WE'VE GOT A MONSTER CRUSH

Somewhere on the way to today's multiplex, the traditional horror-movie vampire received an extreme makeover. Max Schreck's Count Orlok of 1922's "Nosferatu" -- bald, hunched, with claw-like hands, bug eyes and shark-like teeth -- morphed into the hollow-cheeked, Abercrombie & Fitch model looks of "Twilight's" Robert Pattinson, all James Dean glowering and choreographed hair.

Beautiful vampires populate the small screen as well. HBO's "True Blood," (based on Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series) has easy-on-the-eyes Stephen Moyer and Alexander Skarsgard and other members of the undead mixing it up in backwater Louisiana, and in the CW's new "Vampire Diaries," comely undead teens walk the halls of Mystic Falls High.

You can hardly hurl a garlic clove at bestseller lists without hitting a cool-blooded hottie like the ones who inhabit the Harris books or P.C. and Kristin Cast's "House of Night" series. And let's face it, when a phenomenon is so ensconced in the zeitgeist that GQ and Esquire feel compelled to visit and at least attempt to explain away the manifestation of metrosexual monsters stealing the hearts and emptying the veins of our womenfolk, you can bet that every book agent and vice president of development is looking for the next paranormal paramour.

Early bets favored the werewolf. Last December, Entertainment Weekly all but declared 2009 the year of the lycanthrope, citing as evidence the werewolf-heavy "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans" and "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" (opening Nov. 20) and Universal's long-in-the-works remake of "The Wolf Man" with Oscar-winner Benicio Del Toro in (now slated to open in February 2010).

Lynda Hilburn, a licensed psychotherapist and the author of two vampire-themed novels ("The Vampire Shrink" and "Dark Harvest"), assesses the appeal of the wolf pack:

"Werewolves are very primal and earthy; they're not as withdrawn as vampires. It's like a love interest that turns into a very scary, dangerous, out-of-control pet once a month. If you're an animal lover, you'll like all kinds of were-creatures. And there's all kinds of werewolf books out right now."

Recent titles include Bob Curran's "Werewolves: A Field Guide to Shapeshifters, Lycanthropes, and Man-Beasts" and "The Werewolf's Guide to Life: A Manual for the Newly Bitten" by Ritch Duncan and Bob Powers (both published last month). Del Rey Books is set to publish the monster-lit mash-up "Little Women and Werewolves," (based on Louisa May Alcott's 1868 book and updated by Porter Grand) in June.

Of course, Hilburn has a soft spot for vampires, as well. Women, she says, "have invested a tremendous amount of emotion projecting on these vampire characters. These are the quintessential bad boys, and women always have fantasies about the guy standing in the corner by himself. We want to rescue him and save him."

Women prefer to view their vampires as sort of superior beings, Hilburn says. "I like to think they've used all those centuries to expand their brains." Men, on the other hand, "seem to love zombies because [the zombies] are emotionless. Women I talk to say: 'I don't get the appeal of zombies.' And, 'I'm not going to get up close to a zombie, because you never know what will fall off.' "

Zombies? True, the Woody Harrelson shoot-em-up flick "Zombieland" reversed a trend of softer horror openings, topping the box office with $25 million worth of tickets in the U.S. and Canada when it opened the first weekend of October -- and has nearly doubled its take since then. And Max Brooks' "The Zombie Survival Guide," which offers pointers on surviving a zombie uprising including "blades don't need reloading" and "Ideal protection = tight clothes, short hair," has now sold more than 1 million copies.

Nonetheless, as Hilburn points out, the brain-eating bunch can't hold a crucifix to a vampire when it comes to sweeping a lady off her feet.

That makes the literary mash-up of zombies and Jane Austen (credited along with Seth Grahame-Smith) titled "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" a particularly notable phenomenon. The book (in development as a movie) shambled onto the bestseller list after its April publication and has remained there for the last 27 weeks, and zombies seem to have infiltrated a number of literary genres. This month they invaded the "Star Wars" universe with the publication of the horror novel "Star Wars: Death Troopers" (Del Rey/LucasBooks), and by August, they'll be tackling Twain when Tor and Forge Books publishes Don Borchert's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Undead."

It turns out the zombie zeitgeist closing out the aughts and the romantic notions of the "sparklepires" (slang referring to the "Twilight"-style vampires that, instead of bursting into flames in sunlight, merely sparkle) come from the very same place.

"It's teenage girls that are driving the whole thing," says Patty Garcia, director of publicity for Tor and Forge Books. "It all started with 'Twilight.' These are the smarter kids who are hanging out at Hot Topic and Urban Outfitters at the mall, who might not have been reading books before. Now even the classics are fresh and new and fun to read."

This isn't surprising according to Ron Hogan, senior editor at GalleyCat, a blog that closely follows the book publishing industry. "You always want to look to romance in terms of what's driving things," he says. "Romance is the linchpin of the mass market at this point."

Describing the expected audience for "Little Women and Werewolves," David Moench, assistant director of publicity for Del Rey, cited a similar demographic. "First, it's the women who are Louisa May Alcott fans and grew up to read paranormal romance novels and are now revisiting a classic and having the best of both worlds."

Just because we now know who's driving the pop culture bus doesn't mean we know what dark side street it's heading down. The publishing world seems to agree that vampires, werewolves and zombies will remain the A-lister archetypes of the foreseeable future (though Brooks sees an eventual great zombie die-off). But when it comes to supernatural suitors waiting in the wings, there is little consensus.

Some think that because they occupy the same unattainable lover/immortal protector space (and look just as good with their shirts off), angels are a good bet, pointing to books such as Becca Fitzpatrick's "Hush, Hush" which was published this month, J.R. Ward's "Covet," which recently debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times mass market fiction bestseller list, Lauren Kate's "Fallen" (out in December) and movies like the Paul Bettany guardian angel-action flick "Legion," slated to bow in January.

Others point to a rising wave of books involving merfolk and selkies (seal-like creatures that transform back and forth from human form by shedding or donning their seal skins) including Aimee Friedman's "Sea Change," published this summer, and Nicole Peeler's "Tempest Rising" (scheduled to hit stores on Tuesday).

"I think we're going to be seeing more of the [supernatural creatures] that aren't particularly famous," says GalleyCat's Hogan, "the whole broader spectrum, the fairy kingdom and selkies. They'll emerge because they're fresh and new."

Pointing out how the subgenre of literary mash-ups helped stoke the zeal for zombies, and the continuing rise in the "paranormal urban romance" category (stories set in modern-day settings that deal with old-school monsters), Del Rey's Moench thinks that it might actually be the medium instead of the monster that grows in popularity moving forward.

"I can see authors taking all the different genres and characters that are already popular out there and wrapping them all up together and putting them in a new and different settings and stories. So maybe it's the mash-up that's the next big thing."

That paranormal polyglot can already be seen on the screen. The aforementioned "Underworld" and "Twilight" movie franchises combine werewolves and vampires; TV's "True Blood" includes shape shifters, while BBC America's "Being Human" is based around three twentysomething flat mates who just so happen to be a ghost, a werewolf and a vampire.

Horror writer Steve Niles ("30 Days of Night" and "Criminal Macabre") says he's seen angels among the next wave of archetypes coming over Hollywood's horizon. "I've heard a lot about guardian angels and ghosts -- helpful ghosts. And I've seen zombies that are moving away from the classic, shambling, flesh-eating type to something a little more nuanced and sympathetic." Niles thinks a soon-to-blossom "friendly monster" genre is symbolic of society confronting its darkest fears -- by extending a hand of friendship.

And he says just because the movies haven't served up the putrefying reanimated corpse as leading man, don't think zombie lovin' is out of the question. "I guarantee they're going to figure out a way to make that happen."

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adam.tschorn@latimes.com

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