The Wolf Gift, the new Anne Rice novel, is about werewolves. It is also about a problem: How to overcome the idea that our physical and human world is somehow fallen. The book is the best Rice has written since the debut novel that made her famous, Interview with the Vampire (1976). That beautiful homage to loneliness, or aloneness, became a gospel to innumerable Goths – both the open kind, who wear black lipstick, and the less open kind, who do not. The Wolf Gift recants some of the stark vision of Interview. It is happier. But there is just enough suffering in the wolf world – just enough pain mixed with wonder – that we know Rice is the same.
The main character of the new Goth vision, Reuben, is a hip secular type in San Francisco, though he has a faithless priest for a brother. At the novel's start, Reuben innocently plies his trade as a reporter. Then one thing (a bite!) leads to another (dances with wolves). Reuben finds himself drawn to scenes of violence as a beast would be by blood. His instinct is to savage the evildoers. There is a touch of the darker Batman in this wolf.
Eventually, the beast finds platonic friendship. The novel's finest scenes are of this part, entwining Plato's Symposium with the Bible's Last Supper as Reuben, his girlfriend and fellow wolf-people all sit together. They wonder why they can smell evil, and speak about what they are to do. A picture emerges of a morality based equally on social justice and cultivation of "quickened consciousness," a life of the senses.
Rice sets one brilliant dialogue in this mode at a law firm. Reuben and a wolf mentor meet there in human form, counsel present. The wolf-men talk about art and duty in innuendo. Meanwhile, the gentlemen of the bar understand little. When the mentor recommends "fortitude," his lawyer chimes in: "Now, that's a good English word I understand." But the flow of the beautiful words just goes on.
Sadly, a movie version of The Wolf Gift would be ruined by computer graphics. There would be transformations with shirts ripping, beasts on the prowl. CGI bullets would wreck the dialogues at the novel's heart. A similar fate befell the film adaptation of Interview with the Vampire. The thing was drunk on shots of Tom Cruise in velvet. That Rice co-wrote the screenplay suggests that her talent is not for film.
Rice has sold millions of books because she combines a vast literary gift with a shameless love of sex, beauty and pop culture. Her artistic vision is part Bela Lugosi, part Andy Warhol, part Christina the Astonishing, the medieval holy woman who could famously "smell sin." What is old is new: The prose of The Wolf Gift is born of King James's Bible. Ironically, the same book whose taboos Rice busts provides the poetic food for her werewolves: The novel is full of descriptions of woods, feasts, artifacts and violence that read like David's psalms.
The Wolf Gift is also the latest chapter in Rice's interesting journey as a Catholic. When Rice conceived Interview with the Vampire, she was an ex-Catholic atheist. Several horror stories later, she declared that she had returned to the Church. She wrote two novels about Jesus which conservatives praised for their subtlety.
Something then came back. Rice declared in 2010 that she was quitting Christianity "in the name of Christ," due to the religion's homophobia and sexism. But part of the Catholic return stayed in her work: an optimism, a desire to meet the concern in so many hearts that life is without meaning.
In the late 19th century, Catholicism and the Decadent movement in art were companions. Authors committed to the Decadent aesthetic – a fusion of the erotic, art worship and the grotesque – were often drawn to the Church. Oscar Wilde, Irish Protestant native, converted to Irish Catholicism. Edgar Allan Poe was obsessed with the medieval theology of sin. Notre Dame haunted Charles Baudelaire. This affinity has much to do with the old thought in the Church that art is a path to truth. For the Decadents, "art for art's sake" and art for the glorification of God were flip sides of one coin.
Wilde at his height, in The Picture of Dorian Gray (like The Wolf Gift, a morality tale about transformation), is Rice's true precursor. He preferred paradox to uncomplicated alternatives, and was most at home in the dark light of ghost stories, church shadows and fairy tales. This is the energy of The Wolf Gift. It is wit-filled, languid and vibrant, brainy and snarling. It will leave open-minded readers howling for more.
Aidan Johnson is a lawyer and a lecturer on Renaissance literature at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.