Books, Essays

Books That Shaped Me: L.J. Smith’s Night World

There are the YA classics many of us read, such as Newberry Award recognized books like The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry, and many more. I vaguely remember these books, but I certainly don’t think of them as formative. A voracious reader, my tastes were a little less…distinguished. In my earliest years, it was the American Girl series, The Babysitter’s Club, and The Black Stallion series (of which The Black Stallion and Flame is the best one, I just want you to know that), and while I loved these series, I don’t think I found books that formed me, molded me, and shaped me until I discovered horror.

It all happened at the fourth grade Scholastic Book Fair, and what a better time to discover the horror genre than the fourth grade? At 9-10 years old, you are in the preadolescent years, the now labeled “tween” years, and there’s no more perfect metaphor for ever-looming puberty than horror. Frankly, I don’t understand children who aren’t into horror, but I digress.

The first series I landed on was R.L. Stine’s Fear Street, which eventually led to attempt at a reread project. In fact, my first attempt at a novel was a horror story called Scaryville because I’m an original. My attempt tuckered out around eight pages on the DOS computer at my parent’s business (I realize now eight typed pages is significant for a nine-year-old, but it felt like a failure for a very long time).

Not long after Fear Street, I discovered Christopher Pike, the Point Horror series, Alvin Schwartz’s short story collections, V.C. Andrews, the Zodiac Chillers series, and others I am most certainly forgetting. 

Somewhere in between all that, I discovered L.J. Smith’s Night World, a supernatural-romance series about the various creatures of the “Night World” and the humans that fell in love with them. There were vampires, witches, werewolves, and shapeshifters. Everyone was pretty, everything was forbidden, and the stakes were apocalyptic. Each book focused on a female lead who had to save the world in some way.

LJ Smith_Nightworld-Daughters of DarknessAfter Simon & Schuster began reissuing the series in omnibus form starting in 2008, I went on a quest to hunt down the single paperbacks from my childhood. Fortunately, I found all of them: embossed lettering, cluttered borders with occult symbols, and painted models that looked far older than high school. I was excited, but duly concerned that these beloved books would collapse under the weight of my post-secondary education, gender studies lens. However, to my surprise, they actually held up fairly well.

The lead female characters are varied enough and not Mary Sues, while their love interests largely fit within the parameters of “The Brooding Bad Boy” trope. These stories really are all about the girl, who is a key figure in saving the world. Additionally, there are female villains and secondary female characters that fell somewhere in between, and the Bechdel test is frequently passed, often with flying colors. However, representation is limited to white, female heterosexual characters. The occasional non-white character, when they do appear, is usually described in terms of exoticism.

Night World confirmed me, and girls like me, as a legitimate audience who sought engaging female leads, a dash of apocalypse, and some vampire boy eye candy. Further, Night World, like figure skating and Sailor Moon, my other big fandoms, was formative in shaping my experience of fandom in the burgeoning Internet Age. What is often taken for granted now was the ability to find fellow fans, especially when you are a weirdo kid in a small Texas town. These experiences on fandom on the early internet made me feel a little less lonely and a little less outcast.  

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