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an appreciation of anne rice

Anne Rice in the library of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in New York, Nov. 28, 2016.NATALIE KEYSSAR/The New York Times News Service

Novelist Anne Rice died at age 80 on Dec. 11 of complications from a stroke. Between 1974 and 2018, she wrote 36 novels – many, famously, about vampires – and one spiritual memoir (Called Out of Darkness, a masterpiece of Roman Catholic apologetics), selling millions of copies.

Her work is loved all over the world – especially by many members of the LGBTQ community for the way she depicted and affirmed gay and transgender people. Full disclosure: I am one of these genderqueer readers who discovered Rice’s books as a young person and found strength in them, as well as a sense of self-esteem. Rice improved my life.

A werewolf in The Wolf Gift – the best novel of Rice’s later career – says: “When we talk about our lives, long or short, brief and tragic or enduring beyond comprehension, we impose a continuity on them, and that continuity is a lie.”

The wolf-man speaks of a central theme of Rice’s work: the danger of imposing more meaning and order onto our own stories (both those we believe in our hearts and those we tell others) than reality would warrant. The risk is one of inauthenticity. Lives are complex. Between childhood and death we transform and grow (no matter how long we live). If we are lucky, we change for the better. The progress is rarely simple or linear.

Rice chose to explore this truth through Gothic fiction. Far from being pessimistic in the classic style, however, her work transformed the genre through joy. Her vision is well summarized by a phrase coined by Dionysius the Areopagite, a fifth-century monk often quoted by St. Thomas Aquinas: Knowledge is “luminous darkness.”

Lestat, adapted from Anne Rice's cult novels The Vampire Chronicles.Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Rice’s debut novel was Interview With The Vampire, which she began in 1968 as a short story. Its publication in 1976 sealed her reputation. The book interprets gender non-conforming and gay people with a combination of fun and seriousness unique in modern popular writing. The heroes are Louis and Lestat, who are in love with each other, and Claudia; each is an immortal with a complex gender identity. They worship art and travel the world, seeking enlightenment.

Culture critics often ask why LGBTQ people in fiction must so often be monsters, in both the literal and supernatural sense. But this point is off the mark with Rice. Only a few of her female, gay and transgender vampires (and werewolves and witches) are villains. Rather, they are anti-heroes – or heroes.

An Irish-American, Rice came from the tradition of vampire folklore and storytelling associated with her ancestors’ land: Irish novelist Sheridan Le Fanu gave the vampire genre much of its contemporary form, drawing on old Celtic fairy tales to write Carmilla (1872). This proto-surrealist and significantly lesbian classic later inspired Dracula, published in 1897 by Le Fanu’s Dublin-born contemporary Bram Stoker.

Literary critics have hypothesized that Dracula himself was based on Ireland’s British colonial conquerors. (As Stephen King says in Danse Macabre, his memoir: “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”) Stoker considered his fellow Anglo-Irish elites to be vampires of a kind, in that they and their English allies did much to facilitate the Irish Potato Famine of 1845 to 1852. The peasants feared them.

When Rice wrote of vampires, however, she painted them as sensitive seekers after justice – their own dignity and human rights. She changed the vampire genre by often making her blood-suckers merciful.

In Queen of the Damned – a mid-career classic – Rice crystallizes the moral world-weariness that infuses so much of her fiction. The words come in the form of paradox and, of course, from a fanged mouth: “You do get wiser when you live for hundreds of years, but you also have more time to turn out as badly as your enemies always said you might.” (A character in a later fan favourite, The Tale of the Body Thief, whines on a parallel track: “My conscience is killing me, isn’t it? And when you’re immortal that can be a really long and ignominious death.”)

Rice’s creatures generally only prey on violent, reprehensible people. These victims are thus evil victimizers themselves – their crimes otherwise unpunished, their deaths spelling liberty for innocent third parties. The books’ most convenient fantasy may be that there are enough such people around to keep the vampires going.

Rice’s final novel will be published next year. The work is co-authored with her son, Christopher Rice, and is entitled Ramses the Damned: The Reign of Osiris. Like so much of the author’s writing, the title is grandiose and lush. The book promises to continue a series by Rice that explores ancient Egyptian mythology by leveraging our modern fascination with mummies. Fittingly, even in death, Rice seems set to serve more luminous darkness.

Aidan Johnson is a lawyer in Niagara.

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