If you could live forever, would you want to? And what would it be like?
That question is at the heart of the legacy of Anne Rice, who died at 80 last month. I grew up reading many of her Vampire Chronicles, and — a bit belatedly due to Christmas and weather chaos — I wanted to think about why her work meant so much to young Nik.
Nobody was more influential in vampire fiction since Bram Stoker dragged Dracula out of the coffin back in the 1890s. Rice’s vision of blood-suckers can be seen in the DNA of everything from The Vampire Diaries to True Blood to Buffy to Twilight — some good, some not.
When we think of vampires today, you’re likely thinking of them less as Bela Lugosi and more as passionate, creepy and eternally conflicted lovers, a template Anne Rice built up more than anyone.
Anne Rice’s Interview With A Vampire and The Vampire Lestat were passed-around, beloved talismans of my wayward youth. The glittering paperbacks with their gothic lettering were read, and re-read.
It was The Vampire Lestat that particularly grabbed me, with Lestat narrating the centuries of his life in first person. He was bratty, impetuous, cruel and, sometimes, kind. He may have been hundreds of years old, but Lestat kind of felt like a teenager.
Evocative and passionate, gothy as any Cure song, filled with blood and lust and long lonely meditations on what it’s all about, they were perfect reading for confused teenagers trying to figure out the world. She quietly was a progressive voice for gay equality in the ’80s, and later depicted trans characters and gender fluidity in a way that seemed groundbreaking and yet completely unforced. In her world, love is love.
Rice created a sprawling narrative filled with rich characters, many of whom went on to star in their own books after debuting in the original trilogy, and she was deft at bringing her historic settings to life. Her strength was not so much in plot or her almost Victorian prose, but in character. She made you feel the weight of immortality and what that might actually be like. Her vampires – dour Louis, insecure Armand, bold Marius or terrifying Akasha – were far more complex than the spooky boogeymen of Stoker’s Dracula. Dead, they still carried with them all the baggage of their living lives. Her vampires talked, and talked, and talked, sometimes to the point of self-parody, but in their lengthy soliloquies were all about digging into what makes us human – or inhuman.
The Vampire Chronicles did become a case of diminishing returns as it sprawled on to more than a dozen books, and Rice’s later work never quite surpassed the original books, but I’d argue everything up until Memnoch the Devil is pretty golden. As the series goes along, Lestat becomes a bit too powerful and loses some of the charming rogue vibe he has in the earlier books, and the constant adoration other characters always seem to have for him gets a bit much.
Yet there’s still a lot to like in later volumes if you’re not turned off by Rice’s endless expansion of her shared universe to include witches, Atlantis, demons and more. But in the end, the stories always circle back to Lestat, her greatest character and always, always the centre of attention.
In Lestat, Rice created a monster who constantly tries not to be one, often failing. Rice wrote other books, of course – erotic fiction, meditations on the life of Christ and more – but ultimately, it’s the vampires that make her immortal.