THE VAMPIRE LESTAT. By Anne Rice Knopf. 481 pp. $17.95.
VAMPIRISM IS traditionally regarded as loathsome and fearful, but it is not always easy to see why. Vampires, after all, get to stay out all night, sleep all day, surround themselves with beautiful sexual partners, and spend endless sums of money, usually inherited, on travel and carnal conquest. Being immortal, they can indulge these pleasures endlessly, eternally.
Anne Rice, author of the popular Interview With the Vampire and its sequel, The Vampire Lestat, plays this more alluring side of vampirism for all it's worth. Her demonic protagonist is an utterly secular, civilized creature, an 18th-century drawing-room vampire who laughs at elegant parties, cries at Mozart, and owns a fashionable Parisian theater. Contemptuous of religion and ritual, whether of God or Satan, he shuns graveyards and scorns the reactionary vampires "of olden days," with their "superstitious" dread of crucifixes and holy water and their neurotic obsession with "Rules of Darkness" governing vampire behavior.
In his 20th-century manifestation, recounted in the first and last sections of the novel, Lestat is even more the tradition-flouting "new vampire," the "monster who looks exactly like everybody else." In new-wave discos, full of music inherently "vampiric" and "eloquent of dread," vampires fit right in, often to a debilitating extent: "The mortals who come are a regular freak show of theatrical types -- punk youngsters, artists, those done up in black capes and white plastic fangs. They scarcely notice us." In a world where "pure evil has no place," vampirism becomes chic consumerism; Transylvania becomes the San-Francisco punk scene.
Anne Rice narrates the decadent exploits of her Age of Reason vampire with blood-drenched exuberance, chronicling his grisly, rather wacky initiation into the black arts; his passing of the Dark Gift to his dying mother (a singularly perverse and creepily erotic scene); his obsessive tracing and retracing of the ultimate origin of vampires, the true Children of the Millennia, in tales within tales of Rome, Greece, and Egypt spun by ancient tellers; his rediscovery of Louis, the charming and compelling narrator of Interview With the Vampire; and his triumph in the 1980s as a rock star simply playing himself, singing music so shrill that, in his mother's words, it can indeed "wake the dead."
Yet despite his great appetite for the "wonders and puzzles of the world," Lestat also discovers a horrible secret -- that eternity can get awfully, awesomely boring. There are no Van Helsings who can touch him, no rival vampires who can destroy him, but a terrible ache and emptiness pursue him through the centies, causing him to create vampire lovers who eventually despise or leave him. Underneath the glitter of vampire hedonism is the same "sublime loneliness" that haunted Louis in Interview, depicted here in Lestat's desperate attempt to be part of a world that ultimately has no use for Death and Evil. "There has never been a just place for evil in the Western world," laments one vampire sage. "There has never been any easy accomodation of death."
One thing Lestat does to fill in this great emptiness is talk, and the novel is consequently full of disquisitions on such cosmic matters as death and eternity, spirituality and carnality, and esoteric questions of vampiric identity such as the tension between being an "exotic outcast" and "some dim magnification of every human soul." Like Louis before him, Lestat talks too much, but enough of what he says is fascinating to make Rice's vampire mythos (a third book in "The Chronicles of the Vampires" is on the way) one of the more memorable horror sagas of recent years.
Here then is a supernatural horror novel that seems to have everything -- passion, originality, imagination, narrative power, kinky sexuality, and a superbly drawn otherworldly protagonist. The one thing it doesn't have is genuine terror. The book simply isn't scary. Yet literature is full of vampires as worldy and glamorous as Rice's who also managed to be fearful: Le Fanu's "magnificent and sensuous" Carmilla, Stoker's "big ape of the vampires, the hirsute Slav Count Dracula," and other famous bloodsuckers cleverly alluded to by Lestat were all presented indirectly, with the kind of mystery and narrative distance their creators knew were necessary to give us the shivers. Often the point of view was that of the victim, whose growing unease becomes the reader's. But Rice presents everything directly, immediately, from the point of view of the vampire, with non-stop exposition and explanation. "Why should Death lurk in the shadows?" Lestat demands to know, and the answer is that Death is more frightening that way. Somewhere in these colorful and provocative "Chronicles," a few shadows would be in order.