In January, paranormal romance superstar Sherrilyn Kenyon filed a shocking lawsuit against her husband, accusing him of poisoning her. Now the case is the subject of a long, meandering investigative piece which attempts to spin a juicy true-crime yarn—but in reality, offers a deeply sad and sometimes subtly condescending story about a woman who achieved a great deal and is now going through a very, very rough patch.
The piece comes from Vulture’s Lila Shapiro. Kenyon is a huge name in romance, though in recent years her star has dimmed somewhat. Long before Twilight, she helped ignite the paranormal subgenre boom of the early 2000s, in a style more in keeping with the goth, leather-pantsed bad boys of Buffy and Laurel K. Hamilton and Anne Rice, who were in turn distantly descended from Dark Shadows and Vincent Price. When I first got my driver’s license, I used my newfound freedom to get to Walmart to buy her Dark Hunter books, in which she blended Greek mythology with vampire lore and a cheerfully campy biker-bar sensibility. The first few books in particular were creative and fun and felt fresh and new. The success was a triumph for a woman who grew up poor in an abusive home and struggled financially for years.
But the subgenre lost steam as the 2000s ticked over into the 2010s, with Stephanie Meyer’s sparkly vamps and Vampire Diaries saturating the mainstream and, at the same time, making the popular storylines more teen-oriented. In her own genre, small-town contemporary romance and post-Fifty Shades erotic romance took off. While there are still paranormal romance authors working, and no subgenre ever truly dies, the wildly profitable glory days are over (for now, anyway, but vampires always come back from the dead, eventually).
Sales declining—though that’s very much relative for a woman who once had seven books on the New York Times bestseller list simultaneously—Kenyon reportedly became preoccupied with fantasy writer Cassandra Clare, filing a lawsuit in 2016 claiming copyright infringement and other offenses, before dropping the central but difficult to prove copyright claims. They eventually settled the claims around branding, but the suit was expensive for Kenyon. Around the same time, her publisher dropped her. Her health took a nosedive, with fans and others around her noticing that she appeared to be very, very sick.
Then, this year, came the lawsuit against her husband:
The complaint reads at times like a gothic novel, with florid sentences, melodramatic plot twists, and cryptic references to witchcraft. Only a handful of paragraphs discuss the alleged poisoning and its purported effects on her health — her crumbling teeth and alarming hair loss, the “excruciating stomach cramps,” and the “respiratory issues that left her unable to walk across a room without aid.” Page after page detail trivial incidents, investing them with sinister meaning. At one point, Ken is accused of placing “a large flower arrangement near her computer where cats would upset it onto her work.” Kenyon claims he tried to derail her career from the start. She says he meddled in her relationships with editors and agents and “raged with jealousy” when she spoke with them on the phone. She portrays him as a controlling, toxic presence who “didn’t see what she did as work and refused to respect it as a career.”
Forget the complaint, the story itself is gothic—a bewildering tale where it’s hard even to track the competing claims, much less sort out their ultimate truth. For example, Kenyon’s claims cite a toxicology test she had done, via “a strip-mall operation that promises to have patients ‘in and out in 15 minutes.’” But Shapiro talked to the head of the lab that actually did the test, who said the results weren’t enough to hang a claim of poisoning. (Kenyon told Shapiro she had other tests done, but her publicist wouldn’t let her discuss them, as they were part of an “ongoing investigation.”)
But there’s no way to totally disprove many of her claims, either, and there’s sort of a lurid true-crime angle to the whole thing that feels off for an ongoing story about a woman who seems to be in the midst of a serious crisis. The piece really leans heavily on Kenyon’s most out-there personal qualities; “Statuettes of fairies, wizards, and gargoyles crowded an antique display case,” the story is careful to note, as though that were an indication of anything other than fairly common nerdiness. The portrait veers almost into a grotesque, a disquieting choice of tone for a story that includes this vignette featuring Sheri Jacobs, the close friend with whom Kenyon has essentially holed up in her home:
On my first night at the house, Jacobs walked around pinning up black sheets over the windows. “He took all the rifles,” Jacobs explained. “He took the guns, the two handguns, all the ammunition. If he’s standing out in the dark …,” she trailed off. “The guy snapped,” she said. “Basically he just snapped.” (In his legal filings, Ken says he hid the family’s firearms from Kenyon because he was afraid she might use them against him. “Husband has a genuine fear of being killed by wife,” the filing says.)
While the reporting is thorough and skillful, in essence the piece uses a very old way of talking about romance writers—a voice that is keen to present them almost as a carnival sideshow, closely examining any gaps or overlaps between their real lives and their works, for maximum juiciness. It recalls the way the media was quick to play up the fact that Nancy Crampton-Brophy, who was arrested on suspicion of murdering her husband, had written a couple of books in the genre, loudly billing her as a romance novelist—never mind that she was by no stretch of the imagination a notable name.
The case has divided her family—two of her sons sided with Kenyon, but the third spoke to Vulture about how she’d always tell them “crazy stories” and how he hopes she gets therapy. Kenyon told Shapiro that she’s no longer writing; “The characters aren’t there,” she said, adding, “They’re just not talking. I’ve got nothing.” Clearly there is a story here, but Kenyon’s chosen genre isn’t its core, and gesturing to fantastical writing almost as a symptom is a strange choice.
Read the full, sad story here.