Any vampire who took flight in the 45 years since “Interview With the Vampire” was first published owes author Anne Rice the deepest debt of gratitude, sullen devotion and a bouquet of dead roses.
Rice made that fantasy world seem deliciously possible — and, over five decades, she sold millions of books about vampires and other erotic imaginings, a trove of fiction and other works that sometimes vexed even the most loyal readers among her legion. She died Saturday night, at 80, after complications from a recent stroke.
Her legacy is apparent whenever you, or perhaps your less sporty teenagers, develop a new crush on a new fictional vampire — a long list that includes Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie prowling Manhattan nightclubs in the 1983 film “The Hunger”; Kiefer Sutherland and “The Lost Boys”; the undead slain and not slain by the legendary Buffy “the Vampire Slayer” Summers; or the denizens of Merlotte’s bar and the surrounding Louisiana swamps and pine forests conjured by Charlaine Harris, as seen in HBO’s “True Blood.” Don’t forget the irresistibly moody Edward Cullen of Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight” novels; the voluptuously immortal fashion victims on CW’s “The Vampire Diaries” franchise; the army of virally infected ghastlies who take over New York in Guillermo del Toro’s FX series “The Strain.”
Rice will be remembered for being the first to popularly suggest that vampires are cool or, at least, cooler than your ex-boyfriend mugging around in a black cape and plastic fangs. She took a spent literary and movie genre that was still fixated on creepy Eastern European counts and a Bela Lugosi slickness (which by the 1970s had been diluted by Halloween camp; think Al Lewis as Grandpa in “Munsters” reruns or Count Chocula hawking breakfast cereal) and imbued the soulless with soul.
Rice, whose side gigs included writing erotica under feathery pen names such as A.N. Roquelare, also made her bloodsuckers vulnerable and sexy, which is to say she took the metaphors that were plainly evident in vampire lore and gave them an urgent, even enthralling relevance.
I can speak to this only as a reader who found “Interview With the Vampire” at precisely the right time and in the right place, as a still-closeted college freshman in New Orleans in the mid-1980s. As a good, Catholic Midwesterner, the city was for me what it had been to so many newcomers before and since: a source of charm and intrigue, wide open to anyone with any predilection yet foreboding nevertheless. To get to the French Quarter required a hypnotically lolling ride on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, passing through Rice’s beloved Garden District, beneath an endless canopy of oak limbs and overt displays of genteel wealth and corresponding poverty. The smells and sounds of it stay with you, as they stayed with her: “As soon as I smelled the air, I knew I was home,” one of her vampires effused. “It was rich, almost sweet, like the scent of jasmine and roses around our old courtyard. I walked the streets, savoring that long lost perfume.”
It was by chance I came across “Interview With the Vampire” and its superior 1985 sequel, “The Vampire Lestat,” in mass paperback format at the campus bookstore, sold as a package deal: the first with a cover in foiled gold, the other in blood red. Rice had been riding a wave of popularity and had moved back to New Orleans, where her Garden District home lured tourists who wanted a look at it; the pop singer Sting had a song on his first solo album called “Moon Over Bourbon Street,” a lovely homage to “Interview.” It was a very vampire moment in popular culture. (When is it not in New Orleans?)
And so I was plunged, happily, into the centuries-long saga of poor Louis, a young plantation heir seduced into vampirism by the handsome and sadistic Lestat, their relationship blurring the lines between companions, lovers and bitter enemies. I tore through both novels when I should have been reading about actual ancient history, for class.
The effect was as blunt as could be: Rice wrote “Interview With the Vampire” in part to salve the grief of losing her young daughter to leukemia — perhaps most evident when Louis creates a vampire out of girl, Claudia, whose presence turns the duo into a perverse expression of a family of three, two dads and a daughter. Intentionally or otherwise, Rice had provided a useful, if florid, portrait of the pain of coming out as gay. Louis is a tragically reluctant vampire, starving because he is morally tortured over the act of killing people for their blood. Lestat deplores Louis’s hang-ups.
It was no small leap to regard Louis’s quandary as similar to that of gay men who came of age in an era of AIDS, when the life you desired most was held up as reprehensible, sinful and deadly above all. We were surrounded by talk of bodily fluids and danger and virus. Our music was danceable but also noticeably mournful — the Cure, Depeche Mode, Morrissey and his band the Smiths. In the sequel, Lestat fashions himself into a 1980s rock star, an MTV sensation.
I was dragged out of my shell, kicking and screaming, by a temperamental, real-life Lestat who lived down the hall in my dorm, one of the smartest and most cutting people I’ll ever know. Later we became housemates in a dumpy apartment on the edge of the Garden District; he took me to nightclubs and made me see New Orleans beyond Rice’s goth romanticism. We vamped in our own way, blasting Diamanda Galas and Grace Jones albums as we prepped for our evenings on the prowl. (His prowl; my dreary hesitance.)
Such is the power of certain books when you’re young, even books that are critically dismissed as pulpy and grandiloquent, as Rice’s often were. She appealed to readers on the verge of metamorphosis. She changed vampires, but she also changed people. Fans repaid her with a fierce devotion, showing up to her readings in their finest vampiric frippery. They waited patiently for her books to become movies — a wait that took years, until Neil Jordan adapted “Interview With the Vampire” in 1994, starring an egregiously miscast Tom Cruise.
Most vampires come to the end of the phase — find the cure, return to daylight. I moved on when Rice’s later vampire novels, beginning with 1988’s “Queen of the Damned,” lacked what I thought was the original resonance — though who could possibly begrudge those readers who craved more from her and found plenty of it in these books? Thirteen “Vampire Chronicles” novels, all told, plus others outside the series. Too much and never enough.
“The world changes, we do not,” one of her vampires once said. (Louis or Lestat? Armand? Another? I’ll never remember.) “Therein lies the irony that kills us.”