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SOURCE: “The Alienated World of the Mutilated Men,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 19, 1982, p. 11.
[In the following review, Hilton offers qualified praise for A Cry to Heaven.]
Guido Maffeo was castrated when he was 6 years old. Born the 11th child in a peasant family, where hunger and cruelty were routine, the boy was taken gently, petted and fed; even the knife was not used unkindly. Although the memory of the surgery never left him, he had exchanged what he would not experience for a profession that afforded him a passion some men might envy.
Tonio Treschi was not so fortunate with his memories. At 15 he had already tasted the joys of sex; he had a strong sense of manhood, pride and heritage. The knife was applied violently, a shocking act of brutality and misplaced revenge. The mutilation stripped him of his family, of his position in the culture, of his masculinity and pride. He was thrust into a profession for which he was qualified by virtue of talent, but of which he was an unwilling and humiliated member.
Once again author Anne Rice delves into a society of the alienated. Her provocative first novel. Interview With the Vampire, was followed by The Feast of All Saints, a tale of the quadroons of New Orleans in the 19th Century. Now eunuchs. The 18th-Century castrati were usually selected because of their beautiful voices, and the determining surgery was only the first step in a disciplined schedule of study for the male soprano, whose greatest glory was to perform in the opera.
In that time the opera had some of the same sense of public excitement currently associated with the World Series or the Super Bowl. Who would sing at the opera was on the tip of every tongue, the tradespeople as well as the noble families. Performers vied on stage, personally competing as well as seeking to win the favor of the audiences, who were not above shouting down a newcomer if he posed a threat to an old favorite.
Eunuchs fortunate enough to reach the opera were rewarded richly. Indeed, as it turns out, eunuchs are not necessarily sexually deprived. Capable of intercourse but not procreation, they could find loving relationships with one another and were highly sought after by many women—and men. As their popularity grew, so did their opportunities for sexual activity.
For Guido, who would otherwise have been condemned to an existence of squalor and deprivation, loss of sexual identity in exchange for security, position, popularity and an opportunity to nourish his musical abilities was not something worth contemplating or regretting.
Tonio was unable to be as philosophical. Determined to revenge himself for the mutilation, he dealt daily in his mind with the meaning of his castration. Although talented, touted, able to enjoy sexual pleasures and desirable to women, he felt set apart and he had suffered great humiliation. He was not a man.
As he begins to grow taller, he asks Guido in anguish. “What is happening to me?” “You will continue to grow tall.” Guido tells him. “Your arms and legs will increase in length … it is this flexibility of bone which gives you such power with your voice. Every day that you practice you increase the size of your lungs, and the elastic bones let those lungs grow. So that very soon you will have power in the upper register that no woman could ever possess. No boy, for that matter. No other man.”
“But your hands will hang low on your body, and your feet...
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will flatten out. And you will be weak in the arms as a woman is weak. You will not have the natural muscularity of a man.”
Tonio's greatest dread is that one day he will be forced to appear on stage as a woman, an act he despises even though its refusal might cost the greatest satisfaction still open to him—that of performing. Tonio's question is contemporary: What does it mean to be a man? Will taking revenge on the perpetrator of the crime restore some sense of his masculinity to him? Can the power and satisfaction of winning audiences and becoming the darling of society compensate for unfulfilled sexuality? Rice's themes are particularly suited to our own culture—attempting to put new faces on old roles.
Cry to Heaven is satisfying. Only in conclusion does the writing fail to sustain the power of the action, a failure to be forgiven.
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Anne Rice 1941-
(Also wrote under pseudonyms Anne Rampling and A. N. Roquelaure) American novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Rice's career.
Anne Rice is the best-selling author of mainstream gothic fiction that centers on the alluring subjects of vampirism, occult demonology, and the supernatural. Her debut novel, Interview with the Vampire (1976), attracted a large popular audience and established her as a foremost contemporary author of horror fiction. Subsequent installments in the “Vampire Chronicles” series, including The Vampire Lestat (1985) and The Queen of the Damned (1988), fortified her reputation as a highly imaginative writer of macabre fantasy. Rice's engaging novels are distinguished for their richly descriptive settings, provocative eroticism, and looming metaphysical concerns that reflect the precarious nature of religious faith and truth in the postmodern world. Her vampires, demons, and historical personages are typically dispossessed or alienated individuals who wrestle with existential questions of morality, religion, sex, and death. Though best known for her “Vampire Chronicles” and “Mayfair Witches” series, Rice has also published several successful historical novels, The Feast of All Saints (1980) and Cry to Heaven (1982), both of which feature exotic historical settings and social outcasts.
Born Howard Allen O'Brien in New Orleans, Louisiana, Rice was named after her postal worker father, Howard O'Brien, and mother, Katherine Allen O'Brien. As a child she disliked her first name so much that she changed it to Anne in grade school. The second of four sisters, Rice grew up in the blue-collar “Irish Channel” neighborhood of New Orleans. The Irish Channel borders the affluent Garden District of the city, and Rice mentions walking by the neighborhood's opulent homes, conscious of her status as an outsider, as an influence on her life and work. Rice attended a Catholic church throughout her childhood, though eventually rejected organized religion as a teenager. After her mother's death from alcoholism when Rice was fourteen, the family moved to Texas, where Rice met her high-school sweetheart and husband, poet Stan Rice. They married in 1961 and shortly afterward moved to San Francisco, where their daughter, Michelle, was born.
Rice initially attended Texas Women's University but transferred to San Francisco State University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in political science in 1964 and a Master of Arts in creative writing in 1971. She also took graduate classes at the University of California, Berkeley. When Michelle, then five years old, died of leukemia in 1972, Rice and her husband sought solace in alcohol, a destructive pattern that lasted several years. Rice found some measure of relief by writing Interview with the Vampire in only five weeks; the novel's child-vampire character, Claudia, resembles Michelle in age and appearance. Two works of historical fiction, The Feast of All Saints and Cry to Heaven followed during the early 1980s before Rice returned to vampires. Her popularity soared with the 1985 publication of the second book in the “Vampire Chronicles” series, The Vampire Lestat, followed by The Queen of the Damned, a Literary Guild main selection, in 1988, The Tale of the Body Thief (1992), Memnoch the Devil (1995), and The Vampire Armand (1998). The popular “Mayfair Witches” series, comprised of The Witching Hour (1990), a Book-of-the-Month selection, Lasher (1993), and Taltos (1994), added to her popularity and incredible commercial success. Rice also adapted Interview with the Vampire into the screenplay for the Hollywood film version of the novel, starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, which appeared in 1994. Rice returned to New Orleans in 1988, purchasing a mansion in the Garden District, which serves as the setting for her books about the Mayfair Witches. She lives there today with her husband and son, Christopher.
Rice's fiction revolves around the situations of outsiders and misfits in society, questions of atheism and agnosticism, and themes of power and submission. Often including supernatural characters and plotting, Rice's work is noted for its darkness, eroticism, and evocation of setting and historical detail. In Interview with the Vampire a vampire named Louis relates his life story and adventures to a reporter who tape-records their session. Recalling his transformation as a vampire in 1790 at age twenty-five, Louis describes his first kill and evolving relationships with Lestat, his maker, and Claudia, a child-vampire whom they have created together. Unlike Claudia and Lestat who revel in murderous bloodshed, Louis is tormented by a moral dilemma—he believes it is wrong to kill, but he must kill to eat. An ensuing power struggle between Louis and Lestat results in Lestat's second death, for which Louis is imprisoned in the Theatre des Vampires, a coven of vampires in Paris. After burning the Theatre and escaping with Armand, an older vampire who mentors him, Louis returns to New Orleans where he is an outcast. As in much gothic fiction, underlying themes of homoeroticism and incest are prevalent throughout the novel. Rice also examines religious beliefs by comparing Louis, who tries and fails to construct his own moral framework, to his brother, a devout Roman Catholic. In the sequel, The Vampire Lestat, Lestat awakes from a moribund slumber in the year 1980, upon which he becomes a leather clad rock star. Presented as an autobiographic account, the novel traces the origins and history of vampirism through ancient, medieval, and modern history. The story concludes as Lestat performs in San Francisco to an audience of vampires who prepare to kill him for revealing their secrets in his published autobiography and lyrics. A continuation of the previous novel, The Queen of the Damned involves Akasha, mother of all vampires, whose scheme to institute world peace involves exterminating most of the male population and founding an empire governed by women.
In The Tale of the Body Thief Lestat contemplates suicide and eventually agrees to exchange his body with a mortal to temporarily escape his relentless ennui. Lestat must relearn mortal habits and a desperate chase follows after his counterpart disappears with his immortal body. Rice grapples with a shift in her personal philosophy from atheism to uncertainty about God's existence in Memnoch the Devil, in which Lestat converses with God and the Devil and tours Hell before deciding whether to join forces with the Devil. In The Vampire Armand, the sixth installment of the “Vampire Chronicles,” Rice resurrects the title character, who earlier succumbed to a lethal dose of sunlight. Armand recollects his apprenticeship to Marius De Romanus in sixteenth-century Venice and subsequent rise as head of a Parisian vampire clan.
The “Mayfair Witches” series features Rowan Mayfair, scion of a matrilineal old New Orleans family whose members possess supernatural gifts and have been shadowed through time by a mysterious entity named Lasher. These books are characterized by intricate plotting, cliffhanger endings, and frequent flashbacks that tell the story of the Mayfair family's entanglement with Lasher over hundreds of years. The Mummy (1992) takes place in London, where young Julie Stratford falls in love with the reanimated mummy of Pharaoh Ramses III, who possesses the secret elixir of life. Julie and Ramses travel to Egypt where Ramses revives a murderous Cleopatra. In Servant of the Bones (1996), the genie Azriel fights the attempts of a demented millionaire to commit genocide on the population of the Third World.
Rice combined her interest in history with her exploration of social exiles by writing two historical novels. The Feast of All Saints enters the world of the gens de couleur, the group of free mulattoes who lived in antebellum New Orleans. The story focuses on the experiences of siblings Marcel and Marie, whose distinctive golden skin prohibits their full acceptance within either black or white society. Cry to Heaven centers upon the life of an eighteenth-century Italian castrati, a male singer who is castrated as a boy to preserve his high voice. The protagonist, Tonio Treschi, attempts to fulfill his desire to become one of the greatest opera singers in Europe while plotting revenge on his brother for treacherously having him castrated and exiled. Both books focus on characters who, like Rice's vampires and witches, exist on the fringes of mainstream society without being accepted by it. Rice also explored her fascination with sadomasochism by writing a pseudonymous series of pornographic novels—The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty (1983), Beauty's Punishment (1984), and Beauty's Release (1985) as A. N. Roquelaure and Exit to Eden (1985) and Belinda (1986) as Anne Rampling.
Most critics recognize Rice's remarkable talent for constructing page-turning plots, evoking a sense of place—particularly when writing about her native New Orleans—and creating whole new universes peopled by supernatural characters. She is widely praised for rejuvenating the hackneyed genre of vampire fiction with her intelligent, ambitious novels. Rice's novels are also noted for their appealing eroticism and have attracted the interest of gay readers who identify with the themes of alienation depicted in the underground culture of vampiric society. However, Rice's major goal—acceptance as a serious writer by the literary fiction world—has so far eluded her. Though some critics appreciate Rice's philosophical musings on immortality and incorporation of occult history in her novels, others find her writing verbose, implausible, and clichéed. Some dismiss her otherworldly subject matter and frequent erotic descriptions as unworthy of serious literary effort. Reviewers have criticized Rice's later work, notably Servant of the Bones and Memnoch the Devil, for frequent and lengthy digressions from plot and description to use her characters as mouthpieces for Rice's ideas of philosophy and life. Despite such criticism, Rice remains one of the United States's best-selling authors. Her weird casts of characters and fantastic storylines hold a terrific appeal for readers and have broken new ground in contemporary literature. As Susan Ferraro writes in New York Magazine: “Rice's vampires are loquacious philosophers who spend much of eternity debating the nature of good and evil. Trapped in immortality, they suffer human regret. They are lonely, prisoners of circumstance, compulsive sinners, full of self-loathing and doubt. The are, in short, Everyman Eternal.”
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SOURCE: “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” in Washington Post Book World, November 6, 1988, pp. 8-9.
[In the following excerpt, Bleiler evaluates The Queen of the Damned in relation to previous volumes of “The Vampire Chronicles.”]
I did things backwards when I approached Anne Rice's The Queen of the Damned, the third volume in her “Vampire Chronicles.” I read it first, then the second volume (The Vampire Lestat) and, last of all, Interview with the Vampire, the first book in the series. In one way this turned out to be an advantage, since I could see the latest book as an independent work, as a new reader might see it and not as a book sustained by others. As a disadvantage, I first thought, there might be a problem coming in cold on situations, events, and personalities all based on the past.
It turned out, when I read the other two novels, that the problem wasn't a large one. The carry-over from The Vampire Lestat is not great, and Interview with the Vampire is not only irrelevant, but somewhat misleading to later developments. The author seems to have replanned her work after writing the interview.
Rice's vampire world was easily picked out from The Queen of the Damned, and it is very different from the classical pattern that J. M. Rymer, J. S. Le Fanu, and Bram Stoker established. For Rice a vampire's victim does not automatically become a vampire; making a new vampire is a fairly complicated process, almost a rite, that involves exchanging blood. Nor do vampires have any of the remarkable abilities or disabilities that Count Dracula had, like transforming himself into a bat, sliding around as a mist through keyholes, not showing on mirrors, or worrying about stakes and garlic. But Rice's vampires are abnormally strong, immortal except for fire and total destruction, and with advanced age they apparently pick up some paranormal abilities like thought reading, levitation, etc. All take their daily blood, animal as well as human, and all are photophobic.
They are also a very mixed-group. Some, like Lestat, enter life with high spirits and brio, and with small disguise pass for mortals. They enjoy music, the theater, and are immortal hedonists, wealthy and cultured. Others live as outlaws, mad dogs whose hand is against everyone. And still others carry on strange cults with elaborate superstitions, like avoidance of crosses. But there is one general pattern: Even more than mortals, they can be violently hostile to one another, and it takes very little to set them against one another with fire and scythe.
The Vampire Lestat, which is the best of the three books, despite divagations was basically a quest for meaning in the life of a vampire. Lestat wanted to find out what it was all about. He eventually learned a historical point of view, but it didn't seem to make much difference to him. In The Queen of the Damned Lestat sets things in motion with a new project: He wants vampires to go public, and initiate a dialogue/war with mortals. Why? This is not entirely clear, but it seems to be for the excitement and thrills involved, for vampires get very bored over the centuries. His mode: setting himself up as a rock star and on record and in rock concerts revealing the mythic secrets of the vampires as far as he knows them. But more happens than he expects when the living dead come to-life.
But then Lestat lapses into the background, only poking a canine tooth out occasionally, as the book shifts around a succession of characters, some with the same names as those in the earlier volumes (though not with good characterization), some new. About the time that one grows used to a character, the story shifts. To carry on the plot, which is complex, Rice adds three new elements to the vampire situation: a synthetic creation myth that is revealed in fragments to account for the existence of vampires; a feminist approach, which shifts to woman characters and a female responsibility for vampirism; and a world peril, both threatened and averted by women vampires. In this last, unless the force that Lestat has awakened can be stopped, not only vampires but roughly half of all mortals will die. This, of course, is descending to the pulp level of decades ago.
All in all, if one wants to read a member of the Vampire Chronicles, The Vampire Lestat, despite some problems, is worthwhile.
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Interview with the Vampire (novel) 1976
The Feast of All Saints (novel) 1980
Cry to Heaven (novel) 1982
The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty [as A. N. Roquelaure] (novel) 1983
Beauty's Punishment [as A. N. Roquelaure] (novel) 1984
Beauty's Release: The Continued Erotic Adventures of Sleeping Beauty [as A. N. Roquelaure] (novel) 1985
Exit to Eden [as Anne Rampling] (novel) 1985
The Vampire Lestat (novel) 1985
Belinda [as Anne Rampling] (novel) 1986
The Queen of the Damned (novel) 1988
The Mummy: or, Ramses the Damned (novel) 1989
The Witching Hour (novel) 1990
The Tale of the Body Thief (novel) 1992
Lasher (novel) 1993
Interview with the Vampire (screenplay) 1994
Taltos (novel) 1994
Memnoch the Devil (novel) 1995
Servant of the Bones (novel) 1996
Violin (novel) 1997
The Vampire Armand (novel) 1998
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SOURCE: “A History of the Undead,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 6, 1988, p. 13.
[In the following review, Coven offers favorable assessment of The Queen of the Damned.]
In Interview With the Vampire, the first volume of the “Vampire Chronicles,” Anne Rice ushers us into the eerily succulent, yet refined world of Louis de Pointe du Lac, a man who became a vampire in late-18th-Century New Orleans.
The second book, The Vampire Lestat, explodes with fury into the world of high-tech 20th-Century San Francisco. Lestat, the charismatic iconoclast of the undead, relates his tale from his human youth as a French nobleman of the early 1700s to his ascension to rock superstardom and cult hero worship as a modern-day vampire.
With The Queen of the Damned, Anne Rice has created universes within universes, traveling back in time as far as ancient, pre-pyramidic Egypt and journeying from the frozen mountain peaks of Nepal to the crowded, sweating streets of southern Florida.
In all truth, the epic scope of this novel is mandated by the profound mysteries and timeless questions which Rice seeks to answer. What lies beyond death? What is the nature of goodness? Is there meaning to life? But here these age-old enigmas are mulled over, puzzled through and furiously attacked, not by mere mortals, but by the blood-sucking undead. Rice's vampires are natural philosophers. Their immortality serves to heighten those concerns which have beguiled and befuddled humans for centuries.
One of Rice's many splendid characters is Armand, a beautiful boy-vampire who has walked the Earth since the early Renaissance. He becomes enamored of Daniel, a lovely young human lad and the “interviewer” of the first novel. Their relationship, though unnatural in the extreme, is both breathlessly erotic and heart-breakingly sad. Daniel, who cannot bear his own aging, implores Armand for the “dark gift,” to be made immortal, but Armand desperately needs to hold onto Daniel who is his last link to the humanity he has forever lost.
“More and more they argued philosophy. … Pulling Daniel out of a theatre in Rome, Armand had asked what did Daniel really think that death was? People who were still living knew things like that! Did Daniel know what Armand truly feared?”
When a creature of potential immortality ponders the nature of death, or when a being who must drink the blood of the living to survive, consciously seeks the high moral ground, the irony is inevitable, yet their futility is no less agonizing than man's. Enormously old, incredibly powerful, and constantly questing, many of Rice's vampires remain, like humans, incurably neurotic.
Much of The Queen of the Damned is devoted to the actual resolution of one arcane mystery. How and when were vampires first created? The more sensitive of the undead share a common need to know the nature of their origins. They also share a kind of vampiric Jungian universal subconscious. They find flashing through their collective minds visions of an incredibly ancient legend about two red-haired sisters who are brutally attacked while engaged in the holy tradition of eating their dead mother. Simultaneously there is also a common knowledge that Akasha, the mother of all vampires, once again roams the Earth.
Akasha, however, is no nurturer. Bent on world conquest, she embarks on an apocalyptic journey of bloodcurdling slaughter and destruction. For her companion and co-ruler she chooses Lestat, whom she seduces through fear and lust. Yet the Young Lestat (not yet three centuries old) is hideously torn between the seditious lure of Akasha's charms and his crying, if vestigial need to be embraced by the love of mortals:
“Why did my heart come up in my throat now? Why was I crying inside, like something dying myself?”
“Maybe some other fiend could have loved it; some twisted and conscienceless immortal could have sneered at her visions, yet slipped into the robes of a god as easily as I had slipped into that perfumed bath.”
Occasionally, Rice can become repetitive and overly instructional in her need to recount every detail of the vampires' ancient beginnings. More often she provides an exhilarating blend of philosophic questing and pure, wondrous adventure.
Rice's vampiric world is a continually unfolding one, a tapestry too enormous to be hung on any wall. And just when we begin to think we can see its borders, she leaves us with a tantalizing final chapter that promises us weavings we never even suspected.
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Conway, Anne-Marie Conway. Review of The Tale of the Body Thief, by Anne Rice. Times Literary Supplement (11 December 1992): 20.
A favorable review of The Tale of the Body Thief.
Kendrick, Walter. “Better Undead Than Unread: Have Vampires Lost Their Bite?” New York Times Book Review (18 October 1992): 55.
Offers a summary of the “The Vampire Chronicles” and comments on Rice's significance as a leading author of contemporary vampire fiction.
Korn, Eric. “The Devil's Own Job.” Times Literary Supplement (17 November 1995): 8.
A review of Memnoch the Devil.
Leithauser, Brad. “Fear of Horror.” New York (24 July 1995): 44-5.
Discusses the supernatural fiction of Rice and Stephen King, with a brief review of Memnoch the Devil.
Morrison, Patt. “All Souls.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (31 October 1993): 3, 12.
A favorable review of Lasher.
Additional coverage of Rice's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 9; Bestsellers, 89:2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 12, 36, 53; and DISCovering Authors Modules: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors.
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SOURCE: “Do Not Speak Ill of the Undead,” in New York Times Book Review, November 27, 1988, pp. 12-3.
[In the following review, Kraft offers tempered assessment of The Queen of the Damned. According to Kraft, Rice's “enormous ability” as a novelist is “wasted on vampires.”]
When last we saw him, in the second book of Anne Rice's vampire chronicles, the vampire Lestat was a rock star, flaunting his evil ways before a horde of screaming mortal fans in San Francisco, sweating blood under hot lights. Then suddenly he was being attacked—not by Tipper Gore and her committee for cleaner language in popular music, but by a gang of the undead, bent on destroying him because his lyrics and autobiography named names and revealed secrets. Just in the nick of time, though, Lestat hopped into his Porsche and fled into a gap between installments.
The Queen of the Damned opens before the concert, with angry blood drinkers plotting to destroy the rogue spiller of the vampire beans. A Lestat cult has arisen among young mortals, so the real vampires don't have much trouble mixing with the fans, who emulate vampire style and hang out at a bar called Dracula's Daughter. Lestat has some supporters among the undead, including Akasha, the original vampire, mother of all the others, queen of the damned. She's been catatonic for centuries, seated on a throne in a crypt deep in the earth, but she's up and about now, roused by Lestat. She's got big ideas, this one, including a plan for world peace, starting with a nice bloodbath.
The first book in the chronicles belonged to the vampire Louis and his immortal angst, the second to Lestat and his life's story. The Queen of the Damned is told from many points of view, by a big cast of vampires. They're a diverse bunch, some elders, others mere fledglings, some wise, others naïve. Louis and Lestat are back, and so is Armand, former head of the Paris coven, who builds a huge pleasure island off Miami, open all night—but only at night. There's Khayman, an ancient Egyptian who loves our times, when he can drive fast cars and pick up beautiful women, when “princesses sallied forth onto the Champs Elysées in carefully faded rags.” A fledgling, Baby Jenks, brings the liveliest voice in the book to a chapter that rips along as fast and tough as her Harley. She's mean, cute, dead and a little dumb: “She'd tried to read the Vampire Lestat's book—the whole history of Dead guys back to ancient times and all—but there were just too many big words and konk, she was asleep.”
A pair of twin sisters, Maharet and Mekare, support the overarching plot. Long ago, Akasha commanded their rape and mutilation; now Mekare wants revenge. All the other vampires are troubled by a disturbing dream, an image of that ancient outrage visited on the twins. They aren't sure what the dream means, but they sense that it portends a great struggle. Since none of them knows the whole story, we learn it as they come to know it, mostly through long talks. These vampires love talk as much as blood; they go on about what may happen, has happened, may have happened or may be going to happen, about why they are as they are and what the point of it all is. They tell tales, and they tell tales within tales. In the course of all this talk a complex story emerges—vast, spanning centuries, continents and thousands upon thousands of words, in which a set of vampire myths is most artfully linked and nicely fitted into other mythologies, reality, and the plots of the earlier books.
Though the story unfolds in many vampire voices, two other voices pop up throughout, regardless of which vampire holds the stage. One, used for chronicling vampire lore and legend, sounds like an official history—pompous and impersonal. Whenever a vampire employs it, all individuality is lost. The other, used for describing the messy pleasure of the nightly kills, is prurient: teeth pierce, lips suck, blood spurts, victims swoon and lassitude follows the passion of feeding. With each kill, these images of sex and chicken Kiev are repeated—another silken neck, more piercing, sucking and spurting, another swooning victim.
Ms. Rice can't seem to decide how she feels about all this killing, which goes far beyond simple bloodsucking. In one orgy of butchery, Lestat really runs amok, exploding heads, “rupturing brains and hearts and arteries,” while Akasha cheers him on: “Yes, kill them. Strike for the tender organs; rupture them; make the blood flow.” But this slaughter is committed in the name of peace. Akasha means to end the bloody history of the human race by killing most of the mortal males, the real monsters.
The other vampires oppose her hypocrisy with their own. They anticipate a new enlightenment, a rejection of the superstitions that have inspired the killing Akasha claims to deplore, and they want to give the mortals time to change. Of course, they'll go on killing. They can't help themselves; it's in their blood, and Ms. Rice's lush imagery invites us to enjoy it, to share their bloodlust, smell the blood, yearn for it as they do, feel the luscious rush when they drink it hot. But nearly every bloody scene is followed by a repudiation of it—some vampires hate themselves for what they do, others echo Akasha's outrage at humankind's horrors. This juxtaposition of righteous indignation and salacious slaying doesn't elevate the vampires; it debases the noble sentiments. The book itself wallows in gore while preaching peace.
Perhaps the trouble lies with the vampires themselves. They're fit characters for a writer of horror tales, but maybe they're just not good enough for one who seems to aim for something more than being the greatest living American author of vampire novels. Anne Rice is a writer of enormous ability. She has a masterly way with language, works on a broad canvas, has a vast range of knowledge, brings exotic settings vividly to life and is wonderfully clever, but these gifts are wasted on vampires. May she find subjects worthy of her talents before these dead guys suck her dry.
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SOURCE: “Undead and Unstoppable,” in New York Times Book Review, June 11, 1989, p. 9.
[In the following review, Prial offers qualified praise for The Mummy, though finds fault in Rice's prose. “If you liked her vampires,” Prial concludes, “you'll love her mummies.”]
In George Axelrod's Hollywood spoof of a generation back, “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?,” a veteran hack explains to a young writer that film lovers can't just meet—“They gotta meet cute.”
“How about this?” the neophyte replies. “He's a shrink, she's a hooker, and they meet at the upholsterer's getting their couches fixed.”
In her latest novel, The Mummy, or Ramses the Damned, Anne Rice gives new meaning to meeting cute. Julie Stratford has soft brown eyes, porcelain cheeks, a guileless mouth and is 20 years old. Ramses II, a k a Ramses the Great and, to close friends, Ramses the Damned, is manly, stalwart and, oh, around 3,000 years old, give a dynasty or two.
They meet in London, in Julie's home. It's 1914.
The face, my God, the face. There were eyes there, great shining blue eyes under the thin wrappings. It reached up suddenly and tore loose the bandages … from its skull and released a soft mop of brown hair.
Then it rose on its knees with quiet grace and reached down into the fountain with its bandaged hands, scooping up the sparkling water to its lips. It drank and drank the water, with deep sighing gulps. Then it stopped and turned towards her, wiping away more of the thick ashen layer of linen from its face.
A man looking at her! A blue-eyed man with intelligence looking at her! ...
She backed into the Egyptian room, legs trembling; her body moist all over, her hands clawing at her lace peignoir.
Lawrence Stratford, Egyptologist—father to Julie and heir to a shipping fortune—had just discovered Ramses in a tomb near Cairo. Better he hadn't. No sooner had he uncovered his Pharaoh than he met with what they used to call an untimely death, right there in the tomb. He'd barely time to order the mummy shipped to the British Museum.
Well, not directly to the museum; the lovers still have to meet. Breathing his last, Lawrence directed that the mummy be dropped off for a few days at his London home with innocent Julie. Doing what young things always do when someone delivers a mummy, Julie throws a party. All Mayfair turns up, but the scene is pure Irish wake: guests mingling while Ramses, the center of attraction, stands propped in a corner.
Soon after the guests leave (prompted by what, I won't say), Ramses, who has been stirring for days, comes to life. Julie, as we have seen, does likewise. In a matter of hours, Ramses is speaking pure Oxbridge and, caparisoned in the late Lawrence's Savile Row best, becomes Reginald Ramsey, also an Egyptologist.
That he wears his hair in a shoulder-length page-boy, sports a George Hamilton tan and eats with his fingers doesn't seem to bother anyone but, hey, Edwardian London was always a funky town.
Ramses ruled Egypt 3,000 years ago but, Ms. Rice tells us, instead of dying like any normal Pharaoh, he discovers the secret of immortal life, a kind of super-Geritol he mixes up himself. Stuffing a common soldier into his sarcophagus, he disguises himself and for hundreds of years travels the ancient world, returning to Egypt every century or so to counsel whoever happens to be running the place at the time. Eventually, bored with existence, he settles into a long sleep, leaving word at the front desk, so to speak, that sunlight can wake him but that he'd prefer to sleep in.
A few centuries along, someone does wake him: Cleopatra—the Cleopatra—who had heard the old legends and was curious. She learns of the elixir and tries to get it, first for herself, later for Mark Antony. Ramses, who loves her, refuses. When she does herself in with the asp, he goes back into hibernation—until Lawrence Stratford comes along 2,000 years later.
Once Julie and Ramses get to Egypt (How did they get to Egypt? Don't ask), Ramses heads for the Cairo Museum, where—purely by chance—he finds, stretched in a glass case, Cleopatra herself. Out comes the elixir and, shriveled and moth-eaten, out of the glass case comes Cleopatra:
“Dear God, man, what have you done! What have you awakened!. .. It's not whole. You've raised a thing which is not whole.”
Cleopatra comes to much the same conclusion after her first glimpse of herself in a thousand years and before she's had a chance to do anything with her hair. But that doesn't stop her. Two pastimes she missed during the dead years were sex and murder; she quickly makes up for lost time.
One victim is—no, really—a Ford dealer from Hannibal, Mo., who seems to have driven one of his cars to Egypt. Cleopatra knocks him off when he ungallantly remarks that one of her legs appears to be just skeleton. Clever empress that she is, she masters the stick shift, an innovation in 1914, and drives off.
In Ms. Rice's world, there is no true line between the living and the, er, unliving. Ramses, who loves to play around with his elixir, rejuvenates a mummy's hand. It scuttles around until he juliennes it with paring knife but, even then, the pieces hop about like animated hamburger.
In fact, the only thing really dead here is much of Ms. Rice's prose. She favors a mock-epic style that went out with Rafael Sabatini. She evokes Conan Doyle and H. Rider Haggard, but when they wrote this way, they were serious. When Cleopatra cries “Okaaaay! Super!” the mood slips away quickly.
With her past efforts and now with Ramses, Anne Rice has pretty much cornered the literary market on the undead. If this sort of thing didn't appeal to you before, there isn't much reason to start. On the other hand, if you liked her vampires, you're going to love her mummies.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1096
SOURCE: “The Curse of Ancient Egypt,” in New Statesman & Society, September 1, 1989, pp. 31-2.
[In the following review, Carter offers favorable assessment of The Mummy.]
According to Franco Morretti (Dialectic of Fear), the tale of terror relies for its specific frisson on repression. “The repressed returns … but disguised as a monster.” The horror novels of Anne Rice comprehensively trash this theory; she lets the repressed return in splendour. When the crumbling bandages at last fall from the eponymous mummy of this, her latest novel, young Julie Stamford, the shipping heiress, reels back, but not in horror.
“Dear God, she thought, this is not merely a man gifted with beauty; this is the most beautiful man I've ever seen.”
Ramses III, former Pharoah of Egypt, is, admittedly, not so much one of the undead as an immortal. He may make his entrance in a manner characteristic of a fifties movie ghoul but he is also an intellectual giant and a formidable sexual athlete, to boot. This is the return of the repressed, not as Dracula but as Rhett Butler. What is going on? More than meets the eye, probably. Anne Rice is a writer of great scope, invention, imaginative energy and sexual daring who has opted to work in mass market genre fiction. Her work in the “tale of terror” is also a kind of commentary on the idea of the tale of terror, and a working through of how much you can get away with in it.
Anne Rice is self-conscious in a way that antique masters of the genre—Bram Stoker, Lovecraft, even Poe—were not, and contemporaries such as Clive Barker and Stephen King are, well, too repressed to be. Among the dedicatees of The Mummy is Rider Haggard, who “created the immortal She”. But the unacknowledged tension behind the psychosexual geography of that extraordinary novel, with its insane depiction of Africa and resplendent S-M heroine, are resolved in Anne Rice's work.
No gruff hinting at homo-erotic bonding here. True to the spirit, rather than the letter, of such friendships as Allan Quartermain's with Sir Henry Curtis (King Solomon's Mines) Julie's father and his best friend have indeed been lovers, once upon a time. The villainous Henry's attempts at blackmail follow a liaison with elements of the relationship between Uncle Holly and young Leo before they went off together to look for She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.
This self-consciousness extends to individual horrors. A severed hand in The Mummy, posthumously reanimated, hops and skips around, recalling Freud's equation between the imagery of severed limbs and castration anxiety. This glimpse of the machinery behind the effect doesn't diminish the shudder it provokes; it increases it, because it indicates the nature of the fear for which the paraphernalia of the horror narrative provides a screen of consolation.
In the Anne Rice trilogy collectively known as “The Vampire Chronicles” (Interview with the Vampire,The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned), the undead are perfectly aware they are not performing elaborate metaphors for tabooed acts. They know that what they do is just what is taboo. For them, to suck is transcendent bliss; the cannibal tenderness of the mother-child relation is Anne Rice's sexual paradigm here, more Kleinian than Freudian. When the vampire Lestat turns his beloved mother into a vampire with a deal of passionate and reciprocal sucking in a glorious triumph of polymorphous perversity, Anne Rice seems to be suggesting that it is straight sex itself that is the metaphor for some more atavistic and savagely intimate form of congress.
So it comes as something of a disappointment to discover that, in spite of the enticingly ambiguous element in its title, The Mummy is, give and take the youthful indiscretions of old men, straightforwardly heterosexist. Ramses III is a man, after all, and Julie a woman; a 5,000 year age difference is no insuperable barrier to a consummation of a kind the ravishing, sexy vampires of the earlier books would find exceedingly tame: “… and she felt his delicious weight come down upon her, crushing her. The tears had sprung to her eyes, tears of relief. A soft moan escaped her lips.”
Admittedly, even though it weighs in at a hefty 436 pages, Anne Rice promises that “the Adventures of Ramses the Damned Shall Continue”, so we can confidently expect another two volumes, at least, and she may well be writing herself in. What seem at first to be signs of a certain carelessness, especially in the early part of the novel, may be part of a plan. Certainly her evocation of Edwardian London is barely plausible—a dining room, ready for breakfast, smells of “coffee, cinnamon and freshly baked muffins”; a singer lives in a flat over the music hall at which she performs. Then we realise that this is a studio-bound London like that briefly glimpsed in Gone with the Wind.
When Ramses mixes up his elixir vitae, Anne Rice borrows directly from B-movies: “Within seconds the change had taken place. The raw ingredients, already quite potent in their own right, had been changed into a bubbling liquid full of vague phosphorescent lights.” It is as if we are seeing with the innocent eye we once took to Saturday morning pictures. Even when Ramses returns to Egypt with his new friends, there is still a clean, bright simplicity to everything, which recalls Hollywood in the early days of technicolour. Cleopatra herself, soon reanimated as a homicidal nymphomaniac, has this kind of dimensionless brio. This world is far away from the maudit midnights, the mean streets, the guilt-lacerated and existentially complex vampires of the “Chronicles”, as if Anne Rice had decided to relocate herself beyond the polymorphously perverse stage—in the latency period, perhaps. And The Mummy probably isn't a tale of terror at all, though it retains elements of the form, but a narrative in the process of mutating into some other form—supernatural romance, perhaps—that indicates a tale of terror can only really exist in a state of unknowing, that the writer of tales of terror must, first of all, terrify him or herself.
Yet what fresh frissons can volume two hold? Impossible not to look forward to it! And let us hope Anne Rice escapes the strange curse that hangs over all writers who deal with Ancient Egypt. Most recently it struck down Norman Mailer, whose Ancient Evenings contained, evidently with no facetious intent, dialogue such as: “Would you like my obelisk in you?” and “I am known as the degenerate who sups on bat shit”—both lines Anne Rice must wish she'd thought of first.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 883
SOURCE: “Ghastly and Unnatural Ambitions,” in New York Times Book Review, November 4, 1990, p. 11.
[In the following review, McGrath offers unfavorable assessment of The Witching Hour, citing weak characterization and repetitiousness as the novel's major flaws.]
The evil that blights the pages of The Witching Hour, Anne Rice's new novel, has an intriguing origin. In the 1600's, in Scotland, a naïve young woman called Suzanne Mayfair learns for a lark how to summon demons. Later she's burned at the stake, but the demon she summons, Lasher by name, goes on to bedevil her descendants down to the present day, apparently seeing in them the means of fulfilling his ghastly and unnatural ambitions. In the process he turns them into a “witch family,” a witch here being “a person who can attract and manipulate unseen forces.”
But what's interesting about poor Suzanne's fate is that it's a witch judge, an inquisitor, who teaches her how to rouse Lasher in the first place—as if the law, in its zeal, actually foments transgression, the better to serve its function. It's this sort of complex intertwining of antagonistic forces—moral, psychological and finally biological—that forms the basic structural principle of this huge and sprawling tale of horror.
Lasher is really the protagonist of The Witching Hour. Possibly he's Satan; possibly he's an old Celtic god turned demon after the collapse of that civilization. Certainly the strongly Irish flavor of the novel would reinforce this notion. What is sure is that down the centuries, in Scotland, in Haiti, finally in New Orleans, he appears to members of the Mayfair family, mainly the women, as a slim, pale, elegant figure with dark eyes and dark hair and a hypnotically seductive power over any of them reckless enough to entertain him.
And, over time, through Lasher's offices, the family becomes enormously wealthy, though to sustain itself it relies rather heavily on incestuous unions and tends to deal harshly with inquisitive outsiders. One chap is found rolled up in a carpet in the attic 60 years after being murdered there; we know that he died in the carpet because he'd started to chew through it.
This is the sort of book in which one sees a lot of the undertaker. Mayfairs often come to bad ends, generally either burning to death or falling from high places, and we meet many members of many generations of them in the long second section: Julien, for instance, the genial dandy who can be in two places at once and start fires with his mind; Stella, the flapper, wildly dancing the Charleston; the witch who just wants to have fun; her granddaughter Deirdre, whose sexual passion for Lasher is so intense that terrible old Aunt Carlotta keeps her doped to the eyeballs on Thorazine all her adult life; and lots more, all vividly sketched, all gloriously weird.
Latest and strongest of the Mayfair witches, and inheritor of the fantastic Mayfair legacy, is Rowan, who's a brilliant neurosurgeon in San Francisco when the novel opens, never having returned to the family home in New Orleans since the day of her birth. But she is a Mayfair, so we soon must ask whether she's truly a healer, as her profession would suggest—or a destroyer. It becomes clear that she has the potential for both, and the question as to which will triumph when, at last, she comes to grips with Lasher is one with which Ms. Rice tantalizes us to the very last page of the book, and beyond.
But despite its tireless narrative energy, despite its relentless inventiveness, the book is bloated, grown to elephantine proportions because more is included than is needed. Repetition is a problem: the same stories are told several times, accruing more detail with each telling. Also, the principal characters have a way of regurgitating what they've learned, even though the reader was with them when they learned it. At times the prose, which for the most part is solid and workmanlike, even lyrical in its evocation of the architecture and vegetation of Haiti and New Orleans, collapses into grinding cliché; editorially, rigor of excision is sadly wanting.
A further, allied problem is in the characterization. Rowan and her lover, the robust hunk Michael Curry, are the central human characters here and must play complicated parts in the moral equation that finally issues from the vast tonnage of narrative material. The problem is, they have both been so constructed that they hardly for a moment live or breathe except as structural elements serving specific design functions in the grand scheme. And while this sort of caricatural sketchiness works fine for the huge army of bit players, Rowan and Michael make claims to be taken seriously as moral actors in the drama.
Those who demand a measure of depth and plausibility in the characters with whom they're asked to identify, and who value formal elegance and compression in their fiction, will find The Witching Hour too shallow, and too ungainly, to provide much more than pleasantly creepy entertainment. Big, generous and energetic though it is, finally the novel fails to say anything substantial about its theme, beyond making the dubious suggestions that evil is transmitted through heredity rather than environment and flourishes best in large, odd, matrilineal families like the Mayfairs.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1175
SOURCE: “The Queen of Darkness,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 18, 1990, pp. 1, 8.
[In the following review, Brown offers enthusiastic praise for The Witching Hour, which she hails as “[Rice's] best novel yet.”]
The Witching Hour unfolds like a poisonous lotus blossom redolent with luxurious evil. Or so it would seem to a Medieval or “born-again” Christian. For those Christians and non-Christians not fearful of stories about unearthly powers, witches and secular resurrections, this novel will delight the senses.
Author Anne Rice uses her beloved New Orleans to good effect. Of all American cities, it is the least Puritan and the most resistant to English priggishness.
Michael Curry, the primary male character and an impoverished native of this delicious city, dies and is brought back to life by Rowan Mayfair, a woman of science who happens to have magical powers. However, the price of resurrection comes very high, and Michael is drawn into an ancient web spun for more than three centuries by a dynasty of witches and a demon named Lasher—souls, undead, yet not alive either. They need Michael and Rowan for their purposes.
Rice thoroughly enjoys herself as she slides through 17th-Century France, the fetid plantations in Port-au-Prince, the pain of the Civil War South and the seeming “normalcy” of today's San Francisco and New Orleans.
The multiple generations of Mayfair women in the house on First Street are strange. Generation after generation, since the first Mayfair woman landed on American soil after fleeing a slave insurrection in Haiti, these women have had incredible power. At least one female per generation, the one who wears the Mayfair emerald, has exercised this power in worldly ways and has come to a tragic, mournful end.
Rice must be wearing the Mayfair emerald herself, since she writes with hypnotic power. In The Witching Hour, as in her vampire chronicles, she attacks the idea that good and evil are polar opposites. Renewal through destruction and regeneration through violence drive the plots of Rice's “supernatural” novels. This is a concept repellent and alien to Christians, but something Hindus always have known. This idea allows Rice to create vampires, witches and demons who can be figures that excite our compassion, most especially in their deaths.
The execution of Comtesse Deborah Mayfair de Montclève in September, 1689, in the town of Montclève, France, is one such scene. This beauty (the witches always are beautiful) is accused by her mother-in-law of sleeping with Satan and murdering her husband. The doomed Deborah at least enjoys melancholy exaltation as she destroys her accusers by unleashing a storm upon their heads.
It's a scene that satisfies emotionally because the “bad guys” die. In the hands of a less-skilled writer that's all this scene would have accomplished, but Rice uses it to spur on a witness to this disaster, a former lover of Deborah's, one Petyr van Abel. A student of witchcraft, he follows Deborah's 20-year-old daughter Charlotte (his daughter as it happens) to Port-au-Prince, where she flees to escape a charge of witchcraft against herself.
Conveniently, Abel keeps a file on the Mayfair witches, which he sends to his comrades in the Talamasca, an order formed in the 14th Century for the study of the supernatural and whose members often possessed supernatural powers themselves—white witches, if you will.
Breaking up the time sequence of a novel always is a risky device. Using epistles to advance the story is another volatile invention, because if the reader does not like the first-person voice of the letter the thread is broken. To Rice's credit, she makes the epistolary interruption work. The fact that the letters are packed with sexual scrimmages (and incest, no less) helps. Americans can swallow anything if sex is the lure.
What we're asked to swallow is a fascinating look at our ability to change ourselves and those around us: Just how much free will do we really have? And, are there intelligent spirits who share the Earth with us?
What we can't explain, we declare irrational or evil. What we can't understand, we dismiss. What we can't control, we kill. And when we kill. we assign evil to our victims, goodness to ourselves. Our victims can be Jews, homosexuals, African-Americans; fill in the blanks. They are in some way seen as bad, as devils, as subhuman or superhuman; either extreme is frightening.
The Devil in Western thought really represents responsibility. Polarizing human behavior into a flat struggle between God and the Devil, good and evil, is an elaborate rationalization for our infantilism, for the refusal to take responsibility for our actions.
What makes Rice so fascinating is her obsession with this theme and her great good sense never to discuss it in terms of nonfiction. It's hard to imagine a Protestant writing in her ornate style. Her cherubims and seraphims of lust, her incubi of desire, seem as gilded and sensual as baroque cathedrals, buildings of exquisite sensuality dedicated to eradicating that same sensuality in the flesh.
When she brings the story to our century, she uses a frail child, Deirdre Mayfair, to confess to Father Mattingly that she sees a tall, dark, handsome man. Years later this disturbed woman gives birth to an illegitimate child who is packed away to California. This daughter, Rowan, has inherited all the unholy power of the Mayfair women, although she knows nothing of Deborah Montcleve's death in 1689, the New Orleans coven, the stories about her great-grandmother as a voodoo queen, who had a purse of gold wherein each spent coin returned to the purse by nightfall. But Rowan suffers premonitions—or are they ancestral memories? When she revives Michael and falls in love with him, she is drawn back to her ancestors, back to the sweltering secrets of the centuries, of the demon and the witches.
As the novel hurtles toward its conclusion, all of the characters from the various epochs begin to interweave. There is even a character named Rita Mae, which this reviewer found quite gratifying. Each character, sharply drawn, has a card to play, a card that must be thrown at exactly the right time for someone to hit the zygotic jackpot.
For that's what this novel is really about: putting flesh around our dreams, flesh around our fears.
As Michael Curry, the hero, sits alone re-reading Great Expectations or writing to make sense of his insane, or unsane, experiences with the witches, he calms the reader, a necessary medication for this most uncalming book.
He says near the end: “Life must be founded upon the infinite possibility for choice and accident. And if we cannot prove that it is, we must believe that it is. We must believe that we can change, that we can control, that we can direct our own destinies.”
It is questionable whether Curry had a snowball's chance in hell of directing his own destiny, but you can. Run right out to the bookstore and buy The Witching Hour. Rice has written her best novel yet. But I warn you: There's the Devil to pay.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8595
SOURCE: “Postexistentialism in the Neo-Gothic Mode: Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire,” in Mosaic, Vol. 25, No. 3, Summer, 1992, pp. 79-97.
[In the following essay, Waxman explores the confluence of existential philosophy, postmodernism, and gothic fiction in Interview with the Vampire and subsequent Rice novels. According to Waxman, “Rice presents with fervor a profound exploration of freedom, moral constraints and contingency in order to prepare us for the philosophical issues that face us on the darkling plain of the twenty-first century.”]
Serious philosophical questioning, ethical inquiry, struggles of individuals to shape their identity and create a meaningful existence are not uncommon in twentieth-century American literature. Recently, however, a writer of “popular” fiction, Anne Rice, has carried these philosophical themes into a seemingly unusual genre: Gothic vampire fiction. In such novels as Interview with the Vampire (1976), Rice is not only chilling readers' spines but drawing their minds into the angst of twentieth-century philosophical inquiry. According to Rice—who has been an enthusiastic reader of such existentialist philosophers as Kierkegaard, Camus and Sartre since her college days—the intensely emotional moods, strange atmospheres and supernatural elements of Gothic fiction are “the most powerful means … for writing about real life.”
In this essay, I wish to explore the “real life” issues of our postmodern world that Rice addresses in Interview with the Vampire, the first of her three Vampire Chronicles. Specifically, my purpose is threefold: to note the way that existentialist themes have characterized Gothic fiction from its beginnings; to demonstrate the way that Rice's “postmodernist” reinterpretation of these themes gives Interview with the Vampire a distinctly “neo-Gothic” character and “postexistentialist” perspective; to suggest the variety of ways in which Rice has explored these concerns in her fiction after Interview with the Vampire and the reasons for these later modulations in genre and philosophy.
From its beginnings as a subgenre emerging with the development of Romanticism in the later eighteenth century, Gothic fiction has always been more than mere “thrills and chills” sensationalism and escapist entertainment. In its probing of forbidden realms and occult experiences, it has been hospitable to philosophical ideas and quests: to speculations about ontology; to analysis of the nature of reality and surrealistic states; to investigation of the constituents of moral behavior; and to determination of the meanings of human existence. As G. R. Thompson has noted, Gothic literature, which represents the darker side of the Romantic movement, expresses “an existential terror generated by a schism between a triumphantly secularized philosophy of evolving good and an abiding obsession with the Medieval conception of guilt-laden, sin-ridden man. … [It] is the drama of the mind engaged in the quest for metaphysical moral absolutes in a world that offers shadowy semblances of an occult order but withholds final revelation and illumination.”
Challenged by the ambiguity of the universe and the complexity of human nature, these “dark Romantics” attempted to interpret humankind's moral capacities and to discover reasons for our existence. To Mark M. Hennelly, Jr., therefore, the existential philosophizing of Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer and other Gothic novels links them to the later tradition of such novelists as Dostoevsky and Kafka (665, 669). Similarly, Robert D. Hume has described the heroes of writers like Beckford and Byron as suffering from “existential agony” because they cannot have what they long for: “solutions … absolutes, ontological certitude.” Hume, echoing Jean-Paul Sartre, notes that these Gothic heroes suffer a pattern of “pain, No Exit, and damnation.”
Maturin's Melmoth is an early example of the Gothic supernatural hero who prefigures the existential seeker. His insatiable thirst for forbidden knowledge—God's knowledge about the origins and meaning of human existence—locks him into a hellish existence that transcends time and space; he “lives” and witnesses horrible events centuries apart and flies over the earth, like Satan and vampires, acting as eternal witness “to the truth of gospel amid fires that shall burn for ever and ever.” Melmoth's destiny alienates him from the human beings who must become his victims, denying him human joys and the solace of human religions, both of which he cynically interrogates. His existence becomes the fruitless search for a person who would change places with him; he continually seeks vulnerable individuals who wish to escape from a desperate situation into which their own passions and weaknesses have placed them. Seeing these flaws of human nature, Melmoth can believe in no one, even though Immalee, the child of nature who becomes his wife, begins to revive his religious faith. One of his near-victims, Moncada, sums up the frustrating nature of the quest for meaning and belief: “we ask with the desponding and restless scepticism of Pilate, ‘What is truth?’ but the oracle that was so eloquent one moment, is dumb the next, or if it answers, it is with that ambiguity that makes us dread we have to consult again—again—and for ever—in vain.”
Despite Melmoth's blasting of humankind for its “malignity and hostility,” Maturin's narrator hopes to establish a moral framework for the world: “Such, perhaps, will be the development of the moral world. We shall be told why we suffered, and for what; but a bright and blessed lustre shall follow the storm, and all shall yet be light.” Although this passage sounds optimistic, light and certitude do not prevail in Maturin's novel. As Elizabeth R. Napier has observed, in works like Melmoth the Wanderer we experience the existentialist quester's “exhaustion at being tantalized by meaning and finally being denied it.”
The prefiguring of existentialism in Melmoth is apparent not only in the novel's quest motif, but also in its emphasis on issues of entrapment, escape and individual moral agency. Such issues, within a Christian framework, are raised in Moncada's tale of his imprisonment in the monastery and his escape with the aid of his brother and a man who had committed parricide. Moncada describes the pressure of moral responsibility and our occasional desire to relinquish it: “I was like a clock whose hands are pushed forward, and I struck the hours I was impelled to strike. When a powerful agency is thus exercised on us,—when another undertakes to think, feel, and act for us, we are delighted to transfer to him, not only our physical, but our moral responsibility. We say, with selfish cowardice, and self-flattering passiveness, ‘Be it so—you have decided for me,’—without reflecting that at the bar of God there is no bail.”
The will to freedom and Immalee's choice to wed Melmoth are also analyzed existentially by the narrator of Immalee's tale: “When a mind strong by nature, but weakened by fettering circumstances, is driven to make one strong spring to free itself, it has no leisure to calculate the weight of its hindrances, or the width of its leap,—it sits with its chains heaped about it, thinking only of the bound that is to be its liberation—.” Maturin ponders the individual's capacity for moral choices while being hampered by vices that can turn her/him into Satan's agent: he concludes bleakly that we are our own worst enemies.
Victor Frankenstein, protagonist of Mary Shelley's classic Gothic novel, is another Romantic quester, the personification of the scientific researcher-hero who seeks knowledge about human existence, answers to ontological questions and understanding of our moral nature. Although he thinks that by creating human life he has found one answer, the result is that he is left with more problems, with “pain, No Exit, and damnation.” Even family ties as a source of meaningful existence, the spiritual satisfactions of nature, romantic love and domestic happiness are interrogated by Shelley: none offer Victor permanent solace or refuge in his morally ambiguous, post-creature world. The frozen wastelands of the North are a fit emblem of the existential void surrounding Victor at the end of his life.
Concern with moral choice and speculation about the nature and origins of evil are also evident in Bram Stoker's vampiric Gothic novel Dracula. Through the character of Professor Van Helsing, who has analyzed the facets of evil, Stoker suggests that evil is not an isolatable force, but is inextricably linked to good. The two moral absolutes, as bipolar opposites, define each other, according to Van Helsing: “For it is not the least of its terrors that this evil thing [Dracula] is rooted deep in all good; in soil barren of holy memories it cannot rest.” Van Helsing postulates that evil originates in good, that it develops as a radical rebellion against goodness. Stoker implies that Dracula could not have seduced the virtuous Lucy were it not for the lustful impulses growing in the soil of her virtuous soul. Conversely, Dracula himself might have had some “training” in good that led to his rebellious alienation or satanic leap into the realm of evil.
Dracula moves beyond Maturin's and Shelley's existential concerns by blending “modern” scientific thinking with theology in the moral project of Van Helsing. By focusing on the seductive nature of evil and the human psyche's vulnerability to it, Dracula offers a quasi-Freudian investigation of the way that the amoral human unconscious and its pleasure-seeking impulses conflict with societal taboos and moral codes. With its interweaving of good and evil, and in its illustration of the amoral nature of human sexuality in a world no longer supported by a framework of faith, Stoker's novel heralds the perspective of a twentieth-century existentialist.
Like Stoker, Shelley, Maturin and other Romantic writers, Anne Rice embraces the Gothic, and in particular the vampire, as a vehicle for philosophic speculation. While vampires have historically been considered an image “of anthropomorphized evil,” Rice's vampires become what Susan Ferraro calls “loquacious philosophers who spend much of eternity debating the nature of good and evil.” They are also vehicles to explore the tabula rasa condition of twentieth-century human existence, as well as the quest for truths, moral rules and a purposeful existence.
Interview with the Vampire is structured in four parts, beginning and ending as an interview between a young journalist and the vampire Louis, set in New Orleans in the present (1970s). In the middle sections, Louis mostly narrates his past, with questions and reactions occasionally interjected by the journalist. The interview is being recorded on a cassette player, as Louis describes how he became a vampire in 1791 at the age of 25 and how he developed relationships with other vampires, particularly Lestat, his maker, and Claudia, the child-vampire whom he and Lestat have created. The plot offers traditional Gothic love triangles and power struggles, as in Louis's alliance with Claudia to “kill” Lestat and rid themselves of his domination, and in Claudia's withdrawal from Louis to be with Madeleine, the vampire that Louis had created for her. After the “death” of Lestat, the scene shifts to Paris, home of an old “coven” of vampires, the Théâtre des Vampires.
In the Théâtre lives an ancient vampire, Armand, to whom Louis is attracted mentally and physically: as is typical of Gothic fiction, incest and homoeroticism are prominent in the book. Armand acts as his teacher, warning Louis against killing the other vampires. Despite his wisdom, Armand's world-weariness pushes Louis toward desperate action, a war with the Théâtre des Vampires in which Louis is imprisoned (the conventional entrapment imagery). He is rescued by Armand. Claudia is burnt to ashes in these wars, Louis torches the Théâtre, and Lestat returns from the “undead,” seeking reunion. Finally, Louis and Armand, now outcasts from vampiric society, return to New Orleans. At the end of the novel, despite having learned of Louis's ordeals as a vampire, the young interviewer asks to be turned into a vampire and to join the search for Lestat.
In many respects Interview—despite or by way of its popular Gothic plot of power struggles—contains Rice's most complete existentialist and postexistentialist philosophizing. Ferraro captures its philosophical spirit when she calls it “a brooding meditation on good and evil, immortality and death.” According to Ferraro, the novel's comparison of mortal death to versions of immortality implies that sometimes mortal death is preferable. This may be because of Rice's view of the prevalence of human evil in her godless world. Her parallelling of evil vampirism with immoral human behavior is suggested when one of the Parisian vampires declares that “men [are] capable of far greater evil than vampires,” but that vampires “strive to rival men in kills of all kinds.” In the aftermath of the Nazi Holocaust, which has greatly expanded philosophy's and literature's conceptualizing of human evil, this statement is acceptable to many thoughtful readers. With evil a given, then, Rice offers existentialist paths to meaningful action. She also posits some postexistentialist conditions and ideas about moral choice.
In his study of Melmoth the Wanderer, Hennelly has observed that existentialism comes in many varieties, but in all of them there is a “revolt against any authority—Church, State, Society—that places a synthetic, abstract system between the individual and real life experience.” In other words, he sees the existentialist, isolated from all institutions, as confronting a universe devoid of moral absolutes, where the individual must construct his/her own system of authority. The existentialist's “ontological insecurity” is an angst about the universe's “relativism, meaninglessness, and even nihilism.”
There is, however, a component of existentialism that pulls the individual back from the edge of suicidal despair: the freedom of choice and the ethic of responsibility. These empower one to choose actions, to shape a meaningful moral life, to judge oneself, and to take responsibility for the consequences of one's actions. The difference between existentialism and postexistentialism, as I use the terms, is that the postexistentialist cynically notes the relativity not only of morality, but also of freedom and choice. Postexistentialism recognizes that there are internal and external constraints on the individual's ability to build a good life. The vampire Louis is like that still-hopeful existentialist who must confront the compelling postexistentialist outlook which fears that freedom itself may be a chimera.
Rice's novel places Louis in a life which Kierkegaard would identify as pure existence. Helmut Kuhn describes this rarified existence as “that passionately intensified form of human life which makes the mind susceptible to experiencing a crisis, and through crisis, existence.” Rice explores the complexities of human nature by analyzing Louis's life-crisis and by highlighting his differences from humans. As Elizabeth MacAndrew has noted, Rice's novel “uses the supernatural, as the Gothic tradition has always done, to present new views of human nature ambiguously, so we are forced to ask questions about it.”
Rice's novel is unique, however, because in it the vampire's conduct is self-condemned. Even after rejecting God's law, Louis accepts responsibility for the consequences of his evil acts, including his killings. He sees his evil conduct as resembling Sartre's acts of “bad faith,” behaviors whereby the existentialist “lapses” and temporarily rejects both responsibility for acts and freedom of choice. In other words, when he kills, Louis temporarily believes that his vampiric nature forces him to kill; after the kill, he struggles against any notion of having a fixed nature that dictates his conduct and thus reaffirms his moral responsibility. In addition, Louis is repelled by his objectification of each victim as Other and by his efforts to make his victims' surrender of their freedom the means by which he fulfills his own goals.
Persistent in spite of his compulsion to kill, then, is Louis's urge to embrace ethical behavior, which according to philosopher Hazel E. Barnes involves “recognition of the need to justify one's life,” as well as acceptance of “responsibility for others and for one's own past and future.” Louis's ethical stance provokes the derision of Lestat and Claudia, who revel in their killings. His alienation from them by these moral promptings suggests the existentialist's condition: “an isolated individual,” he “is not compelled to acknowledge his involvement with others unless he cares to do so.” Suffering from this loneliness, Louis parries his ethics and does seek reunion with them, despite their egocentrism and amorality.
Through Louis, Rice's novel displays a twentieth-century ethical relativism more complex than Stoker's. Presenting the vampire as a metaphor for the ambiguities of human nature and of our moral energies, Rice extends Stoker's notion that evil is rooted in good: as she presents it, evil encompasses a profound knowledge of and longing for good. Interview thus explores what Judith Wilt describes as the “tempting proposition that the killer obtains special knowledge and special sensitivity to life, and the vampire, whose life is death, has supreme comprehension and sensitivity.” Rice gives this proposition an existentialist framework by positing that the morally sensitive Louis lacks supreme comprehension of the meaning of his life, even as he struggles to obtain gnosis or to create an explanation for his existence. Rice's postexistentialist addendum is to emphasize the naivete of the existentialist assumption that one can obtain supreme comprehension and shape his/her own fate.
There are three ways, in particular, that Rice encourages readers to rethink good and evil and to analyze the human condition, first as existentialists and then as postexistentialists.
The first way involves the depiction of Louis's feelings about religion and ethics. At the beginning of the novel, Louis describes his own indirect contact with religious fervor and ethical commitment through his brother Paul's visionary religion and fanatical devotion to God's work. He describes his initial tolerance of Paul's holiness, even building him an oratory for his prayers. Yet out of his own vicious egotism, “which could not accept the presence of an extraordinary human being in its midst,” he disbelieves in Paul's prophetic visions. After his brother's death, Louis expresses a new awe at Paul's sanctity and appreciates the contrast between good and evil: “Evil is always possible. And goodness is eternally difficult.” In retrospect, the awesome challenge of doing good impresses Louis. He finally appreciates his brother's moral fiber and commitment to God. At the same time, Louis also recognizes his own moral laziness, his shallow “lip service to God and the Virgin.”
Still half-believing in Christian humility, Louis chastises his own egotism and attributes to it all his evil impulses; egotism is central to the evil characters of Lestat, Gabrielle and Armand as well. Perhaps the paradigm for vampiric egotism is Milton's Satan; he is propelled by an egotism, “Pride and worse Ambition” that makes him think he can challenge God's authority in heaven. Because of his egotism, he tumbles to hell. There he declares, “Evil be thou my Good,” thus redefining through its polar opposite the evil egotism which he must endlessly feed.
Louis's egotism, however, is undermined when he meets Lestat. While traditional Christianity might applaud this change, existentialism—because it values the energetic ego—would not see it as positive. When they meet, Lestat's aura crushes Louis's ego, reduces him to nothing, so that “[he] completely forgot [himself]”; yet at the same moment he “knew totally the meaning of possibility.” An existentialist would see this reaction as problematic. To the existentialist, Louis's insight into the meaning of possibility would be a cause for celebration, since the individual must choose a future from among infinite possible futures and must be able to diverge from past choices. An existentialist, however, might begin to worry about whether Louis could fulfill the rich possibilities for his future without an alert ego to make and implement decisions. With traces of Christian belief remaining in him, then, Louis feels guilty about his egotism. In turn, as his existential outlook develops, he views with alarm Lestat's ego-crushing impact on him, the existentialist equivalent of a cardinal sin: Lestat objectifies Louis (the Other) and makes of Louis's freedom “the instrument of [his] own project.” Lestat's egocentric project is to turn Louis into a vampire, even if he does not freely choose to become one, in order to secure Louis's plantation for his ailing father.
Looking back on his transformation from man into vampire, Louis cannot say how or whether he decided on this fateful step in his life. The ambiguity of his language reflects his crushed ego, his repressed self-consciousness, his confusion about the determining factors behind this choice, all of which traits are uncharacteristic of the existentialist:
“And so you decided to become a vampire?” [the interviewer] asked. …
“Decided. It doesn't seem the right word. Yet I cannot say it was inevitable from the moment that the [Lestat] entered the room... . Let me say that when he'd finished speaking, no other decision was possible for me.”
Katherine Ramsland points out that these themes of “choice and limitation” pursued by Sartre and Camus had always fascinated Rice, even if she did not consciously intend to set forth an existential outlook in Interview. Thus, while Lestat's charismatic presence offers Louis liberating possibilities for existential action, his presence simultaneously becomes the mechanism for a postexistential, “sinful” diminishment of his consciousness and freedom.
Through Lestat's influence, Louis finds it increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil. Perhaps this conflation of good and evil makes it easier for Louis to slip into the role of the vampire, to see good in its evil. In persuading Louis to become a vampire, Lestat consciously chooses language that blurs Judeo-Christian distinctions between good and evil and thus moves the disoriented Louis closer to existentialism's relativism. Lestat's pseudo-religious linguistic games are evident in his claim that vampires' acts of killing enable them to “see a human life in its entirety” and to have “a hand in the divine plan.” Sounding like a parody of Van Helsing, Lestat equates the Master with the anti-Master, sophistically positing resemblances between vampires and God: “Evil is a point of view … God kills, and so shall we; indiscriminately He takes the richest and poorest, and so shall we; for no creatures under God are as we are, none so like him as ourselves. …”
By seeing evil as a concept defined according to one's perspective, by implicitly criticizing God's decision-making as random and indiscriminate, and hence by subverting the concept of a God who sanctions moral beliefs and conduct, Lestat is articulating existentialism's central tenet, as philosopher Robert G. Olson puts it: “each man will tend to become a law unto himself [and] … choose for himself” (515). Louis gradually moves toward creation of his own moral laws. Yet by weakening Louis's ability to choose, Lestat also makes him question human responsibility for ethical behavior, without which the universe is empty and chaotic. Caught between existentialist and postexistentialist views of life, Louis suffers moral paralysis.
Ironically, the very fact of his philosophical quest places Louis among the morally and spiritually earnest citizens of our century. Unlike the anti-religious Undead in Dracula, Louis does not shrink from the crucifix after he becomes a vampire and in fact “rather likes looking on crucifixes.” Early in his vampiric life, he even visits a church, wistfully seeking a priest for confession. He also seeks some theological answers to his questions about God's mercy toward killers and His reason for the sacrilege of allowing Louis to exist. That he winds up at the end of this scene killing the priest in frustration and rage—a Nietzschean act confirming that God is dead—does not lessen the intensity of his quest for a meaningful life and for confirmation of the presence of good and evil principles in the universe. By killing the priest, however, Louis relinquishes the Victorian vestiges of his belief in a God and embraces the modern existential tenet of individual moral responsibility. Like Nietzsche, Louis “thinks a human life triumphant just insofar as it escapes from inherited descriptions of the contingencies of its existence and finds new descriptions”; until the end of the novel, Louis believes he can “create himself” and make his life meaningful despite the constraints of his circumstances.
Louis's spiritual impulses are in contrast to those of Armand. Armand denies the existence of gods and devils, calling Satan and God “these old fantastical lies, these myths, these emblems of the supernatural.” Like existentialist philosophers, Armand cites the self as the true repository of authority: “the only power that exists is inside ourselves.” This power includes the freedom to do good and evil and the responsibility to distinguish one from the other. Knowing of this condition, Armand is able to offer Louis no incentive for ethical conduct, only cynicism. Armand's deepening cynicism is what assures his survival and makes him the world's oldest vampire; Hennelly has suggested the same reason for Melmoth's survival: “In the topsy-turvy world of existentialism … it is not the discoverers of some good in the universe who survive, as much as it is the guardians against such self-restricting delusion who fully choose not to be blinded by the mere appearance of cosmic benevolence or divine providence.”
At first Louis denies this “loss of absolutes,” which according to Ramsland had been a painful loss for Rice herself. When the ethical optimism of Louis fades after Armand's lesson, however, readers expect that his quest for meaning and hope of good will end and that he will completely abandon himself to evil. Yet he has enough moral scruples and moral urgency left to hesitate to fulfill Claudia's request that he turn her friend Madeleine into a vampire. He resists performing this act of Sartreian “bad faith,” that of reifying Madeleine by trapping her in the vampiric role, which abolishes her freedom. Claudia's angry response to Louis's refusal is also that of an existentialist, as she points out that Louis is attempting to curb their right to choose another path: “How dare you make this decision for both of us!” Her anger also prompts her to malign Louis's vampiric “virility” and his claim to freedom: “Your evil is that you cannot be evil.” Her allusion here is to Louis's conflicting existences in the human and vampiric worlds, to his persistent yearning for good, and to the impairment of his freedom: his postexistentialist condition.
Although Louis is beginning to recognize that this conflicted condition will doom him, even when he ultimately transforms Madeleine and gives up the last traces of his humanness, he is still yearning to justify his existence; he is still clinging tenuously to the notion that he has the freedom to do so, and still actively probing into the heart of evil through Armand. He sees in Armand “the only promise of good in evil of which I could conceive” even though Armand has taught him all the subtle gradations of evil and the phenomenon of evil without guilt. Almost to the end, when his life has virtually been destroyed, Louis resists with rueful self-derision Armand's lesson on the absence of goodness, calling his resistance “that refusal to compromise a fractured and stupid morality.” Eventually, however, even a vampire becomes exhausted by the futility of the struggle and must acknowledge irreducible restrictions on his freedom. With that acknowledgment, Louis becomes a postexistentialist.
Louis achieves the detached wisdom and moral indifference of the pure vampire when he ends the quest and separates himself from those he has cared for: Claudia (who has died) and Armand (who is dying). This is his parting message to Armand: “I wanted love and goodness in this which is living death. … It was impossible from the beginning, because you cannot have love and goodness when you do what you know to be evil. … You can only have the desperate confusion and longing and the chasing of phantom goodness in its human form.” He had created a moral code in his life, but attempts to follow it were futile; he cannot justify his life, as Barnes would observe, because he cannot say that “he has freely chosen the values by which he has guided and judged his life.” Surrendering moral responsibility for his actions, this erstwhile existentialist accepts the constraints of his nature.
Because he knows that he is constrained by his compulsion to kill, Louis is now closer to postexistentialist Maurice Merleau-Ponty's ethic of contingency, which acknowledges that one's ethics are related to the given of one's situation. In contrast to some earlier existentialists, Merleau-Ponty says that “no one by himself is subject nor is he free, that freedoms interfere with and require one another, that history is the history of their dispute, which is inscribed and visible in institutions, in civilizations, and in the wake of important historical actions.” While Sartre claims that only men and things exist, Merleau-Ponty suggests that there is also “the interworld, which we call history, symbolism, truth-to-be-made”; all actions in this interworld are symbolic and are constrained by other actions. American philosopher Richard Rorty also recognizes the constraints of one's historical situation, sees freedom “as the recognition of contingency [and] … insist[s] on the sheer contingency of individual existence.” Louis finally sees the operation of contingency on his life, realizes that he is being acted upon by a world that condemns killing and by his internal world of vampiric cravings, while at the same time he acts upon the world both to satisfy these cravings and to perform ethical deeds. With these conflicts hampering his freedom, he is more likely to act unethically, to fail as an existentialist. Louis finally understands the problematic nature of freedom and thereby names his postexistential condition.
Readers who interpret philosophically and metaphorically Louis's final statement about love, goodness and vampirism are left with nagging questions about the statement's applications to the human condition. Is human morality stupid, or a mere phantom? Can we define good or evil? Is our striving for morality as outmoded for us in our postexistential condition as it is for Louis, since we may, like him, be circumscribed by our natures? Louis's quest may not provide unequivocal answers to important metaphysical questions, but Rice does show readers how simplistic are their usual conceptions of human nature and good and evil. She also demonstrates a postmodern mode of thinking by addressing questions about ethical conduct in a more fluid and situational manner.
The second aspect of Interview with the Vampire that encourages an existential interpretation of Louis's strivings and a postexistential perspective on the human condition involves Rice's blurring of the distinctive character traits of the human and the vampire in Louis, so that he experiences guilt about killing, divided allegiances, and alienation from both humans and vampires. Unlike Stoker's vampires, who can move down the Great Chain of Being, turning into wolf, bat or elemental dust, Louis remains a vampire tied to humans and nostalgic about sunrises. He burns “with the questions of [his] divided nature,” like so many conflicted human beings; as Ferraro puts it, he is “full of self-loathing and doubt … in short [he is] Everyman Eternal.” Louis retains a human aversion to killing and asserts his freedom to make an esthetic and moral decision when he determines to satisfy his cravings by killing only animals. In such decision-making, Louis enacts the human being who strives to repress his baser instincts in order to perform higher intellectual and ethical tasks. He behaves in accordance with the existential belief articulated by Alasdair Maclntyre that peoples' freely made choices “bring whatever nature they have into being.” Louis believes that he can determine the kind of vampire he will become. We see him struggle to avoid the basic impulses of vampiric nature, the characteristic detachment and the parasitical killing instinct, in order to live a more human life.
Yet Louis's conception of humanity may be naive; postmodern philosophers like Rorty point out the parasitical nature of human life and its incapacity to be independently willed: “one may say that there can be no fully Nietzschean lives, lives which are pure action rather than reaction, no lives which are not largely parasitical on an un-redescribed past and dependent on the charity of unborn generations.” Confused in his definition of human nature, yet yearning to be human, Louis experiences an identity crisis which puts him in what Karl Jaspers calls a “boundary situation,” an intense, unchangeable situation—such as endurance of suffering or guilt—that we “cannot see through as a whole” and that we can avoid “only by closing our eyes to [it]”; boundary situations are “like a wall we run into, a wall on which we founder. We cannot modify them; all that we can do is to make them lucid.” In his boundary situation, Louis accepts responsibility for being a flawed vampire because he thinks and feels too much: he is too human.
His human longings draw Louis to human culture and specifically to the arts because they promise him “a deeper understanding of the human heart.” Like Sartre, who in his earlier years was drawn to a literature yoked to ethics, Louis turns to the young journalist to help him shape his life's story and extrapolate its moral significance. According to Paul Jude Beauvais, Sartre sees the writer as “a unique volitional agent” who dwells in a particular historical context and who desires to observe and record his or her life and times; Sartre's writer is also shaped by membership in a social class. Thus the writer embodies both existential possibility and the prison of circumstances, a combination that reflects Louis's existential/postexistential conflict and explains his attraction to the journalist. As he speaks to the young writer, the otherness of Louis is dispelled. MacAndrew has observed that this narrative arrangement encourages readers to give “imaginative assent” to the vampire's tale “of passions that we can recognize,” to identify with Louis as if he were a human being.
Louis also turns to other human arts, especially drama, when he visits the Théâtre des Vampires in Paris. It is fitting that Rice brings Louis on a pilgrimage to Paris, a major center both of art and of existentialist thought, to seek justification of his existence. Although Louis kills, one of the few acts that even Sartre would see as irredeemably evil, he still maintains this human cultural framework, which encourages him to hope in his future goodness. Surely goodness can grow in this rich soil, even though it has been sown with the vampire's evil. Rice, until near the end of the novel, leads readers to believe, with Louis, in such a possibility.
This possibility seems especially viable when readers consider the third aspect of Rice's novel: the concepts of community and love, vampiric and human, that Louis affirms and seeks. As MacAndrew points out, Rice “explores the forms of human love and the nature of its relationships” through Louis and the others. Ramsland also notes that through Louis she depicts “the impetus in the human heart to seek others.” In contrast to Stoker's Dracula, whom Wilt calls an isolato, Louis actively seeks to end his painful isolation, the given condition of the existentialist. He forges relationships, although ultimately unsatisfactory ones, first with the woman Babette, then with Claudia, and finally with Armand. He also experiences community both when he and Lestat live with Claudia, a curiously incestuous triangle, and when Madeleine forms a new triangle with Claudia and Louis. Finally, he visits the vampire “commune” in Paris, which enacts the negative traits of the extended nuclear family: unified by kinship and conformity, it is also ravaged by jealousy, mistrust and power struggles.
As Hennelly notes in his study of Melmoth, alienation and the failure of love are common existential themes in Gothic literature: “Love does not usually provide the needed release from the universal Angst; rather it frustratingly highlights the failure of real communication.” His words would also apply to the love life of Louis, on which he had hoped to build a life of goodness. The frustration and disillusionment about love which Hennelly describes become Louis's postexistential condition.
Louis's loneliness is most alleviated by Armand, for whom he feels a deepening love: “it was as if the great feminine longing of my mind were being awakened again to be satisfied.” Later he says, “I felt a longing for him so strong that it took all my strength to contain it.” While Rice uses sexual language to describe this love, sexual passion may also be a metaphor for Louis's impassioned philosophical and intellectual searching: he feels the deep love and admiration of an apprentice-philosopher for a wise master and his stores of knowledge. For this love, however, Claudia and Madeleine must eventually be sacrificed. This love between vampires—a reflection of love between human beings—can destroy those who experience it. So-called humanizing love becomes the impetus for inhumanity, for acts of existential bad faith, for murder. All that the wise Armand can, ultimately, teach Louis is the complexity of evil, just as Rice leads us to realize that no good can emerge from the vampire.
Despite his initial hopes and longings, then, Louis finally confronts the nothingness of the universe. When his relationship with Armand fails, Louis understands that he is alone. His intention of creating a valuable pattern for his life, which had included loving relationships, has not been fulfilled; so, as Barnes would conclude, his existence has not been “worthwhile.” He recognizes that he will never “grow warm again and filled with love.” There comes a Kierkegaardian moment of “generalized dread … of nothing in particular … [of] this nothing, this void we confront.” Then he takes up the vampire's stoic detachment, rejecting the option of reaching out to others in love. He acknowledges his postexistential condition, letting his vampirism now dictate his actions.
Louis's last hope is in reaching out, not in love but in despair, to the journalist who might be able to make meaning out of his life's story for other human beings. By speaking to the journalist, Louis hopes to warn humans not to seek the eternal life of the vampire and to dispel the illusion that they are free to shape their own destinies and to eschew evil. This reaching out to the young writer also fails, it may be argued, since the journalist's response to the story is to ask to be turned into a vampire too. He would not have made this request if he had really understood Louis's portrayal of the vampire's enslavement to his own nature.
Love and community have actually been Louis's downfall, not his salvation. Formerly Louis had mirrored the Victorian age in which he was born, an age, Walter Houghton has observed, that replaced God with love as the source of salvation. Louis had looked to love with great hope. Now, however, having seen into the essence of love, he experiences a crushing fall from “grace and faith [that] is the fall of a century.” This fall propels him, philosophically speaking, into the postmodern world, where Rice destabilizes Louis's and readers' usual categories of good and evil by aligning love with eternal damnation.
Just before her death, Claudia is clear-eyed about the love between vampires—love among the ruins of a moral structure. She teaches Louis about vampiric love's quintessential evil, and he gives it a philosophical dimension: “that is the crowning evil, that we can even go so far as to love each other … and who else would show us a particle of love, a particle of compassion or mercy? Who else, knowing us as we know each other, could do anything but destroy us?” As one vampire peers into the soul of another, he sees absolute evil and, if ethically motivated like Louis, he must judge that soul as harshly as he judges himself. Barnes says of the existentialist's vision, “my own judgments cannot move outward without an accompanying inward movement. Consequently, I am always before the Bench. The eye of Judgment is ever there.” Louis has, nevertheless, loved two vampires, thereby denying his ability to judge himself or others and surrendering his power to choose what is good over what is evil. Such postexistentialist moral tolerance, needed for vampires' love, is defined by Claudia and Louis as the vampires' permanently damning evil: it seems inhuman, a tolerance of which humans would be incapable.
Or would they? Readers of Rice's novel have been drawn into this postmodern world of the vampire so powerfully and have had their simplistic moral sensibilities so thoroughly “drained” that in their disorientation they might be receptive to new objects of love and compassion, open to more complex categorizings of good and evil and to new ways of explaining the universe. Through the interview format, Rice has swayed us to suspend our aversion toward the vampire, and in so doing leads us to question assumptions about human nature and to re-envision the repositories of good and evil in the world. Moreover, because Rice morally energizes the vampire Louis, we are inclined to reject the traditional compartmentalizing of good and evil. Louis emerges as an appealing, remorseful, though obsessive, killer: his obsessive need to kill makes him a victim of his nature, but he struggles against this restriction of his freedom.
Under Rice's tutelage, therefore, persuaded by Louis's eloquence and the poignancy of his struggle, we begin to recognize the legitimacy of the vampire's quest for good in evil in good. Yet by witnessing the futility of Louis's struggle, we are also forced to surrender our naivete about individual freedom. Ultimately we come to tolerate a postexistentialist world view that emphasizes the relativity of morality, freedom and choice in a universe wherein the only meaning is that which we ourselves must construct, but which also vitiates our power to do so.
Rice's later vampiric fiction reveals the consistency of her interest in the major philosophical questions of modern and postmodern times. In The Vampire Lestat, especially, the protagonist from the beginning is a vampire with a conscience, repelled by “the stories of the ugly nihilistic men of the twentieth-century” and seeking guidelines for moral choices, even in selecting for his kills only remorseless evildoers. As Lestat's mentor the ancient vampire Marius says, even seventeen-hundred years ago vampires were “questing... rejecting the answers given us”; but Lestat is unique among mortals and immortals in his commitment to the quest for knowledge: “To really ask is to open the door to the whirlwind. … But you have been truly asking.” Lestat, decrying the placelessness of the vampire's evil nature and actions in the world, moves beyond the despairing conclusion of Rice's earlier novel. He finds a function for his evil condition, which is to create “the art that repudiates evil,” the music of rock stars that “dramatize[s] the battles against evil that each mortal fights within himself.” Louis had had hopes for the efficacy of art, but his hopes had been dashed by the failure of his relationship with Armand.
Through art and beauty Lestat in Rice's second novel takes up where Louis leaves off. The work begins with his despairing observation that on their deathbed people “probably don't find out the answer as to why [they] were ever alive. … We pass into nonexistence without ever knowing a thing.” Then, however, he turns to the beauty that humankind creates, cultivating an amoral wilderness that he calls the Savage Garden, “an uncharted land where one could make a thousand fatal errors, a wild and indifferent paradise without signposts of evil or good.” He suggests that meanings and guiding laws, derived from the esthetic, do exist. The Master painter-vampire Marius becomes his role model, because Marius “found a way to imitate mortal life.… He created good things … he believed more in the vistas of heaven that he painted than in himself.” Both Lestat and Marius believe in the beauty and goodness of the world, and Lestat admires Marius's efforts to stem the chaos that threatens to destroy the world: as he sees it, this is a way for a vampire to achieve some good—to become a little more lovable.
Lestat's amoral esthetic framework has a drawback, however: it encourages the Théâtre of the Vampires in Paris to “make a mockery of all things sacred” and it sanctions Lestat's plans to wage war against mortals as the novel ends. Lestat uses his “Satanic powers to simulate the actions of a good man!” In other words, Lestat has the moral conscience of an existentialist, but he redefines the conscience as something that prompts the individual to do whatever he or she wants. Since art has limited redemptive force, Lestat also considers the salvational powers of love. Like some of Rice's other vampires, he believes in and longs for love, even while declaring that “it's a concept born out of moral idiocy, this idea of love!” A vampire seeks companionship and love because he cannot stand being alone as a killer, because he cannot accommodate death easily or name a place for evil in the world. Yet even with his impulse for love and goodness fighting his evil instincts, he emerges at the end of the novel without a system of ethics and, like Louis, with a postexistentialist sense that his freedom to choose is circumscribed by his thirst for blood and the vagaries of history. In her second novel Rice is more optimistic about the value of art and love than in the first novel, but she still does not fully trust that they will offer a meaningful life.
Lestat, nevertheless, continues his existential quest and asserts his freedom to break the rules of vampires; as Ferraro has observed, “in Lestat's search for the meaning of existence, he gleefully breaks them all.” There is a comedic quality to his outlook that is missing from Louis's view. Even though Lestat knows that vampires, like mortals, are “prisoners of circumstance,” he is not as burdened by such knowledge as Louis had been. With a satirist's humor, he describes his mission to create new evil in rock music, with its “images of evil, not evil … [its] image of death, not death”: “So let us take on a new meaning … I crave the divine visibility. I crave war [with mortals] … the new evil … the twentieth-century evil.” In seeing evil as shaped by the historical moment that makes rock music its fit vehicle, Lestat mirrors Sartre's post-World War II blend of Marxism and existentialism which, as Beauvais has observed, leaves “a margin of freedom … for individuals to act in ways that contradict their social conditioning”; Beauvais suggests that for Sartre, “self and society are mutually determining: history makes man, but man makes history.” More than Louis, Lestat in Rice's second novel persists in his existentialist quest, despite his postexistentialist recognition of constraints.
Whatever tentative conclusions Lestat reaches at the end of his tale about the conditions of individual freedom, purposes of evil, and influences of history on existence, the vampiric quest for meaning and philosophical questioning continues in the ensuing Vampire Chronicles. In Rice's 1988 novel, The Queen of the Damned, which revisits the power struggles of the vampires and depicts Queen Akasha's efforts to defeat Lestat, Ramsland observes the existentialist concern with “paradox, free will, personal choice.” Moreover, Rice's metaphysical speculations are even present in her nonvampiric erotic novels, such as Exit to Eden (1985) and Belinda (1986), written under the pen name of Anne Rampling, and The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty (1983), written under the name A. N. Roquelaure. In these works Rice uses a less supernatural but still fantastical medium and continues to explore issues of freedom and moral choice. Indeed, in these works, she suggests that intimate sexual relations and vampirism have many things in common.
In Exit to Eden, for example, instead of describing vampires who create and possess mortals through the Dark Trick, Rice depicts mortals who possess one another by fuelling sexual fantasies and desires and who obtain sexual fulfillment through pain and pleasure. A sadomasochistic fantasy island of the Club-Med variety is the site of the elaborate slave/master sex games that transform patrons and employees of the Club into uncivilized, almost supernatural, creatures. Like the vampires who feel their victims' hearts beating as they suck their blood, the participants in the Club's sadomasochistic rituals experience an intimacy in which “you reached out and touched the beating heart of the person.”
This context prompts the “head sex-manager” Lisa to question her own morality and the objectives of the other island “Professionals,” as well as to explore philosophical alienation and the degree of freedom available to the individual. Lisa confesses to having felt like a freak, a sexual outlaw, as a younger woman because of her sexual feelings and fantasies. Every bit as lost and marginalized as Rice's vampires, Lisa suggests that perhaps “we are all outsiders, we are all making our own unusual way through a wilderness of normality that is just a myth.” Questioning her mentor Martin about her creation of an “Outsider Heaven” on the island, she echoes the questions about identity and earthly purpose raised by vampires and existentialists: “Is what we do right, Martin? Or is it evil? Are we the good thing that we tell ourselves we are, are we the healthy thing we say we are to others? Or are we some evil, twisted thing that never should come to be?” The tentative conclusion she reaches before the book's romantic, love-affirming ending is that by channeling aggressive, violent feelings into harmless sexual fantasizing and game-playing, the Club people may save the world from war.
Lisa's quest leading to this conclusion begins with an episode that suggests the existentialist's sensation of exile, fear of the borders of freedom, and interrogation of the meaning of work and life. Returning from a vacation, Lisa's plane has to circle for a long time before landing; that is, she has psychic and literal difficulty re-entering the island—“no entry” instead of “no exit”—and feels as if as she is experiencing “an existentialist play. There is my world down there but I cannot get into it. Maybe it is all something I've imagined.” As the narrative progresses, however, the nightmare recedes. The search for love by Lisa and her lover Elliott recalls the yearning for companionship of Louis, Lestat and Armand; their exploration of freedom is similar to the rebellious paths that were taken by Louis (as autobiographer) and Lestat (as rock star). Whereas the vampires failed in their quest, however, Lisa and Elliott ultimately succeed.
The clue to their success is suggested by Martin, who encourages Lisa to claim both freedom AND love: “very few of us anymore get through life without a dramatic bid for freedom. … But most of us never really reach our goal. We get stuck halfway between the morass of myth and morality we left behind and the utopia on which we've set our sights. … You've scored your victories [freedom in sexual behavior without beings denounced for sinfulness] … but if you think you cannot love Elliott, you've paid an awfully high price at the same time.” This couple eventually enjoy their freedom together, in contrast to the vampires, who make the victim/lover's surrender of freedom the necessary condition for fulfilling their own goals. Lisa and Elliott carve out a utopian world of love for themselves under their own rules of moral behavior.
In certain ways, therefore, Exit to Eden is a philosophically naive throwback to pre-nihilist impulses of the earlier nineteenth century, whereas Rice's vampiric fiction is a provocative harbinger of more complex postmodern philosophizing. Although Rice may have tried to write a conceptually sophisticated novel in Exit to Eden and failed, it is likely, instead, that she has simply taken a brief respite from her bleak vision of our condition on this planet. Her overall artistic mission and greatest intellectual energies seem directed toward the metaphysical questions and grim answers of her Vampire Chronicles. In Interview with the Vampire, especially, Rice presents with fervor a profound exploration of freedom, moral constraints and contingency in order to prepare us for the philosophical issues that face us on the darkling plain of the twenty-first century.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 947
SOURCE: “Vampire Tans! News at 11,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 25, 1992, pp. 1, 9.
[In the following review, See offers praise for The Tale of the Body Thief.]
Anne Rice's elegant smoothie, the Vampire Lestat, is back, and up to all his old immortal tricks [in The Tale of the Body]. He's the same charmer, dressing in black velvet, meandering through museums to admire the Rembrandts, restoring a lovely crumbling mansion in New Orleans (that he himself lived in 100 years before). He's the same inveterate, starry-eyed tourist, zooming from London to Paris to Miami to New Orleans to South American jungles to Caribbean resorts, still absolutely gaga over each and every new excursion.
What a refined vampire! How given to nostalgia; his memories of the filthy 18th-Century French castle he grew up in, his recurring visions of little Claudia, the orphan he rescued from a plague-infested novel and played the “Dark Trick” on, turning her into an immortal, quintessential, ungrateful child, trying, as she did, to do away with him, but failing—of course. It's possible, in theory, to kill a vampire, but the vampire Lestat? Get serious.
For as Lestat himself announces, “No one out-shines this figure you see before you—no one! … I am not time's fool, nor a god hardened by the millennia; I am not the trickster in the black cape, nor the sorrowful wanderer. I have a conscience. I know right from wrong. I know what I do, and yes, I do it. I am the Vampire Lestat. That's your answer. Do with it what you will.”
Lestat, this vampire of fine feeling, occupies himself at the novel's opening as a kind of transfusion social worker: He scours city streets for serial killers and destroys them by charitably draining them of their blood. (Every once in a while he gets carried away and kills their intended victims too.) But Lestat is lonely and bored, distressed, sick of his vampiric life. He decides to do away with himself and flies as high as he can above the Gobi Desert, waiting at the edge of the Earth's atmosphere for the blinding, destructive sun to come up.
This should kill him, but it doesn't. A couple of days of this strenuous and painful suicide attempt leaves him with nothing more than a very bad sunburn that mellows to a becoming tan.
The trouble is, what's the point of living—as a human or a vampire—if there's no meaning to existence? As Lestat insists repeatedly, he's “the miracle” without “the revelation.” He knows there are spirits aplenty shuffling and bumping along through the air, but he can't get at the stuff behind it. He can't make himself believe in God; he certainly can't believe in the Devil.
But during these past years Lestat has made friends with an erudite and compassionate mortal, David Talbot, the head of a secret metaphysical society that keeps track of spirits, vampires and all manner of occult lore. David is getting just a little bit old—he's 74 now, and every time Lestat sees his friend, he can't help but get anxious about him. With preternatural hearing, Lestat can hear David's heart speeding up and getting weaker. Repeatedly, Lestat asks David to come on over! Take a ticket for the Dark Trick, get a vampire transfusion, and live on the Dark Side, forever. David, facing human death, steadfastly refuses.
David, unlike his immortal friend, believes in God and in the Devil, because he heard them chatting once in a Paris cafe. From these overheard fragments (spoken in an unknown but understandable language), David was able to intuit that God is far from perfect and still in the process of exploration (how like Gregg Easterbrook's hypothesis in his novel This Magic Moment), and that the Devil is smart enough by now to be fed up with his own thankless job.
Why David didn't stroll over to the table right then and ask those Big Guys what they were up to is not adequately explained here, but it remains a beguiling subtext for the “real” plot of this book, which is this: Lestat is tempted by a low-life “body thief” who offers him the chance to switch bodies for a couple of days—so that Lestat will have the chance of being human again for at least a while. Lestat takes this scoundrel up on his offer. The scoundrel promptly disappears, leaving Lestat with a body—bad cold and all—and “the abysmal struggle and trivia and fear” of being human.
There's a lot of fun to all this: good sex, great food, sunshine seen a hundred ways, and even a cruise on the QEII—a perfect place for a vampire, incidentally, since all the elderly passengers are one step away from death anyway and serve as perfect snack food for ravenous blood drinkers.
No one seems to have as much fun as Anne Rice as she takes us through these crazy fictional settings. She notices everything—the heavy silver coffee pots you find in first-class hotels, the buttery grits from fine Southern restaurants, exotic plants in unexplored jungles, and of course, blood, described in 132 possible ways. People love these books, and not, I think, for only this delicious sensuality. Reading Anne Rice is like sneaking by the back door into God's mansion. There He is, chatting with the Devil. Is that how It works, then? For many people of education, “God,” “Religion,” “good-and-evil” are subjects far more forbidden and iffy than sex. You can't talk about these things! Anne Rice opens the door to all that, suavely and charmingly. Beyond the blood, the food, the sex, and beignets, you can glimpse the Divine.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 799
SOURCE: “The Demon Seed,” in Washington Post Book World, October 10, 1993, pp. 4-5.
[In the following review, Hand offers praise for Lasher.]
Is there a madder, badder, braver bestselling writer than Anne Rice? Maybe so—but it's hard to imagine anyone else being able to pull off the literary legerdemain that Rice manages in her new novel. With Lasher she concocts heady and potent salmagundi of contemporary witchcraft, Caribbean voodoo, aristocratic decadence and good old-fashioned Celtic paganism, and makes what should be an unpalatable mess as wickedly irresistible as a Halloween stash of Baby Ruths.
At the heart of all this is the Mayfair clan, the impossibly wealthy New Orleans dynasty of witches first encountered in her 1990 The Witching Hour. For centuries the fate of the Mayfairs has been entwined with that of Lasher's eponymous anti-hero, an androgynous being of dubious spiritual provenance who has been haunting family members since way back when they were getting burned at the stake. Now Lasher has been given corporeal being through the unwitting agency of Rowan Mayfair and her husband, Michael Curry. Rowan, a brilliant neurosurgeon who by virtue of her psychic abilities has been named chief witch of the Mayfair clan, is kidnapped and brutalized by Lasher. He seeks to impregnate her and so ensure the propagation of his kind—whatever his kind may be. His efforts leave Rowan in a coma and Lasher himself at large in New Orleans and beyond, preying on the Mayfair women in a desperate attempt to find the one who will give birth to his children. Lest serious readers find this all veering too much down the shadowy side of the street, it should be pointed out that Lasher also contains several heads in jars, a skeleton wrapped in a rug, numerous apparitions, cross-dressers and psychic investigators, as well as ancient stone circles, arcane Catholic rites, incestuous pairings, clairvoyant children, gray-suited attorneys, The Little People and Anne Boleyn.
What all of the above have in common is, of course, the beautiful and innocently corrupt Lasher. Much of this book involves speculation by various characters as to his true nature. Is he a ghost? A demon? A saint? The late-20th century incarnation of that ancient pagan harvest deity popularized in The Golden Bough and certain enduring Western religions? Malevolent and childlike by turns, Lasher acts the seductive incubus and brutal rapist with equal facility. Over the centuries, he has harmed as many people as he's charmed, although he remains enduringly faithful to one thing: the Mayfair clan itself, which through Lasher's agency has become expansive and successful and glamorously wealthy—a sort of Kennedy dynasty filtered through “Dark Shadows.” But now that Lasher's sexual depredations are laying waste the Mayfair women, the future of the family itself is at stake. Not only that, but one of Lasher's precocious spawn manages to get herself born. She starts walking towards New Orleans, just as her demonic pere is making his own way back to the Mayfair family homestead, where the entire clan has gathered to mourn their murdered women. Can anyone, or anything, stop Lasher and his daughter?
Anne Rice, nee O'Brien, has a Celtic flair for ritual and melancholy and dark beauty, be it the way the sun strikes a Scottish ruin or the elegantly twisted erotic pairings of her characters. The novel gets off to a slow and somewhat confusing start, and the author strikes a few jangling notes: a silly 13-year-old nymphet-witch-cum-computer-whiz; some anachronistic musings by a Civil War era ghost; several unnecessary efforts to shore up a ghost story with scientific folderol. And the breathtakingly bizarre turnings of her plot defy close scrutiny.
But who cares? As Oscar Wilde (another moody Gael) remarked, “To have a style so gorgeous that it conceals the subject is one of the highest achievements.” Rice's descriptive writing is so opulent it almost begs to be read in a seraglio by candlelight—though the morning Metro from East Falls Church will do.
Ultimately, though, what makes Lasher so compelling is its refreshingly traditional stance. Behind all the velvet drapes and gossamer winding sheets, this is an old-fashioned family saga. Rice's Mayfairs are as gorgeous and doomed and steeped in the South as Scarlett O'Hara, and bound by the same things—“Our world is about to perish … we are a small valley, a small glen, only one tiny part of the north country. But we have endured and we would live on. And that is all the world is, finally, small valleys, groups of people who pray and work and love together as we do. … And what you were—and what your mother and father did—these things do not matter one whit.”
It's comforting to know that even in the most ancient covens, family values still have a place.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 948
SOURCE: “Witchcraft Is Their Science,” in New York Times Book Review, October 24, 1993, p. 38.
[In the following review, West offers tempered evaluation of Lasher.]
If you have read The Witching Hour, you will understand who's who among the horde of names unleashed in Anne Rice's new novel; Lasher. Reading the novel is often like hearing someone mumble on in a monotone about famous cricketers of the 19th-century when you, the reader, are a baseball fan or a fan of nothing at all.
Lasher, about the branches and generations of a witch matriarchy called Mayfair, evokes part of London once given over to a hospital for leprous women. In their complex comings and goings, the Mayfair witches wangle themselves into the fabric of New Orleans society with experienced ease; they are a subversive class that has risen and prospered over the centuries without always doing what they were best at: sorcery with malign intent, traffic with the Devil and the exercise of supernatural powers. Ms. Rice's witches are not broomstick riders, as in the old days, but Mafia wives encased in brainwashed daintiness. Witchcraft is the savviest science at least for them, and irresistible power is the book's focus: power passed on and made new, power grafted from nature and upturned against it. A strong theme, to be sure, but here tacked onto a silly vehicle.
Ms. Rice evokes a type of person we have all met: the ectoplasmic orator who says aloud everything he or she thinks—in this case, writes it down. I could take all the monofilamentous, monotone rambling about this or that branch of the Mayfair family tree, and every witch bird roosted in it, if we were getting Jamesian amplification or (as in the novels of C. P. Snow, even) new doors opening on familiar personages. But Ms. Rice repeats herself, never for stylistic felicity, only to confirm some kind of ritual, to tell readers they have been here before.
As it is, most well-educated readers will not get beyond the first chapter, done with a faux-naif folklorish touch: “Father was waiting for her. She had to grow fast and grow strong for Father. When the time came, Mother had to help her. She had to drink Mother's milk.” It goes on: “Mother slept. Mother cried. Mother dreamed. Mother was sick. And when Father and Mother quarreled, the world trembled. Emaleth knew dread.” The prose picks up and does a better job of recording the detail of phenomena, though there are no sentences so beautiful they dare you to go past them without savoring them several times.
The novel has several aspects, the most powerful and arresting of which is the character of the brilliant neurosurgeon witch-mother, who gives birth to an extraordinary not-quite-human being who comes out of the womb and rapes her on the spot—more or less. He impregnates her with a being similar to himself. Potentially this is vigorous stuff, limning a Mother Courage of obstetrics, otherwise known as Rowan Mayfair, queen of the coven.
Unfortunately, though dramatically mentioned and suggestively evoked, this character does not appear in the first 200 pages, no doubt because she is familiar to readers of The Witching Hour, which introduced the Mayfair dynasty of witches. Once Rowan at last turns up (thinking, “Have I done this to myself? Is this how it ends for me, because of my own selfishness, my own vanity?”), the novel convulses into an almost orgasmic pageant of miscegenation—its horrors, its marvels, its sheer biological hubris. We have to make our own way through the thicket of implication, wondering exactly how we stand with mutants, how we would cope with them, where human self-interest leaves off and enlightened interest in cosmic variety begins.
Ms. Rice seems much more at home with such a tornado of ideas than with traditional witchcraft. Indeed, she is more a writer of science or speculative fiction than she is a purveyor of Gothic or whimsy. Amid the blather of names, few of whom surge up as characters, and the roughhouse sexual coupling, poignant images begin to form: Rowan breast-feeding her mutant, getting into X-ray departments to run a brain scan on him, hemorrhaging time and again and scraping up the “tiny gelatinous mass at the core of her hemorrhage. … There was something here, and it-had limbs!” She asks him what he knows of prehuman history and notes that his sexual organ is thick and slightly curved.
Ms. Rice tells all this in plodding prose, but she does tell it as if it interested her, as does literature, at least if we heed the roll-call of authors grafted onto the mutant child Julien, who tells a story within this story, citing Terence, Ovid, George Chapman and others.
Eponymous Lasher, 6 feet 6 inches tall, blue-eyed with luxuriant black hair, sometimes resembling “an acolyte of the rock-music star David Bowie,” can speak Latin and Gaelic, sings menus aloud and brings to mind Dürer's representations of Jesus. As far as he goes he's an imposing energumen, but Ms. Rice sometimes calls him “the creature,” gently stereotyping until he almost becomes a prop. He has little private life, and little interior, at least until toward the end, when Ms. Rice lets him begin to narrate. He rises to a dutiful perfunctoriness when he might have become a voice both stylish and cantankerous.
The Talamasca, a foundation devoted to historical research, addresses itself to the hypothesis that Lasher possesses a unique genome, is desperate to reproduce and needs witches with whom to do it. Lasher nags at the mind. More's the pity that Ms. Rice did not delve into him as Nathalie Sarraute might have, probing with deviant finesse yet another-man unknown.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 878
SOURCE: “Son of a Witch,” in Washington Post Book World, October 9, 1994, p. 4.
[In the following review, Winter offers qualified assessment of Taltos. “Certain to please the many fans of Anne Rice,” writes Winter, Taltos “is not likely to gain her any new readers.”]
It seems natural that new novels by Stephen King and Anne Rice should be linked with the seemingly unavoidable word “horror.” Yet King writes from a decidedly populist perspective; he is a Faulkner by way of Jim Thompson, Don Robertson and Richard Matheson, with a lot of B movies and episodes of “Twilight Zone” and “Outer Limits” thrown in for good measure. The essence of his fiction is the disruption of everyday life by the outre: a funfair for the common man. Anne Rice, on the other hand, finds her roots in fairy tales; medieval romances and gothic novels—particularly the decadent “yellow gothics” that closed down the 19th century. Her perspective is patrician; the fundamental icon of her work is the elevated Outsider, the one person among us who is fated to a life that cannot be mundane—not everyman, but neverman.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in her new novel, Taltos, a romantic fantasy populated almost entirely by superhuman characters. Virtually devoid of the emotional aesthetics of horror—save for one skillfully enacted comeuppance—the novel is a curious amalgam of gothic, glamour fiction, alternate history and high soap opera.
Taltos is the third, and perhaps final, book in a series known as the “Lives of the Mayfair Witches,” and it is written with a rather firm expectation that its predecessors have been read. For the uninformed, it is enough to know that the members of the Mayfair family—women and men—are blessed and cursed by genetics with witchery. There is neither double double nor toil and trouble; indeed, the witches here seem adept only at mind-reading and psychokinesis, talents which are too easily manipulated for plot convenience. Their haunted heritage has brought the family great wealth, which is exercised from a New Orleans manse with Southern gentility; but of course such power cannot escape notice … or challenge.
The Mayfair saga unfolded laboriously in The Witching Hour, but then seemed to find its stride with last year's Lasher, a deliciously decadent triumph that centered on the revelation that the mating of two Mayfairs could produce a genetic aberration from a legendary race of giants known as Taltos. Such a creature, called Lasher, wreaked havoc before dying in the second book; in Taltos, another member of the breed, Ashlar, takes center stage.
Ashlar, as his very name suggests, is the inverse of Lasher—a gentle giant who hides his monstrosity through Howard Hughes like seclusion and philanthropy, making dolls for the masses. He is also the consummate Rice creation; an immortal who yearns for integration into humanity and yet recognizes his aristocracy, which is symbolized strikingly by his height above the masses.
Ashlar is brought into contact with the Mayfairs through the antics of certain members of the Talamasca, a secret society devoted to the pursuit of the weird. The confrontation of giant and witch is enacted in a heady hyper-reality: from its settings—limousines and private jets, penthouses and bayou mansions, Claridge's in London—to its often luxurious prose, this novel grapples literally with the haunts of the very rich.
The story of Ashlar slowly intertwines with that of 13-year-old Mona Mayfair, a precocious nymphet who makes Lolita look like Doris Day. Mona manages a mutual fund, tosses off words like “approbation,” seduces her cousin's husband and becomes pregnant by him without a care in the world. Neither the cousin nor anyone else seems to mind; indeed, every major player lusts after each other at some point in this book—even our pregnant 13-year-old ponders a lesbian tryst with yet another cousin.
Ironically, none of these sexual shenanigans seems particularly lurid or shocking; certainly we have seen them before in Rice's fiction. And that suggests the more fundamental problem confronting the reader of Taltos: the dire feeling of deja vu, of not moving forward but covering old ground. It is a problem amplified by a story that advances less through action than through the discussion and dissection of events, with characters talking each plot development into near-stasis.
At one juncture, Rice has her elegant Ashlar lament the modern corruption of language, dismissing “realism in fiction, and journalism which is filled with colloquialisms. … It has lost all formality, and instead abides by an intense compression. When people write now, it is sometimes like the screech of a whistle compared to the songs they used to sing.” If Taltos is meant to invoke some older and better style of storytelling, then its song of choice is a dirge. There are passages of intense lyricism here—particularly in the stories of ancient days told by Ashlar—yet too often Rice's style lingers and, on occasion, malingers.
This is a novel that demands both a taste—and a patience—that has been refined by prior experience. Taltos is thus certain to please the many fans of Anne Rice, but it is not likely to gain her any new readers. And this is a shame, because Rice is a formidable talent among writers of the fantastique.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7702
SOURCE: “Vampires in the (Old) New World: Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles,” in Reading the Vampire, Routledge, 1994, pp. 108-23.
[In the following essay, Gelder explores Rice's portrayal of vampire characters, family structures, and homoeroticism in Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, The Queen of the Damned, and The Tale of the Body Thief.]
The ‘vampire chronicle’—where the life and fortunes of a vampire are mapped out through a number of novels—is a recent development in popular horror fiction. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Hotel Transylvania (1978) was the first of a sequence of novels about le Comte de Saint-Germain, an aristocratic (and, as it happens, ambidextrous) vampire who effortlessly glides through history. She has also written a trilogy about a female vampire, Olivia, Saint-Germain's one and only true love. Patricia Nead Elrod's ‘vampire files’ series, which began with Bloodlist (1990), traces the fortunes of a vampire detective, Jack Fleming, in his search for the woman he loves— who, again, is another vampire. Yarbro in particular has sold well, marketed at one point as the ‘Queen of Horror’—although Hotel Transylvania has been out of print now for some time. But the best-known contemporary chronicler of vampires is without question Anne Rice.
Her first novel in the ‘Vampire Chronicles’, Interview with the Vampire (1976), was not an immediate best-seller because Rice at this time was unknown—she had not been published before. Her biographer, Katherine Ramsland, reports that Ballantine made the book into an ‘event’ the following year, however (with an extensive tour, coffin-shaped book displays, T-shirts, and so on), ensuring its success through heavy promotion. The second novel in the sequence, The Vampire Lestat (1985), was published almost ten years later; but Rice's reputation as a horror novelist was secure by this time, and it became a best-seller the first week it was released. The Queen of the Damned (1988) went to the top of The New York Times best-seller lists during its first week of publication, and stayed in the lists for seventeen weeks, far outselling (at 400,000 copies) the previous novels in the series. None of these novels has since been out of print. Hollywood has at last been successful in negotiating with Rice for the film rights of Interview (she was reportedly unhappy at the decision to cast Tom Cruise as Louis, however); there was talk of producing a Broadway musical (the pop singer Sting had apparently been involved in discussions); the Vampire Lestat Fan Club launched itself in 1988; in 1990 Innovation, an art production outfit, had begun to serialise The Vampire Lestat in comic book form; and—to give an idea of her reach into other kinds of markets—the hip New York music magazine Reflex took Anne Rice as the topic of its first non-music cover story. The fourth novel in the chronicles, The Tale of the Body Thief, was published at the end of 1992.
We should note that Yarbro, Elrod and Rice are women writers, although for the most part their vampire heroes are male. Their chronicles share a number of characteristics usually associated with women's romance—notably, the tracing out of the vampire's search for fulfilment, for a ‘complete’ love relationship. But, under the umbrella of the vampire genre, romance themes may be dispersed or channelled through other topics or interests—an involvement with criminality, for instance (Elrod's ‘vampire files’ are a variation on the hardboiled detective fiction genre), or a detailed recreation of historical events (Yarbro and Rice's novels are well researched, historically speaking), or a kind of macro-presentation of occult or mythological activity which is shown to control the narrative in certain ways (as in Rice's later novels). That is, these novels are not just romances. Some differences can be noted between Elrod and Yarbro on the one hand, and Rice on the other, by way of introduction. The former novelists' vampires are solitary figures, rarely coming into contact with their own kind. Rice's vampire chronicles, however, have something in common with the family saga genre. Her vampires often cohabit with one another in familial relationships; and in The Queen of the Damned, this is opened up to an extended ‘great family’ with an original set of vampire parents from which all the others are descended. Consequently, her novels are more genealogical than the others. This may seem to characterise Rice's fiction as conservative, essentially grounded in a coherent family structure. But that claim is complicated by the fact that her male vampire protagonists—Louis, Lestat and Armand—are decidedly ‘queer’. Rice flaunts the gayness of her male vampires; they cohabit together as ‘queer’ parents, with vampire children; at other times, they may be bisexual or sexually ‘polymorphous’. We would need to think about what it means for Rice, a reputedly heterosexual wife and mother, to write ‘as’ a queer male vampire. And here is another reason for Rice's importance as a vampire novelist: she was possibly the first writer to narrate her stories in the first person from the vampire's point of view.
INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE
Rice's first vampire novel took an unorthodox approach to the genre by having its vampire protagonist, Louis, interviewed by a boy (presumably in late adolescence) with a tape-recorder. This narrative strategy emphasises disclosure (through confession or revelation) and publicity, topics which become increasingly important in Rice's vampire chronicles. The reader hears the ‘other’ speaking first-hand; the vampire comes out of the closet and makes himself known; he gives us ‘the real story’ (at last) about vampires. Moreover, the boy is the perfect listener, hooked by the narrative to such an extent that, at the end, he wants to be like Louis, a vampire. That is, the novel builds its own ideal reception—where the interviewer is thoroughly passified, standing as an image for the converted reader, the fan—into its structure. Yet even as the ‘truth’ of Louis-as-a-vampire is taken for granted—to be believed—the novel sets into motion a complicated version of the dialectic between belief and disbelief, illusion and disillusion, that, as we have seen, has preoccupied so many of the vampire narratives so far discussed. Interview with the Vampire maintains the illusion of vampires at one level, since Louis ‘exists’; at another level, it disillusions its own investment in ‘real’ vampires almost entirely, turning vampirism into something akin to a posture or style, a simulation of the real. This novel seeks the ‘truth’ about vampires, and comes back empty-handed; it does, however, make a significant conversion (namely, the interviewer/reader) along the way.
The novel opens in 1791, with Louis—actually, Louis de Pointe du Lac—as the son of a plantation owner in New Orleans, Louisiana, the setting for much of Rice's horror fiction. This Southern American city becomes a powerful, occult site for events—a place in the New World which is nevertheless somehow older and more decadent than Europe, simultaneously ‘primitive’ and sophisticated, a ‘mixture’ of all kinds of peoples:
There was no city in America like New Orleans. It was filled not only with the French and Spanish of all classes who had formed in part its peculiar aristocracy, but later with migrants of all kinds, the Irish and the German in particular. Then there were not only the black slaves, yet unhomogenised and fantastical in their garb and manners, but the great growing class of free people of colour, those marvellous people of our mixed blood and that of the islands, who produced a magnificent and unique caste of craftsmen, artists, poets, and renowned feminine beauty. Then there were the Indians, who covered the levee on summer days selling herbs and crafted wares. And drifting through all, through this medley of languages and colours, were the people of the port, the sailors of ships, who came in great waves to spend their money in the cabarets, to buy for the night the beautiful women both dark and light, to dine on the best of Spanish and French cooking and drink the imported wines of the world.
We can easily note how this passage naturalises pre-Civil War New Orleans as—somewhat against the odds—a place where different ethnicities interact ‘freely’ with one another, where class differences are dissolved (everyone is suitably ‘aristocratic’) and so on. But this utopian image of what might be termed the ‘global exotic’ is important as a background to Rice's vampire fiction—and perhaps to vampire fiction in general. This genre tends to override class and ethnic differences at one level by emphasising mobility and movement. As I have already noted in previous chapters, the vampire was consciously constructed as a ‘citizen of the world’, a figure to whom boundaries (national boundaries in particular) meant very little. To recall Wolfgang Schivelbusch's phrase, utilised in Chapter 1, this fiction tends to offer a ‘panoramic perception’ of the world—a perception which is intimately related to travel in its broader manifestations. Indeed, as we shall see in the next chapter especially, contemporary vampire fiction is ‘panoramic’ in both space and time. It visits as many moments in history as it does countries, and each moment is as freely interactive in terms of class and ethnicity as the next one.
Louis is a lapsed Catholic, a disillusioned Catholic—perhaps he has seen too much of the ‘world’ which circulates through New Orleans. His brother, by contrast, is a religious zealot who has visions; that is, he believes wholeheartedly in the illusions of the Catholic Church. This juxtaposition of illusion and disillusion—belief and disbelief—is important in Rice's novel. Louis does not ‘believe’ (in) his saintly brother; yet precisely because of this traumatic disillusion, he is allowed to see the ‘reality’ of vampires. His subsequent belief in vampires, in other words, is a kind of modern, secular replacement for his lost Catholic faith. Because Louis has ‘no illusions’, he is, then, both less than Catholic—and more than Catholic. That is, he both believes in nothing, and is (therefore) able to believe in anything, including the unbelievable—vampires. As he says to Armand much later in the novel,
you ask me how I could believe I would find a meaning in the supernatural! I tell you, after seeing what I have become, I could damn well believe anything! Couldn't you? And believing thus, being thus confounded, I can now accept the most fantastical truth of all: that there is no meaning to any of this!
Rice's novel plays with this folding together of illusion and disillusion in a number of ways. It takes the form of a quest, primarily to find out the ‘truth’ about vampires. Louis, a ‘Creole’ American vampire with a French accent, feels ‘shaped by Europe more deeply and keenly than the rest of Americans’. The girl-vampire Claudia encourages Louis to return there, to ‘see where it had all begun’: ‘It was her idea most definitely that we must go to central Europe, where the vampire seemed most prevalent. She was certain we could find something there that would instruct us, explain our origins’. But in Transylvania, the vampires are simply ‘mindless, animated corpse[s]’, offering no answers to Louis and Claudia. The novel rejects Eastern Europe as a source: it is too ‘primitive’ (not ‘aristocratic’ enough? not glamorous enough?) to be of any use; it only disillusions. Louis and Claudia travel instead to Paris, ‘the mother of New Orleans’—the city which ‘had given New Orleans its life’. They are led to the Théâtre des Vampires, a theatre in which real vampires act as vampires for a mesmerised audience. The troupe presents the audience with an illusion (theatricality) of an illusion (‘real’ vampires); far from leading Louis and Claudia to the ‘origins’ of vampirism, they show it to have been (always?) a mode of representation, a sign of vampirism, a style or a posture. To be a vampire is, in other words, to act like a vampire. This is vampirism at its most disillusioned, a rejection of all the European traditions and superstitions. In the same spirit, Louis tells the boy interviewer that vampire lore—crosses, garlic, stakes through the heart and so on—is ‘bullshit’.
Yet the novel allows the illusion of vampirism to flourish at the level of representation itself. There is no reality or meaning behind vampirism, as Louis realises—and this is ‘the most fantastical truth of all’. But one can still ‘be’ a vampire because—since there is no reality behind it—acting and being collapse into each other. The reality of vampirism lies precisely in this point. And for Rice, a new kind of faith is subsequently produced, one that is aligned with popular fiction rather than with the Catholic religion. Her audience at the Théâtre des Vampires is mesmerised by the performance. They are a ‘titillated crowd’, under the ‘spell’ of theatre. A highly erotic, somewhat disturbing scene unfolds on the stage—where a young woman is stripped naked and killed by the troupe of vampires. Louis, who is watching, can actually ‘taste’ her; his involvement with the performance is entirely sensual. That is, he is ‘carried away’ with what he sees. The scene anticipates Rice's later sketches of mesmerised audiences at Lestat's rock concerts in The Vampire Lestat; the erotics of the event (illusory as it may be) produce real effects (excitement, arousal) at the mass level. I have noted that being and acting are collapsed into each other to make vampires ‘real’ in this novel. But Rice also attempts to collapse the boundaries—we might say, the ‘critical distance’—between audience and performance, reader and text, outside and inside. In this context, the boy interviewer's desire to become a vampire at the end of the novel (he reappears, in fact, as the vampire Daniel in The Queen of the Damned) is not entirely surprising. It is, as he expresses it, a way of rejecting ‘despair’—where one's faith, having lapsed in the modern world, is recuperated through a closing conversion (in) to the fiction itself. It is hard to imagine a more effective way of accounting for fandom, in this closing image of the converted reader/listener.
Louis himself is given the ‘Dark Gift’—that is, converted into a vampire—by Lestat, in the first of a number of ‘queer’ scenes. Lestat is like a ‘lover’, and Louis is ‘taken’, in a drawn-out ecstatic moment which has them mingling their fluids together. Rice emphasises the differences between these two male vampires, with Louis as delicate and sensitive (i.e. feminised) and Lestat as aggressive and impetuous (i.e. masculinised). It is worth noting, given my use of Bennett and Woollacott in the previous chapter, that in both The Queen of the Damned and The Tale of the Body Thief Lestat in fact refers to himself as ‘the James Bond of vampires’, emphasising his recklessness and his lack of concern about killing. He also emphasises his loner identity; in spite of this, however, he helps Louis to pass the Dark Gift on to a 5-year-old girl, Claudia, and the three of them coexist for a while as a family. But this is a ‘queer’ family: Claudia's persistent questioning of how she was ‘created’ by two men—‘How was it done?’—resonates in this context. Louis and Lestat are a kind of demonic (but not demonised) gay couple, queer male parents competing with each other for ‘our daughter’ Claudia. At the same time, they are Claudia's ‘lovers’: the queerness of their relationship lies partly in the folding together of gay love with heterosexual incest/paedophilia.
This way of representing parent-child relations is certainly unconventional, to say the least. But it is ‘normalised’ through Louis's search for what is missing in the relationship: the mother. Claudia's actual mother had died of the plague shortly before Claudia was ‘taken’ by Louis and Lestat. The journey to Paris—‘the mother of New Orleans’—is, then, also a kind of Oedipal return, an attempt to recover a lost maternity. Indeed, it is triggered by Claudia's two attempts to kill Lestat, the most fatherly (i.e., patriarchal) of the two male vampire parents. But, as already indicated, Paris ultimately offers no ‘meaning’ to Claudia—and she expresses her ‘inevitable disillusionment’ to a distraught Louis. He responds by trying to create a surrogate mother for her, turning the doll-maker Madeleine into a vampire. In the meantime, he is drawn to Armand, an older male vampire; and, to complicate matters, Lestat has also journeyed to Paris to look for them.
The result is a variation on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's ‘erotic triangle’, where a struggle ‘between men’ ensues over a woman. In this case, the struggle ‘between men’ (Lestat and Armand) takes place over another man, Louis. Claudia and Madeleine, far from being crucial to this arrangement, are apparently its most disposable features—soon afterwards, they are both burnt to death. But they become all the more important after they have gone; Claudia in fact comes to haunt the later novels in the chronicles, as a kind of absent presence. Louis—an immortal vampire—now realises that everything, even great art, is transient: ‘The magnificent paintings of the Louvre were not for me intimately connected with the hands that had painted them. They were cut loose and dead like children turned to stone. Like Claudia, severed from her mother’. He joins Armand, his ‘companion’, on a trip around the world. Returning to New Orleans at last, he finds Lestat set up in a ‘domestic’ scene with another ‘smart, gay’ male vampire—and a baby. The scene is, in part, a parody of the moment in Stoker's novel when Dracula throws a baby to the hungry vampire women. Rice's vampires are hungry, too—they may feed on the child—but they are also maternalised. Louis rocks the baby and finally returns it safely to its crib—but in his despair he leaves New Orleans soon afterwards, wishing to be somewhere ‘where there was nothing familiar to me. And nothing mattered’.
Thus the novel moves back and forth between the recuperation of a mother-and-child relationship (the familiar relationship: home) and the unfamiliarity of one's separation from the mother (away from home). In this sense it is nostalgic; but it recognises that the return to the mother (like the return to Paris) is ultimately an illusion—that such a pre-Oedipal moment can never be completely recovered. It recognises, too, that to be disillusioned—separated—is nevertheless to require that such illusions exist—the illusion that vampires are real, the illusion of a return to the pre-Oedipal mother. Since the novel puts this dialectic between illusion and disillusion into play, Rice's authorial relations to her imagined audience might be figured in exactly these terms. In its most disillusioned moments—like the magnificent paintings of the Louvre, and like Claudia—Rice's novel is a kind of orphan, ‘cut loose’ from the mother and set adrift in an unfamiliar, even hostile, world. At the same time, the illusory metaphor of author-as-mother is maintained: Rice's audience (like the boy interviewer at the end) is eventually converted through a pre-Oedipal relation to the novel, working at the level of sense and arousal and desire.
In an interview with Rice, Greg Fasolino asked, ‘You now have a rather large cult of fans—people obsessed with your work. Does that excite you?’ Rice admitted that it is ‘a little frightening’, but emphasised her commitment to them: ‘The thing they really want from me is the most extreme and true and personal stuff I have to give, and I'm gonna keep doing it, as long as I have breath in my body’. It is difficult to avoid reading this as an image of the author-as-mother, feeding her fans—her children. The image of author-as-vampire might also be invoked, and the two images in this context are not inconsistent with each other. Conversely, the image of fans-as-vampires is also apparent in her comment to Fasolino (‘The thing they really want from me’). Rice's own Dark Gift is the novel itself; she writes the exchange between author and fan into the novel in terms of two vampires, parent and child—lovers—mingling their fluids together and sharing the ecstasy, but nevertheless wondering afterwards how it was done.
THE VAMPIRE LESTAT AND QUEEN OF THE DAMNED
Rice's second and third novels in the Vampire Chronicles opened up the vampire's search for his origins on an epic scale. The Vampire Lestat is in fact structured as a series of narratives which begin in the present day—the modern age—and then move further and further back through history to an original moment, to a moment of Genesis for vampires. Lestat de Lioncourt is older than Louis, and he gives an account of his own conversion in pre-Revolutionary Paris at the hands (or teeth) of the alchemist-turned-vampire, Magnus. We should note that Lestat in turn converts his own mother, Gabrielle, in an obviously incestuous scene—she is, he confesses, ‘[t]he only woman I had ever loved’. In the next narrative sequence, Lestat describes his meeting with Armand, an even older vampire who still lives according to ‘the Rules of Darkness’. He takes these Rules as a means of verifying his own authenticity—whereas Lestat, by contrast, is seen as inauthentic, a modernised, sceptical vampire who does not abide by traditionally sanctioned vampire lore. Armand himself was converted by Marius in Renaissance Venice—in another gay scene which connects Marius to the painter Caravaggio, with Armand as his willing apprentice. Lestat then searches for Marius and the origins of the Dark Gift. Interestingly enough, given the discussion in Chapter 2, he finds Marius in Greece—and learns all about Marius's conversion to vampirism hundreds of years ago in classical Rome. Marius and Lestat identify with each other because, as the novel has it, their respective epochs had undergone the same kind of crisis. That is, religious faith was declining in ‘the years of Augustus Caesar’, just as it is in decline in the modern age. Both characters thus stand ‘on the cusp of the old way of doing things’, living without faith (without illusions) and yet not entirely ‘cynical’ (disillusioned) either. As Marius notes, ‘We sprang up from a crack between faith and despair’—precisely the crack occupied and empathetically exploited by Rice's fiction.
But there are older vampires than Marius. The novel turns to Egyptian mythology as a source for the oldest kind of magic, imagining two original vampire ‘parents’, the father Enkil and the mother Akasha—to whom all other vampires are ultimately connected, as a kind of extended family. Marius has the task of minding these parents, ‘Those Who Must Be Kept’, who are almost inanimate—appearing like statues to Lestat. Given the Oedipal and pre-Oedipal structures in Rice's fiction, it is not surprising to see Lestat attracted to Akasha. (Her name, and her role as the ‘original’ mother, clearly recalls H. Rider Haggard's ‘She’, Ayesha.) He feeds from her (‘My mother, my lover’), and incurs Enkil's rage. But in Rice's fiction, the mother is always more powerful and more present than the father, and in fact Enkil is later easily destroyed in The Queen of the Damned. The novel closes with Lestat, resurrected in 1984, preparing for his rock concert, his ultimate act of self-disclosure—and aware of Akasha's presence.
In The Queen of the Damned, Akasha returns as a vengeful mother, who claims Lestat as her son and her lover—but begins to destroy her other ‘children’, the vampires she had originally ‘animated’, in order to create a matriarchy, a world ruled entirely by women. Rice introduces a second narrative alongside this one, however, juxtaposing them against one another. This second narrative involves Jesse, an orphaned girl adopted by a formidable woman, Marahet. Marahet keeps extensive records of her family chronicles on computer files, and Jesse soon realises that she is part of a ‘Great Family’ which stretches back, matrilinearly, into the distant past. Jesse joins the Talamasca, a secret, Masonic organisation which has been observing and documenting supernatural activity—and which believes, as a matter of course, that vampires are real. This organisation is also matrilineal: it is administered from a ‘Motherhouse’, and in fact constitutes ‘another “Great Family”’ through its own extensive records and files. The two ‘Great Families’—whose histories are recorded in Marahet's and the Talamasca's chronicles—are in fact one and the same: both provide matrilineal genealogies of vampires. Akasha, on the other hand, wishes to wipe these genealogies clean and start again, like an exterminating angel. The novel traces out the battle between Marahet, who is productive vampire—she produces genealogies, writes family histories, adopts children—and Akasha, who has none of these interests and sees history as, instead, destructive. Rice polarises the two positions in terms of gender, allowing her two female characters to argue that history is productive when maternalised, and destructive when patriarchal—an argument which makes Akasha herself patriarchal, since she, too, wishes to destroy in order to (re)create a new matrilineal order. In response to this, Marahet empathetically invokes the ‘Great Family’ once more, demonstrating on a huge electronic map of the world that vampires have been everywhere in place and time, appealing to the others through an image of global multiculturalism:
No people, no race, no country does not contain some of the Great Family. The Great Family is Arab, Jew, Anglo, African; it is Indian; it is Mongolian; it is Japanese and Chinese. In sum, the Great Family is the human family.
This image carries the day: Marahet's twin sister Mekare, an earth-Mother figure, arrives soon afterwards and dispatches Akasha, cutting off her head and consuming her brain and heart.
In their article ‘Undoing Feminism in Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles’, Devon Hodges and Janice L. Doane offer a powerful criticism of Rice's investment in this kind of narrative structure. They note the shift from Oedipal structures in Interview with the Vampire, to pre-Oedipal structures in The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned—since the latter novels recover the ‘archaic’ mother and (in Lestat's case) represent the pleasure of the pre-Oedipal return. Hodges and Doane focus on Claudia in Interview, suggesting that—through this 5-year-old girl vampire, the ‘daughter’ of Louis and Lestat—Rice shows how a woman's attempt to resist ‘her position as an infantilised object of desire’ is ‘eventually contained by being redefined as an object of exchange between men’. Because this novel is concerned with Oedipal struggles—focussing around Claudia and her ‘parents’—it is able, at least, to show how culture ‘devalues women’. As I had noted above, Claudia—and Madeleine—are in one sense the most disposable characters in this novel; at another level, of course, Claudia in particular is the most disturbing character, unsettling the ‘homosocial’ and essentially ‘patriarchal’ bond ‘between men’, that is, between Louis and Lestat, and later, Louis and Armand (who helps to destroy Claudia in order to make that bond more secure). In the later novels, however, this kind of feminist critique is lost. The shift into pre-Oedipal ‘pleasures’, usually associated with a conversion to vampirism, certainly places the mother ‘in a more privileged position’; but it also colonises this otherwise unconscious realm, turning it into an idealised or utopian space which ultimately overrides or ‘precedes’ sexual difference. Hodges and Doane look at the relationship between Lestat and his mother Gabrielle in these terms. Lestat has a tyrannical father; he identifies instead with his mother, and she helps him to realise his masculinity by turning him into a wolf-hunter. Or rather, she helps him to realise her masculinity: ‘She spoke in an eerie way of my being a secret part of her anatomy, of my being an organ for her which women do not really have. “You are the man in me,” she said’. Gabrielle is masculinised through her relations with her son (she dresses as a young man after her conversion). Lestat, on the other hand, is feminised—that is rendered ‘effeminate’—through his relations with Gabrielle. Hodges and Doane rightly note the ‘regressive’ representation of homosexuality here, that is, that it is related to a son's overidentification with his mother. But this pre-Oedipal, utopian exchange of gender roles has another implication:
The return to the mother that seems to disrupt gender boundaries by feminising the son who embraces the maternal, and by lending to the mother the son's phallic power, is also the path to postfeminism. Ironically, the return to the mother is what allows Rice to kill off and transcend feminist politics … sexual difference is a dead issue.
This is a persuasive argument; but I would note at least two problems with its direction. The first lies in the way Hodges and Doane smooth over the ‘queer’ aspects of Rice's vampires. A certain ‘normalisation’ of parental relationships occurs as a consequence—for example, they are able to speak confidently about ‘patriarchy’ in Interview with the Vampire—which is at odds with the later claims that Rice kills off the issue of ‘sexual difference’. More importantly, they never explore the realm of ‘queerness’ in all its contradictory splendours. Their article is worth contrasting to Sue-Ellen Case's ‘Tracking the Vampire’, discussed in Chapter 3. While Case celebrates the possibilities inherent in the ‘queer’ vampiric realm (in Rice's case, this might involve the peculiar folding together of parenthood and paedophilia, or reproduction and gay love), Hodges and Doane see it as a ‘postfeminist’ form of neutralisation. (It would be worth teasing out the connections between this claim and metaphors of sterility in their article—as if ‘queer’ sexuality is not (re)productive for feminists, as if it doesn't get them anywhere.) Certainly Rice's fiction is oriented towards the fantasy of maternal origins; but it also occupies the kind of ‘in-between’ state explored by Case in her article, which sees the vampirish mingling of bodily fluids as something in excess of the ‘normalised’ mother-child relation. Case had described the non-normative pleasures to be derived from ‘queer’ vampires in positive terms; Hodges and Doane, on the other hand, speak disapprovingly—for example—of Rice's fascination with sado-masochism, of her ‘fantasies of power and surrender’. We should note, however, that Case focuses primarily on the ‘lesbian vampire’—whereas Rice's ‘queer’ vampires are always male.
The second problem concerns their view of mass or popular cultural forms. Hodges and Doane's (unsuccessful) search for ‘an emancipatory maternal rhetoric’ leads them to critique the ‘conservative, postfeminist narratives of mass culture’ so ‘greedily ingested by American readers’. We can certainly entertain the notion that Rice's fans ‘ingest’ their vampire narratives. I have developed an image above of Rice herself as Mother Vampire, lovingly ‘colonising’ her readers; but I have also noted that the image can work the other way, with the fans in turn ‘colonising’—or vampirising—the novels. That is—to use the description a second time—a mingling of fluids occurs: the relationship between mass or popular cultural narratives and their readers, in other words, is not simply one-way. Rice's novels have at least two kinds of readerships—her ‘gay audience’ and her ‘mainstream readers’—which, by her own account at least, are barely aware of each other. To regard these readerships as ‘colonised’ by mass culture is both to collapse them together (to erase their own ‘sexual differences’) and to disempower them—to refuse the possibility of an active engagement with the narratives, to refuse readers of popular fiction the kind of ‘productive consumption’ described in Chapter 4.
Hodges and Doane do away with this dynamic altogether: these readers are nothing more than passive (but insatiable) consumers. Worse, for these critics they must also be bored consumers—Rice's readers ‘can only be bored’ by the fiction, they claim, because of its ‘repetitive structure’. (We could again tease out the metaphor of sterility here: Rice's fiction, like mass culture itself, doesn't get us anywhere; it offers only un(re)productive pleasures.) Hodges and Doane also claim that, through their ‘repetitive’ returns to an original moment, Rice's novels are thus essentialist, preferring ‘truth’ over ‘lies’: ‘Not for Rice an avant-garde modernism that would play on the undecidability of representation’. This claim returns us to the kind of polarity we have seen before, in which high culture is privileged and popular or mass culture is disparaged. The former, according to this argument, defamiliarises us, while the latter is all too familiar. Hodges and Doane want Rice to write avant-garde, modernist novels because it is here that ‘representation’ becomes problematic; instead, she writes popular fiction where everything is apparently straightforward. It is not difficult to deconstruct this polarity, however—by attending, in particular, to Rice's play with illusion and disillusion, belief and disbelief, discussed above.
FLANEURIAN VAMPIRES: THE TALE OF THE BODY THIEF
The kind of polarity just described—which privileges high culture (complex) over popular culture (simple)—divides its readers along similar lines. Most commonly, the high cultural reader is imagined as contemplative; by contrast, the reader of popular fiction, the fan, is distracted— and, for Hodges and Doane, easily bored, experiencing either dubious or unproductive pleasures. (This particular polarity—juxtaposing contemplation and distraction—has already been noted in relation to Polidori's ‘The Vampyre’, discussed in Chapter 2.) It could well be argued, however, that Rice's vampire fiction enables both reading positions to be occupied, again making this polarity difficult to maintain. The novels may well be distractive, taking readers ‘out of themselves’. But, passing over the question of the kinds of pleasures this then enables (productive or otherwise), the novels do in fact also encourage philosophical contemplation. Fasolino calls them ‘metaphysical’; Rice is seen as an intellectual writer of popular fiction. Her novels unfold as meditations; their moments of ecstasy puncture long passages of inquiry amongst vampires into a range of ‘classical’ topics—faith, art, humanity, purpose. The vampire is itself, of course, a contemplative creature who is subject to distractions—a philosopher and a sensualist, a frequenter of libraries and galleries who must regularly surrender to an uncontrollable appetite. For Lestat, this appetite is also a topic to be contemplated: he ceaselessly wonders about the kinds of distractions (the urges, the pleasures) that make him what he is. In the meantime, he watches the world go past and discourses about it at great length; he collects works of art, wears fine clothes, and refines his sensibilities. In this sense, he is, in effect, an aesthete—a dandy.
Rice's fiction actually flaunts its high cultural orientations, drawing in particular on Italian Renaissance and Baroque iconography—where high culture is also at its most sensual. (Not untypically, for example, the cover of The Tale of the Body Thief (1992) shows a fragment from Giovanni da Bologna's The Rape of the Sabines.) Her vampires are familiar with the kind of ‘magnificent paintings’ Louis had described in Interview with the Vampire; they have enough time on their hands to contemplate them at length. Indeed, to be a vampire is to be ‘cultured’—that is, to have ‘aristocratic’ tastes—and also (these points are related) to be idle. Louis, Lestat and the other vampires do not work, although they do have investments and, with the help of financial advisers, are able to accumulate large amounts of capital. Their ‘job’ is, instead, to find out who they are and where they came from. In Interview with the Vampire, this is an entirely recreational procedure—making this novel more of a ‘distraction’ than the others, perhaps. But in The Vampire Lestat,The Queen of the Damned and The Tale of the Body Thief, self-discovery becomes part of a much larger process—involving, as I have noted above, the establishment of extensive computer files and archives. That is, self-discovery is no longer personal (or familial), but organisational. Lestat has to negotiate with the Talamasca to access his archives; he realises, in the meantime, that he has come into contact with an organisation which knows more about him that he knows about it. That is, he realises that he has been all this while under surveillance.
Yet this is also a feature of the vampires themselves, which constantly monitor each other's movements and read each other's thoughts (or, conversely, try to ‘cloak’ their thoughts from each other). In The Queen of the Damned they are likened to radio receivers. A tension is worked out in the novels between the vampires' need for anonymity or privacy, and their nagging sense that someone—another vampire, usually—is watching them, that they are part of a larger network of ‘airwaves’. Lestat tries to break out of this predicament by making himself as visible as possible, by making his vampirism public—as a rock star playing to a mass audience. This only upsets the other vampires and the Talamasca, however, since no one else believes him (although his human fans may believe in him—a distinction Lestat entertains in The Tale of the Body Thief). By the beginning of The Tale of the Body Thief, Lestat is disillusioned with publicity and has returned to the anonymous world of the city—but he is still being watched.
The Tale of the Body Thief opens in Miami, rather than New Orleans—a city of ‘desperation’ and ‘risk’, full of murderers and therefore ‘perfect.. . for the vampire’. Here, Lestat operates as a kind of solitary vigilante, pursuing serial killers with the help of his own computer and the extensive files he has ‘purloined’ from the Police Department. Lestat is himself, of course, a serial killer with ‘style’; his quarry, on the other hand, is ‘filthy’ and ‘sloppy’, a bad dresser, someone of no interest whatsoever at the level of individuality (he is never named by Lestat). The vampire's dandy-like posture distinguishes him from the urban jungle—a place which would seem to do away with individuality altogether. Lestat is essentially different; he has ‘style’; he breaks the ‘rules’; and he has the means to negotiate the otherwise anonymous city through his extensive surveillance systems. With his Parisian background and his refined sensibilities, he might in fact be viewed as a kind of flƒneur—that is, a city stroller, an urban spectator, someone with leisure enough to watch the world go past and skill enough to read its various ‘commonplace’ signs. The word has been given a particular currency by Walter Benjamin, who utilised it—in a discussion of Charles Baudelaire as a nineteenth-century urban lyric poet—to speak about crime fiction, taking the flâneur as a kind of prototype of the detective. The flâneur—a Parisian dandy, in this case—puts his idleness to good use: ‘He only seems to be indolent for behind this indolence there is the watchfulness of an observer who does not take his eyes off a miscreant’. Benjamin noted a contradiction at work in the figure of the flâneur, however—that, while he subjected the urban world to an ‘individualising’ gaze (i.e., his own), he simultaneously assisted in the erasure of individuality by reducing what he saw to a series of statistical points.
Taking up Benjamin's thesis in the context of a discussion of the crime fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, Dana Brand has noted that in effect the flâneur ‘domesticates’ the world, rendering it manageable and thus reassuring himself of his mastery over it. But reassurance at one level produces anxiety at another—knowing that there is ‘deep crime’ out there which is beyond the flâneurian gaze and therefore cannot be managed or domesticated. Brand suggests that Poe's detective, Dupin, is an attempt to engage this deeper level of activity, to move beyond the flâneurian level. He is, in other words, ‘capable of mastering the urban environment without inhibiting its capacity to produce anxiety and terror’. He ‘focuses, rather than denies, the city's power to produce shock and dislocation’. We can note in passing that Brand's description of Dupin, Poe's aristocratic and cynical detective, makes him sound very much like a vampire: ‘Secluding himself by day in a mansion with closed shutters, Dupin explores the Paris streets by night … distanced from and invisible to the inhabitants of the city through which he moves’. When Dupin solves his crimes, however, this ‘distance’ is collapsed and, vampire-like again, he actually inhabits those inhabitants—that is, he occupies their consciousness (in order to get at the truth they are concealing). Brand quotes a passage from Baudelaire himself, which expresses the vampiric aspect of the detective's inhabitation of others as he goes about solving their crimes: ‘like those wandering souls who go looking for a body, he enters as he likes into each man's personality’. This kind of detective fiction, then, both focuses on the production of ‘shock and dislocation’ in the city—and indulges in panoptic ‘fantasies of control’ over the city's radical ‘otherness’.
Rice's The Tale of the Body Thief is precisely about the inhabitation of someone else's body—an inhabitation which causes (rather than does away with) ‘shock and dislocation’. While he monitors his serial killers, Lestat is aware that he, too, is being watched. The Talamasca have a benign interest in Lestat and follow his movements carefully in order to protect him from unnecessary publicity. Their motto is, ‘We watch and we are always there’—a version, perhaps, of the famous Pinkerton's detective agency motto, ‘we never sleep’. But Lestat is also monitored by someone less benign (and once associated with the Talamasca), the mysterious Raglan James—the ‘body thief’—who spies on Lestat through computer surveillance networks and, more archaically, through out-of-body travel. James finally convinces Lestat to exchange bodies, to give Lestat his longed-for experience of being human again. The homoeroticism of the exchange is emphasised. James, a young man, ‘wants’ Lestat's body—and Lestat in turn confesses, ‘I couldn't take my eyes off him, off this body which might soon become mine’. But the exchange, for Lestat, is profoundly disillusioning—and to reflect this disillusion, the novel shifts out of the fantastic mode and into a kind of ‘dirty realism’. That is, the kind of ‘shock and dislocation’ Brand had described above also operates at a generic level; the novel literally ‘dislocates’ itself. The vampire's flâneurian distance from the inhabitants of Miami is now entirely collapsed; but the inhabitation of one of those inhabitants by no means supports the panoptic ‘fantasy of control’. Lestat's engagement with the real world makes him more anxious, not less—as if to be a vampire is to keep anxiety at bay. He becomes sickly and downtrodden, and all his money is stolen. However, a particular kind of ‘fantasy of control’ does become available to him. Losing his vampire's body, Lestat is ‘no longer one of them’—that is, no longer ‘queer’. The mingling of fluids associated with vampirism—which emphasises mutual attraction and consent, and produces sublime pleasures—is replaced, for Lestat, by heterosexist power. In fairly graphically described scenes, he rapes a young woman, and later deflowers a somewhat masochistic nun. To be human (that is, male), he thus considers at one point, is ‘monstrous’; it triggers off an overwhelming desire to escape from this particular radical ‘otherness’ and return to the ‘queer’ flâneurian realm of the vampire.
The novel thus inverts the conventional perception of realism-as-real and horror-as-fantasy—since, here, realism takes Lestat ‘out of himself’ and the experience is unexpectedly disturbing. He returns, instead, to a conception of fantasy-as-real, noting sardonically that the desire to be ‘human’ (to be ‘real’) is in fact based on an ‘illusion’. Lestat, with the help of David Talbot, an ageing ex-leader of the Talamasca, tracks Raglan James to—of all places—the Queen Elizabeth II, as it cruises around the Caribbean. Here, he regains his vampire's body in a rebirthing scene that represents the QEII as a kind of womb, a ‘sad and tawdry’ mother. The exchange enables Lestat to leave the realist mode behind and re-enter the ‘queer’ realm of horror fantasy. David, it turns out, has also exchanged his body for the one vacated by Lestat—becoming a young man again. Lestat is ambivalent about this exchange, however, and decides to leave. He travels to Asia and then to Europe, reasserting his vampirish role as a ‘citizen of the world’: ‘the old cliché was true—the world was mine’. In Barbados, he sees David again—who tells Lestat that he, too, would like to be a part of the grand tour: ‘There are places I want to go—lands and cities I always dreamt I would visit’. For Lestat, this amounts to saying that he would like to become a vampire—not least because travel is viewed by David precisely as he views it, that is, as a means of contemplation: ‘There has to be a period of traveling, of learning, of evaluation. … And as I engage in my studies, I write. I write everything down. Sometimes the record itself seems the goal’. Lestat then ‘takes’ David in a passionately homoerotic scene and, with Louis, they begin the first part of their travels, to the Rio carnival.
The novel thus returns to the connection between the vampire and what I had called earlier in this chapter the ‘global exotic’—where the vampire functions as a kind of internationalised, cosmopolitan tourist, mobile (and leisured) enough to make the world ‘my own’—and channelling that world through the kind of ‘panoramic perception’ discussed elsewhere in this book. The point is taken up by Dana Brand in relation to the flâneur and the detective: ‘The viewpoint of the detective is, like that of the flâneur, panoramic. … Like the flâneur, he distances himself from what he observes in order to achieve his panoramic perspective’. In Stoker's Dracula, Jonathan Harker had travelled by train to Transylvania, reproducing the panoramic perspectives of late nineteenth-century travelogues. In Rice's The Tale of the Body Thief, Lestat and David cruise around the Caribbean on a luxury ocean liner and then make their way to South America—elevating tourism to the global level, and so turning the entire world into a place without borders—a place without ‘otherness’, a place with which one is, then, already familiar. This is certainly a ‘fantasy of control’—but it is also a fragile fantasy which, in The Tale of the Body Thief, at least, is ‘dislocated’ through Lestat's disturbing encounter with the unfamiliarity of the ‘real’.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5301
SOURCE: “The Devil and Anne Rice,” in Rolling Stone, July 13-27, 1995, pp. 92-4, 97-8.
[In the following interview, Rice discusses her literary career, critical reception, supernatural themes in her fiction, and Memnoch the Devil.]
For nearly 20 years now, Anne Rice has been telling stories that share secrets—secrets of life and death, of sex and the soul, of monsters and humans. In particular, though, it is with her series of novels known as The Vampire Chronicles that Rice has created her most binding mix of mystery and meaning as well as what may prove her most enduring body of literature. Interview With the Vampire (1976)—the first of the Vampire Chronicles and Rice's first published novel—is a horror narrative unlike any other. It is the story of Louis de Pointe du Lac, an 18th-century New Orleans plantation owner who has lost faith in his life and in God. Seeking death one night, Louis instead finds a vampire and a cruel paradox. This broken man who wanted to die must now endure lifetimes of no meaning, and he must murder daily to do so. Interview is also the story of the French-born Lestat de Lioncourt, the smart, mean aristocrat who made Louis a vampire, and Claudia, the child immortal who unites Louis and Lestat in a bitter kinship and eventually separates them at an awful price. Mostly, though, Interview With the Vampire is a haunting meditation on loss, mortality and the uncertain purposes of faith. By the book's end, Rice's vampires have come to understand a terrible but emboldening truth: There is no God, no ultimate meaning to life's anguish. The vampires are finally left alone, wandering through the turbulence of time and history, killing others so that they themselves might evade the oblivion of death.
With Memnoch the Devil (excerpted in this issue), the fifth and perhaps final volume of The Vampire Chronicles, the fates of the vampires change radically and irrevocably. Narrated by Rice's most cherished character, the vampire Lestat, Memnoch tells a tale as old as Scripture's legends and as modern as today's religious strife. In Memnoch, Lestat comes face to face with his most feared supernatural counterpart, the devil, and hears the devil's dreadful, fascinating secret: It is God who has made human history so murderous, and it is God from whom the world must be saved. With Lestat's help, the devil claims, he might just be able to accomplish the task.
I meet Anne Rice at her large, Greek revival-style home, which she shares with her husband, Stan, and their son, Christopher, in the aged Garden District of New Orleans. Rice was born and raised not far from this grand house. At 15 she left New Orleans and eventually settled in the San Francisco Bay area with Stan, a poet, painter and, at the time, professor at San Francisco State University. After some 30 years in California, Rice missed her hometown and extended family and, with her husband and son, moved back to New Orleans. In 1989 she purchased the First Street house where she now lives and writes. It is a richly atmospheric place, and it is little wonder that Rice has used it as the haunted central setting of The Witching Hour,Lasher and Taltos—the first three volumes of her Lives of the Mayfair Witches series. The house is crammed with the stuff of Rice's obsessive imagination: showcases of valuable 19th-century French porcelain Bru dolls (utterly spooky with their humanlike eyes), walls of books on ancient mythology and religious theory, rooms of religious statuary and even the odd skeleton or two, outfitted in century-old bridal or ballroom gowns and sporting flowing blond wigs. (“But they aren't real skeletons,” says Rice as she gives me a tour of the upstairs. “I couldn't live with a real one.”)
As we talk, Rice and I sit in a glassed-in side porch overlooking a large, lush lawn not far from the site where the fictional demon Lasher lies fictionally buried under a vast and ancient oak tree. Rice is dressed in a white, high-collared, billowy blouse with frilly cuffs and a long, black skirt, and she wears her trademark owlish glasses. At age 53, Rice is direct, plain-spoken and intellectually passionate. These days, she says, when she isn't sequestered in her upstairs office writing she is busy researching matters related to religious history and mythology—the same subject matter that she says preoccupied her in Memnoch the Devil and will be at the thematic core of her next few books.
[Mikal Gilmore:] Memnoch the Devil strikes me as perhaps your most passionate and inventive work since Interview With the Vampire. Obviously you've taken considerable risks with this story—not only risks for your vampire characters and their secretive, immortal world but also risks that given the story's shock points might even affect your career. I also couldn't help wondering if the risks might run deeper—if perhaps there's something personal at stake for you in this parable about God and the devil.
[Anne Rice:] If there was any book that ever beat me up, it was Memnoch. I had been thinking about it for more than two years—swimming in the ideas of it, going back and forth between its various scenes in my head. I had even made false starts and then thrown them away. Finally, early last year I sat down and thought, “I'm either going to write this, or it's going to kill me.” So I took the month of February, wrote it and then collapsed. It nearly did kill me. I mean, there was something so dark in writing this book. I remember lying in bed one night thinking. “All right, Lestat's got to go to hell today. There's no putting this off any longer—it's time.” And it was like ... it was like going there with him, I guess. Toward the end, when he ran up the stairs of hell to escape, I was right with him. It was not a pleasure, writing those scenes. It was real agony, because I'm as close to Lestat as any character that I've been able to imagine and write.
Like Interview With the Vampire, much of Memnoch has a half-maddened, fever-pitch intensity to it, plus it takes some wildly unpredictable turns. Did you ever find yourself surprised by what you were writing?
Basically, I knew what I wanted: Lestat was going to meet the devil and God, and they were going to talk. And I knew that the devil was going to present certain arguments to Lestat, but I didn't know how well he was going to make them until I got into making them for him.
But you're right. This book was just as instinctively written as Interview With the Vampire, and there's been no book in between that's been that instinctively written. With all the others there was more thought, more doubt, more hesitation—some more so than others. Now I've come full circle. I write now like I did when I wrote Interview—all night long. Interview With the Vampire was written in five weeks, this was written in about four weeks, and it was the same sort of experience—just surrendering to the process. And I found myself asking the same kinds of questions. I kept saying, “How dare you write these things!”
Where did your interest in writing a novel about the argument between God and the devil come from?
I had a teacher in comparative literature at San Francisco State back in the 1960s. I remember him once saying in a class in Goethe, “What would God and the devil have to talk about if it weren't for men?” I never forgot that, and I think I have always been going at that idea in one form or another in my writing, though behind masks, you could say. I mean, when I wrote The Vampire Lestat, and I talked about ancient Egypt, I was going at it in a less direct way. Now I'm going right into my own heritage. I'm spending hours and hours reading every translation of the Bible that I can find as well as other religious histories and texts, and I'm fascinated by it all. It's an obsession, a passion. I see things now about my own religion and my own religious upbringing that I never could have seen in my 30s. I certainly couldn't have seen them in this way when I wrote Interview With the Vampire or The Vampire Lestat.
So how would you describe your view of religion now?
When I wrote Interview With the Vampire, I didn't think there was any question: There was no God. What was terribly important was to live in spite of that fact. Now I think it's terribly important that there might be. And it's not detached from life. It's right in the neutrinos and the atoms and the explosion in Oklahoma City.
But my obsession is more than that. I'm trying to stand back, and understand, as if I were one of my characters, why this age—which has come so far in so many ways—why is this age obsessed with near-death experiences and angels and gods, and why are movies showing people coming back from the dead over and over again as a common image? Why are the movies flooded with images of people who can fly? What does it all mean? What does it mean? Things are not getting simpler to me. They're getting more and more complicated, and the questions are multiplying. I was more sure there was no God when I was younger. I still suspect there isn't, that there isn't anything. That's my suspicion: that there is nothing. But I'm just not so sure anymore. It's all I want to talk about, all I want to think about, all I want to deal with—and I see this book and the next one as a new path for me.
By the end of Memnoch the Devil, Lestat would seem to have few questions about the matter: He's seen God and the devil face to face, and he's heard their debate.
Actually, I think that at the end, Lestat really hasn't been given any more direct sign from heaven than anybody is ever given. Maybe that's part of what I'm trying to say. That it can't make sense. You just can't have a God that cares that little. You can't. Either he doesn't know, or he's stupid, or he's a bad person. And if it is all true, then it certainly is a horror novel. That's part of what I'm trying to say.
The basic premise of Memnoch is so strong, it seems it could just as easily have been a non-vampire book—and may even have reached a different or broader audience than “The Vampire Chronicles.”
I tried to make it a non-vampire book. I tried to write it with immortal men, to take immortal men through the same experiences, and it simply could not get going. And I finally gave it back to Lestat. It's almost like he laughed and said, “You know you need me to go there.” And, of course, he was right: His going there did make quite a bit of difference. But I'm afraid my relationship with him is over. He left me when I finished reading the page proofs for this book. That same night, I put a message on my answering machine—I have a listed number for people to call—and I said: “Lestat is gone. He left me as he was standing in front of a Mercedes-Benz dealership on St. Charles Avenue, in New Orleans. This is a very strange feeling, but it's happened.”
It was like after all the things we'd gone through together—I'd survived Tom Cruise, I'd survived the [Interview With the Vampire] movie, even though Memnoch was written before the film was released—I'd gotten through all of that, and, still, he left me. It was like he was saying. “This is it—we've done it. You've done it. We've said what we have to say with each other. If you go on now, you've got to go on in another way.”
What will you do next?
The current book I'm writing is called Servant of the Bones. The only thing I'd like to say about it is that it's about a very old ghost who is made for a particular purpose and decides after thousands of years just not to do what he's supposed to do. This book will be more similar to Memnoch than anything else. Memnoch put me right up against where I want to be—where I can write about ghosts and spiritual forces as something that may be real. I know I run a certain risk. My audience might say, “She's flipped out,” you know? But it's very exciting to me to be writing about this ghost in the 20th-century and what he sees in something like the Oklahoma bombing.
You've written vampire and witch chronicles and a mummy yarn, and now you're undertaking an epic ghost series. In the course of writing these stories, you're become known as one of the pre-eminent authors of supernatural literature. What is it about that story form that has attracted you so?
I think all my writing has been part of a battle with my fears. When I write, I explore my worst fears and then take my protagonist right into awful situations that I myself am terrified by. And I think that the act of putting all that fear and terror and confusion into an orderly, plotted story has been very therapeutic for me. It definitely helps me to continue through life.
Obviously I'm obsessed with death. I'm not obsessed, per se, with pain and suffering. I actually try not to write about it, surprisingly enough. And so even though my books are supposed to be bloody and horrible, there is a shrinking from this. Or at least there's a terrible moral dilemma there. I mean, I have to write about pain, obviously—the pain that other people have suffered and pain I'd be afraid to suffer myself. I feel very driven to do it, and it clearly helps me. I only hope that it's in such a framework that it does not simply add to the horror of someone else.
You mention your obsession with death. It has seemed that in some ways your best work has been a rage against death. Vampires achieving immortality and spirits seizing human life amount to a fantasized overcoming of death and all its sheer horrors and unfairness.
I think that since moving back here to New Orleans, I've begun to find some way I can accept the fact that we're going to die. But it is true that for a long time I found it just horrifying. I found it horrifying not so much because my life will be extinguished but because of the possibility that the Holocaust might mean nothing. Or the suffering of my daughter might mean nothing. [Anne and Stan Rice's daughter, Michelle, died in 1972, a few weeks before her 6th birthday, of a rare form of leukemia. Anne Rice has since said that in part Interview With the Vampire—and particularly its haunting vampire-child character, Claudia—was an unconscious way of expressing grief over her daughter's death.] That's the part that bothers me: the meaninglessness of it. The utter meaninglessness of it. And I'm still fascinated by the way people convince themselves that things have to have meaning. Every time you turn on a TV, you see a reporter talking to the parent of a retarded child or somebody who's been hit by a ton of bricks, and they say. “There has to be a meaning for this.” And I'm always thinking: “No. There really doesn't have to be any at all.” Despite that I now think atheism might be a bit naive and cocky, I still believe there is possibly no meaning to anything. There's nothing that can't be swept off the face of the earth. Nothing.
I remember going through that time when life was just unendurable. It lasted about three months. I was literally quivering. I would grab people and say, “Do you believe that there's a God? Do you believe we're all here for nothing?” I put it in The Vampire Lestat. I had Lestat do it, but actually it was me.
It's changed for me now. I just don't feel the same suffocating horror. I don't feel resigned. … It's hard to describe what I feel. Maybe what I feel is a capacity, finally, to enjoy everything, even though there may be no meaning. I was talking to a woman whose son recently committed suicide. He was a teen-ager here. I had lost a child, and this woman had lost a child. I was talking to her, and I said that what I honestly thought was, when the lights go out, and when that darkness comes, it never really goes away. The darkness never is really going to go away, but you just somehow learn to see the light also. And you know something other people don't know. You meet them, and you don't know whether they're better off or not, but you know something that they don't know. Because those lights have gone off for you.
Did you find that time provides a means of healing?
Well, it must, but I have a suspicion of that. I truly believe it's ruthless to be healed. You know what I mean?
Let me tell you a story. I've been scared of the dark all my life. I've been scared to be alone. I've spent very few nights of my life alone in any house—and I never stay in this house alone. But recently I have been losing my fear of the dark, and it is one of the most wonderful things. Just a week or so ago I was sitting up in my office. It was about 1:10 a.m., and I'd been thinking for a while about getting up and writing something on my wall. I write all over my office walls in felt pen. I was going to get up and write, “Someday I will die, and it will all be over.” But before I could do that the lights went out. There was a power shortage in the neighborhood, and it was as black as it is in the country. So I got up from my desk and woke my sister, because I knew she would have a lighter so that I could light a candle.
The lights were out for about 20 minutes, and it was beautiful. I remember walking through the house with my poor little sister, who was half-asleep. We came down-stairs, and I thought: “This is what this house was like in 1857. It was this dark. This is a rare moment.” I remember feeling absolutely euphoric, thinking how much I loved to walk through this house in the dark and how great it was not to be afraid anymore. At 1:30 the lights came back on, and I went upstairs. And then something occurred to me. I went and checked a memorial clipping on my bulletin board, and I realized it had been a year earlier to the day and hour that my best friend, John Preston [a social critic and author of gay pornography], had died.
What lingered from that whole experience, more than anything else, was the euphoria. When I walked around in the dark, I didn't feel absolute horror that John Preston had died at 48 years of age, at the height of his talent, of AIDS, in a coma. I didn't feel a trembling horror. I felt a euphoria—an ability to tolerate everything at that moment. That was a great feeling, and so I'm calling that ruthless. Somehow, in spite of all the cruelty and absurdity of life, I was not afraid that night. I will die someday, and I will share that with everyone else. But I felt a fearlessness in those minutes, rather than the panic that used to clutch at me—for years—in the face of darkness and death.
That's the whole purpose, I think, of what people call fantasy writing. You can put the most horrible things into a frame, and you can go into that frame safely and talk about those things. You can go into the world of Louis and Lestat and Claudia and be able to talk about grief or loss or survival and then come back safely. That, to me, is the reason for all the artifice—the obvious high style of my books and their use of the supernatural. I would find it much harder to write a realistic novel about my life. I would find it too raw. I just wouldn't be able to get the doors open, I wouldn't be able to go deep enough.
Obviously, though, for many readers you have gone deep enough. Your books are not only terrifically popular, but they have also attracted the kind of fervent following more commonly associated with that of pop stars.
I did not expect books as eccentric as mine to have that kind of appeal or that kind of commercial momentum. I knew enough about publishing just to know what that meant, and I was astonished. I remember thinking that a book like Interview With the Vampire was just flat-out too weird. I thought at best it would become some sort of underground best seller. I had no idea that it would have the great commercial life it's had as well.
But I've always had good luck, or good breaks, compared with many authors. And in the last few years the audience has spread out in an enormous way. If I lack any reader, if there's any audience I've failed to reach in America, it's the elite, literary audience. If there's been a failure to communicate, it's at the top—at the so-called top.
Well, judging from some of the reviews you've received over the years from literary quarters, that may well be true. What do you think accounts for much of the critical disdain that your work has received?
The subject matter. Scorn for the idea that anyone would write seriously about vampires. And then a secondary thing sets in once you become No. 1—that if you are the No. 1 best seller, you must be an illiterate idiot. Those are two prejudices that I fight.
I also think there's a cynical tendency in modern literary values to dismiss books that take on huge questions or issues, because nobody with any true sophistication could possibly do that. It's a sort of by-product of the post-World War II aesthetic of existential nihilism that says you cannot have heroes and heroines in novels. There are those who say that the great art of today is about nothing at all—that to be about something is pretentious and old-fashioned and limited. And my writing is filled with a kind of naive, dead seriousness about: Why are we here? How do we lead a good life? How do we keep believing fervently in love, and how do we make our lives not only good but heroic?
In a way I've been blessed in that I can ask those questions, and I'm blessed that I have the vision I have—a belief that one sensible person can study the world and learn something of God through the world.
Has that critical dismissal been hard for you?
Oh, yeah. In the very early days, definitely. People would practically come up to me and say, “I know you've written this calculated potboiler best seller about a vampire. Well, it's not something I want to read.” I wanted terribly to be taken seriously. I wanted to say, “Look, this is not about what you think. Give this a chance!” I was horrified by some of the reviews my work received.
But let me tell you something: I have a real problem with much of the so-called literary fiction of these times. I have not read John Updike or Anne Tyler. I can't. I try. I just don't get into it. I think that there's a real arrogance to the pedestrian realism of the 20th-century novel. Not only are books about ordinary people and ordinary lives and ordinary events and little-bitty epiphanies, not only are they not worth reading most of the time, they're simply garbage. I think our literature is at a low ebb right now, and there's a lot of reasons we came to this point where we turned away from the incredible power of Nathaniel Hawthorne or Herman Melville or Edgar Allan Poe and have chosen instead to write a diluted version of Henry James over and over again.
The reasons are, I think, more economic than the elite would like to face. It's an outgrowth of industrialization, really. It's the literature of quiet desperation or contentment—a literature that tells you that to try to attempt anything great in your life is unrealistic to the point of being irresponsible and dangerous. It tells you that any novel of substance is going to be about a normal couple in Connecticut or Berkeley and their quarrel over the custody of the children and how they both work it out, each in her or his own way.
The truth is that is not the only story we have to tell. That is not even what our world is about. Our world is in fact filled with abnormal people and outrageous people and cataclysmic events and extremely romantic stories and acts of incredible heroism, and yet for some reason the upper-middle-class literary writers have decided that that's not worthy subject matter for their books. And they're dogmatic and nasty about it.
Clearly you're a writer who doesn't hedge your feelings. A couple of years ago that outspokenness landed you in a public controversy when you protested Neil Jordan's casting of Tom Cruise for the film version of Interview with the Vampire. Looking back on all that now, do you ever regret any of the things you said? Do you feel that possibly you were a bit too hasty in your criticisms?
My frank feeling is that it turned out so well that I can't think too much about doing anything differently. That's not to say that everything I did was wise or kind or constructive or that everything they did was wise or kind or constructive. I think they were very, very unkind to me and my readers in many respects—the people associated with the making of that movie—and they were very unwise. At the same time, I'm not sure that if I had been on the team whether anybody would have paid any attention to anything I had to say. Whereas when I wasn't on the team—when I was public enemy No. 1—there was a lot of attention paid to the things I said. I don't think people should be rewarded for saying angry and negative things, but in some ways I don't see how the movie could have turned out better. I think it's an absolutely unique film, and I'm very happy with it. I spend almost no time at all regretting anything that happened, and I don't want to hold any grudges, either.
Do you remember at which moment the film won you over?
When I saw Tom Cruise walking past the mosquito netting around the bed, and I heard his voice, and I saw that he was Lestat. I knew it instantly. He had gotten it. And I do credit him. That actor, for some reason, really made a contact with that character, and he produced a fabulous version of him. He made Lestat his own without taking my Lestat from me, and I feel tremendous love for Tom as a result. Now, to what degree I hurt him with my personal comments, or to what degree I spurred him on, that will always be open to debate. I don't want anyone to be hurt, especially not someone as nice as he is. In fact, I don't want anyone to be hurt, even if they're not nice [laughs]. But what I said, I said from my heart, and the feeling I got was that he understood. And in my conversations with him, I found him to be just a completely loving person, and I think his take on the books is right-on. He knows the character and understands the character perfectly. I'm not so sure about other people involved in the production, you know. I really don't know Brad Pitt at all. I'm not in any way connected with him. I know the readers loved him. They felt that he captured the guilt in Louis, and they were very pleased with him.
I couldn't help laughing when I read your statement: “I think we should nickname [Brad Pitt] the Barbie Doll From Hell because of the way he behaves toward us ‘Vampire Chronicle’ people.”
Oh, yes, in my newsletter. Oh, I do think he looks like that [laughs], but I meant that lovingly. He's cute, you know? He is cute. But I have to confess, when he was declared the sexiest man in the world, I nearly fell over dead, because he does look to me like the Barbie Doll From Hell. He looks cute and young and like a kid. He looks like he's about 14. That was a teasing comment.
It is possible, of course, that you may be in for a whole new round of controversy when Memnoch the Devil hits the bookstores. You're written a book that questions the validity of God's ethos in a time when a powerful segment of American Christianity has become an increasingly intolerant, even violent, political force. Plus, the book has a couple of rather inflammatory scenes—particularly the moment when the vampire Lestat meets Jesus Christ on the road to his Crucifixion.
It was inflaming to me. I didn't find it an easy thing to do, and yet it had the wonderful feeling of something absolutely inevitable and something that should happen. I was confronting there the Christ in whom I had believed totally as a young girl when I used to sit in church on Good Friday and imagine his wounds. I was really standing there with that Christ at that moment, and it was an excruciatingly difficult thing to write.
Yes, sometimes I'm afraid for this book. The public is very hard to inflame and very hard to wake up, but when they do notice or take offense at something, they can turn their fury with considerable bad effect, and I'm a bit afraid they may do that with this book. I never felt that way before. At the same time, I don't really think it's true. I think we'd be lucky if people notice that there's book slated to be a best seller that actually cares about God and the devil.
This book is so much about God, it's so much about compassion, it's so anti-violence and so anti-blood sacrifice that, to me, it's a wonderful book. I'm very proud of it. I don't really think it's going to draw to itself a lot of opposition, but I could be completely wrong. I'm certainly ready to defend it. I'm ready to stand there and talk about what I think is good in it and to defend it against people who would criticize it and defend the importance of us being able to talk about God and the devil in our work. I mean, we're living in the most amazing times. Amazing and horrible. It's a very exciting time to be a writer.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 818
SOURCE: “The Last of Lestat,” in Washington Post Book World, August 6, 1995, p. 2.
[In the following review, Allman offers favorable assessment of Memnoch the Devil.]
When it comes to fervent fandom, Anne Rice's partisans are up there with the Star Trek brigade. They love her dark imagination, her Gothic prose, her wry sense of humor and especially Lestat—the handsome, vain vampire who's become her signature character. Lestat and Rice are each the focus of a fan club, 'zines and an Internet group; Rice herself even pens a newsletter, “Commotion Strange,” full of Lestat-related news and views.
The latest issue of “Commotion Strange” brings the news that's broken the hearts of Lestatians everywhere: Rice has decided that Memnoch the Devil, the fifth installment in her Vampire Chronicles, will be the last Lestat story. That might be a wise decision, because Rice has painted herself into quite a corner with this one. By the end of Memnoch, there's not much for her favorite vampire to do but hop back in the box.
The book begins in modern Manhattan. Lestat is stalking his latest victim, Roger, a drug kingpin who has amassed a vast hoard of religious treasures in a private reliquary. Equally intriguing to the vampire is Roger's daughter Dora, a New Orleans televangelist with a soul as pure as her father's is corrupt. But Lestat himself is being stalked. He's hearing voices. Feeling footsteps. Sensing presences. And they're getting closer.
Enter Memnoch, a fellow so very ordinary-looking that Lestat calls him “generic.” But the devil isn't offended: “It's the form I prefer in every age and place, because it doesn't attract very much attention. Going about with black wings and goat's feet, you know—it overwhelms mortals instantly.” Memnoch, it seems, has been watching Lestat, and he thinks the vampire would make a dandy sidekick, kind of a Boy Wonder to the Prince of Darkness.
Having never believed in God or the devil, Lestat is nonplussed, outraged and rather snippy: “Well, let me tell you, Your Royal Highness of Darkness. I'm not helping you with anything! I don't serve you!.” But Memnoch makes him one of those diabolical offers he can't refuse. “I'll take you to Hell and to Heaven, if you like, you can talk to God for as long as He allows, and you desire.” After this cosmic tour, Lestat can decide whom he'll serve—and in what capacity.
With the stage thus set, the book transmogrifies into a modern Paradise Lost, The Universe According to Rice. Many, many pages of Memnoch are devoted to her personal cosmology and angelology, to her versions of creation, evolution and the Crucifixion. It's a tour that's interesting at times and poky at others. True Lestatians might lap this stuff up; for others, it'll be leaden sledding.
Not that there aren't a few of Rice's trademark eyebrow-raisers along the way. Lestat resolves his contradictory impulses toward Dora by drinking her menses. And in a scene unlikely to be duplicated on-screen by Tom Cruise any time soon, Lestat meets Jesus on the road to Calvary and is invited by Him to taste His blood. As the crowd goes wild, Lestat absconds with the veil of Veronica and returns with it to the 20th-century, where its display at St. Patrick's Cathedral enflames a worldwide religious revival.
As one might suspect, Rice is full of sympathy for the devil, who in her version spends his days trying to move souls out of Sheol (Purgatory) and into Heaven. Compared to the furious, anguished Memnoch, God is drawn as a pretty dull character, an Almighty surrounded by a sycophantic chorus of angels, virtues and the rest. It's a portrait of God that will be familiar to anyone who's browsed the life-after-life books on the bestseller list.
Better is Rice's evocation of New Orleans. The city has always been a character unto itself in the Vampire Chronicles, and there's no better guide than Rice when it comes to describing the Blakean splendor and rot behind the city's mansard roofs and tatwork balconies. Of particular interest to her fans will be the descriptions of the immense old Garden District mansion that becomes Lestat's new home; its nonfictional counterpart is St. Elizabeth's, the 19th-century convent/orphanage that Rice is remodeling for her own residence.
Perhaps it's for the best that the Lestat saga is over. With a new Christian millennium sweeping the world at the end of the book, it's hard to imagine where Lestat could go next—unless all of Memnoch the Devil turns out to be one of those elaborate “Dallas” type dreams. As it stands, Rice has penned an ambitious close to this long-running series, as well as a classy exit for a classic horror character. Hardcore fans will no doubt devour this last visit with Lestat, although casual readers might close the book wishing for a little more blood sucking and a lot less speechifying.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1575
SOURCE: “All This and Heaven Too,” in New York Times Book Review, August 11, 1996, p. 5.
[In the following review, Mendelsohn offers unfavorable assessment of Servant of the Bones.]
Anne Rice's latest supernatural melodrama, Servant of the Bones, is dedicated to God, and if God has any commercial savvy whatsoever, He'll dedicate His next book to her. The creator of Interview with the Vampire and its numerous best-selling sequels is bringing out her new book (part of which is set in an Old Testament milieu) in a first print run of one million copies; the Creator, on the other hand, has more than once had to resort to samizdat, distributing His work in tiny hand-copied editions that took centuries to find the right marketing niche, even after He'd achieved name recognition. You wonder when God will get a clue and move to Knopf.
Far more interesting to the student of commercial publishing are the striking similarities between God and Anne Rice. Both have cannily stuck throughout their careers to the Big Themes: good versus evil, mortality and immortality, that sort of thing. Both, moreover, have presented those themes accessibly enough to have won vast and occasionally fanatical international followings. And both, as a result, have become critic-proof. In Ms. Rice's case, her popularity seems, if anything, to have grown in inverse proportion to the readability of each new and ever more unwieldy novel.
To say that Anne Rice's strengths—most evident in her earliest work—are essentially the slender ones of a Gothic novelist is not at all to condescend. She has a real gift for rendering psychically charged mood and melancholy atmosphere, and an old-fashioned penchant for chiaroscuro characterization and intricate if sometimes improbable plotting. All this stands in stark contrast to much of what you find in today's affectedly affectless “literary” fiction, and goes a long way to explaining her immense popularity among an astonishingly diverse reading public, which has snapped up vast numbers of the five “Vampire Chronicles” novels, the three “Mayfair Witches” books, one mummy fiction and assorted soft-core erotica.
When deployed, Ms. Rice's stylistic strengths have admirably served her compulsively recurrent subject: a quest for the meaning of mortality and suffering, undertaken by outsiders—either angst-ridden immortals, like the soulful vampires in Interview, or mortal freaks exiled from the community of the “normal,” like the libidinous castrati in her richly atmospheric novel of 18th-century Italian opera, Cry to Heaven, or the half-castes in her historical fiction of old New Orleans, The Feast of All Saints. At her best, she skillfully balances lush and occasionally overripe descriptions of these alien characters in their exotic milieus with a sense of their underlying troubled humanity. Interview was so successful precisely because its sensitive-esthete vampire narrator, the melancholy New Orleans aristocrat Louis, was a nice Byronic departure from your garden-variety Nosferatu with his unkempt nails and bad table manners.
Yet Ms. Rice has always seen herself as much more than the kudzu-crowned, fog-caped Queen to Stephen King's King. In a recently published series of interviews with the film historian and author Michael Riley, she recalls being “deeply hurt” when people called her a Gothic writer at the beginning of her career. Her subsequent books seem intended to demonstrate that she's much more than the mistress of “escapist” chain-store fantasy-romance or historical fiction—that she can transform her increasingly farfetched supernatural story lines into vehicles for the themes of serious fiction: “people seeking to be good, perversity, incest, the feelings of the damned, whatever.”
There's certainly nothing wrong with ambition, but the recent books—especially the new one—suggest that Ms. Rice's reach has seriously exceeded her grasp. She has taken to literalizing, often with numbing clunkiness, the metaphysical conflicts that lately preoccupy both her and her increasingly long-winded characters; and the more she does so, the less persuasive are her attempts to say something important about it all. That would probably be bearable if the books weren't getting progressively less readable; but she's the Ayn Rand of the spirit realm. Even faithful fans who succeeded in hacking their way through the Amazonian densities of The Queen of the Damned or Taltos probably gave up before getting to the part in Memnoch the Devil where Ms. Rice brings on God as a character.
Servant of the Bones is the unfortunate culmination of this trend. A main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Quality Paperback Book Club, and likely to become a huge best seller, it's the clearest demonstration yet of the way that Ms. Rice's pretensions are crushing her prose. Although it mocks you with parallels to her earlier better books—its eponymous protagonist, the dark angel Azriel, is, like Louis, a kind of outcast spirit—its garrulous gods, horny angels and “Dr. Strangelove” climax aren't anchored to any convincing psychological or even supernatural reality. These self-indulgences make for reading that is neither enlightening nor entertaining.
The first of the book's four wildly disjointed parts ostensibly serves to relate how Azriel was transformed from your standard-issue Ricean mortal—a wealthy and sensuously beautiful aristo—into your standard-issue Ricean immortal, a sensuously beautiful spirit with a cosmic chip on his shoulder. He begins life as a Hebrew teen-ager, circa 600 B.C., whose captive weeping by the water of his hometown, Babylon, is alleviated by considerable wealth and frequent tête-à-têtes with the pagan deity Marduk; but after nobly consenting to be sacrificed in order to free his people, he is betrayed and placed under a spell that turns him into the powerful genie called the Servant of the Bones. If all this takes a rambling and repetitive 120 pages to get through, it's probably because Ms. Rice wants you to appreciate the convincing period touches (“Call on Yahweh to stop this sandstorm, you fool!”).
In the book's brief second part, Azriel describes the first and the last of the many masters whom he served before bedding down for 600 years and waking up in time for the plot to begin on page 188. The first master, Zurvan the Wise Man, is not (as you may think at first) an attraction at Ringling Brothers, but an important ancient Greek thinker who explains the Purpose of Life to a grateful Azriel, who returns the favor by flying Zurvan all around the globe. The last, Samuel of Strasbourg, is a wealthy Jew just trying to get by during the Black Death.
Ms. Rice reserves the actual story line for the third part; given the plot's rococo improbabilities, this seems wise. Here Azriel finds redemption by foiling the evil design of a deranged renegade billionaire Hasid named Gregory Belkin. Belkin heads a powerful worldwide cult called, rather optimistically, the Temple of the Mind. Between painstakingly hiding his Jewish origins and delivering himself of computer-generated New Age axioms, he's found time to develop a deadly virus with which he plans to wipe out the entire population of the third world. After unsuccessfully attempting to clue Belkin in to the wonders of multiculturalism (“The West isn't the world, Gregory”), Azriel resorts to more forceful and permanent forms of persuasion—but not before conducting an energetic adulterous fling in Miami Beach with Belkin's wife, Rachel, who is suffering from a nameless but terminal ailment that by this point in the narrative could well be boredom.
All this may have looked like the bare bones of a big novel about God and Man and betrayal and salvation, but it turns out to be little more than an excuse for Ms. Rice to write about interesting stuff she's recently boned up on: Babylon, the Middle Ages, New York Jews. Anyway, what could it have added up to? The metaphysical payoff here is hardly bone-rattling. It's difficult to take the author as seriously as she takes herself when the book's crowning insight, which she puts in the mouth of her fictional Greek philosopher, is that the purpose of life is “to love and to learn”—surely more Hallmark than Heraclitus.
The book's structural weaknesses and aromatherapy metaphysics wouldn't grate so much if you were at least getting the sense of mood and locale at which Ms. Rice used to excel, but her big ideas have pulverized the tiny details that can make or break the verisimilitude of supernatural fiction. It's odd that someone who prides herself on the historical accuracy of her period characters' speech has her ancient Greeks and Babylonians oscillating between archaisms like “Ye gods” and nails-on-the-blackboard anachronisms such as “Like hell, great King”; in a similar vein, you can't help wondering why, after reawakening in the late 20th century after 600 years, Azriel instinctively knows what filoviruses are but is relatively clueless about plastic. Four hundred pages of this kind of sloppiness can get on your nerves if there's no narrative to distract you.
It's possible that the soft-focus, New Age faux spirituality that suffuses Servant of the Bones is precisely what gives Ms. Rice's recent work its huge appeal in this millennial decade, lousy as it is with angels. (The new book even describes the “stairway to heaven,” which is likely to elicit a wince from readers who went to their high school proms in the 70's.). But you miss her writing. The grandiose self-indulgences of this latest Anne Rice blockbuster make you wish she'd forget heaven and plant her feet back on the fog-wreathed ground where she started. With any luck, her next book will be about—and maybe even dedicated to—mere mortals.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8053
SOURCE: “Dieting and Damnation: Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire,” in Blood Read: The Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture, edited by Joan Gordon and Veronica Hollinger, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997, pp. 95-113.
[In the following essay, Tomc explores the cultural significance of female body image, androgyny, and self-abnegation in Interview with the Vampire. According to Tomc, “Rice modeled the vampire's transformation on one of the most powerful narratives of gender metamorphosis available to 1970s culture: the story of successful dieting.”]
At one point in Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire, the vampires Louis and Claudia journey to Eastern Europe on a quest to find others like themselves. Elegant, intelligent, and beautiful, Louis and Claudia are shocked to find that the fabled vampires of Romania are little more than zombies, rotten half-eaten corpses who suffer the fate of being animated. “I had met the European vampire, the creature of the Old World,” Louis pronounces as he kills the last of these. “He was dead.”
Although literally a comparison of monsters, Louis's words might just as well describe a generic as a narrative twist. In 1975, the year before Rice published Interview with the Vampire, Stephen King published his only vampire novel, Salem's Lot, a novel that featured vampires who resembled, to a remarkable degree, the kind that would repulse Louis. King's vampires were, of course, the norm. They partook of an ancestry that threads its way from the works of Polidori, Le Fanu, and Stoker in the nineteenth century to those of Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Aickman, and Paul Morrissey in the twentieth, an ancestry whose members, even the most illustrious, are manifestly sub-human. They were clever, they might be attractive, but their bodies were too hairy, their sense of smell too acute. When the chic and beautiful Louis met the vampires of Eastern Europe, he was, as Rice well knew, meeting one hundred and fifty years of monster stereotype.
It was, of course, the pattern of Rice's chic vampire rather than Stephen King's bestial one that became the focus of such absorbed and wild popularity in the 1980s and 1990s. From Rice's own sequels, The Vampire Lestat (1985), Queen of the Damned (1988), The Tale of the Body Thief (1992), and Memnoch the Devil (1995), to such films as The Lost Boys,Innocent Blood, and Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, the vampire of enviable looks and inspiring ambitions—not sub-human so much as ultra-human—reigned. But the vampire's transformation had its corollary in a process of domestication, a process that seemed to be cemented with the casting of Tom Cruise, a squeaky-clean icon of normative masculinity, in the role of the amoral, sexually ambiguous Lestat for the 1994 film version of Interview with the Vampire. Vampirism, says Joan Copjec, “presents us with a bodily double that we can neither make sense of nor recognize as our own.” But with Cruise playing Lestat—a piece of casting that Rice herself bitterly opposed and then enthusiastically supported—the vampire had ceased to be unrecognizable. Once a menace to the conclaves of average America, he was now an honorary resident.
The journey of the vampire from monster to yuppie may not have been predicted in Interview with the Vampire, but it is, I would suggest, encoded there. In order to separate her own vampires from those indigenous to the genre, Rice borrowed heavily from 1970s discourses of gender mutability and bodily transformation, finding in the twin paradigms of androgyny and weight loss an articulation appropriate to her generically radical aims. But if the then-revolutionary potential of gender and corporeal metamorphosis liberated Rice's vampires from the stocks of their heritage, it also, I would suggest, facilitated their bland domestication. The following essay examines the mechanisms of that domestication, with, I might add, as much an eye to using Rice's text to read 1970s discourses of bodily alteration as the reverse. In the 1970s upheaval around bodies and weight, particularly women's bodies, we can trace the means by which the very process of becoming ultra-human—of becoming a new person, a new monster, a new woman—could realize itself in confinement and limitation.
When Rice set out to make the “animal” vampire a new person, she imagined the process as part of a larger program of what the 1970s called “liberation,” whether sexual, gay, or women's. The icons of this program were already figures of ambiguous signification, bodied forth by the beautiful-boy stars of glam rock or the “unisex” fashions launched by designers like Rudi Gernreich. For Rice, trying to unsettle “clichés” and to imagine her way out of the ossified categories of human and monster, self and other, gender uncertainty provided an exemplary metaphor. But what emerged as the sexual ambiguity of Rice's vampires was finally more than just a flouting of generic conventions. Rice told her biographer, “I've always loved the images of androgyny … whether it's a beautiful woman in the opera dressed as a man or rock stars changing and shifting. … I see the androgynous figure as the ideal figure.” That ideal was consonant with the egalitarian aims of 1970s' liberalism: Rice wanted to image “erotic scenes … that take place between totally equally franchised human beings.”
While perhaps startling to us today, it would have come as no surprise to anyone thinking about bodies in 1975 that Rice modeled the vampire's transformation on one of the most powerful narratives of gender metamorphosis available to 1970s culture: the story of successful dieting. With its promised dissolution of female secondary sex characteristics, the story of successful dieting forcefully projected an androgynous body, one whose challenge to traditional gender roles would lie in its exclusion of their physical signifiers. The intersections of slimness, androgyny, and liberation are encapsulated in the (to many of us) memorable series of ads run by Virginia Slims. Tagged by the copy “You've come a long way, baby,” these ads featured a sepia-tinted inset of “our grandmothers” laboring over some archaic domestic task. They were laced into late-Victorian S-shaped corsets, their bosoms and hips enormous, their figures patently maternal. Striding over the inset in full color, by contrast, was the modern Virginia Slims woman. Long-legged, flat, and hipless, the Virginia Slims woman had been unburdened of her woman's body—and, concomitantly, of her domestic chores. For American middle-class women of this period who were leaving behind nearly two decades of post-war domesticity and entering the labor force in unprecedented numbers, such icons articulated their abandonment of women's conventional nurturing and reproductive functions. By the same token, narratives of dieting provided for women authors an apt means of contemplating the socio-sexual alternatives available through corporeal alteration.
Now Interview with the Vampire incorporates the liberatory model of radical weight loss, but it does so in a striking and uncharacteristic way. Although the novel contains all the signal features of the diet narrative—its characters are preoccupied throughout with hunger and food and with the manipulation of their bodies—it also contains no significant women characters. Rice's impulse here complements her utopian agenda in a particularly extreme way. In its pursuit of a kind of pure and ultimate androgyny, Interview with the Vampire takes the Virginia Slims story to its ultimate conclusion by fantasizing a community of beings from which all signs of female sexuality and its traditional limitations have been erased. And here, curiously, is where the model of revised and liberated personhood begins to break down. If the erasure of the female body is precisely what enables Rice to transform the monster vampire into a free and equal “franchised being,” it is also, paradoxically, the gap around which her utopian project undoes itself.
Perhaps nowhere is Rice's dissociation of traditional woman and ideal being more evident than in the fact that her community of vampires is populated by men and children only. Theoretically, Rice's supernatural beings are not meant to be read as either men or children. Although the erotic interactions among the male vampires in this novel led many to praise Rice for her daring presentation of homosexuality, the sexuality of her vampires, in fact, bears little resemblance to the forms of gratification conventionally associated with the interactions of men's bodies. Rather, the vampire's body is something entirely new. It represents a type of polymorphousness and androgyny founded on the disappearance of the markers of sexual and reproductive difference. No matter what his or her residual sexual organs denote, both the vampire's experience of erotic pleasure and its ability to reproduce are located orally, not genitally; sucking blood is the vampire's way of feeding, of gratifying itself, and of making other vampires. This “gender-free” ideal does not of necessity exclude vampires who are residually women, but it is powerfully associated in the novel with an absence of women's characteristics. Not only are all Rice's central vampires residually male, her only significant female vampire, Claudia, is a little girl permanently arrested in her physical development at the age of five.
While Claudia's little-girlishness signals the exclusion of adult female sexuality from the vampire's body, the scene of her creation emphasizes the extent to which that exclusion predicates vampire existence generally. When Louis and Lestat make a vampire out of Claudia, they do so quite literally over her mother's dead body. Discovering the still-human little girl alone in a house and crying over the corpse of her mother, Louis is at first aware of some mysterious maternal power that emanates from the mother and challenges his own claims to Claudia. But this “natural” maternity is soon exposed as the inferior stuff of mortal frailty. In a fit of humor, Lestat grabs the mother's “stinking body” from the bed and dances with her while her decaying head “snaps” back and “black fluid” pours out of her mouth. This violent demystification of maternal power, centered as it is on the mother's body as something dead and obsolete, then opens the conceptual space for the alternative represented by vampire sexuality. Having traduced conventional motherhood, Lestat takes over the mother's role: “I want a child tonight,” he tells Louis. “I am like a mother … I want a child!” Claudia's birth in turn inaugurates an expansion of socio-sexual options for the vampires, who now play through an almost dizzying variety of roles. Louis is variously Claudia's lover, father, and mother; he is Lestat's wife and son, Armand's gay paramour, Madeleine's father and husband. And their radical diversity is what makes the vampires, as Louis says, all “equal.”
That the demystification of traditional maternal power is the founding moment of this equality underlines Rice's reliance on the refusal of female sexuality to legitimate the alternatives her vampires represent. Yet, strangely enough, Rice's exclusion of the feminine body from her descriptions of vampire life and physiology seems to demand a similar, and less explicable, exclusion at the level of representation. Not only does Rice purge her vampire community of all signs of women's sexuality, she avoids representing women characters, even human women characters, in her novel. In part, this strategy operates as a metaphor for the anomaly that women represent in Rice's gender-free economy. Accordingly, when women characters do appear for brief moments—when the women vampires kiss Armand, for instance, and Louis is overcome with jealousy—they function metaphorically as a threat to the seamlessness of the androgyne order. However, more interesting than these metaphoric moments is the fact that Rice apparently can't introduce women characters as significant players in the drama without her own representation of androgyny showing signs of dismantling itself. Witness what happens, for example, when at the end of her novel she introduces the provocative and motherly Madeleine. Confronted with having to make Madeleine a vampire, which means enjoying her sexually, the till now thoroughly feminized Louis admits: “Desire her I did, more than she knew. … And with a man's pride I wanted to prove that to her” (my emphasis). Women characters, in other words, are not absent in this novel just to make a metaphoric point. They present a problem, and to avoid confronting that problem in ways that could compromise the gender-free ideal, Rice simply gets rid of them.
Now what is interesting about this lack of women characters is the way in which it replicates one of the central fantasies of dieting, albeit a fantasy that is not entirely compatible with dieting's projection of an androgynous body. On the one hand, dieting extremists, those with eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, wish for exactly the kind of body that Rice imagines, one that has been purged of the signs of being a woman. As one anorexic puts it, “I have a deep fear of having a womanly body, round and fully developed. I want to be tight and muscular and thin”; another asserts, “I want to stay slender because I look more like a man,” while another, fantasizing a Claudia-like stasis, says: “not wanting to mature as a female body is a child's way of looking at it. I never wanted to grow up.” On the other hand, the absence of women characters in Interview with the Vampire illustrates how closely bound this revision of the body is to another related desire on the part of compulsive slimmers not just to revise the body but to disown it—to go the route of 1970s icon Karen Carpenter and diet until you disappear. This is a fantasy Rice inadvertently expressed about her own body. Having gained a worrisome amount of weight just before she started writing Interview with the Vampire, Rice began to “defend” herself by telling friends “that the extra pounds weren't really her.” She would “acknowledge only the parts from the wrist down and the neck up.” In other words, if Interview with the Vampire locates its revision of gender categories in an equally radical revision of gendered bodies, its lack of women characters also indicates how dependent this model is on a fantasy of “disownership.” To assure the success of her radical bodily ideal, Rice premises its representation on the logical extreme of the diet narrative: that the ever-diminishing substance of the female body, far from producing a new kind of body, will simply conclude with the body vanishing.
To ascertain the effect of this disappearance it is useful to compare Interview with the Vampire to two novels also published in the mid-1970s but more overtly concerned with women and dieting: Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle (1976) and Judith Krantz's Scruples (1978). Both novels recapitulate the narrative we saw in the Virginia Slims ad: the heroine begins the story as an overweight, unhappy individual and through rigorous dieting sheds her unwanted flesh and discovers both personal empowerment and an abrupt proliferation of social options. But the crucial thing in both novels is that no matter how much weight the heroine loses her body never stops being a problem—either for the heroine, who must now contend with the bewildering pressures of being an object of male desire, or in the text itself as a problematic site of competing cultural values. Atwood's heroine Joan Foster may, like Rice, wish to end her dilemmas by turning “invisible,” and may indeed stage a series of “disappearances” by faking her own death, but that wish remains a fantasy; her woman's body, no matter how thin, remains a bulk to be reconciled with the ideal of its own disappearance. Indeed, Joan's and Krantz's heroine Billy's changing yet ever-present flesh forces an ongoing reevaluation in both texts of the female body's relationship as a material entity to the material conditions of its subordination.
In Interview with the Vampire, however, this is not the case. The disownership of a problematic womanhood may enable Rice to posit the purity of her androgynous vampires, but Rice's paradigm of disownership, while it fantasizes the absence of the feminine body, does not at the same time incorporate the logical terms for a dismantling of the feminine as a frame of gender reference. What Interview with the Vampire accentuates, rather, is that in the economy formulated by dieting the idea of the womanly body remains untouched in the imagination of the dieter where it resides as the symbolic focus of hunger. As such, its power is felt in a degree proportional to its negation. That is, the less you eat and the more thin and immaterial you become, the hungrier you get and the more you long for the state of feminine fullness and bodily plenitude that eating represents. Thus, while Rice effects the disappearance of women's bodies, according to the logic made legible in her text the hypothetical point at which the feminine body disappears completely is also, paradoxically, the point at which it reaches the height of its power and desirability over the hungering self—or in this case, over the hungering text.
One of the first things we notice about Interview with the Vampire is that, while the feminine body is effectively purged from the narrative, it is nevertheless systematically reinscribed in other areas of the text where it functions as a kind of disembodied counterpoint to its own erasure. So on the one hand we have the dead body of Claudia's mother, reviled, horrifying, a thing to be discarded and left behind, while on the other we have the eulogy to abstract motherhood that accompanies Louis's rebirth: he wanders through the forest enamored of his new condition, hearing the night “as if it were a chorus of whispering women, all beckoning me to their breasts.” During this same scene, while taking blood from Lestat, Louis rediscovers “for the first time since infancy the special pleasure of sucking nourishment.” Such metaphors not only re-present an erased maternal body through a complex of disembodied symbols, they also, through their conventional equation of the mother's body and food, obliquely identify femininity itself as an object of hunger, as a thing that fulfils.
The synonymy of female bodies and food suggested here is even more pointedly manifested in the several spectacular scenes in this novel in which women literally form the meals on which the vampires feast. Memorable among these is Louis's visit to the Théâtre des Vampires where the vampire Armand, before an audience of rapt humans, feeds on a young woman of “heartbreaking beauty.” Rice's description here highlights the special allure, the promise of the body being consumed: “And slowly he [Armand] drew the string from the loose gathers of her blouse. I could see the cloth falling, see the pale, flawless skin pulsing with her heart and the tiny nipples letting the cloth slip precariously, the vampire holding her right wrist tightly. … And now, turning her slowly to the side so that they [the audience] could all see her serene face, he was lifting her, her back arching as her naked breasts touched his buttons, her pale arms enfolded his neck. She stiffened, cried out as he sank his teeth … the nape of her neck as enticing as the small buttocks or the flawless skin of her long thighs.” The erotic quality of this description modulates into an equally charged presentation of the girl as an object of gastronomic desire. Watching the performance, Louis says, “I felt weak, dazed, hunger rising in me, knotting my heart, my veins. … The air seemed fragrant with her salted skin, and close and hot and sweet. … I was sitting back in my chair, my mouth full of the taste of her, my veins in torment.” Unlike the scene with Claudia's dead mother, there is no attempt here to demystify the allure of the feminine body. On the contrary, when the show is over and the lights come up, Louis still “tastes” the girl on his lips. “It was as though on the smell of the rain came her perfume still, and in the empty theater I could hear the throb of her beating heart.” It is worth noting that the power of the girl resides in the fact that she doesn't last, that she is immediately dissolved into the amorphous rain and converted into the “emptiness” of the theater. Beginning as an unreachable, distant object of a hunger that Louis, sitting in the audience, is unable to satisfy, the girl's body exerts an attraction proportional to its unavailability, an attraction that reaches its crescendo at the moment the girl disappears as a physical entity.
The relevance of this scene to Rice's gender polemic, moreover, lies not only in its reinscription of the feminine as an object of desire but in its simultaneous staging of conventional heterosexual concourse—the “seduction” of the girl by Armand—a concourse the text is subsequently unable to challenge precisely because one of its terms, the feminine, has already been established as not there. Although this is surely one of the most striking scenes in the novel, it intrudes not at all on any of the events that follow. In the next scene the androgyne order is reestablished, the erotic concourse reasserted as an energy among residual males only. Yet the more conventional sexual possibilities implied in the scene with the girl, identified as they are with hunger, linger as something unsatisfied.
To the extent that Rice's vampires are the subjects on whose bodies is written the novel's excision of womanhood, they tend to behave in the same way that the text behaves, incorporating its agendas and, particularly in Louis's case, replicating its contradictions. Much like the text itself, Louis is preoccupied with the purity and freedom available to the body that refuses food. Ostensibly, Louis's refusal to eat is framed as a metaphysical and moral issue. Because for vampires eating involves killing people, Louis, who cannot discard his human moral sensibilities, who associates killing with damnation, is engaged in a constant struggle to keep his soul and his body morally pure. But that this desire for purity mirrors Rice's similar attempts to purify the gendered body is made evident by the fact that Louis's refusal of food is not simply described as a reluctance to commit murder. It resembles a constant vigil to keep from gaining weight. Subsisting for the most part on a diet of small animals—the vampiric counterpart, one supposes, of celery sticks and Rykrisp crackers—Louis describes over and over again how he is “Torn apart by the wish to take no action—to starve, to wither in thought on the one hand” or to give in to his “craving,” his “vile insupportable hunger” on the other. When Louis does break down and indulge his craving, he describes it as a “sin,” an illicit gorging, like eating a whole chocolate cake. Coming upon Claudia when she is still a human child and he is in one of his fits of self-starvation, he says: “You must understand that by now I was burning with physical need to drink. I could not have made it through another day without feeding. But there were alternatives: rats abounded in the streets, and somewhere very near a dog was howling hopelessly. … But the question pounded in me: Am I damned? … If I am damned I must want to kill her, I must want to make her nothing but food for a cursed existence. … [A]nd I felt, yes, damned and this is hell, and in that instant I had bent down and driven hard into her soft, small neck. … For four years I had not savored a human; for four years I hadn't really known … the rich blood rushing too fast for me, the room reeling.”
If Louis is the anorexic produced in this novel's extremist association of freedom and physical attenuation, his problems with eating also reflect back on the apparatus that determines him. What is significant about the passage I just quoted is not Louis's understandable reluctance to commit murder but his attraction to the object of his self-denial, his choice of Claudia above the dog and the rats not because he needs humans to survive but because Claudia in his perception is more delicious; she exerts a power over him. The source of this power lies not in Claudia herself but in Louis's idea of his own body. Because Louis's sense of integrity is bound up with his control over the needs of his body, with his affirmation of finer spirit over base substance, his power over himself increases in proportion not only to his hunger but to the allure of the food that he keeps refusing. The greater his temptation, that is, the more pious and empowering his self-denial. Such syllogisms invest food with a power that paradoxically intensifies as Louis's control of his own body grows, for, of course, that control is always predicated on a fairly equal contest between the power of food and the power of self. Given that Rice's idea of the androgyne's freedom is founded on a similar notion of conquest and manipulation, it contains the same kind of paradox. In other words, it isn't that the text represses the feminine body at the level of narrative only to have it inadvertently reinscribed elsewhere, but that its model of androgyny depends on that reinscription. It depends on the desirability in abstract form of the body through whose recurring conquest the dieting self acquires power and viability.
It is perhaps no surprise that this repetitive conquest, by which one's power over body or soul diminishes as it increases, should finally end in the self's dissolution. This is the fate of Rice's androgynes, all of whom by the end of the novel are engaged in acts of self-destruction. Claudia, on whose body is most radically written the absence of femininity, spends the novel affirming her freedom by searching for the mother she lost and the mature maternal body from which she has been barred. Like Louis's pursuit of self-determination, Claudia's is articulated as hunger, her desire for the plenitude that both sustains and relentlessly undermines her identity: “I kill humans every night. I seduce them, draw them close to me, with an insatiable hunger, a constant, never-ending search for something … something, I don't know what it is.” That this desire for satiation is paradoxically both the fulfillment and the end of her freedom is underlined by the fact that as soon as Claudia gets the mother she wants in the form of Madeleine, she dies. Her death literalizes the identities among satiation, womanhood, and vacancy. In a grisly echo of the paradigm of the vanishing woman's body, nothing is left of Claudia when Louis finds her but her hair and her empty clothes. The journeys of Louis, Lestat, and Armand, similarly self-destructive, are also similarly determined by the logic of attenuation. At the novel's end, the gormandizing Lestat, deprived of food for his soul, ends his existence by starving himself on a diet of alleycats. Armand, who tells Louis that when an old vampire “goes out to die” he will leave nothing of his body—“He will vanish”—finally performs this trick on himself and disappears. Although knowing that eating “threaten[s] consciousness,” Louis eventually succumbs to his craving for humans. But within the logic that equates plenitude with vacancy, the result of Louis's eating is not that he gets fuller but that the more he eats the emptier he feels until at last he thinks of himself as “nothing.”
By the end of Interview with the Vampire, the absence that was supposed to guarantee the success of Rice's radical gender alternative has assured its dissolution. With their androgyny in the first place anchored in their hunger for a lost womanhood, the vampires can only achieve their ideal status through an ongoing process of self-sabotage, becoming more radical only as their hunger for traditionalism intensifies. And yet for all that this novel's utopian agenda folds in on itself and finally collapses, it would be inaccurate to ascribe to its politics of hunger an inherent or inevitable conservatism. When Rice, almost ten years after she published Interview with the Vampire, returned to the topic of vampirism in a series of novels she called The Vampire Chronicles, she abandoned hunger as a central component of vampire life. These later novels feature the same characters we met in Interview, but they purport to tell a “truer” version of their story, one in which appetite, significantly, plays no part. For this purpose, Rice invents a new feature of vampire physiology: when vampires become ancient enough—as her protagonists quickly do—they no longer need nourishment to survive. Thus unburdened of their problematic desire for food, Louis, Lestat, and Armand return from nothingness to take their place in a bucolic “Great Family” of vampires, a circle of gender renegades whose members live their lives with precisely that grace and success that had eluded the vampires in Interview.
There is much to suggest, however, that ridding the vampire of his desire and self-deprivation is at the heart of his eventual domestication. In their continued pursuit of utopian alternatives, Rice's later novels do away with the equation of hunger and emancipation that had proved so debilitating in her first; but, as Janice Doane and Devon Hodges point out, Rice's later novels are also considerably more tentative in their critique of accepted norms: “In Interview with the Vampire … a decidedly angry woman [Claudia] does battle with men in her hopes to rewrite the script for femininity. She fails, though the precariousness of male bonds at the end of the novel suggests that patriarchy has been nonetheless weakened.” By the time we get to Queen of the Damned, the angry little girl has given way to the primal, “post-feminist” “good mother,” a figure who fights her battles not with patriarchy but with the man-hating Akasha, a woman turned “feminist monster.” In some sense, the differences between Queen of the Damned and Interview are a product of the time that separates them, a decade of “backlashing,” “postfeminism,” New Right agitation, and the rise of New Age women's cults. But it remains significant that the victory of the “good mother” in Queen of the Damned is secured through the recasting of women's relationship to food. Unlike the eternally tiny and voracious Claudia, the “good mother” Mekare is a figure in whom hunger and skinniness have given way to appeasement and expansion. In their roles as matriarchs, nurturers, primal origins, Mekare and her twin sister Maharet could well be the vanishing mother from Interview restored to her material embodiment. The manner of her triumph is instructive. Mekare succeeds against the rabidly feminist Akasha by cannibalizing her, by literally gobbling up her heart and brain in order to appropriate her considerable powers. Whereas the absent mother in Interview left “precariousness” in her wake, the fully present ”good mother” in Queen of the Damned, who consumes without guilt, is the means by which dissent is incorporated into a unitary anatomy.
Rice's manipulation of appetite illuminates the trajectory of the vampire from tortured anorexic to guiltless consumer; but it also clarifies the complexity of the relationship between dieting and women's liberation in 1970s culture. On one level, that relationship is clearly recuperative. The massive entry of middle-class women into the North American labor force between 1970 and 1980 required a female body whose iconography would specify its productivity in the workplace rather than its traditional reproductivity and nurturance in the home. But as the yearnings of Rice's vampires suggest, it was precisely by dissolving the material signifiers of women's domesticity that dieting withdrew an economically obsolete femininity from the “real” world of material relations in order to constitute it elsewhere as an object of fantasy. Organizing hunger around an untenable and disappearing womanhood, dieting effectively assured the continued centrality of traditional femininity psychically in an economy that had ceased to have need of it materially. It is this process of internalization that Interview with the Vampire inadvertently uncovers. Within the logic manifested in Rice's text, the starving away of archaic women's flesh results only in the displacement of traditional gender norms from their depiction on the body to their invisible operation on desire.
On another level, however, Interview with the Vampire also suggests how the displacement of femininity, even as it sabotages the meaningful realization of alternative gender standards, might simultaneously generate the conditions for a heightened political awareness. The key to this possibility is to be found in the richer, more fully individuated and fully aware self acquired by Louis as he fetishizes and refuses food. If traditional womanly plenitude is symbolically contained in the food the dieter desires, Louis's situation indicates that the very act of staying hungry, the choice of keeping gratification at bay, consolidates the self around acts of resistance, producing an expansion of consciousness that is proportional to the diminishment of the body. The stakes in this game of resistance are high. “Today,” Vogue informed its readers in 1976, “many women are wondering if it is possible to be fully human and still remain feminine.” For Rice the answer is no. The process of self-enrichment through starvation may finally annihilate both Claudia and Louis, but it also anchors their status as “equally franchised beings.” As a direct result of their hunger, that is, both Louis and Claudia experience a dilation of consciousness that makes them, in the idiom of 1970s feminism, more “fully human”—and thus more fully deserving of their “human rights.”
In Louis's case, his physical transformation from human being to vampire overtly marks the start of what the novel repeatedly refers to as his development of a richer “humanity.” “My vampire nature has been for me the greatest adventure of my life,” he tells Lestat. “[A]ll that went before was confused, clouded; I went through mortal life like a blind man groping from solid object to solid object. It was only when I became a vampire that I respected for the first time all of life. I never saw a living pulsing human being until I was a vampire; I never knew what life was until it ran out in a red gush over my lips, my hands!” The continual war that Louis wages with the needs of his body in order to preserve life, precisely because it affirms the power of spirit over substance and respect over abuse, enhances his “soul,” producing his exquisite moral sensibilities, his “passion,” his “sense of justice.” From the “vicious egotism” of his former self, Louis expands through self-denial to represent, despite his vampirism, what is best about “humanity.” The other vampires, Armand tells him, “reflect the age in cynicism. … You reflect your age differently. You reflect its broken heart.” Louis's expansion, constituted as it is through his refusal of normative categories, produces not just a richer humanity but a political awareness of the inequity of his circumstances. It is while trying to convince Lestat, the “Father,” of the value of self-starvation that Louis understands the true nature of their relationship: “I realized I'd been his slave all along.”
For Claudia, whose tiny body signifies her more fundamental resistance to womanly plenitude, the result of her famine is a kind of tragic over-development of the inner self. As Claudia gets hungrier and hungrier without ever getting physically “full,” her soul keeps expanding until her minuscule shape harbors an “eerie and powerful seductress” and a mature “woman's” mind too ambitious for its girlish confines. “To give me immortality in this hopeless guise,” she cries to Louis, “this helpless form!” Louis thinks of her as empty: cold, detached, devoid of the “humanity” he so cherishes in himself. But he discovers that her diminutive shape has filled her to the brim with “rage“ and “pain” and “suffering,” the very elements that constitute Louis's own claims to humanity. As with Louis, the expansion of Claudia's self generates a radicalized consciousness—a more radicalized consciousness, since her hunger for plenitude is greater. In the process of her “growth,” Claudia acquires an awareness of her own potential and integrity that culminates in the recognition that she has been “enslaved” by her “fathers.” As Louis tells Lestat, she “sees herself as equal to us now, and us as equal to each other.” Her decision to murder Lestat, which Doane and Hodges call “a protest against the kind of femininity offered to women in a patriarchal culture,” is also a radical decision to demand the father's power for herself: “Such blood, such power. Do you think I'll possess his power and my own power when I take him?”
Of course, the idea that dieting might generate the conditions for political awareness is radically at odds with what the vast majority of feminist scholars and researchers have concluded. For them dieting is inimical to feminist agendas because, by forcing women to concentrate so completely on their bodies, it diverts them from the more politically constructive cultivation of their minds. Susan Bordo says of anorexia: “Paradoxically—and often tragically—these pathologies of female ‘protest’ … actually function as if in collusion with the cultural conditions that produced them. … Women may feel themselves deeply attracted by the aura of freedom and independence suggested by the boyish body ideal of today. Yet, each hour, each minute that is spent in anxious pursuit of that ideal … is in fact time and energy diverted from inner development and social achievement. As a feminist protest, the obsession with slenderness is hopelessly counterproductive.” Similarly, Kim Chernin equates the starvation of women's bodies with the starvation of their “souls” and recommends as “food” for these souls a “reentry into the positive knowledge of women's experience,” “our capacity to think, to act, to struggle, to cry out, to express.”
Worth noting, however, is that various discourses of dieting concur with Rice in emphasizing an expansion of the “soul” as a crucial consequence of slimming. Anorexics almost unanimously report on the increased feelings of independence, confidence, self-worth, pride, and power that accompany their compulsive weight-watching. Many equate their shrinkage with individuation. Hilda Bruch recalls one patient who “explained that losing weight was giving her power, that each pound lost was like a treasure that added to her power. This accumulation of power was giving her another kind of ‘weight,’ the right to be recognized as an individual.” The theme of individuation, which features so centrally in the language of anorexia, appears with equal force in 1970s diet advice, which invariably insists on the power, independence, and self-esteem available to those who discipline their bodies. In a 1976 article explaining the function of metabolism, Cosmopolitan advised its readers: “Now consider again the girl who blames metabolism for her inability to lose weight. The truth is she probably wasn't born with a sluggish metabolism, but rather cultivated a lazy one. Consider all she can do to pep up her metabolism so calories are pressed into service rather than just turning into fat! Sweet to know you're the one in control, isn't it?”
For Judith Krantz, as for Rice, the result of such exercises of self-control is the self's consolidation. When her heroine Billy's new svelte figure gives her the confidence to speak aloud in French, her spirit expands: “It opened all the doors of Billy's mind, destroyed all her hesitations, vanquished her timidity.” As for Atwood's heroine Joan Foster, who after years of being overweight has trouble learning to think like a thin person, Billy's former “Freakish” self stays with her, leaving her with “scars that no amount of outward physical change could ever erase.” But her resistance to this ghost, played out in her constant hunger, at once expands her soul and, by extension, sustains her rejection of traditional feminine roles. Following the abysmal end of her first love affair, Billy realizes, “She was thin and she was beautiful. … Those were the important things. The rest she would have to get for herself. She had no intention of dying for love of a man, like one of the nineteenth-century women in the books she had read. She was no Emma Bovary, no Anna Karenina, no Camille—no spineless, adoring, passive creature who would let a man take away her reason for living by taking away his love. The next time she loved, she promised herself, it would be on her terms.”
Claudia's evaporation, Louis's nothingness, Billy's hedgings and compromises, and the anorexic's hospitalization are less than salutary ends to their ecstatic burgeoning of selfhood. But in these individual manifestations of consciousness expansion and “raising” we can see how women's diet fads might have encouraged the emancipatory energies they also curtailed. The paradox of this process is illuminated by Michel Foucault's description of a not-dissimilar congruence of self-discipline and humanistic self-enrichment that occurred in the evolution of the “soul” of modern prisoners. In Discipline and Punish Foucault addresses the historical moment at which the state's punitive strategies shift focus from the prisoner's body, which had earlier been the object of public spectacles of torture and execution, to his inner conscience, “a punishment that acts in depth on the heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations.” As Foucault sees it, this shift of focus does not address a consciousness that already exists. Rather, the new “technology of power over the body,” the forms of supervision, training, and moral correction that replace corporal punishment, themselves produce a “soul,” a “psyche, subjectivity, personality, consciousness,” on which reformed punitive methods can act. We could say, in effect, that the development of more “humane” and “liberal” forms of punishment produces a more “human“ subject, one whose newly constituted “soul” is capable of fulfilling liberalist ideals of justice and reform.
While it would be misleading to map Foucault's explication wholesale onto the synchrony of diet fads and women's liberation, his insights are instructive. As a significant change in the political technology of women's bodies, dieting helped to generate the spirit of a modernized woman-hood—savvy, political, sexually emancipated, and newly formed for what Stuart Ewen calls a migration into “the social structures of industrial discipline.” Although women's thinness had come into fashion in the 1960s, it is in the 1970s, the decade whose midpoint is marked by the International Year of the Woman, that weight-watching acquires the proportions of an obsession and the rigors of a “technology.” According to Roberta Pollack Seid, “Between 1968 and 1969, twenty-five diet articles were listed in the Reader's Guide. By 1978-79, the number had leapt to eighty-eight—a deceptively low figure, since the Guide did not include the diet columns that were now regular magazine features nor the myriad diets that routinely appeared in more popular publications.” Hillel Schwartz reports that Weight Watchers' revenues jumped from $8 million in 1970 to $39 million in 1977. This flowering of interest in slimming was accompanied by a growing rationalization of the methods by which pounds were to be shed. Calorie counters, fat farms, clinics, injections, surgery, jaw-wiring, stomach-stapling, regimens of jogging, programs of fasting, hundreds of books offering the wisdom of doctors and psychologists (like Atkins, Tarnower, and Cott), now augmented the relatively simple appetite suppressants popular in the 1960s.
That this immense apparatus reorganized women's bodies for the paths of emancipation is made apparent by the change in the prevailing ideals identified with women's thinness. In the 1960s women's thinness was associated with little-girlishness. Waifs and adolescents, bodied forth by models like Twiggy and the young Jean Shrimpton, or the “daddy's girl” who could never quite manage anything on her own, played by Marlo Thomas in the TV series That Girl, were the hallmarks of feminine style. In the 1970s, by contrast, women's thinness began to be associated with women's ambition, strength, and self-control. The heroine of the decade was the slim, independent, emphatically single Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, who, unlike Marlo, didn't need daddy's help; she was going to “make it on her own.” Whereas 1960s fashions in women's dress sought to recapture infancy—baby-doll dresses, Mary Jane shoes—1970s fashions aimed at a rangy mannishness, with designers producing pinstriped suits, man-tailored shirts, hacking jackets, and stacked-heel loafers as part of the new working woman's “uniform.”
Like the punitive reforms of the early nineteenth century, the rigors of dieting at once re-located women's bodies ideologically and addressed a consciousness they themselves helped to construct. It is concomitantly not without reason that Foucault shares with Rice, Chernin, and Krantz an emphasis on the term “soul.” Discussing this same propensity in anorexics, who obsess about the expansion and purity of their spirits, Susan Bordo characterizes the “metaphysics” of dieting as an extension and “crystallization” of Western culture's privileging of spirit over flesh. But Rice, whose characters search for the “soul”'s grace, or Chernin (a former anorexic) who speaks of the “soul”'s nourishment, might agree with Foucault that the mind/body split encouraged by dieting is more than merely symptomatic of a long-entrenched preference for the ephemeral. Its generation of a psyche is real. As Foucault says of the prisoner, “A ‘soul’ inhabits him and brings him into existence”; “It would be wrong to say that the soul is an illusion, or an ideological effect. On the contrary, it exists, it has a reality.” When modern women collectively converted to what Krantz calls the “religion of thinness,” they perforce found at its altars the constituents of their own empowerment as politicized subjects.
But the “soul” doubtless gets ample space in the discourses of dieting not just because it blooms as the flesh disintegrates, but because it is an area of contending energies. Where the traces of dieting as a political technology—a strategy by which power is negotiated and exercised—reveal themselves is in the armature that originates and supports the “soul” of liberated womanhood—the soul's dependence, that is, on an ongoing, and therefore unwinnable, battle with the ghosts of mothering and domesticity. The insight of novels like Lady Oracle and Scruples lies in their sensitivity to the negotiations this battle requires. Although Atwood and Krantz pay tribute to slenderness as the key to personal development, they also realize that the heroine's selfhood hinges on her simultaneous acceptance of and resistance to traditional roles. Thus Billy's choice of marriage weirdly provokes a fresh bout of independence—“if she wanted to stay married to Vito … she had to establish an abiding interest in life that did not depend on him in any way.” The end of Atwood's novel finds Joan trapped in a maze and locked in permanent solidarity and contention with all her old “tenuous bodies,” the see-through women on whom her liberation depends: the Fat Lady, the Mother, the demure Good Girl, her enemies, her cohorts.
For Rice, of course, the conflicted terrain of the self is figured—indeed, allegorized—as the zone of war between good and evil, salvation and damnation, between compromised survival and all-out annihilation. It is a testimony to the extremity of her project in Interview with the Vampire that she dismisses the negotiations that characterize Billy's and Joan's development and forces a victory in the battle between emancipated self-hood and its vaporous domestic Other. The results may not be inspiring. Whether in Claudia's case, where, like a little balloon inflated with too much selfhood, she just explodes, or in Louis's where the allure of plenitude wins over resistance, “nothingness” is equally the victor. With their subjectivity constituted by the conflict itself, Rice's vampires obliterate themselves at the instant they either win or lose. The delicacy of this equilibrium is illustrated by the aftermath of its upset. If Rice's later novels abandon the radical extremes of her first, they also suggest how closely the domestication of her vampires was tied to a larger defeat. Like the dieting iconoclasts of the 1970s who were reedified for 1980s consumerism and corporate culture, the vampire succumbed to the recuperative energies that were all along inherent in the strategies of abstinence.
And yet despite the pitfalls, the fits of hunger and longing that are too easily conscripted for mandates of self-indulgence, Interview with the Vampire insists on the wisdom of self-abnegation. In the end Louis gives up on “humanity” and starts eating his fill. His parting words to the journalist who is interviewing him speak eloquently of the choice he has made: “I drank of the beauty of the world as a vampire drinks. I was satisfied. I was filled to the brim. But I was dead.” Rice would go on in her other novels to rewrite this death as a necessary fact of vampire life, but her first novel acknowledges the bitter pressure exerted by plenitude on the self that will only find sustenance through resistance and loss.