There is a story that is fairly common in the literary world. A novel appears, to somewhat tepid response and sluggish sales, but manages to strike a chord with certain readers who recognize that the author is doing something daring, something dangerous, something that the literary establishment does not like: taking an old convention or idea and utterly destroying it with a completely new perspective. The initial enthusiastic readers sing its praises loudly, and share the book with friends, who then in turn lend their voices to a group now large and loud enough to give the book what we call "cult" status. Years go by, and "cult" becomes "popular", and "popular" eventually becomes "classic". In 1897, Bram Stoker reinvented The Vampire with the publication of Dracula. In 1976, Anne Rice did it again, bringing the vampire out of the crypt and into the modern world with Interview with the Vampire.
Vampires, both as literary tropes and as characters themselves, are hard to kill. We love them, and love has a tendency to make things linger. But by the 70's the vampire was almost more of a comic relief than anything else, having been over exposed to all the Hollywood nonsense. I was born eight years after the publication of Interview, and for people of my generation, it may be hard to fully grasp the influence that Anne Rice has had over this genre, having never lived in a world without Louis and Lestat. Vampires have existed in some form for as long as humans have told stories, and almost every author who dabbles in the supernatural has tried to put their own twist on vampiric lore. But almost everything we take for granted about vampires today exists because of Stoker and Rice.
It's been ten years since we last heard from Lestat, and in that time, vampires returned in a big way. After an onslaught of books, movies, and TV series -- all of varying quality -- pop culture definitely started experiencing vampire burnout. And yet, earlier this year, the announcement of Prince Lestat nearly broke the internet. There's a reason for this. No matter how many awful imitators there have been since The Vampire Chronicles permanently altered and defined the way we think of vampire fiction, no one -- no one -- writes about these creatures better than Anne Rice.
Prince Lestat is a strange novel. Because it has Anne Rice's name on it, and it is about vampires, you're going to find it on the horror shelf. This is useful for practical purposes -- as a Stephen King fan, I'll admit that it's helpful to have all of an author's books in one spot -- but it doesn't belong there. Lestat has less in common with Dracula than he does with many of fiction's other seekers of idealistic and spiritual truth. There's bits of Pip's hopeful idealism from Great Expectations, the violent spiritual passions of Raskolnikov in Crime & Punishment, the wounded bitterness of Jack London's Martin Eden, a bit of Phillip Carey from Of Human Bondage... with a bit of the swagger of Robert Plant at Led Zeppelin's peak (complete with famous blonde mane). Lestat is all of these things and none, and this makes Prince Lestat a difficult novel to categorize or explain.
From a logistical standpoint, this book has a lot heavy lifting to do. Long time fans all have their favorites among the dozens of immortals Rice has created, and have been waiting for a long time to see what they've been doing. Some have waited more patiently than others, as a quick glance through the comments on Anne's Facebook posts will reveal. There are also many new vampires we are meeting here for the first time. The cast is huge. In his patronizing and, in my meaningless opinion as an armchair unpaid internet critic, unprofessional review of Prince Lestat for the NY Times, Terrence Rafferty complained that the internal mythology here has gotten so dense as to be nearly incomprehensible without a ton of supplemental material. I'm not sure how lazy the average reader is, as it's really not that complicated, but this seems like a particularly stupid criticism when these things are not only explained in the context of the story itself, but also in the included glossary of terms and chronological list of vampires. How much more hand holding does a reader need?
One of things that made The Vampire Chronicles so refreshing was the fact that they helped modernize vampires and showed how they might hide within plain sight in the modern world. The "modern world" has changed a lot since the 70's, and here Rice also has the task of bringing these immortals into the 21st century. Horror writers are currently struggling with the fact that being alone in an empty house is no longer as scary as it used to be when you can be texting the entire time. Rice -- never a reclusive Salinger-ish writer -- has always embraced modern technology and whatever newfangled things have appeared to make both the writing process and the ability to reach out to her fanbase more convenient (her website is the first one I ever visited when I got AOL as a 12 year old!). She handles the problem of technology very well here. Some of Rice's vampires have embraced technology, others struggle to understand it, some decide to assimilate and try to adapt and publicly fit into the modern world, others choose to hide in remote locations and live as they have for centuries. This is an ambitious novel, a much larger story in scale and scope than Rice's recent work. She brings us all around the globe, from the jungles of the Amazon and Indonesia -- not locales that one generally associates with vampires -- to the major capitals of the world, to the more traditional cold and inaccessible castles of the vampires of old. All of this sometimes happens within the span of ten pages. And, always at the center of it all, there is Lestat, the brat prince, the obnoxious and endearing and enduring presence that brought vampires into the modern day and got the world (both real and fictitious) to take notice.
Lestat is one of fiction's great narrators, and the reason why the novel doesn't bend under the weight of its own history and scope. Anne is at her best when she writes from his point of view, and his voice is so distinct and so assured that you could never mistake it for any other writer writing about any other character. He is perspicacious enough to record with a wide lens but also (deeply) flawed enough so that he's entertaining and not an "everyman" stand in for an omniscient third person. If the novel ever teeters on becoming overly dense or self-important, Lestat might suddenly start talking about how great his hair is, and it helps keep things light. However, whether or not one enjoys this novel is very much contingent on how much one enjoys Lestat himself. The plot unfolds somewhat slowly. Rice takes her time here, inviting us to savor our return to this world and not rush our way through. And although we hear many other voices throughout the novel, Lestat is the central figure. If you find him annoying, you may think Prince Lestat is annoying. If, like me, your face hurts from the muscle strain of simultaneously rolling your eyes while suppressing a grin as you read about his antics, you will have a wonderful time here.
I've seen a few complaints in recent reviews that Anne Rice's vampires aren't frightening or horrific enough. Frankly, I've never quite bought the fact that a creature can survive through the millennia on brute malevolence. I think it's much more likely that hundreds, thousands of years of consciousness would very much lead any creature through a period of soul searching and navel gazing and eventually into the large philosophical questions of the world. We see some of the monstrous qualities in the younger vampires, ones who haven't yet learned the ways of the endless existence they are just beginning, and I think this is a more interesting and realistic choice than having to suspend disbelief and imagine the ways a rabid predator could survive for 6000 years unchecked.
Which is why I think Anne's choice of antagonist in this novel is a smart one. I don't want to give anything away, but it was a clever way -- possibly the only way -- to effectively put the safety of immortal, nearly invincible beings into jeopardy. The novel never quite revs up for a full "let's battle the monster with our superpowers!" climax, but this is not that kind of book and doesn't try to be. Most of the action takes place internally.
And there is a lot going on there. Prince Lestat contains some of Anne's most beautiful writing to date. Whether it's Lestat walking through the streets of Paris feeling nostalgic for his turbulent past, the thrill of young love, or a scene of gruesome violence, Anne's prose is as refined and gorgeous as always, with the strange mix of melancholy and hopefulness she has always done so well. I can think of no other authors that could make a decapitation or brain eating seem so refined and elegant, as if it was gentlemanly behavior. Somehow, I can't see Lestat, Marius, and Maharet sitting around a table with Dracula, Barlow of 'Salem's Lot, or The Master from The Strain, let alone any of Matheson's mindless monsters. Rather, Rice's vampires are more at home at the able of The Symposium of Plato -- though they'd probably excuse themselves before everyone started getting sloppy and making a mess of the tablecloth.
As I touched on in my review of last year's The Wolves of Midwinter ( http://geeksout.org/blogs/ranerdin/book-review-wolves-midwinter-anne-rice ) I think Anne is at her best when she's using immortals as a way of exploring life's biggest questions. As a straight up vampire story, new readers used to the fun thrillers of Charlaine Harris or the...whatevers of Stephanie Meyer might be confused by the pacing of this novel and want more fighting and more sex. But as a journey into the hearts and minds of creatures that struggle with the reality of what it really means to be immortal and face eternity as a conscious being, this book is in a class of its own. This is Lestat waking up and coming to terms with his existence after being shown the highest highs and the lowest lows. This is a book about making a conscious choice to step out of the darkness and into the light, even if that light will burn you. This is a book about letting go of the pointlessness of shame, of indoctrinated original sin, of being born into something that you were taught is evil and beyond your control. This is a book about conquering your own personal demons -- in Lestat's case, in a very literal sense. This is a book about learning that the monster you fear that is inside of you may not be such a monster after all. As a gay man, it's difficult for me to avoid drawing parallels between being taught to feel shame for our existence, and very literally for what our blood might contain. This is a book about the importance of taking your fate and your life into your own hands, of choosing whether to be a creature of the damned or a creature of the light. Yes, this is a book about what it means to be a vampire. But most of all, this is a book about what it means to be human. Rating: A