By Anthony D'Alessandro
By Catherine Wagley
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
Anne Rice will never write about vampires again. Not even with these tragically hip, newfangled bloodsuckers lurking about, dating high school girls and coming out of the closet, demanding equal rights. She has told enough vampire stories — in 12 novels — to last her an eternity.
On a rainy December afternoon, Rice is resting in her suite at the Mission Inn, the historic Riverside hotel where she will be signing copies of her new book, Angel Time. She leans back in her chair, arms folded primly across her chest. Having emerged from the proverbial darkness, she looks thin and frail, her once-inky bobbed hair now grown snowy gray, but her voice is precise, matter-of-fact and forceful still.
“I am curious as to whether anyone will show up,” she says. “You never know. Maybe no one will come.”
It is her first signing in four years. Worry sounds quaint coming from someone who’s written 29 novels and sold 100 million books, but there is something to it. Her new novel is about angels. Clearly, in this society, you can bank on vampires. But angels?
Three decades ago, Anne Rice did for the vampire what Martha Stewart did for housekeeping: She made it sexy, modern and marketable. Everybody who comes after her with a variation on that theme owes her an enormous debt of gratitude.
So Rice is not surprised when she sees the fresh generation of vampire fans, who lately seem to be everywhere, with their own conventions, TV shows, musicals, video games and even vineyards (vampire merlot, anyone?). Blood is certainly the new black. They remind her anew of the richness of the original vampire concept. “I remember how it excited me in 1976, when not a whole lot had been done with it,” she says. “Just Dracula and some old Hollywood films.”
That was the year she published the seminal Interview With the Vampire. The setting was her childhood home, New Orleans. She was 35 years old when that first novel came out, and a devout atheist. With the addition of The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned, her Vampire Chronicles trilogy became required reading for the black-lipstick-and-sunscreen set.
One consequence of not having to crank out vampire stories is a freedom to finally enjoy them. She finds HBO’s True Blood, based on Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels, to be great satirical fun. Harris’ novels are the clever, postmodern response to Rice’s decadent Southern Gothic vampires, who creep around in decaying, antebellum mansions.
While she hasn’t read the Twilight novels, Rice has seen the movies. “They’re romances for very young kids. They’re about a young woman wanting and needing an older, mysterious figure who’s protective and yet something of a menace,” she says. It’s the Brontë sisters and Jane Eyre. “It was almost genius on Stephenie Meyer’s part to set it in high school. It works perfectly.”
Rice isn’t jealous of Meyer’s success. If anything, she is sympathetic. “You know, when you’re very, very popular the way she is now, a lot of people want to tear you down,” Rice says. “But she deserves credit for making a lot of readers happy.”
Meyer’s genius may be in getting teenage girls to fall in love with vampires. But Rice’s was in establishing the persona to be fallen in love with. Her books, written from the vampire’s point of view, are about the monster’s suffering and agony — the ultimate outsider: himself. What would it be like to interview a vampire? To get him to tell you his whole story?
“You wanted to know, what does he do when he’s alone?” she explains. “What does he do for kicks besides drink blood and turn into a bat? What books does he like to read? I took it in the direction of having that vampire open up to you and tell you all those secrets.”
There were inklings of things to come. When the film version of Interview With the Vampire came out in 1994, producer David Geffen told Rice that he’d noticed an awful lot of teenage girls attending the preliminary screenings. This was unexpected. “They didn’t make that movie for young teenage girls,” Rice says. “Producers saw it more as a gay allegory. They chose those handsome men, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, with that in mind.”
She stayed away from the public, not for lack of love for her audience but for personal reasons. When the popularity of her Vampire Chronicles books reached its pinnacle, she did marathon signings. “We did an eight-hour [signing] once at a Walmart in Denver,” she says, with a grin and a shiver. National book tours are glamorous but hard. Rice, who is a Type 1 diabetic, would be sick for months afterward.
The past four years have been especially rough. Poet Stan Rice, her husband of 40 years, died in 2002 of brain cancer. She sold the last of their three houses in New Orleans mere weeks before hurricane Katrina hit, and moved to Rancho Mirage to be near her son, Christopher, who lives in L.A. The move was painful, she says, but she needed the change.
When Rice did book signings in the old days, she adds, you couldn’t presume who would show up. You couldn’t tell whether there would be more men or women. Just when she’d think her typical reader was a goth kid in black velvet, up would march a bunch of soldiers just back from the first Gulf War, saying they’d read the books there. Or she’d be approached by a country kid in a cap with a bill, who’d ask, “Where’s Lestat? When’s he comin’ back?”
The infamous vampire Lestat — equal parts Casanova, trickster-god Pan and Justin Timberlake — is never coming back.
God has taken the vampire’s place. Rice came through the turmoil of the past few years by finding faith. She converted to Catholicism. In 2002, she consecrated her writing to Jesus Christ, declaring that she would henceforth write only about salvation, not alienation.
Of the novels that made her famous, Rice says, “To me those stories are about grief, about suffering, about atheism. They were stories I told because I was going through that kind of crisis. People respond to those books strongly, particularly if they’re going through a rebellion of their own, where they feel kind of lost. They can identify with the darkness in them.”
The world is never lacking for lost souls. Many of her fans wanted her to keep going with the dark stuff. To keep driving a hearse and to keep showing up at book signings in a coffin. (Even if Catholic dogma wasn’t her style back then, she surely took cues from its theatrics.) But Rice is done with seductive, demonic adversaries. At least, to the extent she can be. Good, after all, cannot exist without evil, and God and Satan are always at their game of chess. Demonic adversaries are inevitable. Mainly, she wants her work to reflect her faith, just as the earlier work reflected her unhappiness and despair. “Why can’t you redeem the vampires? Why can’t you save Lestat?,” Rice’s fans ask.
Though not in so many words, that is exactly what she’s doing. Angel Time, as its title suggests, is about angels. It too will be part of a trilogy, this one called Songs of the Seraphim. Instead of being visited by a vampire, the doomed hero is visited by an angel. After a decade of conscienceless killing, government assassin Toby O’Dare is visited by the angel Malchiah. It is never too late to repent, Malchiah tells him: “I’m here to tell you that everything can change for you. I’m here to take you to a place where you can begin to be the person you might have been.”
Vampires and angels may seem like opposites, but they aren’t, Rice argues. They are similar, especially in the way vampires are used at this particular cultural moment. In the works of Harris and Meyer, they function as guardian angels. True Blood’s Vampire Bill is perpetually rushing in to save his human girlfriend, Sookie, and Twilight’s Edward Cullen would sooner die than ravage his flesh-and-blood crush, Bella Swan. No, actually, he’d rather take her to prom.
“I’ll be very interested to see who’s lined up downstairs,” Rice says. The only generality she can make after all these years is that she has yet to see an 80-year-old at a book signing. “Though, maybe 80-year-olds don’t go to book signings,” she says, slyly.
She recalls a personal appearance in Toronto some 30 years ago, in the earliest days of Interview With the Vampire. It snowed. No one came. Bored, Rice pulled books off the shelves and started reading. “It was very upsetting to the store people. They were so embarrassed,” she says, laughing.
Today’s signing — and Rice has only ever done signings, never readings, preferring instead to let her characters “speak” for themselves — is taking place downstairs, in the Mission Inn’s overly warm lobby. A toasty fire crackles in the hearth. The halls are decked with gold ribbons, lights and cheery, creepy animatronic elves. The whole florid setup leaves you dazzled and slightly sweaty, much like Rice’s prose. Major scenes in Angel Time are set in the Mission Inn and its environs. “A giant confection and confabulation of a building ... an extravagant and engulfing place sprawling over two city blocks ... unfailingly lively and warm and inviting, and throbbing with cheerful voices and gaiety and laughter,” is how Rice describes the hotel in the novel’s noirish opening pages.
“The hero comes here,” she says. It is his refuge, as it has been Rice’s. “He’s given an assignment to assassinate someone here. It’s upsetting to him. I was dreaming of the book when I visited the Mission Inn. I got a huge lift from being here.”
She hopes to do for angels what she did for vampires. She loves the idea of powerful messengers of God coming down to Earth to answer prayers. Rice’s angels aren’t weak. A being from heaven, living in the presence of God, she imagines, would be a strong, complex spirit. “I really want to write about the good guys,” she says, “to prove that they can be as interesting.”
Angels, with their wings and halos, sound like a tough sell to a jaded public. But then again, a generation ago, one might have said pretty much the same thing about vampires.
As it turns out, Rice needn’t have worried about people not showing up. The fans, a mixed bunch as predicted, are lined up around the block. They clap when they spot their idol, the former queen of the vampires, in her long, black-velvet skirt. Rice’s assistants stand at the ready with extra pens and Diet Coke. “She’ll be signing books for hours,” says the doorman.