If a shrill, high-decibel squeal suddenly disrupts the Sunday peace and quiet from sea to shining sea, blame Stephenie Meyer.
Probably every teenage girl you know (and more than a few of their mothers) started reading Breaking Dawn, the fourth and final volume in Meyer's vampire saga, when it was released at midnight Saturday. So these 3.2 million fanatical readers are about to discover whether the heroine, Bella, ends up with the unearthly beautiful vampire, Edward, or with the devoted werewolf, Jacob. In fact, they ought to be turning the 768th, and final page right ... about ... now.
If the T-shirts worn by young, female Baltimoreans are any indication, the rivalry between the U.S. and China women's gymnastic teams in the coming 2008 summer Olympics is nothing compared to the competition between Team Edward and Team Jacob.
"I'm really torn," 15-year-old Julia Schneiderman says. "I have friends on both sides, and I personally have not been able to choose. It's a lot of pressure."
Meyer has said in interviews that she was a 29-year-old Mormon housewife when she had a dream about a conversation between a teenage vampire and a human girl that took place in a meadow. The young couple were deeply in love, but the vampire feared that if were to, um, let loose his animal urges, he wouldn't be able to control himself and would end up murdering his girlfriend and drinking her blood. Talk about a bad first date.
Meyer expanded her idea into a manuscript about a coven of vegetarian vampires who refrain from snacking on humans for moral reasons, and mailed it off to a bunch of publishing houses. A college intern read the story and brought the book to the attention of her bosses at Little Brown, who published the novel in 2005.
In the past three years, the first three installments of The Twi light Series have sold more than 10 million copies in more than three dozen countries, including 7.5 million books in the U.S. alone.
The series has spawned a major film starring newcomer Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattison (Cedric Diggory in a Harry Potter sequel) as the sun-crossed lovers. Twilight opens nationwide Dec. 12.
The announcement that Breaking Dawn, the fourth and final volume would be released this weekend, was greeted with such rapturous anticipation that more than 4,000 bookstores across the nation threw publication parties at midnight Saturday.
"There hasn't been this much advance demand for a book since the seventh Harry Potter book was released last summer," says Donna Bates, a merchandise supervisor for the Borders bookstore - and a fan of Meyer's series.
"Ever since the first book came out, it's been steadily building in popularity. I'm 50, and I read it, and I've talked many women my age into reading it. It's very romantic, though there's no sex in it at all. I think this notion of a Byronic hero who has to restrain himself to protect the woman he loves resonated with a lot of female fantasies."
Though the Twilight books have some male fans who enjoy the vampire aspects of the saga, it's not surprising that the series appeals primarily to the X-chromosome set. Elizabeth Eulenberg, who bears the unwieldy title of Director of Global Publicity for Stephenie Meyer, estimates that perhaps 90 percent of the series' fans are female, and that two-thirds are younger than 18.
As popular as the books are, Meyer isn't about to knock J.K. Rowling off her broomstick any time soon. With the 3.2 million advance copies for Breaking Dawn, the total number of sales for Meyers' four books will exceed 13 million. In contrast, sales of the seven Harry Potter books have topped 400 million.
Comparisons between the two series are inevitable. Even Meyer's staunchest fans concede both that the vampire author lacks Rowling's ability to envision a new world down to the smallest physical details, and that the Twilight books lack the depth and scope of the saga about the boy wizard. But, in the Potter books, male-female dynamics get relatively short shrift. In the Twilight series, the romantic triangle is the main course.
"Stephenie Meyer's writing might not be spectacular, but she's an amazing storyteller," says Hannah Briggs, 15, of Baltimore.
"What I like about the world that she has created in Twilight is that there are rules about what vampires can do and what they can't do, and the rules don't change. In the Harry Potter books, sometimes she [Rowling] will put the characters in a predicament and then invent some new magic that they can do to get them out of it."
The Twilight series is a fantasy in more ways than one. Despite the ever-present threat of annihilation by bloodsuckers, Meyer paints a world that is safer than the one in which teens really live, a world that reflects her values as a member of the Church of Latter-day Saints. Not only is it a world in which the characters abstain from premarital sex, it also is a world without drugs or violence. The characters don't even swear.
Though Meyer has a light touch, Nicole Selhorst, owner of The Red Canoe, a Baltimore bookstore specializing in children's literature, thinks the series tackles serious issues beneath the surface.
"Stephenie Meyer knows how to spin out the moral perplexity of growing into adulthood and making decisions you'll have to face the rest of your life," Selhorst says. "And she knows how to write a lot of adventure. I was flipping pages, wanting to find whatever happens next."
The Borders in Timonium had planned a slew of theme-related activities for its launch party. Bravely, the store decided to designate a "graffiti wall" on which teens can scrawl slogans from the book in magic markers. Many will dress up as favorite characters - Hannah spent hours on the Internet trying to locate not one, but two pair of contact lenses that will change her eyes to the golden brown that, according to Meyer, is a hallmark of the Undead.
The Park School sophomore has designed about 10 shirts featuring catchy slogans for different characters that she proudly wears to school, to the mall, and to parties. Her favorite proclaims her allegiance to Jacob, the werewolf.
On the front, the shirt reads: "Who's afraid of the big, bad wolf?" The back says, "Team Jacob" and is adorned with paw prints.
But the climax of the party surely came at 12:01 a.m. yesterday, when Hannah, Julia and their friends finally got Breaking Dawn and began reading through the night. No matter how tempted, the girls swore blood oaths that they wouldn't skip ahead to the end. With occasional breaks for veggie burgers and batnaps, they ought to be winding up the saga today.
Get out your earplugs.
It's been a full year since the final book in Harry Potter series was released, and the publishing industry is searching eagerly for another author to capture the imaginations of young readers. So far, at least two children's fantasy series have been touted as possible successors to Rowling's series:
* His Dark Materials: Philip Pullman's trilogy is a coming-of-age story in which the author explores the age-old conflict between innocence and knowledge. It was published between 1995 and 2001. Two pre-teens, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry, are aided in their quest by such fantastical creatures as armored bears and witches. A film of the first book in the trilogy, The Golden Compass, was released last winter.
* The Inheritance Cycle: Christopher Paolini began writing his fantasy series about dragons, ancient races, elves and dwarfs, at age 15. On Sept. 23, Brisingr, the third of four planned books in Paolini's cycle, will be published. Two years ago, Fox released Eragon, a movie version of the first novel in the series.