Reading the Vampire Slayer: an unofficial critical companion to Buffy and Angel edited by Roz Kaveney

Far more than just a teenage fang club
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The Independent Culture

Buffy! instantly, readers are split into two groups: those who were never attracted by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and can't understand those who are; and those who freely admit to being addicts. There seems to be no middle ground.

Those who don't watch the television show might be confused: is Buffy a teen soap, a humorous drama, a horror series? The answer, of course, is yes to all, and much more. This multivalency is what makes a book like Reading the Vampire Slayer both inevitable and welcome. Buffy may originally have been aimed at young teens, but its dedicated fans now span a much wider range. As editor Roz Kaveney notes, "middle-aged writers and intellectuals discuss it over dinner."

It is due to creator Joss Whedon and his writing team that Buffy the Vampire Slayer functions on so many different levels. This collection of scholarly essays – five of the 11 contributors are academics – explores a number of them, including the fun, the fighting and the feminism. A few are written in a postmodernist style which feels curiously dated; one chapter title, "Vampire dialectics: knowledge, institutions and labour" has the unmistakable feel of 1970s Lit Crit. But others are a joyful exploration of just what it is about Buffy that grabs so many people.

This book sold out even before publication, simply because it is a book about Buffy. Yet this is very much a book for well-educated adult fans. Teenagers are already well-served by a mass of glossy illustrated books, and the superb episode guide Slayer by the British writer Keith Topping – although brighter teens will certainly appreciate some of the essays here, particularly the excellent "They always mistake me for the character I play!" about the cast's development of characters over the five seasons.

Scholarly books on cult TV programmes are nothing new; Star Trek spawned dozens. This book is closest in its approach to the American study Deny All Knowledge: reading the X-Files. The writers of Reading the Vampire Slayer are largely British. It's strange, then, that none highlights the paradoxical Britishness of the series, despite its sunny Californian setting.

Its handling of humour, sex, fantasy, the supernatural, the surreal, and its subversion of expectations, all owe far more to The Avengers or The Prisoner than to The X-Files or even Twin Peaks. Even at the very basic level of "gorgeous-girl-kicks-ass", the character of Buffy is much closer to Emma Peel than to Xena. As well as the many British cultural references, the series' voice of wisdom, Buffy's Watcher Giles, is quintessentially English, as is the vampire with a heart, Spike.

Buffy is renowned for its explorations of moral ambiguity. Kaveney mentions wryly "the amount of offence [the shows] caused to the Religious Right, oddly more for their sexual libertarianism than for their inventively heretical treatment of theology". Fundamentalist Christians must have found it difficult to attack a programme in which Good beats up Evil on a weekly basis; but they screamed their outrage when Buffy made love with Angel, and even more when her friend Willow came out as lesbian. Buffy is about transgressing boundaries: not just TV genre boundaries, but boundaries between good and evil, youth and maturity, duty and love. And, as many of the essays explore, it is in the transgressed boundaries that real power and excitement lie.

But Buffy is above all a fun programme. This is apparent in all the essays, including "Laugh, spawn of hell, laugh", which ends by inviting us to refrain from dwelling too long on the absurdity inherent in watching a show about a vampire slayer called Buffy.

One major warning: the essays assume a knowledge of the first five seasons of Buffy and the first two seasons of Angel. For anyone who watches the programmes on terrestrial TV, we are only up to episode 15 out of 22 on BBC2, while Channel 4 has yet to show season two of Angel at all. This isn't too important in the case of Angel, but the book contains massive spoilers for Buffy, and reveals the shock events in later episodes. Caveat emptor.