she isn’t dating anyone. Which isn’t a complete lie, given the fact that Jake’s attempts to date Olivia keep failing.
Slowly, Jake earns Olivia’s trust, which is complicated by the fact that we still don’t know if we can trust Jake. But, he also allows himself to trust her. After they work together to bring American hostages home safely, their professional relationship begins, opening the door for their personal relationship as well. After Olivia stands him up for the third or fourth time, Jake shows up at her apartment and asks her to take a chance on him. She tells him she isn’t ready to date, because she can’t stop thinking about another man (Fitz). He tells her to close her eyes, and then kisses her. After kissing her, he leaves, which is brilliant because now, she’ll be thinking about him, too.
If you think things are complicated now, oh Honey, you haven’t seen anything yet. The next complication is that Jake is having secret meetings with a shadowy character who asked him to murder the Director of the CIA and make it look like a suicide. Then, when Jake realizes that Olivia is looking into the possible murder of the CIA director, the shadowy character tells Jake to “take care of Olivia Pope.” We can only assume that he wants Jake to kill her. Soon after, Jake and Olivia have sex for the first time. Confused? You should be.
That same night, while Jake is asleep, Olivia gets out of bed to get a glass of water. She looks around his place and picks up the remote control to his TV, which is when she discovers that he’s been spying on her. Obviously, she freaks out and tries to run. Jake tells her it isn’t what she thinks. They fight and he tackles her. She hits her head hard enough to get a concussion and Jake takes her to the hospital. Before she passes out, he explains that he is watching her to keep her safe, and about that time, a man in a black balaclava enters Olivia’s apartment, which they can see on Jake’s TV. So, I guess it’s a good thing he’s been spying on her, right? Maybe, but stalking is still a crime and is often a sign of more terrible things to come. It’s a red flag and not the ideal way to begin a relationship. Stalking is a trope in horror/paranormal romance for a reason. It is the behavior of monsters, or at the very least, dangerous men.
When she wakes up in the hospital, Jake is there and feeds her a story about being attacked at her apartment and that he saved her. He asks her to stick to that story if anyone asks. Moments later, the President shows up. That’s right, the President is so high on his white privilege that he sees nothing wrong with visiting his mistress in the hospital and putting a secret service detail outside her room to keep her safe.
This is when Olivia learns that Jake not only knows him, but has been watching her at Fitz’s request. Talk about awkward. So, not one, but both men she is romantically involved with have been lying to her. Together. And…too each other. Yeah, like I said, it’s complicated. And now, uncomfortably weird, because Jake sees Fitz embracing Olivia while she’s in her hospital bed, and realizes that Fitz is the man Olivia is pining for. Fitz apologizes to Olivia for hurting her, but she refuses to accept his apology and tells him to leave her alone. He leaves, but tells Jake to keep watching her. And suddenly, Jake realizes he’s the other man.
Before Olivia leaves the hospital, Fitz tries to get Olivia back. Again. He “demands a second chance,” and in a moment of weakness, she kisses him. But, sticks to her guns and refuses to take him back. At this point, I got excited. Because I started to believe that Jake had a real chance with Olivia. The shadowy figure asks Jake to deal with Olivia again, and Jake asks to have someone else assigned, because he feels there’s a conflict of interest. When the shadowy character asks if he means because of his relationship with the President, Jake lies and says yes. But we know it’s because of his feelings for Olivia. But Jake is reminded that he doesn’t have any choice in the matter and we begin to understand that Jake isn’t just in military intelligence, he truly is a spy. And, as it turns out, he works for a secret agency within the government that the government doesn’t even know about.
So, not only is Jake’s life complicated by the fact that he’s falling in love with the woman he’s supposed to he stalking for his friend, and killing for his boss, but now that Olivia knows that Jake has been spying on her, she puts her walls back in place to protect her feelings again. Despite the fact that Olivia keeps pushing Jake away by venting her anger at him, he refuses to give up on her. Which is good, because when Olivia’s life is in danger, Jake repeatedly saves her at the risk of losing his on life.
The second time he saves her life, Olivia learns that 1) Jake is part of B613, the secret agency she knows about because one of her team members used to work for them, and 2) Jake explains that the reason someone is trying to kill her is because she is dating the President. At this point, Olivia’s perception of Jake changes because she knows he is risking his life to keep her safe.
After saving her life this time, Jake comes clean with Olivia and tells her that sleeping with her was his mission (B613), and says goodbye to her. Before he leaves, she tells him to close his eyes, and kisses him the same way he did to her when she was trying to forget Fitz. By telling her the truth, he believes that his chances with her have ended, but in reality, he is now more appealing to Olivia because she knows he cares about her. Concerned about Olivia’s process of decision making? You should be.
Jake disobeyed a direct order from Command, killed another B613 agent, and now his life is in danger unless he figures out a way to make up for this huge mistake or run. Running really isn’t an option. Oh, and I almost forgot. While Jake was stalking Olivia, he had surveillance cameras in his own apartment and captured the two of them having sex in pretty much every room of his apartment. Unfortunately, someone else sees the video and uses it against Olivia. Well, tries to anyway, because Fitz has a worse secret and he forgives Olivia for sleeping with Jake. Fitz keeps up the fantasy of divorcing his wife and marrying Olivia to make her his First Lady. But, Olivia breaks things off with Fitz.
Meanwhile, Jake ends up in the hole — an extreme version of solitary confinement for B613 agents who misbehave. Simultaneously, someone leaked to the press that Olivia is the President’s mistress. And, we discover that the shadowy character who was commanding Jake to kill Olivia, is in fact, Olivia’s father. No shit. For real.
Her father makes arrangements for her to board a plane and leave the country so that she can disappear. But after having a conversation with the Chief of Staff, she decides to stay. Which further enrages her father, who is disappointed in her for aspiring to only become a first lady, a role he believes to be beneath her. He wants more for her, and thinks she should want more for herself. He’s not 100% wrong.
As we learn more about Olivia’s father, Eli Pope/Rowan/Command, it becomes clear that he wields more power than most high-ranking officials in government. He’s also scary as hell. The most unsettling thing is that he is able to control Olivia by holding whether Jake lives or dies over her head. While Jake is gone, Olivia visits the morgue each time someone matching his description shows up, because she has no way of knowing what has really happened to him. Olivia finally gets her father to release Jake and he doesn’t look so good when he’s dropped off at Olivia’s apartment.
After Jake has a chance to heal for a few days, Olivia decides to kick him out of her apartment. She does so, because she doesn’t want to be caught up in whatever her father is involved in, and she still isn’t 100% sure that Jake hasn’t been sent to continue spying on her even though he emphatically says otherwise.
So, rather than staying under the radar, Jake decides to team up with another B613 spy, Olivia’s employee, Huck, to try to take down Olivia’s father. Which, is really dangerous for everyone involved. Did I mention that we’re only in season 3 at this point? Jake is doing his best to maintain distance, or at least respect Olivia’s boundaries, but it is clear he still has strong feelings for her. So, I got really excited (again) when Olivia invited him to be her date to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
So, at the very least, they’re friends at this point, right? Except that Jake isn’t stupid and understands Olivia only invited him so that she could see Fitz at the event. He makes it clear that his feelings are hurt and rather than the two of them going back to one of their apartments at the end of the night, Jake simply tells her the evening is over and that he’s upset about how she has treated him.
I’m not going to lie. Each time Jake shows up to save, protect, or comfort Olivia, I would say out loud, “Olivia, you need to forget about Fitz and make Jake your main squeeze.” Sadly, she didn’t listen. I mean, she continues to see both of them, which is admirable on her part, because they are both smoking hot in my opinion, but clearly, Jake is the better option. At least, he is until he gets pushed away too many times. But, we’re not there yet.
At this point in the narrative, Jake has discovered that when Fitz was in the Navy, he shot down a commercial flight that Olivia’s mother was on. It’s a complicated series of events that I won’t delve into too deeply, but essentially Olivia believes that her father is responsible for her mother’s death, and the man she loves shot down the plane. Again, she doesn’t know who to trust. Her heart is broken. But, because Jake is one of the few people trying to help her, I assumed that he would become the best option for Olivia.
One of my favorite lines in the series, is Olivia’s response to Fitz when he says he loves her after she finds out that he shot down the plane her mother died on. When he says, “I love you,” she says, “so what?” That is an excellent response to a man who has hurt you over and over and over. Especially when he tells you to stay away from his rival. Would you stay away from this man?
Yeah, me neither.
But, things become increasingly complicated when Jake takes Olivia’s father’s position as the head of B613. He becomes Command with the help of Fitz. Before he takes the position, he goes to see Olivia. He kisses her, and tells her, “Whatever happens next, I wanna make sure you know that I loved you.” Why does he say goodbye? Because he knows that as Command, he will be expected to do terrible things that she might not forgive him for in the future. Although, telling someone you love them before saying goodbye is a smidge manipulative.
All right. It’s a bit more complex than that, but at this point in the series, Jake really is the best boyfriend option for Olivia. In fact, in order for Olivia to maintain the ruse that she is not Fitz’s mistress, she asks Jake to be her fake boyfriend. That’s right. This sexy hunk who could have any woman he wanted, chooses to be second best in Olivia’s life because he is in love with her. Does this handsome devil really agree to be Olivia’s “beard” (his word, by the way) to maintain the illusion that she isn’t the President’s mistress? Sure he does.
As terrible as it sounds, Jake’s role as Olivia’s beard allows him to be his wonderfully sarcastic self, while brushing up on his passive aggressive skills. To say that he’s frustrated is an understatement. I mean, he’s maintaining the pretense of being Olivia’s boyfriend, but without the benefits. After he leaves his super goddamned important job early because she needs to talk to him about something, he finally snaps and says:
“Stock. Your. Damn. Fridge. If I’m going to be your fake boyfriend all day, I’m going to come home at the end of it and drink a beer and eat real food. Wine is not beer and popcorn is not food.”
After which, he begins undressing and Olivia asks him what he’s doing. He tells her he’s going to take a shower and go to bed after having pretend sex with her.
Of course, this is all happening while he is given the highest level clearance in the government with access to all the skeletons in everybody’s closets. Jake is on the path to becoming an extremely powerful man. The problem with that is, power corrupts. And, in his new role as Command, he’s finding it very hard to be all things to all people. Not only is he responsible for protecting the Republic, while being Olivia’s beard and maintaining enough distance from her at the same time so the President doesn’t get jealous, he also has to deal with the ridiculously inappropriate demands Olivia sets for him as she tries to take down her father.
The fact that Jake hasn’t gone batshit crazy yet is a miracle. But, he’s a tough guy and can take a lot of punishment. Which is good, because a lot more is coming his way. Did I mention that we’re still in season 3? As we learn more about Jake through his role in B613, we soon discover that he is one of the nicest serial killers you could ever hope for in a fake boyfriend.
All of the terrible things Jake has to do in his secret serial killer role (I mean, I guess since he gets paid that makes himan assassin) begin weighing on him. Just because he does terrible things doesn’t necessarily make him a terrible person. Right? In fact, he keeps asking Olivia to save him.
At the end of S3, Olivia finally comes to her senses and runs away with Jake. And they stand in the sun together. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried like a baby because I was so happy that they were finally going to be together. She FINALLY chose Jake. They spend two months standing in the sun together. Apparently, standing in the sun means having sex on the beach with a smoking hot man who worships the ground you walk on.
And then, in S4: Ep. 1, Olivia decides to return to Washington, D.C. after finding out that one of her team, Harrison, was found murdered, despite the fact that she and Jake were happy on the island. Alone. Together. When they get back to the city, Jake tells her that they will only be in town for a few days. She seems non-committal when she agrees. Jake’s fears are starting to come true. He knows that if Olivia becomes reconnected to the life she left behind, it will be impossible to get her to leave again. But more specifically, he knows that if she sees Fitz she will choose the President over him.
Olivia is in denial about the fact that being back in D.C. will jeopardize the happiness they shared on the island. An island located somewhere off the coast of Zanzibar, that doesn’t exist on any maps. You know, a deserted island away from all their troubles. An island where she gets to spend every day with a smoking hot sex machine. Fortunately, Jake is clear-headed enough to help her see the reality of their situation.
Olivia is back for less than a day and already has a new case. She slips right back into her routine like she never left. She plans Harrison’s funeral and intends to go back to the island, but…as it turns out, feeling important is more valuable to Olivia than running away with a man who could easily be the love of her life.
So, instead of getting on a plane and heading back to the island with Jake, she decides to stay and pick up where she left off. And, as soon as she sees Fitz, you know it’s game on for them and their ridiculously dysfunctional relationship. Jake tells Olivia that he got a hotel suite close to her apartment for booty calls. When she questions his statement, he explains that since they are back in D.C. he also has business to take care of, and he doesn’t have time to live in her apartment and wait around to “service her.” She has the nerve to take offense. Again, Jake is the only one in touch with reality.
But, she hasn’t completely lost her mind. She still has enough sense to make a booty call to Jake’s hotel room. And bonus, she shows up wearing her coat, boots and nothing else.
Maybe they aren’t standing in the sun anymore, but they still seem to be happy. At least for the moment. The longer they stay in the shadow of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, their chances of riding off into the sunset together get smaller and smaller. But it doesn’t look like Olivia is going to stop riding Jake any time soon.
Despite the fact that Olivia and Jake are maintaining a sexual relationship, he keeps making the distinction that he is not her boyfriend. Not because he doesn’t want to be, but because she has never officially recognized him as her boyfriend even though they spent two months alone on a tropical island banging each other’s brains out.
I mean, I understand that it isn’t always necessary to define roles in a sexual relationship between consenting adults. However, the only reason Olivia refuses to define her relationship with Jake is because she’s hoping for something, or rather someone better. And, he knows that (and who she wants instead). So, he keeps making it clear that she is the one who defined those boundaries within their relationship and refuses to pretend to be her fake boyfriend anymore. He deserves better. Of course, he’s still interested in having sex with her on the regular though.
I’d clear my whole schedule to find out what that thing might be. I mean, she knows what that thing is, obviously enjoys it, and yet they are sleeping in separate beds most evenings. If a man as fucking spectacular as Jake Ballard wanted my undivided attention, not only would I clear my schedule for him to do that thing nightly, but I’d find time first thing in the morning, plan a few nooners during the week, and I don’t know, the moment he walked in the door, whatever time that might be.
Olivia doesn’t share my point of view and is more than happy to piss away really good sex with a smoking hot man who is willing to call her on her bullshit. Which is exactly what she needs. He genuinely loves her. Would do almost anything she asked. Except, be her pretend boyfriend. He needs her to acknowledge her feelings for him. He needs her to choose him first. But he also doesn’t ever expect her to choose him. And yet, he continues to protect her. Even though that means putting his own life at risk.
I know I’ve been painting a rosy picture of Jake, but the more we learn about him, the more that comes into question. I mean, he is a Black Ops spy. We know he’s killed people, but at this point, we have no idea how many people. Admittedly, if my fake boyfriend killed people for a living, I might have some misgivings about making him my real boyfriend.
Who am I kidding? He looks amazing when he’s killing people.
I mean, he even looks good when he’s digging an unmarked grave to hide the bodies.
At the beginning of S4, Jake keeps trying to get people to listen to him about what is happening around them now that Olivia’s father is Command again. He keeps trying to tell Olivia that her father has put a hit out on him, and he tries to tell Fitz that Rowan is responsible for assassinating his son. But no one has time to listen to Jake, and then all of a sudden Jake is accused of killing the President’s son. And, since Fitz is already jealous of Jake for running away with Olivia, he can’t wait to make Jake’s life a living hell.
And, when Olivia doesn’t hear from Jake, she assumes that he’s avoiding her. Which is crazy given the fact that he wants to spend all of his time with her if she would allow it. Oh, and it would be great if she publicly recognized him as her ACTUAL boyfriend. It takes her a while to figure out something is really wrong.
The good news is that Jake’s training has prepared him to deal with interrogation and extreme methods of torture. So Fitz’s efforts to get Jake to admit that he killed his son aren’t going well. In fact, Jake manages to push all of Fitz’s buttons instead.
Fitz allows his jealousy to cloud his judgement and refuses to hear the truth about who really killed his son. Then Jake makes the mistake of saying the thing that no one else is able to say out loud–he tells Fitz that Olivia loves both of them. Which makes them both good guys, because she wouldn’t love them if they weren’t wearing white hats. Even though it’s obvious that Olivia loves both men, Jake is the only one who can say it out loud without having icky feelings about it.
Everyone is out to get Jake and Olivia’s father continues to lie to and manipulate her so that she believes that Jake actually killed the President’s son. So, not only does the President not believe him, but Olivia begins to question the facts. And, after Jake gives up on the notion of proving his innocence, he tries to comfort Olivia even though he knows he will never be her first choice.
Olivia figures out a way to prove that Jake didn’t kill Fitz’s son. But, instead of releasing Jake right away he is kept at the Pentagon so that Olivia can prove that her father was behind the assassination. Jake uses this opportunity to take additional digs at Fitz. He especially likes to remind Fitz that Olivia chose to run away with him and that they are still seeing each other.
Despite Jake’s posturing, he still doesn’t believe that Olivia cares about him as much as he cares about her, and after Fitz leaves the room, Jake tells her he knows that she’d rather be standing in the sun with Fitz. She gets upset that he keeps talking about himself as if she doesn’t care about him.
When Jake is finally released, things get more complicated as he attempts to find and potentially kill Olivia’s father. He’s a bit stressed, so when he arrives at Olivia’s, he’s surprised to see how happy and carefree she’s acting. She has food, beer for Jake, wine for her, and there is music playing. Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing” to be exact. And, she’s dancing. He tries to tell her about the danger they need to be concerned about, at least the one he’s aware of, and she refuses to talk about anything serious.
Just to keep things interesting, Olivia is kidnapped by mercenaries that same night, leaving Jake with the most terrifying case of blue balls in history. He’s about to get kinky with his sorta kinda girlfriend. He takes off his clothes, prepares to make her fantasy come true, and then she disappears. Because he’s a highly trained spy, he jumps into action and begins looking for her immediately. But the men who took her are professionals and no one can track her down.
She’s gone for weeks, put up for auction to the highest bidder on the Dark Web, and the President is forced to go to war by the Vice President in order to get Olivia back. Yeah, the Vice President had the President’s mistress kidnapped to make him go to war. This show is not boring. A little over-the-top at times, but never boring.
Neither Jake or Fitz are able to rescue Olivia. An old friend who has connections with the Russian mob through Interpol is able to make the highest bid and rescue her. When she finally gets back to D.C., and after she is interviewed by the FBI to determine if she let any government secrets leak to her kidnappers, Jake and her team take her home and make sure she’s okay. Jake offers to spend the night, but Olivia declines, confusing Jake. Then, Fitz arrives on Jake’s heels, and Olivia throws him out after telling him that he wasn’t the one who rescued her.
Olivia is clearly suffering from PTSD, but she isn’t seeking help. She jumps back into her work and pretends that everything is fine, but when she isn’t working, she’s hiding in her apartment with a gun. She avoids Jake and Fitz, but at least she takes Jake’s calls when he checks on her.
I guess because neither of them are currently sleeping with Olivia, Jake and Fitz slip back into business as usual, and Jake continues his part-time job of stalking Olivia so he can keep tabs on her for Fitz. Confused? Don’t be. Olivia has always been an assignment for Jake, whether he’s watching her for Fitz or her father, his job is to stalk her and report back to whomever is paying him to watch her. The problem is, Jake can’t separate his job duties from his attraction to Olivia. Even though doing the job you love is good advice, in this case, maybe not so much. If your job is to stalk someone, you should try not to fall in love with them. To be fair though, that is an obvious danger of voyeurism.
B613 is in danger of being exposed by former agents and the District Attorney. Jake has warned them to stop because they are all in danger of being murdered. Jake bugs David’s office and finds out that he is planning to trap Jake into testifying, but Jake has other plans that involve killing off agents that are willing to testify against him.
Backed into a corner, we begin to see Jake’s true colors and his mercenary is showing. Olivia has abandoned him for Fitz. Well, actually, she’s been sleeping with another guy who just happens to be a B613 agent, too. Surprise! But we don’t know that yet.
Jake’s in danger or being exposed as a Black Ops spy who has killed a lot of people. No, really. A lot. He is finally pushed to what appears to be his limit, and takes up residence in the apartment across the hall from Olivia without her knowledge. Olivia’s team decides to kill Jake and when they come looking for him, he threatens to kill Olivia if they don’t leave him alone. Would he kill Olivia? Maybe. But it seems unlikely since he’s still in love with her.
Because they can’t guarantee Olivia’s safety, and honestly, because they are a little terrified of Jake, they back off and give up on exposing B613. Jake is now officially a villain. And, as we all know, any villain of note should have an interesting, and often heartbreaking backstory. Jake has that in spades.
Is he really a villain? Not yet. At best, he’s an intriguing antihero who is doing his damnedest to be the hero. And, if he’s really lucky, he’ll win the heart of the woman he loves. In fact, he agrees to testify and bring B613 down with Olivia and her team. Once again, Jake risks his own safety to wear a white hat and stand in the sun with Olivia.
And then, Olivia’s father reappears and begins threatening everyone Olivia cares about unless she puts a stop to exposing B613. Eli Pope is an actual villain, and he’s been grooming Olivia to become just like him some day. And, they both use Jake to do their dirty work. Jake is loyal to a fault. He has been a gun for hire, a convenient boyfriend, and a champion for the causes Olivia insists on upholding no matter how insanely dangerous. Even when he has seriously important work to do, he always seems to be on call whenever Olivia needs him. How long do you think someone can do that without receiving the love and respect they deserve? My guess is not long. Especially when you consistantly give the person you love opportunities to step up and treat you better.
Jake has several part-time jobs, and one of them is wooing a woman who should have chosen him already. As the date of the trial to expose B613 gets closer, Jake stops by Olivia’s office to remind her that he’s got her back, and if she’s scared or needs someone to talk to, his strong, broad shoulders are available for her to cry on. He doesn’t make any sexual innuendos. He doesn’t remind her of how badly she’s treated him. He simply tells her he’s there for her if she needs him. And she seems to be adamantly opposed to accepting his help.
This man is hopelessly in love.
And what does he get for his trouble? He gets mortally wounded by the guy who’s been banging Olivia and almost dies after being stabbed many, many times.
As you might imagine, I had a lot of feelings about this. When the character you care about the most is in danger of dying, and if you’re anything like me and live vicariously through fictional characters, it’s going to hit you pretty hard. When Olivia’s team find him the next morning barely hanging on to life, I was a mess. It takes a very long time to get Jake the medical attention he needs, and because there’s a price on his head, they can’t take him to the hospital. They have to rely on a back-alley Russian doctor who most likely makes a living attending to bullet and stab wounds for the criminal underworld.
So, not only is Jake in danger of dying because of his many, many stab wounds, but then the person who tried to kill him insinuates himself into the situation enabling him to try to kill Jake again. Let’s just say that it’s an exciting episode. Olivia obviously cares about Jake, because she’s terrified of him dying. But her feelings for him are still unclear. She loves him, but she isn’t in love with him. It takes him almost dying for her to admit that she never should have left the island. Well, no duh.
After figuring out that the guy she’s been banging is actually a B613 agent and working for her father, Olivia has her team torture him for information while Jake recuperates in her bed. He has wanted to be back in her bed for a while, but this isn’t what he had in mind.
But hey, he’s still alive.
Jake’s a smart guy. He figures out that Olivia has the B613 agent, Russell, in the apartment across the hall and explains to her that it doesn’t matter how much she tortures him, he won’t talk. Jake tells her he won’t talk because Russell is like him. She gets defensive and says that Jake is nothing like Russell. He says that they were both trained to get close to her, and that they both have a PhD in Olivia Pope, but there’s one difference between Russell and Jake.
He then goes on to say that Command would consider his feelings for her a defect. When he shares with her that essentially she is his greatest weakness, she opens up and finally talks to him about what happened to her when she was kidnapped. Something she hasn’t talked to anyone else about. Instead of using this connection as a way to get closer to Jake, she lets him know that she isn’t going to stop trying to get information out of Russell because she wants to get her father.
Jake’s curiosity gets the better of him and he goes across the hall to meet Russell, have a beer and compare stories about what it is like to be trained by Rowan, Olivia’s father. They bond over the fact that they are both unique among B613 agents. And, Jake explains to Russell Olivia’s role in Rowan’s weird game of control. Proving that Jake definitely has a PhD in Olivia. No one knows her better. Which would be more romantic if he wasn’t her stalker and a serial murderer. And yet, I still want him to have a happily ever after with Olivia.
Jake testifies before the grand jury about B613. And minutes later, all of the jurors are brutally murdered. Rowan/Eli Pope blackmailed the First Lady who is also a senator into giving him the list of names so that he can kill them. So, everyone who listened to Jake’s testimony is dead except Jake and the District Attorney.
Jake once again offers Olivia the option to run away and she turns him down because she’d rather keep trying to take her father down which makes everyone around her potential victims. So, when Olivia decides to involve the CIA, shit gets real. She and Jake are thrown into prison, because the head of the CIA is too afraid to arrest Rowan. How many times is Jake going to take a bullet for Olivia — literally and figuratively?
At the end of S4, Jake tells Olivia his mission is over. B613 no longer exists. He has delivered her home safely. Once again, he tells her that he is in love with her, but she’s in love with Fitz. He walks away and she is confused. She thinks of their time on the island. But instead of running after him and telling him that she loves him, too. She lets him walk away and goes to the White House to see Fitz that night.
To say the least, I was disappointed. I mean, I wouldn’t kick Fitz out of bed for eating crackers, but Jake Ballard is far more interesting. And WAY more murdery without being a vampire, werewolf, or the Devil himself. In fact, Jake Ballard is the first non-supernatural character I’ve been interested in to this degree in a long time. Come to think of it, the last human I obsessed over was also a murdery secret agent.
At the beginning of S5, Olivia is outed as the President’s mistress and decides to run instead of dealing with the fallout. She takes a case and dives into work rather than dealing with reality. Who comes to help her? Why, Jake Ballard, of course. Although he told her his mission was over, he can’t seem to stay away from Olivia. He wants to help her and always wants to come to her rescue in the hopes that she will see him as a hero and accept him as her main squeeze.
While Olivia is working a case/running away from her life, she is emotionally distraught over her relationship with Fitz, but asks Jake to spoon her on the filthy motel room bed they share. In fact, when Jake returns from his beer run, he climbs onto the bed next to Olivia as if it is the most normal thing in the world, and she doesn’t question it. They are lying together like a couple. A couple who has faced a lot of obstacles and trauma, but are still there for each other. Olivia got Jake out of prison. And Jake runs to Olivia’s side when she’s in trouble. Is it just me, or should they run off to Vegas and get hitched? I mean, Jake is Olivia’s lover and in many ways, her best friend. But she doesn’t treat him as well as she should. Without hesitation, Jake comforts her and they spend the night together with him holding her. He doesn’t think twice about doing it. Because, as he’s said to her time and again, he loves her.
With the case solved, Jake returns Olivia to her apartment in D.C. and asks if she’s going to be alright. She says yes and gets out of the car into a throng of reporters asking if she is the President’s mistress. She turns to the camera, and says yes. I wanted her to say no. I wanted her to get back in the car and go somewhere with Jake. But that didn’t happen.
Jake’s response to Olivia’s “truth” is to go to her office where her team is trying to put out the fire Olivia started and “help” her. He tells them that she doesn’t need help, because she finally did the thing she tells everyone else to do, “do not lie.” When the teams asks Jake what the plan is, he says, while opening a plain brown paper bag, “My plan is to sit here and drink the majority of this vodka. Get remarkably wasted, and watch the world end. Anyone care to join me?”
And then, while Olivia is in the White House, after making out with the President in the Oval Office and pissing off everyone else around her, she calls Jake to tell him that she thinks she made a mistake and he says, “Just say the word, Liv, and I’m on my way.” She tells him she’s good, there’s some awkward silence on the phone, and then she tells him to have a drink for her. His response is, “Done.”
Unpopular opinion: Olivia Pope is a monster. There, I said it.
When Jake sees the news report that the Louvre is on fire, he goes to visit Eli Pope in prison. Jake asks Eli if he is responsible for the Louvre, which is part of a plan called Lazarus 1. Which seems to mean that Jake has never left B613 and that B613 isn’t really gone, just on temporary hiatus. Jake accuses Eli of trying to regain power and threatens to kill whomever Eli is working with on the outside.
While the media is pulling Olivia’s life apart and trying to make her look like a power-hungry harlot, and the writers use this as an opportunity to highlight the use of racially coded language or dog whistle politics in the media for the audience, Jake heads to Paris to follow the trail of clues leading to who is kicking off the plan Eli pretends to know nothing about. And, while in Paris, Jake runs into someone he never thought he’d see again: his wife.
Jake thought his wife, Elise, was dead. Surprise! They were supposed to meet at Grand Central Station and she was an hour late, and he assumed that she had been murdered. He tells her he grieved for her and that he loved being married to her. So, of course, I was hopeful that Jake might get a little happiness. He’s reunited with a woman he loved and they are obviously happy to see each other.
But, Jake Ballard isn’t allowed to have long-term happiness. First, Elise gets shot in Paris, and when Jake visits her in the hospital, she admits that she didn’t meet him at Grand Central Station because they are both spies. He asks her to come back to the States with him.
Olivia randomly drops by Jake’s for a visit and meets Elise, but he doesn’t tell her she’s his wife. Olivia goes to him for advice about her relationship with another man. When she is scared about what is going to happen next in her life, she goes to Jake. And, because he seems to know her better than anyone else, I mean he did stalk her for a long time, he always tells her what she should do and he’s almost always right.
Jake should be getting his happily ever after, right? Wrong. Elise is the person on the outside who has been helping Eli Pope regain power. When Jake finds out, he’s less than thrilled.
Olivia finds herself in a situation where she might have to marry the President, and who does she call? Jake. She asks him what she should do about whether or not to marry Fitz, and he points out how ridiculous that is, given their history. She says that she’s sorry and that he’s the person she talks to when she needs a friend, and then he hangs up on her after saying he’s hanging up.
Then she calls him again to tell him that she’s going to marry Fitz. She says that she wanted to tell him before he heard about it on TV, and his response is “whatever.” She starts to say that she needs him to feel a certain way, and he tells her that she’s not allowed to need him for anything, or ask him for anything, because that’s Fitz’s job now. And, he hangs up on her again.
He decides to leave with Elise, and they plan to meet the next day at the train station. But when he shows up, she’s already dead. Why? Because Olivia arranged for her father to be freed from prison. There is an amazing scene in which Olivia comes home to find Jake in her living room sitting in the dark drinking bad wine, which he complains about when she asks why he’s there. He tells her to sit down, she ignores him and then he shouts at her to sit down.
Typically, when Jake is with Olivia, he is there to keep her safe, but she has found herself on the wrong side of Jake Ballard and he can be quite scary. As always, he points out to her that he knows her better than anyone, including herself. He calls her a hypocrite because her story about wearing a “dumb white hat” is bullshit since she just left a mass murderer out of prison to serve her own agenda. He points out that the President isn’t impeached and she doesn’t have a wedding ring on, two things that she needed to make happen at any cost. Jake tells her that Elise is dead and Rowan killed her, then he corrects himself and says, that she killed her, because she let Rowan out of prison. Then he says this wonderful line, “The woman I love killed the woman I used to love, or the woman I used to love killed the woman I love. I can’t figure it out.” He yells at her some more, she tries to justify her bullshit and then he stands in front of her menacingly before kissing her and leaving.
The President asks Jake to hunt for Rowan, and Jake let’s her know that when he finds him he’s “going to look him in the eye and put a bullet in his head.” Apparently, Jake can hold a grudge and when people fuck him over, his solution is to start killing people.
Of course, Olivia doesn’t believe that Jake’s serious about hunting Rowan. And when her father comes to see her to tell her that someone is trying to kill him and that he’s a victim, she decides to call Jake. Actually, she summons him to the Oval Office. After Olivia tries to convince Jake that her father is in danger, he lets her know that he isn’t down for any more of her bullshit.
“What did you think? That I’d come here and spoon you? Give you a shoulder to cry on, listen to you talk about all the dark places Rowan built inside of you? That train has left the station and you do not get to ride this (he means himself) anymore. If you want someone to talk to, tell your boyfriend that you just let his son’s killer out of prison. See how that works out.”
Olivia gets vindictive and accuses Jake of being petty and jealous because she chose Fitz instead of him. But their argument, that I hoped would come to fisticuffs, was interrupted when Fitz comes into the office and they pretend they aren’t having a lover’s spat. Is it a lover’s spat when you fantasize about killing the other person?
Soon after, we discover that Olivia has a secret. While Fitz is waiting for her at a state dinner that she helped to plan, she is at Planned Parenthood getting an abortion that she won’t be able to tell anyone about. There is no one she can turn to for support because she has essentially burned her bridge with Jake and is a prisoner in the White House.
And, when Fitz asks her where she was? She can’t tell him the truth, so they have a fight about all the terrible things that are wrong with their relationship. They both air their feelings of resentment, and Olivia admits that she preferred Fitz when he was unavailable. Fitz tells her he hates that she’s always right and that they tried. But their current situation makes it impossible for Olivia to continue to be his girlfriend.
So, as a completely unexpected turn of events, Jake moves in with Olivia’s father because he finds out that he wasn’t Lazarus and honestly he has nowhere to go. Or does he? Six months after Olivia and Fitz break up we find out that Olivia has started having dinner with her father again. She tells him she doesn’t want to come by the house since Jake is there. Which is funny, because when she gets home, Jake is waiting outside her apartment and tells her she’s late. And then Olivia pretends that she wants him to leave and then they jump each other’s bones and have epic foreplay before heading to her bedroom. I guess Olivia is allowed to ride that train again. Ride, Olivia, ride.
The President asks Jake to investigate leaked information from the NSA. While they’re catching up, Fitz asks Jake if he talks to Olivia, to which Jake says no. But he has a smirk on his face. He isn’t exactly lying. He’s having sex with her, but they aren’t having a relationship. They are friends with benefits without the friendship. Like, she acts disgusted when Jake tries to show her actual affection. Not only are they not friends, but they are also working against each other on the same case.
Jake loves Olivia. Well, at the moment he loves to fuck her. But, he can’t just sit around waiting for Olivia to come to her senses and fall in love with him. He has aspirations and he’s worked hard to get to where he is in his career in the military and government. He needs a day job beyond secret agent, mercenary, and Olivia’s doormat. So, what does a super spy with lots of bloodstains on his resume do when he’s looking for a new job? He kills the competition. Literally. Jake essentially murders his way to the top. He’s not afraid of hard work or getting his hands dirty. And, by getting his hands dirty, I mean blood and soil from unmarked graves.
After the suspect Olivia is looking for turns up dead, and they figure out Jake killed him, Olivia gets a little upset. Especially when Fitz appoints Jake as the Head of the NSA. Which Jake knew about and didn’t tell Olivia. While he’s still living at her father’s house. Potentially shady? Yeah, totally. I guess Jake is accepting his role as a villain. And, he looks effing stunning doing it.
Olivia confronts Jake. And her father dresses her down, telling her to follow their example and get some real power, and refers to Jake as his son. Which always makes me a little uncomfortable given his relationship with Olivia, and that is going to get even weirder in the coming seasons. Like really weird. Like Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia weird.
As much as I would love to keep yammering at you about Jake Ballard and his insanely dysfunctional relationship with Olivia Pope, I think I’m going to leave it up to you to discover Jake’s fate. Will Olivia pull her head out of her ass long enough to realize that Jake Ballard, regardless of his many murdery flaws, is an ideal partner as she continues punching her way through glass ceilings? Or, will Jake continue to make terrible mistakes in the hopes of winning Olivia’s love only to be disappointed again? With the Winter holidays just around the corner, and since we’re all stuck in our houses anyway, why not devote roughly 5 days and 4 hours of your holiday break to binge watching Scandal. It is delightfully entertaining, with a cast of characters so frustrating that you’ll talk to your TV. So, find a warm blanket, make some popcorn, pour yourself a nice big glass of wine, and get ready to fall in love with Jake Ballard. Scandal originally aired on ABC and is currently streaming on Hulu.
Last week on Girl Meets Monster, I chatted with Jessica Guess about her horror novella, Cirque Berserk (2020) and how she created a space for herself in a genre where she felt absent.
This week, I welcome award-winning horror writer, publisher, screenwriter, and TV stage manager Steven Van Patten.
Brooklyn native Steven Van Patten is the author of the critically acclaimed Brookwater’s Curse trilogy, about an 1860s Georgia plantation slave who becomes law enforcement within the vampire community. In contrast, the titular character in his Killer Genius series is a modern day hyper-intelligent black woman who uses high-end technology as a socially conscious serial killer.
SVP’s short fiction includes contributions to nearly a dozen horror anthologies, including the Stoker Award nominated New York State of Fright. A collection of short horror and dark fiction stories entitled Hell At The Way Station, published by his company Laughing Black Vampire Productions and co-authored by acclaimed storyteller, Marc Abbott hit shelves in 2018.
Along with a plethora of other honors and accolades, SVP won three African-African-American Literary Awards in 2019, two for Hell At The Way Station (Best Anthology and Best In Science Fiction) and one for Best Independent Publisher. He’s written about everything from sleep demons to the Harlem Hellfighters of WWI for episodes of the YouTube series’ Extra Credit and Extra Mythology. He’s also a contributor for Viral Vignettes, a charity-driven YouTube comedy series benefitting The Actor’s Fund. He uses his full name on Facebook but goes by @svpthinks on Twitter and Instagram. When he’s not creating macabre literature, he can be found stage managing television shows primarily in New York City and occasionally on the West Coast. Along with being a member of the New York Chapter of The Horror Writer’s Association, he’s also a member of The Director’s Guild of America and professional arts fraternity Gamma Xi Phi. His website is www.laughingblackvampire.com.
GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Steven. I am almost ashamed to say that I haven’t read the Brookwater’s Curse trilogy, but it is on my TBR list. I’m interested in reading the trilogy because I love vampires, and I wrote a slave narrative featuring a vampire. Your story is about a male slave who becomes an important part of vampire society, and my story is about a young woman who escapes slavery but still has a lot of obstacles to maneauver while gaining a better understanding of her identity in the context of the antebellum South while traveling with a vampire. My first question is why vampires? And my second question is why slavery? What about these two subjects/characters called to you to tell a story? How does being part of vampire society help or hinder your protagonist? What inspired this trilogy?
SVP: Well, first of all, thank you for having me. I’m thrilled to be talking to a mavin such as yourself. I think I was drawn to vampires because as a kid, I didn’t always see them all as monsters. I mean, I saw Christopher Lee’s Dracula as a monster, but William Marshall’s Blacula was a different case. There were some shades of grey. He tried to end the slave-trade. He was in love. He was misunderstood and in many ways his own worst enemy. And it’s that line from Scream, Blacula, Scream that stuck with me forever. It’s from the scene where he is cornered by two rather stereotypical 1970s pimps after disregarding their hooker. After listening to their nonsense, Blacula said, “You’ve made a slave of your sister and you’re still slaves imitating your slave masters!” Then he proceeds to kill them. But for me, a few things happen there. First, as a kid, I get to see this super dignified brother handle some street mess, but I also get a glimpse of how social ills can get addressed within the horror genre. So the only thing left in my head was, since Blacula, aka Prince Mamuwalde was of direct African descent, I began to wonder what an African-American would experience, feel and say if put in that situation. By the way, in Brookwater’s Curse, I don’t spend a great deal of time on the plantation. In fact, I let him get taken by the supernatural and get himself isolated very quickly. And I let him struggle with a sort of survivor’s guilt, while never losing his soul as a black man. This gets him in trouble more than once, because anytime he develops a relationship with black and brown humans, he ends up going against his marching orders, which are to hunt werewolves and protect the secret society of monsters in general.
GMM: I am intrigued by the concept of a “socially conscious serial killer”. I immediately thought of Dexter Morgan who channeled his drive to murder into a public service by eliminating threats to his community. How is your character different from Dexter?
SVP: Dexter comes up every once in awhile, but the truth is, my Killer Genius series was inspired by Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector more than anything else. It occurred to me that if someone were to write a story about a black woman killing a bunch of people, it’s usually over some man being an asshole. Like an elongated episode of ‘Snapped’. I never saw a socially conscious black woman, so I invented Kendra, a black woman who is able to keep ahead of law enforcement by being super smart like a Dexter Morgan or a Hannibal Lector. One of the biggest differences between her and Dexter is that she’s actually more versatile. She can kill up close in a disguise, or she can hack into a military satellite and blast you from space. I’m particularly proud of how I came up with her kill for this one misogynist rapper while he’s performing on a 106 & Park derivative. The other big difference is of course, her agenda. Dexter was like a king snake of serial killers and he in a way, was feeding this horrible disfunction born from childhood trauma. While my Kendra certainly has her own childhood and adolescent demons, she’s more focused. I want to say she has a clearer vision and is more of a zealot, or a crusader literally attacking ignorant white and black people as a way of motivating change in society over all.
GMM: I’ve always written about dark subjects and over the years people, especially people with a strong religious background, have asked me “why horror?” As I’m sure you’re aware, there is often a misconception about horror writers being maladjusted people. Have you encountered similar questions about your writing? Have you been accused of being a “bad” person because of what you write? Has your connection to a larger community of horror writers helped you feel more confident about being a horror writer, or have you always felt at ease writing about monsters?
SVP: Here is where I may piss some people off, but since I get pissed off when confronted by the kinds of statements you mentioned, I’m going to just say it. Truth is, I have studied just enough history to see most organized religion as a construct meant to hold certain people in place. I’m not knocking the fellowship, being grateful to the universe, Kirk Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, none of that. But, when our black ancestors were brought here, I can’t say for certain what they all were worshipping, but I’m pretty sure it was not a blonde, blue-eyed Jesus. Unfortunately, a lot of folks can’t get past that, because whatever we had was beaten out of us while something else was beaten into us. Follow that up with Hollywood bastardizing and misrepresenting hoodoo, voodoo, Santeria and Yoruba cultures for white folks to kick up their heels and scream ‘eek’ and now they have us rejecting something we might actually need if we bothered to understand it. At least, those are my thoughts on the subject.
No one has ever come out and called me a bad person, but it’s been insinuated that something is wrong with me. And yes, I have been confronted by the naysayers and I’ve received the shade, particularly if I picked the wrong event to be a part of. But the people looking down their nose at me are often the same people wouldn’t know a decent horror movie if it bit them in the ass AND won’t tell Jermaine that no one cares about his mixed-tape. Because of that, I don’t exactly lose a lot of sleep over those people or their opinions.
Being a part of the larger community, finding people like yourself is a morale boost. It lets me know I’m not alone in my horror nerdom or my pursuit to write about things that go bump in the night. And it’s funny you should bring it up because growing up around certain kinds of dudes, I only let a handful of friends know I was into this sort of thing. But I’m older now, and not as worried about rejection as I used to be. And yes, I will be comfortable with monsters until the day I die.
Excerpt from “The Patron Saint”
“You’re my motherfucking lawyer! You’re supposed to make this kind of shit go away! As much money as I made the label last year! Y’all got me hiding in this hotel room like some kind of fugitive! This is some bullshit!”
Sitting at the edge of the super king-sized hotel room bed wearing only a bathing suit, Kimberly stared absently at the TV on the wall in front of her. This bore a stark contrast to fully clothed Manuel’s animated pacing back and forth across the room as he screamed into his cellphone. She thought about turning the TV on so she wouldn’t have to listen, but figured in his agitated state that she would only get yelled at or worse.
“Seriously! What the fuck am I paying you for?”
She couldn’t hear the lawyer’s side of the conversation, but could tell that the lawyer was asking uncomfortable questions.
“What? No, she’s fine! She loves me and she loves Vegas. You sound like that punk ass cop that left a message a few minutes ago.”
“What? Her father? I don’t care about him. Fuck him! If he was a real nigga, he’d call me himself. Going to the damn cops like a little bitch!”
No matter what you hear or see, do not turn around. Do not face me, child!
Kimberly’s breath stopped as her mind struggled to process where a disembodied voice could possibly be coming from.
“Sam? Sam! I know this motherfucker didn’t just hang up on me…”
If he hadn’t been in such an angry state, Manuel might have noticed the growing shadow moving behind him as the form of a curvaceous, statuesque woman with undulating hair drifted off the wall and into the room.
Manuel threw the cellphone on the bed, just behind Kimberly. “I’m so fucking mad right now. I need to fuck you again just to calm my ass down. Take them damn clothes off, girl!”
He began to unbuckle his pants.
Kimberly neither moved or gave any indication that she heard him.
“Bitch, perhaps you didn’t hear Daddy! I said…”
Then he heard the hissing. He turned around.
“What the fu—”
The entity grabbed Manuel by the shoulders, accosting him as if he were a small child, with a strength that dwarfed his. The ten snakes in the apparition’s hair lunged forward, each of the mouths burying fangs into his flesh. His chocolate brown skin turned a marble-like grey as the poisons filled his body. He screamed for only a few seconds as the toxins quickly petrified his vocal chords.
Kimberly peripherally caught a split second of Manuel’s agonized last moments before she closed her eyes. The monster must have sensed that Kimberly had peeked because she heard the voice again.
DO NOT LOOK AT ME!
A moment later, Manuel’s lifeless body crashed down to the floor with a ‘thud’ in front of Kimberly. Her eyes drifted down. Whatever had been injected into him was toxic enough to literally melt him. Flesh and muscles bubbled into a jelly. Bones disintegrated to ash trapped inside the jelly. Hours from now, a large black stain on the carpet would be all that remained. She closed her eyes but couldn’t escape the image of the mess on the floor.
Go to your grandmother, that she might teach you the ways of your ancestors and not the way of the idolaters that brought your people here in bondage.
“My grandmother? Who are you?”
I am the one who was defiled by one of my gods, made an abomination by another, and rejected and vilified by my own kind. It was only in the underworld that I found the orishas and loa and ascended ones of Africa. Like me, they want actual justice meted out in this world and the next. I am Medusa, The Accursed One! Evil men feared me hundreds of years ago and they shall fear me again!
The shadow drifted back towards the wall from where it had entered and disappeared. Sensing that the gorgon had left, Kimberly opened her eyes and looked again at what was left of Manuel. Recoiled on the bed, she suppressed a scream and cried quietly for a few minutes.
It would take her some time, but she eventually found the strength to get dressed, grab her things, and leave the hotel.
“This bastard is gonna act all indignant, like he was parent of the decade! Fucking dream-slaying, hating-ass Negro!”
Cathy drove her white BMW M4 Coupé as fast as New York City’s FDR Drive would allow, which during rush hour on a Wednesday wasn’t nearly as fast as she preferred. Before her girlfriend Nicole called, Cathy had been cursing up a storm as she cut off more cautious drivers with signal-free lane changes and flipped them her middle finger whenever they dared honked their horns in protest.
“So he’s blaming you?” Nicole’s voice blared over the car’s speakers. Nicole, like Cathy, was a dedicated party girl, enabler, and equal opportunity narcissist. She was the shoulder to cry on, the friend who took Cathy’s side no matter how horrible she’d acted or how ridiculous her course of action. “Him and his damn cupcakes! Fuck him! Y’all are doing the right thing! Manuel is going to make your baby a star. He told me so!”
“That’s right. And so what if she lost her virginity to him? Shit, that’s Manuel Hightower! The motherfuckers we lost our virginity to wasn’t even close to that stature!”
“Child! I know that’s right!”
Betrayer of women! Betrayer of your own child! You gave your child’s innocence and honor away for nothing!
“Bitch! What you said?”
“I said, ‘child, I know that’s right’. What you thought I said?”
Cathy’s eyes caught a flash of the gorgon’s red gaze in her rearview mirror. The hair snakes’ fangs found Cathy’s ears, neck, and skull. The last thing Cathy saw was her milk chocolate complexion turning green-ish grey as the car swerved out of control, bounced off an Acura RDX, then slammed straight into a guardrail. Despite the damage to the car, Nicole’s voice could still be heard asking if her friend was okay.
Until the gas tank exploded.
Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at email@example.com. See you next week!
Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.
As some of you know, I decided to dip my toes into the dating pool once again back in December. This isn’t my first foray into the wilds of online dating, and given the nature of my experiences, it probably won’t be my last.
In the time I have spent using dating apps to meet new people, I have noticed certain behaviors that either make me laugh, want to cry, or burn down the entire Internet depending on my emotional state.
Before I launch into a psychotic tirade about the bizarre mating rituals of human males, I’d like to take a moment to address the men I am dating, have dated, and potentially will date. First, and foremost, thank you for being decent human beings (this is not true for some of you, and you know who you are…if you don’t, it isn’t my responsibility to enlighten you). If I have gone on more than one date with you and continue to maintain contact with you after we are no longer dating, that’s a good sign that you are “one of the good ones.” At some point in time, you have added something positive to my life and I have learned and grown from knowing you. If you are reading this and you haven’t heard from me in quite some time, it’s probably because you are dead to me.
Now, on with the tirade…
I’ve been thinking about writing this blog post for quite a while and in the process of thinking about what to cover and the tone I should use, I’ve spoken to a few friends who have also tried online dating. A close friend of mine is also currently wading through the dating pool, and on a regular basis we compare notes. This is especially true if the same man is interested in both of us. We laugh about it because our tastes are so different that we’d never need to worry about being in competition for the same dude.
A few months ago, when I began this process of meeting new people, another friend of mine joked about needing a dating resume after I expressed some of my frustrations about how difficult it is to find what I’m looking for in potential partners. At the time, it seemed like an absurd idea but the more I think about it, your dating profile is essentially a resume. And, first dates aren’t that different from job interviews. Except, you don’t usually get drunk during a job interview. And, I’m not suggesting that you should get drunk on a first date, but it happens sometimes.
If, after getting drunk on your first date, you get the chance at a second date, hopefully that person has enough of a sense of humor to accept that you don’t remember everything you talked about at that first meeting. Which will help you decide if you’d like a third date with this person.
Okay, maybe that wasn’t a tirade. But, stick around. I promise one is coming.
Dear Men on Dating Sites,
Hello! Thank you for your interest. Here are a few things I think you should know about me and why I’m swiping left on your profile.
First, I’m a bit cynical and have a rather dark sense of humor.
My response to the following question should clue you into these facts about me.
What I’m actually looking for…? A handsome alpha werewolf who owns his own home and business.
Yes. That exact sentence appears on one of my dating profiles. Clearly, this is meant in jest. However, several men have asked me to explain my response and have gone so far as to view the fact that they are not a werewolf as a strike against them. They aren’t wrong. I mean, who doesn’t want to date a handsome werewolf?
When I’m not fantasizing about sexy fictional characters, I’m actually looking for kind people who are able to appreciate my weirdness and hopefully recognize the kindness in me. Along with kindness, I’m looking for intelligent people who have something interesting to talk about. If you are actively pursuing your goals, creating something with your hands or mind (or both), and having a positive influence on the world around you, then even better.
I’m seeking comfortable intimacy. I want to talk about things that matter. I want to be held and kissed. I want to go on dates that become the inspiration for stories I’ll write in the future. I want someone to push my boundaries and encourage me to accomplish my goals. I want someone who will allow me to explore their body and mind without fear or the need to constantly be in control. I am seeking someone who thinks vanilla sex can be nice but doesn’t want it to be the norm.
Before we go any further, I need you to understand that the last statement in the paragraph above is not an open invitation for you to send me pictures of your favorite kink. Nor is it a thumbs up for you to send me dick pics. I’m not opposed to you sharing these educational materials with me, but only if you have my permission.
Thank you. Please continue.
Here’s who I am NOT looking for…
Conservative Christians. Do I really need to explain why I’m not interested in dating a conservative Christian? If you aren’t sure, here’s one of my older blog posts that might help you figure that out. Praise Satan!
Collectors. Ultimately, I am seeking my person. A partner who is committed to building a life with me. Someone who takes a liking to me and decides to stay in my life for the foreseeable future. But, while I’m looking for that person, I’m not opposed to various flavors of non-monogamous relationships. However, if you are dating so many people that you need to refer to a spreadsheet to figure out when you can see me, I’m not interested. I do not wish to be part of your harem, and I am not part of the expansion package for your marriage.
Racists. If you include the following statement in your profile, don’t be surprised if women aren’t dying to meet you: Willing to date outside my race. I also recommend avoiding any language that fetishizes women of color. Telling me you’ve always wanted to have sex with a (insert racist comment) isn’t a compliment. We’re now in the realm of microaggressions and straight up racism.
Perverts. If your profile picture resembles a glory hole, you aren’t looking to meet people for meaningful connections. And, I’m not sure if a dating app is really the most appropriate place for you to meet people. I recommend hanging out in the parking lots of truck stops and deserted rest areas.
Serial Killers. I realize this seems like a crazy thing to mention, but some of the profile pictures men choose to share on dating apps leads me to believe they are comfortable with their lifestyle of meeting people, murdering them, and whatever else they do with the corpses before holding a quick roadside funeral. For example, if you pose for a photo while wearing your best suit and holding an assault rifle, after I’m done laughing hysterically, I’m going to swipe left. I understand the need for anonymity at times but if your profile picture is you wearing a clown mask, we won’t be meeting. And, thanks for the nightmares.
Actual profile picture from OKCupid.
Hipster Know-It-Alls. If you’re in your 20s or 30s and your list of interests matches mine or possibly my grandfather’s, please don’t presume to know more than me about something we share in common. I mean, you’re cute and your beard is glorious but please don’t attempt to school me on the history of American music and how it influenced the British Invasion. I may not know everything, but I was raised on a steady diet of Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, the Mersyside Sound, Al Green, Little Richard, Otis Redding, Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, Robert Gordon, The Stray Cats and the Rockabilly gods that influenced them. I grew up in the 70s listening to radio stations that played entire album sides. On vinyl. I owned a rather extensive collection of music on vinyl that ranged from New Romantics to Punk to Post Modern and proto-Goth, with a healthy dose of British bands popular in the 80s. Please don’t speak to me like I’m stupid.
Trophy Hunters. If you have a picture in your profile where you’re wearing camouflage that isn’t government-issued or holding a dead animal, I’m swiping left. There’s only one kind of hunter I’m interested in.
The Tragically Boring. If your profile pictures consist of staged shots of you and your bros playing golf, drinking beer, hanging out with skinny white women, running a marathon, or getting pumped at the gym, I’m sorry to say that your profile is no different from the last 20 I swiped left on. Please make yourself sound interesting even if you don’t think you are. Everyone has at least one skill, experience, or goal that makes them stand out from the crowd. Tell me that story.
As many of my friends (and people I have dated) can attest, not all of my dating experiences have been bad. I’ve met some interesting people who I genuinely like and care about. But finding them often feels like looking for a needle in a pile of needles. I’m going to keep meeting people until hopefully, I find my person. I’m not sure I believe that there is only one person out there waiting for me to find them, but I’d like to think there are people out there who are interested in building something more meaningful that lasts longer than a few dates.
Eventually, I will add to this list of what I’m NOT looking for as I continue my journey through the realm of unknown expectations and vague statements about personality traits. So, wish me luck. And wish all the weirdos out there on dating apps luck. I’m rooting for them, but I’m not meeting them for drinks.
Last week, Girl Meets Monster talked with Glenn Rolfe about the challenges of writing Splatterpunk. This week, R. J. Joseph is here to talk about what it means to be a woman of color writing horror.
R. J. Joseph is a Texas based writer and professor who must exorcise the demons of her imagination so they don’t haunt her being. A life-long horror fan and writer of many things, she has finally discovered the joys of writing creatively and academically about two important aspects of her life: horror and black femininity.
When R. J. isn’t writing, teaching, or reading voraciously, she can usually be found wrangling one or six of various sprouts and sproutlings from her blended family of 11…which also includes one husband and two furry babies.
GMM: As a woman of color writing about black and queer characters, what obstacles have your faced when writing within the horror genre? When did you decide you were a horror writer? What influenced or inspired you to write horror stories about women of color?
RJJ: I’ve been a lifelong horror fan. I was a small child devouring horror comics, Twilight Zone, and Stephen King novels, well before I could understand any of the themes these stories presented. The horror genre appeals to my naturally dark nature, which was apparent and already well entrenched by the time I was 6 or 7 years old. I always questioned why the folks in the genre I loved so much didn’t look like me, from the writers to the actors to the characters in the books. I wanted to be the monster. I figured creating the monsters was the next best thing, so I had to write them. I started then, even though I didn’t always embrace that part of my writing persona. I couldn’t imagine not writing about the world I inhabited and navigated, a black female experiencing life through this lens. I wasn’t seeing these stories and I had to fill the void.
I wanted to be the monster.
I appreciate that you frame this question in a way that shows you know we have obstacles. They aren’t a figment of our imagination or a quest for race-baiting and creating issues. One of the biggest problems I have is in always wondering why stories are accepted or rejected. I know my writing isn’t perfect and I still have so much growth to experience within my craft, but sometimes I get rejections that just don’t offer any clarity, not even the blanket forms where the spaces between the words don’t reek of any additional interpretation. Sometimes, though, what isn’t said speaks volumes. I get that editors don’t have time to give personalized rejections all the time. But I always go back and read the publications I submit to so I can see which stories made the cut. Reading what was ultimately accepted can be excruciating. So many times, I wish the editors would have just said, “We don’t know what to do with you, blackity black woman, or your blackity black characters with their blackity black fears”. That would make me feel so much better.
I once had an editor explain to me at a book launch for an anthology one of my stories appeared in that he didn’t want me to feel as if my story was a token acceptance because I’m a black woman. He made it a point to let me know he had read some of my previous work and thought my story for the anthology was great. I had to be professional and put on my Appreciative Writerly face, but I really wanted to hug him and cry. That meant so much to me, especially coming from a white male professional in the field. Unless the project is strictly for writers of color, I’m always wondering if the acceptance was just a diversity checkmark or really based on my story.
GMM: I wrote a supernatural slave narrative as my thesis novel at Seton Hill University, and I struggled with figuring out where it fit within a genre. The novel is due to be released sometime next year and I still struggle with that idea of where it belongs. What makes it a horror novel? The violence of slavery? The fact that my narrator is a witch and that her companion is a vampire?
How do you define your chosen genre or genres when you begin with characters that may not typically appear in those genres? Is there an absence of women of color in horror?
RJJ: First, I gotta read your novel! I need to know when pre-orders open. I absolutely love historical horror. That it has people of color and witches? Super plus. My answer to what makes this horror really loops back to another obstacle I try to navigate and that is not knowing where our work fits; really, not knowing where we fit. I would say your novel is an all-around horror novel because it’s rooted in the abject terror of slavery and there is a vampire. I don’t think all witches are necessarily monsters, though, so that’s debatable. Even without the supernatural characters, slavery is horror. Yet, there’s a clear hesitance to categorize this experience in this way because that would require owning up to the facts that 1. Slavery really happened; 2. There was nothing good about it; and 3. The repercussions are still felt today. Stuffing these topics into other corners like literary fiction (the way Beloved was first categorized) or creating a whole new category like urban fiction takes some of that responsibility away. If it isn’t called horror, then the events cannot be deemed horrible. So then when serial killer novels fill the horror shelves, I’m left to wonder why lynchings or slavery aren’t considered serial killings, too…
Black women horror writers have always been around, but there hasn’t always been a willingness of the industry to see us. I think we’ve just had our writing either flat out ignored or placed in different genres because we’re women. I’ve seen industry leaders say publicly that readers only want a certain kind of horror, or that every story/book acceptance is based solely on merit. Both of these prevailing responses mean gatekeepers are fine with keeping certain stories and writers out of the genre. The only thing that might help increase visibility is more gatekeepers of color and black female writers continuing to kick the doors in and create anyway. It’s astounding that the first black female horror anthology wasn’t published until 2017. A second followed this year. How is it that both books managed to locate numerous black female horror writers and yet other anthologies/magazines/publishers can hardly ever find any? What is not genuinely sought will never be found.
GMM: When I write about monsters, I have a habit of turning the relationships between monsters and my main female characters into romantic interests even though I write about dark subjects. Is there a connection between horror and romance in your mind? Do your characters fall in love with monsters? Why, or why not?
RJJ: I envy that you can blend romance and horror so effectively! My thesis at Seton Hill was a romance novel, and while I write in both genres, I’ve not yet mastered blending the two. I do think romance and horror exist on the same continuum, in that both genres evoke such extreme feelings in readers. My favorite series ever is the Vampire Huntress series by L. A. Banks. She intertwined horror and romance so expertly that I’ve never seen anything else quite like it. I make attempts. But I tried to submit a romance short story to a major market once and the editor replied that the story was well written but it was too dark. The monsters in my stories tend to be those created through no act of their own, so they are sort of tragic creatures for whom at least one other character has an affection and some sympathy. Full on romance, though…I still aspire to that.
Left Hand Torment (excerpt), by R. J. Joseph
I was on door duty that evening, although we found we did not really need a protector. Most passersby tended not to notice our nondescript entryway in the worn down building. Even those who did notice it were deterred by the dark cloak of misery in our eyes. Despite my queerness and my race, those doorways to my soul that broadcast unspeakable rot allowed me kinship with the men inside. Her eyes held the same blackness, despite their light gray color, and it announced her as kindred, served as her password into the club. I let her in and followed her up the stairs, as my shift was done.
There was more to her life story than her eyes, apparently. The foulness of whatever tortured her spirit bubbled just underneath the surface of her being. Her dusky colored skin shone with determination and…fury. She glided ahead of me up the stairway and into the parlor, removing long white gloves as we walked. Severe burns covered both hands, the puckered skin reflecting in the lantern lights.
Even Whitson, the resident playboy, did not set his flirtations upon her. He simply asked her what she was drinking, the same as he did the rest of us. He often told us that he did not seek companionship with fellow sufferers. He said their beds were already too full with them and their demons.
“Bourbon, please.” The rich tones slid from her throat and escaped into the quiet murmur of the fifteen of us. She accepted her glass gracefully and settled herself into a chair close to the fireplace.
Not forgetting our Texas manners, we quieted down and allowed the lady the floor. I watched her take a sip from her glass.
“Merci.” She accented the appreciation with a brisk nod to the side. When she gazed back at us, the flames from the fire flickered around the shadows resting beneath the smoky orbs of her haunted eyes. She pulled her bonnet off and placed it on the table next to the chair. Kinky curly strands spilled down to her shoulders and the room gave a collective gasp as the flames caught the sandy tresses. This was the only acknowledgement we gave to her beauty that night.
Without preamble, she spoke, in accented tones. “My name is Dominique Aimee Beaulieu and I was born and reared in New Orleans. I had an ordinary childhood, if that as the daughter of a placee` on Rampart street could be called such. Papa and Maman loved me very much and I was a rather spoiled child. They loved each other, as well. I know Papa loved her more than he loved his wife. But he could not stay with us all the time. I once asked Maman why he had to leave and stay away so often and she explained to me that we could not be selfish and keep him all to ourselves. He had another family with whom he had to stay most of the time, but he was always thinking of us.
“Maman had a picture of a beautiful woman with blond hair and she often gazed wistfully at it when she thought Papa and I weren’t looking. I would ask her about the woman, whose features I saw staring back at me in the mirror, albeit through darker skin. Maman would evade the answer until I turned sixteen. When I finally got my answer, I also got the explanation for our way of life.
“‘This is my sister, your aunt. Papa’s other wife. He met me as he courted her and wanted me for his left hand wife. She knows about us but cannot acknowledge us publicly. But she must accept our existence. You are of courting age now. Papa will arrange for you to attend The Quadroon Ball next year, to find you a wealthy, white husband. Do not waste yourself frivolously on any colored man. Even if he has money, he can’t elevate your status or guarantee that your children will be free men.’
“She grabbed my hand. ‘Just take care to always respect your husband and do his bidding. Love and honor him despite the feelings of jealousy that will come when he takes another to wife. We are the wives they choose, when their other will be chosen for them through making familial alliances. These arrangements are our only way to freedom.’
“I didn’t understand why she beseeched me so dramatically on these points. Our system of placage was shocking enough to discover without her telling me I had to accept it, that I had few other choices. I knew nothing of love between a man and woman, but I could see the love between Maman and Papa. If it meant she had to share him with her sister, did that make it of any less value? Did that make me, the product of their left hand union, any less valuable? Of course, I would love my husband, legally bound or not, because of all the things I did not understand, there was one thing I knew and never wanted to change: my freedom.
She paused her story here, seeming to look at us for the first time. She turned her fierce gaze on each of us, one at a time, her fellow beasts of demonic burdens. She settled her gaze finally on me, the lone other woman in the group. I did not know how I understood that she knew my secret. My fellow club members knew and did not care. “You understand when I say fighting for one’s freedom is a frantic battle when losing means losing your personhood and often, your very life.”
I nodded in acquiescence. I did know what a constant fight for freedom to simply exist required. Dying was preferable to giving in to bondage of any kind, hence my membership there. These, my brothers in terror, did not make anything big over my masculine clothes and obviously feminine body. My haunted heart bore witness to more important things to them. The rest of the world did have problems with me, as soon as my “charade” was discovered. Explaining that this was who I am did nothing but result in a trail of bodies. Thus far, my own body did not increase those numbers.
Do you have a fragment of fiction you’re dying to share? Send it my way at firstname.lastname@example.org. See you soon!
Last weekend I had an interesting conversation with one of my really good friends (don’t worry, Stephanie, those posts we talked about are coming, so stay tuned). We talked about a personality quirk (disorder?) that we share in common. The desire and attraction we feel toward all things that dwell in darkness. No one should have to make apologies for what they find attractive or erotic. We all fall somewhere on the spectrum of sexuality and desire, Honey. I’ll try not to judge you if you don’t judge me, unless you’re hurting people (physically, mentally, or emotionally) without their consent.
Darkness promises mystery, adventure, and fear, an unburdening of the perception that we must always remain on the straight and narrow, and yes, even pain. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, some folks just aren’t happy unless they’re unhappy. I know I’m not alone in this troubling and confusing state of being. I don’t like the fact that I continually seek out inappropriate relationships. At least I don’t climb into cars with strangers anymore. I’m trying to break myself of these self-defeating and potentially life-threatening habits. It’s a work in progress.
I like monsters. A lot. But I don’t want to date them in real life. That still won’t stop me from getting all hot and bothered for them. Vampires? Love ‘em. Werewolves? I’d hit that. Fallen angels? Do you have a few hours to talk over coffee or Bourbon? I’ll admit that my taste in fictional characters might be a little unsettling to some people, but once again, I’m not going to apologize for what turns me on.
February 25: Francis Dolarhyde
Francis Dolarhyde is a glorious monster. When you talk about Thomas Harris’s work—his novels, the films and TV show they have spawned—most people automatically think of Hannibal Lecter. Actually, most days I find it hard NOT to think about Hannibal Lecter. In the novel Red Dragon, Harris masterfully created a character who, in my opinion, is just as scary as Dr. Lecter. Without a doubt, the monster at the end of this book is the Red Dragon, Francis’ alter ego and the driving force behind his well planned, cleverly executed serial murders.
At first glance, I didn’t like him very much. Every slight, every dirty look, every unkind word gets tallied up by Francis, as if he’s some maladjusted, compulsive, vengeful bean counter and the rest of humanity are the beans. I hated when he spit on the woman in the convertible simply because his gaze made her uncomfortable, self-conscious. I hoped he wouldn’t end up being just another emotionally crippled misogynistic jerk.
Do you want WWIII? Because this is how we get WWIII.
Thankfully, as the story unfolded and I learned about Dolarhyde’s unbelievably traumatic childhood I became more interested. And, with every new horrible discovery about his past, I grew to love him more and more. I mean, come on, this serial killer has it all. He is physically deformed at birth, abused and abandoned by his mother and grandmother, sexually repressed, and a voice inside his head tells him to kill families that remind him of the family his mother formed without him. The family he was allowed to visit, but never welcomed to join. He is an outsider that many readers can relate to, and if not empathize with, at least feel some sympathy toward.
He seemed like such a nice, quiet man.
Dolarhyde’s childhood was wonderfully atrocious, and Harris’s descriptions of his life in Grandma’s house reminded me of several dark Victorian classics. Dolarhyde’s two personalities made me think of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, especially toward the end of the novel when Francis tries to stop the Dragon and form a relationship with his love interest, Reba. His two sides struggle for dominance as Francis tries to protect the woman he believes he loves. At other times I thought of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with his physical deformities and inability to join “polite” society. Francis is filled with rage and envious of the “normal” people around him. He kills them to ease his pain and take revenge on the people who abused him. The Dragon is essentially the end result of Grandma’s psychological experiments on Francis that further transformed his already damaged psyche.
And then, we have Grandma’s dentures. Quite possibly one of the most disturbing images I have encountered in a novel, the dentures almost have a life of their own, which ramps up the body horror aspects of this tale. Grandma’s choppers allow us to venture down several literary paths. We could go Big Bad Wolf here, “oh Grandma, what big teeth you have.” Or we could take the Gothic Horror path since Dolarhyde makes a pretty convincing Dracula with false teeth filed into sharp points. He literally bites his female victims to death.
As I said, Francis Dolarhyde has a lot going for him as a character designed to make us check under the seats before turning the key in the ignition and double deadbolt the doors at night. Thomas Harris created an amazing killing machine that commits unspeakable acts and yet somehow convinced me to cheer for him when he fights against his murderous urges. I hoped he would escape capture at the hands of the FBI and Will Graham.
This is my design.
There are elements of romance in the novel. Apparently Thomas Harris believes that even serial killers deserve love. Or maybe he’s suggesting that if they received love in the first place they may not have chosen to murder people. Harris elicits even more sympathy for Francis when he meets a woman who is attracted to him. He reciprocates and they begin dating.
Lucifer offering Eve an apple.
This is how a grown man reacts to being shown love for the first time.
He’s never seen anything more beautiful.
They are the perfect fairy tale couple, a blind princess (literally, not just too dumb or unwilling to see the truth) and her prince who is magically transformed into a dragon by an evil wicked witch. Bryan Fuller made all of my dreams come true with the intense emotional and physical connection between Francis and Reba in season 3 of Hannibal. Their sex scenes were gloriously erotic. I must have rewatched the sex scene at least six times after I watched episode 10. So effing hot. Seriously, when he grabs her, picks her up, and carries her to his bedroom, I was like SPLOOSH!
I hoped Reba’s affection would be strong enough to rescue and redeem him in the end. His own delusions and lack of impulse control ultimately lead to his demise. Rather than trusting that Reba cares for him, he listens to the Dragon. His immaturity, lack of experience with live women, and delusions prevent him from achieving a normal and healthy life with Reba. Like most of us, our faults and bad habits tend to undo our efforts to improve ourselves no matter how hard we try to overcome them.
You should probably let someone get to know you a little better before you show them your dark side.
I don’t just like this monster. I am sexually attracted to him and find him totally fuckable. He’s fuckable in the novel and as portrayed by Ralph Finnes (Red Dragon, 2002) and Richard Armitage (Hannibal, 2015) (especially Richard Armitage), but the thoughts I have about him make me a bit uneasy. Why? As I said, I love monsters. I have no problem with the idea of liking Dracula or the Big Bad Wolf. Maybe my feelings of unease come from the fact that I know those monsters are fictional, make-believe, fairy tales, but serial killers are very real. While I’m fascinated by their crimes and their motivations to commit them, I do not idolize real serial killers. I want the police to catch them and punish them to the full extent of the law. Serial killers cause me to waffle about my stance on the death penalty.
Francis Dolarhyde is a fictional character, but Harris breathed so much life into him that he seemed disturbingly real. Serial killers are real. Dracula is not. Monsters that are created to represent the darker aspects of the human psyche or to examine and comment upon questionable societal norms are safe. The aging Goth teen queen inside me craves stories about monsters who prevail despite their physical deformities and emotional immaturity. Weird and horrifying is acceptable as long as it has a message or a purpose. But here is the Red Dragon standing before me, engrossed in his own gloriously terrifying acts of violence against women and their families, and somehow I find beauty there. My adoration of this character gives me pause.
Even his death is beautiful.
Typically, I would use the excuse of Hollywood’s knack for putting attractive actors in horrifying roles. The Devil is tempting not only because he encourages you to do the sinful things you crave, but also because he shows up as the thing you want most, and probably wearing a nice suit. Even before Bryan Fuller provided us with a visual buffet of horrific beauty on Hannibal, I desired Francis Dolarhyde.
Sometimes you can’t ignore the voices.
But Bryan Fuller cranked up the voyeurism, spectacle, and the eroticism of evil by making Francis exceptionally desirable and giving him an object of desire that I could relate to. I could imagine myself in her place. Eroticism is subjective, but when erotic images and art mirror your own fantasies, that’s not only psychologically satisfying, it’s magical.