The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice
Vampires can get awfully lonely, lurking in misty graveyards century after century. It’s not easy to be immortal, I suppose, watching empires rise and generations of man go, wondering what it all means. Frankly, there are times when a decent vampire hopes his nightly victim has a good stiff shot of Prozac in his blood, to stave off those dark thoughts of suicide, “going into the fire” – one of the few ways a poor fiend might end the misery.
At least, this is the vision of Anne Rice, queen of vampire angst. Several weeks ago, I reviewed Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the 19th century novel that gave new meaning to the exchange of body fluids. Curious to see what the late 20th century made of the same nightmare, I decided to give Anne Rice a try – I’d read Interview With The Vampire, her most famous book, years ago, but it didn’t make much of an impression – perhaps I wasn’t in the proper blood sucking mood. The Vampire Lestat is a better novel and reading it so soon after Bram Stoker, I was struck at the historical changes our fears have taken over the past hundred years. Coming from the Age of Certainty, Count Dracula crawls up and down castle walls seeking his victims without ever experiencing a moment of doubt – and neither, incidentally, do the group of scientifically-minded Victorian gentlemen who pursue him. The Vampire Lestat, on the other hand, is a child of the Age of Anxiety, and there is little certainty to be found anywhere. The new existential vampire with time on his hands – time to kill, so to speak – apparently spends the centuries in search of meaning.
The best part of Anne Rice is that she is a wonderful story teller. The Vampire Lestat goes back and forth in time, introducing Lestat in the 20th century as he joins a faux-Satanic rock band in New Orleans – the other musicians dressed in black, playing at goth, unaware that their new lead singer is a more than a casual fiend. Before they can cut a record, however, the story ducks back to France in the 18th century, to the years just before the revolution. We meet Lestat now as a mortal, the loneliest child in a large provincial household that is aristocratic but impoverished. Lestat fights wolves, makes friends with Nicholas, a rich merchant’s son, and together Nicolas and Lestat defy their parents to go off to Paris and try their luck in the theater.
It is in Paris that Lestat finds himself shadowed by a pale presence, the vampire Magnus, who soon performs “the Dark Trick” – a mutual exchange of blood – turning Lestat into a vampire also. Alas, Magnus is weary of immortality and almost immediately goes into the aforementioned fire, committing vampire suicide and leaving Lestat to discover how to survive his new nocturnal life on his own. In short order, Lestat turns his friend Nicholas into a vampire, and his mother as well, and he begins his long years of searching for the meaning of vampirehood in such places as Egypt, Greece, and finally New Orleans.
Anne Rice has a remarkable imagination, effortlessly spinning tale after tale. It’s a pity she takes herself so seriously, getting pseudo-religious and waxing philosophical at great length, particularly in the last third of the novel, where there’s a great deal of vampire hand-wringing and wondering why one is condemned to evil, sucking blood night after night, when one only wants to be good. This gets ridiculous, and wearisome too. Nevertheless, the story is compelling when she bothers to tell it, and the good parts are so well-written that I heartily recommend this book to anyone who has not yet discovered Anne Rice. Frankly, you can easily skim her more tedious sections.
With a bit of editing and self-control, this could have been a masterpiece. As it is, The Vampire Lestat is flawed, occasionally pretentious, but still a fascinating read, a dark feast of story-telling brilliance.
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