The ongoing liquidation of Borders bookstores has offered ample opportunity to discover exciting authors and titles previously unknown. However, one such sale led to the rediscovery of a very well known name. When I stepped into the Borders slated to close on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue back in November, vulturous bargain-grabbing readers had already scavenged the vast majority of the desirable stock; 95 percent of the fiction titles had vanished, and what remained was likely stripped of their covers and hauled away to the recycling bin.
In the basement, however, the Sci-Fi and Fantasy section remained plentiful. Even with 75 percent off, those covers with turrets and space ships are impossible to move. Merged with these unpopular remnants was also the vampire subgenre from the young adult section, all awash in that flavorless nouveau-Gothic aesthetic made attractive by the Twilight series. Absently browsing, I happened across one such YA paperback, but carrying an author’s name which gave me pause: S.E. Hinton.
Why was the queen of banned teen novels writing for the now-ironic vampire genre? Did she, like so many other authors lining these shelves, view vampire mania as a mere cash crop? The cover image, featuring a sallow Bella Swan lookalike with an exposed neck, did nothing for me but to further impugn Hinton’s reputation. But a quick glance at the copyright page revealed Hawkes Harbor was originally published in pre-Twilight 2004 (my paperback copy appeared in 2010, the cover a likely marketing ploy on the part of the publisher), thus ruling out my theories about jumping on bandwagons.
It wasn’t until I began reading that I learned Hawkes Harbor bears a strikingly uncanny resemblance to another, older vampire series, Dark Shadows, the ‘60s Gothic daytime soap opera featuring a streetwise manservant and his aristocratic but forlorn vampire employer, Barnabas Collins. The novel’s resemblance to Dark Shadows is so conspicuous, in fact, that fan site Collinwood.net claims Hawkes Harbor was originally commissioned as an entry in a new book series update of the television soap; though, why Hinton would be approached for such a project remains unsaid. According to the fan site, publishers passed on Hinton’s inclusion of explicit sexual content and language (the c-word appears along with descriptions of a ménage a trois). By simply altering names, places, and circumstances, Hinton called it a stand-alone story and had it published, anyway.
Writing in third-person and limited to the perspective of the servant (here Jamie Sommers stands in for Dark Shadows’ Willie Loomis), Hinton preserves her trademark reliance on the young adult formula by aligning the reader with yet another young, male underdog and antihero, whose triumph over adversity as he transitions from a wild young man into a responsible adult endows him with earned wisdom and self-awareness, and indirectly addresses the young reader’s own personal struggles toward self-awareness. But this is no YA novel, contrary to the cover’s appeal and Hinton’s youthful instincts. From a parental standpoint, this is a book written for adults; critically, it’s a book targeting adults without the capacity to successfully reach them.
Jamie Sommers is, like many of Hinton’s protagonists, a rebel with a heart of gold who was unfairly handed a life of hard knocks, and whose faults and limitations are magnified to better suit the melodramatic arch. Sommers’ reckless libertinism is mediated by his quest for a home and a sense of belonging, and the two collide in his encounter with the vampire Grenville Hawkes, whose imprisonment and displacement from humanity have turned his black heart even darker. Grenville Hawkes’ determination to fight his blood thirst, however, and the evolution of his relationship with Jamie, which is at first manipulative and abusive slavery, and later friendly and affectionately avuncular, provides, sadly, merely 50 closing pages of depth in a novel otherwise absorbed in Jamie Sommers’ diluted, superficial past. Hinton’s additional efforts to play chronological hopscotch in pursuit of a sense of mystique are aggravatingly anticlimactic.
It’s easy to believe the novel was initially a Dark Shadows property when it reads like unremarkable, crudely drafted fan fiction, in many instances ripped scene-for-scene from episodes. Told in clipped tones, and peppered with careless plot inaccuracies and such rarefied nuggets of description as “she had a small, heart-shaped butt, just made for gripping” and “I’m just after a quick dip in the ol’ panties,” Hawkes Harbor embodies the maxim that if you don’t use it, you lose it; after 15 years, Hinton has revealed a stunning lack of growth as a writer. Believing sex scenes and swear wrods are all that separates older audiences from younger ones, Hinton’s transition to adult fiction refrains from delivering any maturity of prose, and careens past the artifices of the plot to supplant any complex emotions and relationships or challenging themes with casual pretense.
The absence of imagination and gusto reads loud and clear for the first 150 pages as she lazily relies upon outdated gender and cultural archetypes and worn vampire clichés when she isn’t already committing grand theft from the soap opera scripts. Indeed, the book was far more engrossing than it ever had any right to be, a compliment due entirely to its borrowed plot, and welcome thematic and tonal departures in the third act, which hint at a richer, more satisfying story that never was.
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