By Anne Rice
Knopf. 458 pp. $28.95
Few contemporary American or British novelists have had as much cultural impact over the past four decades as Anne Rice. J.K. Rowling, Stephen King and James Patterson may have sold more books, but Rice’s creative fingerprints are everywhere, from television and film (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “The Vampire Diaries,” “Let the Right One In,” “Only Lovers Left Alive”) to bestselling fiction (Stephenie Meyer’s sparkly vampire quartet, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake books) to the enduring popularity of goth fashion.
Of course, when Rice’s first novel, “Interview With the Vampire,” appeared in 1976, the undead had already long staked their claim on popular culture. John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” (1819) and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” (1897) neatly bookend 19th-century gothic literature, with Sheridan Le Fanu’s lesbian vampire novella “Carmilla” (1871) exerting a powerful influence on Stoker’s classic novel.
Rice may not have invented the modern vampire, but her books were the first in which these undead were not bloodsucking freaks but major characters in their own right, with lovers, families, rivalries, aesthetics and (always) a flair for fancy dress. In what became her multi-volume Vampire Chronicles, she created an entire vampire culture that evolved alongside human civilization.
Her novels’ decadent ambiance has permeated pop culture. Whether or not they’d cop to the novels’ sartorial influence, members of some early goth-styled bands — Bauhaus, the Cure, Fields of the Nephilim, Gene Loves Jezebel — look as if they have emerged from Rice’s pages. The beautiful, fatalistic immortals of Neil Gaiman’s 1990s series “The Sandman” are spiritual siblings of Rice’s supernaturals. And even the most fleeting glance at fashions designed by the late Alexander McQueen suggests what Lestat de Lioncourt and his deathless kin would favor as haute couture.
It all began with a simple line of dialogue, “I see,” spoken into a tape recorder by Louis, the narrator of “Interview With the Vampire.” Readers were thereby thrown headlong into the vampire’s world and extended lifespan, from a slave plantation in Mississippi to the fleshpots of antebellum New Orleans, to Paris under Napoleon III, Europe and Egypt and finally 20th-century San Francisco, where Louis is being interviewed by a young man he met in a bar. A Jacobean tragedy for the Me Decade, Rice’s novel stirred eros, death, revenge and gouts of blood into an intoxicatingly sanguine cocktail, chased with hints of necrophilia and a disturbingly sensual female vampire trapped forever in the body of a 5-year-old girl.
Louis’s tormented relationship with Lestat, the older vampire who turned him with “the dark trick,” had powerful homoerotic overtones and helped build a large gay readership for Rice’s books. In 1985, “The Vampire Lestat” allowed Louis’s bete noir to recount his own history, that of an 18th-century aristocrat who ultimately achieves chart-topping success as a rock star. Lestat’s world-weary, broodingly seductive manner and dandyish attire were enhanced by Grand Guignol set pieces, the discovery of entire vampire clans and families, and even more rapturous bloodletting. Tom Cruise joined the Vampire Hall of Fame with his turn as a gleefully amoral Lestat in Neil Jordan’s 1994 film of “Interview,” well worth seeing (and not just to experience Cruise as a blond).
Over the next two decades — and 12 novels of the Vampire Chronicles — Rice further explored this intricately constructed fictional world, expanding her mythos with interconnected books featuring the Mayfair Witches and the Talamasca, a secret organization of occult investigators whose motto, “We watch. And we are always there” might be adopted by the NSA.
“Prince Lestat” returns to Rice’s best-known creation after a decade, during which she penned novels about Jesus (the “Christ the Lord” sequence), angels (the two-book “Songs of the Seraphim”), and werewolves (“The Wolf Gift Chronicles”). “Prince Lestat” has a valedictory feel, and its immortal denizens are starting to show their age, at least in narrative terms. Nearly all the surviving characters from the earlier books are here (along with a few presumed dead), and Rice provides a useful appendix of characters and their chronology, consisting of 50-some names and pseudonyms, along with “assorted unnamed fledglings, ghosts, and spirits.” A second appendix summarizes each of the books that make up the Vampire Chronicles. There’s also a glossary of Blood Argot so that readers can differentiate between Children of the Millennia, Children of the Night, Children of Satan and the Coven of the Articulate.
If you have to ask about any of these, this book is perhaps not for you, despite pages and pages of backstory shoehorned into the contortuplicated plot. The novel reaches all the way back to the origins of the vampire race, first hinted at in “The Vampire Lestat” and one of the major events in “The Queen of the Damned.” Six thousand years ago, the twin teenage sisters Mekare and Maharet (red-haired, green-eyed witches, natch) ran afoul of Akasha, queen of Egypt, who imprisons them. They summon Amel, a spirit entity who runs amok and possesses Akasha, making her the first vampire (a.k.a. Queen of the Damned). The twins end up being turned into vampires as well.
Flash forward to the present day. Vampires are not exactly ubiquitous, but there are enough of them — about 5,000 — to have their own hangouts, their own fashion sense and even their own popular Internet radio show, with broadcasts that anyone — human or vampire — can hear, though only the immortals take it seriously.
Those aren’t the only broadcasts reaching a vampire audience. An ominous entity known only as the Voice has begun speaking directly, and insinuatingly, to the consciousness of numerous blood drinkers. Not even Lestat is immune to the Voice. Is the Voice up to no good? Have you ever known a mysterious, bodiless entity that was not?
The cleverest and most amusing conceit of “Prince Lestat” is that vampires really do exist and that all of Rice’s related literary, cinematic and theatrical works are historical accounts, penned by Lestat and others, that we unenlightened humans blithely treat as fiction. As Gregory, another vampire, remarks, Lestat “is the only blood drinker truly known in one way or another, to the entire world of the Undead. . . . If they haven’t read his books, they’ve seen his little films, or heard his songs.”
These thoroughly postmodern vampires augment their preternatural powers with mobile phones, laptops and Internet access. They also own very expensive real estate and have exquisite taste in interior design — one gas fireplace is equipped with “artfully made porcelain logs.” Way too much of the novel consists of descriptive filler, detailing palaces, rooms, grottoes, mansions and the like. Vampire attire tends toward the high end: Armani, Hugo Boss, Versace, Ralph Lauren. There is a peculiar paucity of casual wear, even in the “rapacious and devouring jungle” of the Amazon rain forest, where one female vamp flits about in “a long pink gown trimmed in gold. Here and there twinkled diamonds and amethysts sewn exquisitely in the border.” Another blood drinker favors fine cashmere and sports “exquisitely crafted brown leather sandals” despite living on “a craggy green island in the Outer Hebrides.”
It’s hard to square the elegant, articulate Lestat of the earlier novels with the narrator on display here, who says things like “He was all mollified by then and didn’t want me to vanish on him,” and, “No, he had to be something originating in some other realm for the simple reason that his body was wholly ideal, like a work of Greek classical art, and there was nothing about it that was particular.”
In a 1988 interview, Rice said, “All of my books are about outcasts who live in the middle of things.” But the vampires in “Prince Lestat” aren’t outcasts. They’re the immortal 1 percent, mostly dismissive of us “poor slobs who’d been born and died since the dawn of creation.” Still, there are flashes here of the vampires of yore, a few delectably gruesome scenes where Rice allows them to do what they do best: wreak havoc and evoke terror. All while impeccably dressed, of course.
Hand’s latest novel, “Wylding Hall,” will be published next spring.
Ron Charles is on vacation.
To watch Anne Rice talk about her latest novel, go to Post TV at wapo.st/riceonvampires