Thursday, March 13, 2008

Queen of the Darned

Another book review for Gay Community News, published January 15-21, 1989. Boy, was I ever wrong! I still enjoy and even respect Rice's work up to Queen of the Damned, but in retrospect I know I rated it too highly. After Queen of the Damned she went on a long slide down the slippery slope to self-parody: the Mayfair Witches books, the later Chronicles of the Vampires (reaching their nadir with Lestat's Excellent Adventure aka The Tale of the Body Thief, and Lestat's Bogus Journey aka Memnoch the Devil), and then the books which brought the two series together. Now, having returned to Roman Catholicism, she's writing the Chronicles of another undead figure, whose followers will drink his blood and eat his body. (I confess I haven't read either Christ the Lord book; but then I couldn't bring myself to read any of her books after Merrick.)

I don't know what happened. At the time Queen appeared she gave an interview in which she said that it was the first book she'd brought to publication without an editor's interference -- and it shows. The books which followed presumably suffered from the same freedom. Upheavals in her private life, even the religious conversion, can't really explain it: Dostoevsky, for example, was a religious nut with vile politics, who suffered from epilepsy and compulsive gambling, but he wrote brilliant fiction and continued growing as a writer up right up to his death. Rice herself apparently didn't renounce the writing of vampire fiction until years after her conversion anyway.

Nor can I explain it simply as changes in myself: I was not an adolescent but in my thirties when I began reading Rice. It doesn't matter. I post this review, gushing and a bit embarrassing as I now find it, in tribute to, and in memory of, the Anne Rice who was.

The Queen of the Damned
by Anne Rice
New York
: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988
448 pp.
$18.95 clothbound

If you'd already read Anne Rice's previous vampire novels, Interview with the Vampire (1976) and The Vampire Lestat (1985), then you very likely were waiting for The Queen of the Damned; you probably, in fact, already have finished reading the copy you bought as soon as it appeared in the stores. But suppose you haven't. Suppose that genre fiction in general bores you, or that horror fiction isn't a genre you like. (This last option is mine, by the way: Rice's vampire novels are almost the only horror fiction I've read. I've never read anything by Stephen King, for instance.) Why should you read Interview, Lestat, The Queen of the Damned?

It's an odd paradox that fantasy fiction, including its ancient grandparent Mythology, always ends up being about reality: imaginary worlds, no matter how outré, are our world. Not all fantasies are interesting or revealing, of course. Hardcore genre fiction is as rigidly conventional as hardcore porn, intended to push certain buttons in its readers without stirring them uncomfortably; fast-food fiction, if you will -- predictable, interchangeable, disposable. And it's nothing new. From today's heroic-fantasy tetralogies through 19th-century dime novels to medieval lives of the saints, formula fiction has suckled many a reader. But fantasies can be ironic or critical comments on the world. Consider Orwell's 1984, which was not only about the future but the present of post-WWII Britain, with its bombed-out ruins, rationing, and Cold War politics.

Similarly, a humanoid monster is not just an imaginary bogeyman but a distorted portrayal of humanity. As Walter Kendrick pointed out in a 1986 Village Voice essay-review which introduced me to The Vampire Lestat, vampires since Bram Stoker's Dracula have represented human sexuality and sensuality. If those embodiments have been monstrous, that tells us something about our attitudes towards such things. But, Kendrick noted, Stoker's Victorian vampires reflected Victorian fears, desires, and beliefs; Rice has not only updated her vampires but given them a six-thousand year-history -- a mirror-history of the world which offers not escape from the human dilemma but confrontation with it:

“There is so much talk in this century of the nobility of the savage,” [Marius] explained, "of the corrupting force of civilization, of the way we must find our way back to the innocence that has been lost. Well, it's all nonsense really. Truly primitive people can be monstrous in their assumptions and expectations. They cannot conceive of innocence. Neither can children. But civilization has at last created men who behave innocently. For the first time they look about themselves and say, ‘What the hell is all this!’... To be godless is probably the first step to innocence,” he said, “to lose the sense of sin and subordination, the false grief for things supposed to be lost.”

“So by innocence [said Lestat] you mean not an absence of experience, but an absence of illusions.”

“An absence of need for illusions,” he said. “A love of and respect for what is right before your eyes.”

Anne Rice has created a body of work which marks her as one of the most imaginative, intelligent, and skillful writers currently working. While she has produced in several areas, all her work seems to share a fascination with the implications of the forbidden. Her two historical novels are good examples. The first, The Feast of All Saints, dealt with the gens de couleur, people of mixed race who lived in and around New Orleans before the Civil War. (New Orleans is plainly a place of power for Rice. Most of her novels are set there, in whole or in part.) The gens de couleur occupied an uneasy place in antebellum society, for obvious reasons; apparently numerous wealthy white men kept colored mistresses by whom they had children. Even nowadays interracial relationships and people of mixed race are problematic; but to this melange Rice added male homosexuality and a romance between a teenaged boy and a woman old enough to be his mother. In Cry to Heaven she went further: the hero is an 18th-century Italian castrato, a star in the opera of the day, with lovers of both sexes. Rice also pursued themes of forbidden sexuality in novels she wrote under pseudonyms but has since acknowledged. As Anne Rampling, she wrote Exit to Eden, about an s/m club/resort on a Caribbean island, and Belinda, about the love between a middle-aged author of children's books and a sixteen-year-old girl. As A. N. Roquelaure she wrote a trilogy of s/m literary pornography based on the tale of Sleeping Beauty. As in Exit to Eden, the sexuality is polymorphous-perverse, everyone has everyone else; but the fairy-tale ambience frees her to create the most picturesque and symbolically potent excesses. And alongside the baroque imagination there clearly stands guard a first-rate intelligence, aware of the politico-sexual issues involved and taking them into account. This is of no small importance, for reading is in certain ways like sex. You have to be able to trust a person whom you're allowing to lead you into soft and vulnerable parts of yourself: to turn you on sexually, to scare you, to make you complicit in acts of terrible violence, to test your limits. Even when you've provisionally and temporarily surrendered your will to another's, you are still responsible. Anne Rice is one of the few writers I trust to play literary top to my literary bottom, even on topics such as s/m which disturb me personally a great deal.

One thing which, in my limited experience with the genre, sets Anne Rice's vampires apart is that she tells their stories from their viewpoint, sympathetically, forcing the reader to identify with the vampires rather than with their victims. (The only exception I know of is Suzy McKee Charnas's The Vampire Tapestry.) These vampires are of course alienated, in a way which some people imagine was invented by 20th century philosophers though in fact it's as old as humanity: they are unnatural creatures in the natural world, puzzled about their origin and purpose. Lestat, who figures importantly in all three books, is my favorite. A man of talent and intelligence raised in the boondocks of 18th-century France, longing to study in Paris; a man who loves other men; a man who after his transformation by the Dark Gift is different from most other people in ways so subtle that he can move among the majority almost invisibly, subsisting parasitically on them, savoring his sameness and his difference as he prowls the night – clearly Lestat is among other things a metaphor for modern urban gay men. But he is not content merely to exist. Lestat will not be satisfied till he has pursued the history and origins of his kind into a haze of legend. After a half-century's sleep buried in the soil of New Orleans, Lestat rose in The Vampire Lestat to discover the 1980s (in a tour de force which you ought to read if you read nothing else by Rice), and went public by becoming a rock star. I envy his power, his knowledge, his immortality, and I would gladly accept the Dark Gift myself (just in case Lestat happens to be reading this).

The Vampire Lestat ended on a cliffhanger, and if you haven't read it already, do so before beginning The Queen of the Damned. Determined to punish Lestat for endangering them by his revelations, hundreds of other vampires had converged on his first concert, only to be mysteriously snuffed out. (Literally, in bursts of flame.) Lestat, his mother Gabrielle, and his friend Louis (the subject of Interview) had escaped into the night not knowing why or for how long they had been spared. The Queen of the Damned picks up the story from there. We learn what had been suggested at the end of Lestat, that Akasha, the ancient Egyptian queen who had been the first vampire, had awakened from her long sleep to rescue Lestat from his would-be assailants; also, as the jacket blurb asserts, that Akasha has plans that threaten the future of at least half of the human race. Along the way we meet several other vampires, some ancient and some young, like a teenaged punk/biker from Detroit called Baby Jenks. There are scenes of real horror, such as a human-sacrifice rite in the Himalayas led by a vampire playing the role of Kali, and a Mary Daly-esque fantasy of women slaughtering all the men in a Third-World city, commanded by Akasha playing The Great Mother. There is the Story of the Twins, two mysterious red-haired women who hold the secret of the origin of the vampires, a story which builds on and demolishes much current neo-matriarchalist mythology. There's not much to tell about the plot; the wicked end well, and the even-more-wicked end badly. What carries the book is Rice's amazing imagination, her ability to bring to life worlds long-dead or never-born, and the meaning she finds in her story. Paradoxically again, this story of the supernatural decrees the irrelevance of the supernatural; it's a tale of monstrous immorality which climaxes in a debate to the death about true morality; out of the fulfillment of superstition and the birth of religion, Rice spins the death of all gods and an end to superstition; and though she writes mostly of the distant past, she refuses adamantly to romanticize it:

“Behold, earthshaking inventions which are useless or obsolete within the same century -- the steamboat, the railroads; yet do you know what these meant after six thousand years of galley slaves and men on horseback? And now the dance hall girl buys a chemical to kill the seed of her lovers, and lives to be seventy-five in a room full of gadgets which cool the air and veritably eat the dust. And yet for all the costume movies and the paperback history thrown at you in every drugstore, the public has no accurate memory of anything; every social problem is observed in relation to 'norms' which in fact never existed, people fancy themselves deprived of luxuries and peace and quiet which in fact were never common to any people anywhere at all.”

“But the Venice of your time, tell me...”

“What? That it was dirty? That it was beautiful? That people went about in rags with rotting teeth and stinking breath and laughed at public executions? You want to know the key difference? There is a horrifying loneliness at work in this time. No, listen to me. We lived six and seven to a room in those days, when I was still among the living. The city streets were seas of humanity; and now in these high buildings dim-witted souls hover in luxurious privacy, gazing through the television window at a faraway world of kissing and touching...” [The Queen of the Damned, 83].

The Queen of the Damned is, I confess, about twice as long as it needs to be, and might better have been incorporated into The Vampire Lestat, whose story it essentially completes. (Personally, though, I couldn't put it down and would have been happy if it had been even longer.) The Story of the Twins is partially repeated several times, like the story of Snowden in Catch-22, which some readers may find tedious rather than ominous. The long discussions about morality and meaning, which I found enthralling, may strike others as merely windy. This is a risk taken by any ambitious author. Rice promises more Vampire Chronicles, and already in Lestat has given us a major novel which transcends its genre to become literature. The Queen of the Damned is not quite up to that, but it's still remarkable, and supports my belief that Anne Rice may prove to be one of the most important novelists of the twentieth century.