Interlude with the vampire

Remembering Anne Rice (1941-2021)

It’s a cliché in publishing that writers who are popular aren’t good and vice versa. There’s a bit of sour grapes to that notion, as if it were a consolation for those acclaimed writers who’ve never found a wide audience. 

Certainly, there were those critics who pooh-poohed Anne Rice — who died Saturday, Dec. 11, at age 80 of complications from a stroke . Her prose could be purple, while her plots at times alternated between the meandering and the static. But Rice, whose 30 novels embraced the sacred (Jesus) and the profane (an S and M Sleeping Beauty trilogy, an escapist “Exit to Eden”) would create one of the most seminal novels, “Interview With the Vampire,” and characters, Lestat de Lioncourt, in American literature. By her own standards, her best-selling books (more than 150 million copies sold) were great, because they resonated with the tectonic shifts in our perceptions of gender, sexuality and race in the second half of the 20th century. 

Indeed, it would be impossible to overestimate the effect that Rice’s vampires have had on me and other novelists who have explored homoerotic literature. Certainly, she was not the first as the historical novels of Mary Renault, including her fabulous Alexander the Great trilogy, and the devastating psychological thrillers of Patricia Highsmith attest. But Rice immediately foreshadowed today’s M-M genre of books depicting gay sex written by women for women. In a larger sense, she made vampires ruffle-shirted romantic and helped open the floodgates to female erotica. I think it’s fair to say that there would be no “Twilight” and no “Fifty Shades of Grey” without her. 

But perhaps more important, Rice’s books about gorgeous guys infecting one another with vampirism through intimate contact would become a metaphor for the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, a moment when America and in particular the Reagan Administration had their heads buried in the sand over what to do.  

Her “Vampire Chronicles” series — beginning with “Interview” (1978), which grew out of her grief over the death of her 5-year-old daughter Michele from leukemia — captured those anguished times and has gone on to inspire movies (the 1994 “Interview With the Vampire” with a superb Tom Cruise, playing against type as Lestat, and Brad Pitt as Louis), a musical (Elton John’s “Lestat”) and TV series (AMC’s upcoming “Vampire Chronicles”). 

But though bound up with death, the books, which are redolent with place — a tangy Venice in the 18th-century (“Cry to Heaven”), a heat-soaked Miami in the 1980s (“The Tale of the Body Thief”), a snowbound New York in the early 1990s (“Memnoch the Devil”) and always a bougainvillea-scented New Orleans — also teach us how to live. And that’s the great gift of the vampire Lestat. He may have been forced to become a vampire, but by golly he’s going to be the best vampire he can be and live until he, well, forever. This contrasts sharply with the great love of Lestat’s life — Louis de Pointe du Lac, the title character in “Interview” — who despite wanting to become a vampire can’t get beyond the bell-jar grief of that decision. It’s as if you have two cancer patients. One says, “I have cancer. I have cancer. I have cancer.” The other says, “I have cancer, and I’m going dancing tonight.” 

Rice danced on the page. She had the courage of her convictions, the conviction of her passions, and she reminded the rest of us to write with that courage, that conviction, that passion. 

For that we should remember her and bless her. 

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