A Love Triangle of Unspeakable Horror…So truths: I was mad into LJ Smith growing up. Read everything, loved most of it, and thinking back/re-reading things now, a lot of it holds up. There’s good stuff in Forbidden Game, Night World, probably Dark Visions, maybe Secret Circle. Good stuff, even without the nostalgia goggles.
Searching for the ultimate thrill, she vowed to have Stefan.
Haunted by his tragic past, he struggled to resist her passion.
Driven by revenge, he hunted the brother who betrayed him.
The terrifying story of two vampire brothers and the beautiful girl torn between them.
That being said, Vampire Diaries is awful. I didn’t care for it much as a kid or appreciate it more in retrospect, and actually going back and re-reading it? Worse than I remember.
It’s also kind of amazing.
Vampire Diaries is the original motherfucking teen vampire angst book, which is why the set up – presumably fresh and so clean back in ‘92 – is now the boilerest of plates: Stefan Salvatore, 500-some-odd year old vampire, moves to a small Virginia town to “start a new life”. He enrolls himself in high school and immediately becomes the object of everyone’s attention, including resident Alpha Bitch Elena Gilbert, who vows to tap that ancient ass even if it kills her.
The book alternates between Elena and Stefan’s point of views, and tracks them as they go through the Five Stages of Vampire-Human Romance: avoidance, denial, reluctant but passionate kissing, angsty (temporary) acceptance, and meeting the third person in the love triangle.
So vampire in high school, check, mopey love interest, check, but a queen bitch heroine? That’s an anomaly in the genre even today, and at first I thought it might be a point in The Vampire Diaries’ favor. I mean, a confident, assertive teenage heroine who knows what she wants and has no qualms about going after it? Fuck yeah, I’m here for that!
The problem is that Elena Gilbert is a confident, assertive teenage girl who is also a monster. Like, I want to be clear: you can absolutely have healthy opinion of yourself and also be a reasonable human being with a soul, but Elena is not. Elena is a spoiled, self-centered garbage person who expects the people around her to do exactly what she wants, when she wants, and then feels victimized if that doesn’t happen.
Here’s a perfect example of Typical Elena Behavior: at the beginning of the book, she breaks up with a boy (Matt) that she likes but doesn’t love, but who definitely loves her. This would be totally fine, except that LIKE A WEEK LATER she’s using Matt’s affection for her and his concern for Stefan to manipulate him into aiding in her romantic pursuit, even though she KNOWS that dude still harbors feelings for her and that Stefan is his goddamn friend.
She’s just so shitty. She treats all of the other characters, including the ones that are supposed to be her closest friends, like minions, and she actively refuses to give a shit about anyone else’s feelings. The worst part is that despite how terribly she treats them, everyone seems to love her anyway and in fact she’s narratively rewarded for her shitty behavior.
Case in point: Stefan. Elena’s pursuit of him is horrifyingly inappropriate. This dude has made it clear on multiple occasions that he wants nothing to do with her, but because Elena cannot handle the thought of ONE BOY in the entire town not being desperately in love with her, she hounds him anyway. It’s so incredibly creepy and disrespectful, but because this book is this book, Stefan admires her pursuit and falls in love with her anyway.
The narrative briefly tries to advance this idea of Elena as a girl with a stereotypically male attitude towards dating, ie seeing boys as conquests and trophies, but there’s nothing revolutionary in the way that idea is executed here. It does nothing but make Elena an asshole, too.
I’d like to think that as the books go on Elena changes for the better and this is all about setting up her arc, but the movement on that in book one is almost non-existent. She has a line late in the book about wanting to be less selfish and more worthy of Stefan’s love (ugh), but by that point it doesn’t matter because she’s gotten everything she was being an asshole about in the first place.
It also doesn’t help that anyone who dares oppose or even – gasp – dislike Elena gets villainized, full stop.
Exhibit A is her “frenemy” (ugh) Caroline, who has the sheer audacity to want Stefan for herself. She pursues him TO BETTER RESULTS, mind you, because Stefan willingly hangs out with her for like a full week while he’s dodging Elena. But since Caroline isn’t Stefan’s Fated Love, her pursuit is portrayed as predatory and skanky and pathetic, natch.
I swear to god, there is a part of this book where Elena ~MAGNANIMOUSLY~ tries to mend fences with Caroline whilst literally sitting on Stefan’s lap, and we’re supposed to think Caroline is a bitch when she tells Elena to go fuck herself
Meanwhile Stefan spends the entire book putting Elena on a pedestal and romanticizing her refusal to respect his wishes, praising her strength and determination and “inner fire” and also secretly stalking her, himself. None of this is portrayed as unhealthy or weird or illegal, by the way – just as a swoon-worthy manifestation of their epic love.
And OH MY GOD, let’s talk about Stefan, because Stefan is the mopiest motherfucker in all of YA vampiredom, BAR. NONE. Edward Cullen looks like a chipper, well-adjusted dude next to this rain cloud given human form. We’re introduced to this dude as he mourns eating a fucking rabbit, and then –
Stefan realized he was still holding the rabbit. Gently, he laid it down on the bed of brown oak leaves. Far away, too far for human ears to pick up, he recognized the noises of a fox.Oh my god, take a Prozac. I don’t know how, but this book manages to pioneer YA vampire romance and parody it at the same time.
Come along, brother hunter, he thought sadly. Your breakfast is waiting.
Stefan settles in Fell’s Church, supposedly to “start over” and find some way to connect with humanity, but he never actually, like, tries it? He enrolls in school, talks to approximately no one, and then gives up, saying –
He had hoped to find peace here, but that was impossible. He would never be accepted, he would never rest. Because he was evil. He could not change what he was.Oh my god, YOU DIDN’T EVEN TRY and also EVERYONE WAS SUPER NICE TO YOU, HOW WERE YOU NOT ACCEPTED?
Jesus, Stefan doesn’t need a change of scenery, he needs therapy. Like real, actual therapy to work on that crippling self-loathing. STEFAN, BABE, GET HELP. A relationship won’t fix this, you need to work on you.
But this is early 90’s PNR, so of course a relationship can fix this, and Stefan immediately becomes as obsessed with Elena as she is with him. Initially it’s because she looks exactly like the girl who made him a vampire back in Renaissance Italy, but Elena quickly differentiates herself with her oh-so-modern fire and determination and refusal to take no for an answer.
Thus, after weeks of mutual stalking and angsty vampire boners, the relationship finally kicks off with a good, old-fashioned sexual assault.
So, after seeing Caroline and Stefan come to the Homecoming dance together, Elena throws a big baby tantrum and ditches her friends to run off to the cemetery with noted asshole Tyler Smallwood&friends. She ends up in an isolated part of the cemetery with Tyler, and, well, TRIGGER WARNING.
Shit gets real intense for this type of tropey altercation, like, usually the love interest interrupts before the dude can even lay a hand on the heroine, but there is pinning and clothes ripping before Stefan intervenes, so uh, that’s something to keep in mind if you ever plan on reading these books.
Eventually, though, Stefan gets his ass in gear and beats the shit out of Tyler, to the point that Elena has to intervene to keep him from killing him, and it’s all just so manpain-y, you guys. Like, Stefan literally forgets about Elena’s existence for a moment, because it’s really about satisfying his rage, not ensuring her safety.
But who cares, because it’s hot and scary and Stefan has never been more beautiful or more inhuman and isn’t it all so thrilling?
Elena woke with the sun shining in her window. She felt, at once, as if she’d just recovered from a long bout of the flu, and as if it were Christmas morning. Her thoughts jumbled together as she sat up.And –
Oh. She hurt all over. But she and Stefan – that made everything right. That drunken slob Tyler… But Tyler didn’t matter anymore. Nothing mattered except that Stefan loved her.
“You ought to be sorry, running off on us like that,” Bonnie scolded as the three of them joined in a tangled embrace.It’s so thrilling. Elena learned her lesson. Tyler was just a drunken slob. It burns my ass that this incident is so textbook rape culture that even Elena reflects on it like it was an obnoxious prank that got out of hand, like it’s normal drunken behavior. There’s a lack of stigma to Tyler’s actions that I would expect from, say, a male writer or a male character, but find especially distasteful coming from women.
“And with Tyler Smallwood, of all people,” said Meredith.
“Well, I learned my lesson on that score,” Elena said, and for a moment her mood darkened.
Then Bonnie trilled laughter.“And you scored the big one yourself— Stefan Salvatore!”
”He just showed up, like the cavalry in one of those old movies.”
“Defending your honor,” said Bonnie. “What could be more thrilling?”
Elena has like one paragraph about how she declined to press charges against Tyler, and he got suspended from school and kicked off the football team, but that’s it for the fucks she or LJ Smith give about her violent sexual assault. The important thing is that she and Stefan are together now, yaaay!
Look, I appreciate that you might not want your sweeping vampire romance to turn into, like, Speak, but if that’s the case, maybe don’t use sexual assault as a fucking plot device.
Ugh, anyway, so immediately following that mess the book amps up the dramatic angst in a sequence that actually deserves it, and pole-vaults from a puddle of shit into pure fucking gold.
So Stefan rescues Elena, and the two of them walk back to the creepy old boarding house that he’s staying in, because that’s where he left his car, and they go up to his room, because…uh…that’s where he left his keys(???), and Elena makes a pit stop in the bathroom to fix her torn dress, and –
Elena had gone into the bathroom dazed and numbly grateful. She came out angry.Yeah, she goes into the bathroom in shock, and comes out angry with Stefan for refusing to succumb to her charms.
She wasn’t quite sure how the transformation had taken place. But sometime while she was washing the scratches on her face and arms, annoyed at the lack of a mirror and at the fact she’d left her purse in Tyler’s convertible, she started feeling again. And what she felt was anger.
Damn Stefan Salvatore. So cold and controlled even while saving her life. Damn him for his politeness, and for his gallantry, and for the walls around him that seemed thicker and higher than ever.
He gives her a velvet cloak to put over her dress because of course he does, and she’s pissed so she gets all up in his space and starts going through his shit because she knows it’ll annoy him, and then it gets SO REAL that I had to arrange a dramatic reading to convey the sheer romantic ANGST of this scene.
It was in that scene, right there, that this book TRANSCENDED. ALL OF MY RESENTMENT AND SKEPTICISM MELTED AWAY and I let myself LIVE on this glorious higher plane of camp.
THIS SHIT IS SO ANGSTY. Everyone is SO SERIOUS and SO DRAMATIC about the INTENSITY of their FEELINGS and all these teenagers talk like they’re SIXTY YEARS OLD and we go from ANGER to SADNESS to BONER TOWN in the same paragraph and it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read.
Stefan and Elena kiss, and I wish I had arranged a dramatic reading of that, too, because it’s a proto-Night World-soulmate moment where their minds meld and they feel each other on a deep psychic level, and it’s the entirety of what’s going to pass for relationship development in this book. Fuck like, dating or getting to know one another – they kiss, they’re soulmates, they’re meant to be together for ever, the end. We don’t have TIME for anything else, we gots DRAMA to get to.
NGL, I was totally on board with this. These characters are so obnoxious separately that I would never believe that they gave a shit about each other’s personalities, so FUCK IT. THEY ARE IN LOVE BECAUSE OF THEIR SOULS, let’s roll.
Honestly, the “plot” of this book is so centered around the progression of Stefan and Elena’s relationship for those first ~two hundred pages that when they get together and there’s still half a book to go, it’s jarring. Like, other shit has been happening in the background, but nobody has cared or investigated until THIS VERY MOMENT, so it’s like a whole new book starts ramping up on page 175 and boy, does it not pay off.
To make a long story short (too late), Stefan’s evil brother Damon has been gaslighting him into believing that he’s losing control and murdering citizens of Fell’s Church, and eventually the town agrees and turns on him, so Stefan tries to Do the Right Thing and leave town for everyone’s Own Good. Elena, however, has not spent the last two hundred goddamn pages sinking her claws into this dude just to let him get away, so she tries to intercept him at his house and stumbles upon him draining doves like Capri Suns.
Stefan angsts about his inherently evil nature and dramatically recounts his backstory, finally revealing to Elena the existence of his evil bro. She realizes that the mysterious dude who’s been popping up in weird places to harass her is probably Damon, and thus that he’s probably responsible for all the deaths. Stefan gets pissed and fucks off to confront him in the woods, and the two of them have an epically cheesy, utterly one-sided vampire “fight”.
“You’re right about one thing. [Elena’s] strong. Strong enough to fight you off. And now that she knows what you really are, she will. All she feels for you now is disgust.”Stefan loses and disappears, so Elena fucks off to the woods to confront Damon and that’s where the book ends.
Damon’s eyebrows lifted. “Does she, now? We’ll see about that. Perhaps she’ll find that real darkness is more to her taste than feeble twilight.”
Damon’s “villain” “plot” is by far the most boring part of the book because it’s so truncated and pushed to background until the very last minute. You really feel The Awakening’s place as the first of a trilogy: it’s all set up, ends abruptly mid-scene, and doesn’t feel like a complete novel.
Also, I know I haven’t talked about Damon like at all in this review, but that’s because I’ve got nothing to say about him. He left zero impression. He’s a generic asshole in the flashbacks and a generic villain in the present, and while he gets a few good camp moments towards the end, it’s not enough to make me care one way or the other. Truthfully, I don’t remember Damon being compelling at all until book four, but I guess we’ll see.
More interesting is Damon and Stefan’s backstory, and by “interesting” I mean lolzy and OTT. The TV show almost had me forgetting that the two of them were actually from Renaissance Italy, not the Confederate South, which is one thing the books have over the show.
Anyway, Stefan flashes back to his history throughout the book and keeps alluding to some EPIC tragedy that’s weighed on him his entire (un)life, but it’s a lot of hype for a comically underwhelming reveal. Basically he and Damon were spoiled Italian noblemen who lived in Florence and fell in love with the same sickly blond-haired blue-eyed German girl, and then lost their shit when she suggested becoming an immortal OT3.
I think we can all agree that the real villain here is closed-mindedness. KIDS, NON-MONOGAMY IS YOUR FRIEND. They were so close, too, at least 33% of the way closer than most YAs get! Poor Katherine was SO READY to be the bologna in that Salvatore brothers sandwich, Stefan and Damon really should have stepped up.
Instead, their big dicks get in the way and they tell Katherine to choose, so she (fake) kills herself, and I’d like to believe it’s to avoid spending eternity with these fucking losers. True to form, the brothers murder one another, triggering their vampirism and revealing Katherine’s real mistake: giving either of these dumbasses her blood in the first place.
So real talk: this book is garbage. The characters are either awful or enablers, the romance around which EVERYTHING REVOLVES is the definition of underdeveloped, the pacing is terriblet, there are uhhh questionable sexual politics, the cast is blindingly white and straight and cis and abled, and while it’s interesting as the progenitor for SO MANY YA PNR tropes, that legacy is certainly not enough to make up for the rest of this mess.
But I cannot resist that caaaaaaaaaampppp.
There’s just SO MUCH trembling drama over such minor things. All of the emotions – the angst, the fear, the jealousy, the dick-swinging – are turned up to about twenty, and the sheer awfulness of the characters makes it easier to divorce yourself from any investment in them so you can just enjoy the melodramatic ride.
LJ Smith has done plenty of other, better things, but I don’t think there’s anything as delightfully bananas as this.