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John Wilson

The Vampire and the Cross

Bestseller lists are useful, but they are no substitute for what you see with your own eyes: the books people are reading on trains and planes and buses, in coffee shops and waiting rooms, the paperbacks that emerge from a backpack or a capacious purse, twice- or thrice-read already. There was a time, about ten years ago, when Anne Rice was evidently the most popular writer in America. And I hadn't read even one of her books. (Not my cup of tea.)

In 1997, an editor at another magazine asked me to review The Anne Rice Reader: Writers Explore the Universe of Anne Rice, edited by Katharine Ramsland. I went to our splendid public library and came home with a stack of Rice's novels.

The Reader turned out to be even more dreadful than I expected after a look at the contents page. In addition to editing the collection, Ramsland contributed several pieces, including an account of the convoluted history of the filming of Rice's novel, Interview with a Vampire. (There you can find Tom Cruise reflecting on his character, the vampire Lestat: "Lestat is an adventurer. There were no other vampires in New Orleans when he arrived. That is an adventurous spirit. Here's a guy who goes out among people and goes to the opera and studies music. He's a fascinating character.")

What a change to move from earnest psychobabble to the creepily mesmerizing monologue of Interview with a Vampire. Rice drafted this novel—her first, and the foundation of all her subsequent triumphs—in five weeks late in 1973. The year before, her daughter Michelle, her first child, had died of leukemia, shortly before her sixth birthday. Rice and her husband, the poet and painter Stan Rice, had been drinking themselves numb, and she had just recovered from a serious viral infection when she began the novel, basing it on a short story she'd written and set aside in 1968.

Great titles seem to condense the essence of an entire novel into a phrase or even a single word: The Great Gatsby, Hud, The Crying of Lot 49. So the title of Interview with a Vampire, with its insolent incongruity, at once draws the reader in and displays the swaggering imagination—the attitude—that set the book apart. Interview: the quint-essential late 20th-century form, medium of celebrity. Vampire: discarded mythology, hokey figure of darkness. But Interview with a Vampire: explosive fusion.

A less likely recipe for bestsellerdom could hardly have been imagined. (To the commentators in the Reader, armed with a fistful of archetypes and 20-20 hindsight, the novel's success seems obvious, predictable.) Rice broke every rule laid down in textbooks and writing seminars. Talkiness, the experts said, is to be avoided like the plague. Interview is all talk, endless talk, with the monologist taking his emotional temperature every page or two. Readers loved it.

Yes, as many have observed, the book enacts a seduction. In a cheap room in San Francisco, a vampire tells his life story to a boy with a tape recorder. When he finishes his tale at the book's end, the listening boy begs to be made a vampire too—never mind the breast-beating of Louis, the storyteller. And so it happens.

The primary seduction, though, is that to which the reader submits. We're not quite 25 pages into the book when Louis describes to the boy his first "kill," his first human victim, a runaway slave. "Killing is no ordinary act," the vampire tells the boy:

It is the experience of another's life for certain, and often the experience of the loss of that life through the blood, slowly. It is again and again the experience of that loss of my own life, which I experienced when I sucked the blood from Lestat's wrist and felt his heart pound with my heart. It is again and again a celebration of that experience; because for vampires that is the ultimate experience.

Now it is possible to read this with detachment, noting that the language is sometimes powerful (that "slowly" is masterful), sometimes maddeningly slipshod (as in the slack concluding clause: "because for vampires that is the ultimate experience"). It is possible to read it without endorsing the claim, implicit here, that we are being told something profound about human sexuality. But if, thus warned, we continue to read as the boy continues to listen, then—the logic of Rice's narrative suggests—it is because we long to be vampires too. I finished the novel with the sense of moral contamination that some books leave us with.

Which doesn't mean that—in this book or in the novels that followed—Rice simply argues that killing is OK if that's your inclination. What the books suggest instead is rather murky. On the one hand, Rice celebrates the free spirit, rejecting the Catholicism in which she was raised and all its strictures—and so also the claims of any moral absolutes. (As Ramsland puts it in the Reader, "To her mind, writing about pure abstractions like the traditional notions of good and evil hinders real understanding.") And yet Ramsland quotes her as saying, "I do not think I could go on if I didn't believe in goodness."

In short, there was a profound contradiction at the heart of Rice's work. And so I concluded that review in 1997 by recalling Simone Weil—"Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating"—and wondering if, having taken imaginary evil to its limits, Rice might be poised to taste the intoxicating waters of grace.

That review was never published. I'm not sure why. I stuck it in a folder and forgot about it for eight years. Then I received from Knopf an advance copy of Rice's new novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, with an afterword in which she explains how she lost her faith as a young woman and how, in 1998, drawn by the magnetic person of Jesus, she asked a friend if "she knew a priest who could hear my confession, who could help me back to the Church." She recounts her plunge into the strange world of New Testament scholarship and the years of reading that lie behind this new novel. Among the scholars she most warmly acknowledges is N. T. Wright.

Have you ever seen the painting I loved as a child, Jesus holding the lost sheep? Kitschy? Perhaps. But today there must be great rejoicing in heaven.

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