By Lloyd Rose
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; 6:08 PM
As anyone who follows Anne Rice's career knows, a few months ago she renounced Christianity, leaving the Roman Catholic Church, to which she had returned as an adult after leaving in her teens. Rice always had difficulty with the church's stance on social issues, and finally declared on her Facebook page, "I quit being a Christian. . . . I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life."
This might have sounded like the end of the very Christian adventures of the redeemed hit man Toby O'Dare, who made his first appearance in last year's metaphysical thriller "Angel Time." But Rice ended her list of refusals with this: "In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian." It's the church she's left, not the belief.
Unfortunately, "Of Love and Evil" has all the flaws of "Angel Time," though its plot is better. Once again, Toby visits the past (Renaissance Florence) to do good, and he finds a haunted residence and a mysterious poisoning. Matters are intriguing, but the tiny cast of characters leaves little doubt about who the poisoner must be. And as a reformed hit man, Toby remains ludicrously unconvincing. Still, his faith - like his creator's - is another matter. You can reject it or be embarrassed by it, but it's hard to dismiss:
"Not a single word was lost in this great womb of love that surrounded me, this vast night that was as bright as day. For neither day nor night mattered here, and both were blended and all was perfect, and the prayers rising and rising, and overlapping, and the angels calling were all one firmament to which I completely surrendered, to which I completely belonged."
Sloppily overwritten, yes. But in terms of content, it's not that far from Dante's vision at the end of "Paradiso."
An extravagant and histrionic personality, given to stunts like staging her own funeral in an old New Orleans cemetery, Rice has always made it easy to laugh at her. Her prose is purple (and scarlet and black and gold), and her vampire sex scenes read like over-perfumed soft-porn fantasies. But what always sets her apart from her imitators is the energy roiling under that languidness. The priestess of decadence has a fierce moral core. She's never been cynical or ashamed to be uncool: Meaninglessness appalls and terrifies her. And her joy at having found religious meaning isn't phony. It's a mystic's rapture.
Rose is a former theater critic for The Post.
OF LOVE AND EVIL
By Anne Rice
Knopf. 172 pp. $24.95