Anne Rice, |
Interview with the Vampire
(Knopf, 1976; Ballantine, 1991)
With Interview With the Vampire, Anne Rice completely rejuvenated the genre that I feel to be horror's most important, primal and soul-stirring: the legend of the vampire. I have described Richard Matheson's classic I Am Legend as the second greatest vampire novel, but I must retract that statement now. Only with a second reading have I recognized the unparalleled power, beauty, eroticism and grace of Rice's contribution to the subject.
Unlike Matheson, Rice luxuriates in the Victorian appeal of Bram Stoker's masterpiece, while taking the subject to planes far beyond those Stoker could have envisioned for his Count Dracula. The modern writer does not have to hide the vampire's erotic appeal behind convention, nor does she need to classify her subject as an evil in and of itself. The vampire nature of Rice's creation is a complex, unfathomable subject that transcends good and evil.
This first novel in The Vampire Chronicles centers around four very different yet almost equally fascinating vampires. The story is that of Louis, a wealthy 18th century Louisiana plantation owner who became a vampire in the depths of his despair over his brother's suicide. Lestat, the inscrutable force that hovers above every page of the tale, made Louis a vampire for basically economic reasons; he wanted the wealth that Louis possessed, but he also wanted a companion. Narcissistic and vain, the dapper Lestat does not teach his creation what it means to be a vampire, does not share the secrets he claims to know, does not even help Louis through the soul-shattering change that comes about when the body dies so that it may live eternally.
Louis stays with Lestat only because, so far as he knows, there are no other vampires to whom he can turn for help and instruction. His distaste for Lestat grows over the years, however, and in order to keep Louis by his side, Lestat turns a young girl whom Louis had fed upon during a period of emotional turbulence.
It is the story of Claudia, doomed to a most tragic life of immortality trapped inside the body of a little girl, that makes this book so powerful in my eyes. Lestat is of course fascinating, Louis is the epitome of tragedy and a fountain of knowledge by way of his questioning, eternally sad nature, but Claudia's story is an unbearably exquisite one. She accepts her vampire nature with some ease, being too young to really ever remember her human childhood, but the growth of Claudia the vampire woman inside the body of Claudia the child is a beautifully painful thing to watch. When she manages to separate Louis and herself from Lestat to go searching for other vampires in Central Europe and eventually Paris, giving dramatic voice to both her love for and hatred of Louis, the door to the dungeons of utter tragedy are thrown asunder.
The introduction of the 400-year-old vampire Armand in the second half of the book gives us yet another unique vampire soul to ponder, but Armand at his most vivid pales in comparison to Claudia at her most unprepossessing.
In the end, we are left with Louis and his story, which is full of unanswerable questions. Even the meaning and lesson he tries to express about his miserable existence utterly fail in their influence it has upon the boy chosen to hear his extraordinary story. Literature really provides no better character study of the emotional meaning of vampirism than Louis, however. He became a creature of the night only out of despair, and his development as a new creature on Earth proceeded without any instruction whatsoever from the cold Lestat. Thus, he questions everything about his new nature, desperately longing for a mentor. He does not relish the taking of human life, and the thought of creating another creature like himself is anathema to him. He sees vampirism as a curse, eternally wondering if he is indeed a child of Satan doomed to an immortal yet cursed life. The source of his moral suffering is his inability to really give up his human nature, and this causes him a long, long life of torment and pain.
Never before had the moral, spiritual and philosophical nature of the vampire been explored in such depth as that found in this exquisitely beautiful novel, and that is one of the primary reasons why it rivals Stoker in terms of its beauty and resonates with an emotionally hypnotic power that is unmatched in the long tradition of vampire literature.