Exit to Eden

  • Anne Rice. Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. Knopf. November 2005.
  • Anne Rice. Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana. Knopf. March 2008.
  • Anne Rice. Called out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession. Knopf. October 2008.

Anne Rice wrote Interview With a Vampire, one of the best-selling books in history, shortly after the death of her 5-year-old daughter. Rice’s Catholic faith had been waning since college, but the loss of her child destroyed whatever remained. In earnest and terrified prose, the novel dramatizes her plunge into atheism. Rice’s dead daughter takes form in the novel as an immortal child named Claudia who has blond curls, a doll face, and fangs. Stranded in prepubescence, she can never have sex and has purged herself of all sentimental beliefs. She is the youngest of an order of vampires who know “the most fantastical truth of all: that there is no meaning to any of this!”

Rice’s vampires do not understand why they have been granted eternal life, a gift that strikes them as both horrifying and ridiculous. Claudia and her vampire caretaker, Louis (whom Rice says was loosely modeled on her husband), travel from New Orleans to Transylvania to Paris to meet the oldest vampire in the world. But when Louis, the book’s narrator, demands a history of the vampire’s origins, his mere mention of a higher, spiritual realm becomes a source of embarrassment.

“Then God does not exist … you have no knowledge of His existence?”
“None,” he said.
“No knowledge!” I said it again, unafraid of my simplicity, my miserable human pain.
I stared at him, astonished.

Rice has sold nearly one hundred million books, and she built her career on heartbroken—and later, cavalier—expressions of this revelation. Nearly all of her twelve novels about vampires include a version of this event: the vampire searches for a wise, old creature who will render his life intelligible. “There is no God, is there?” he stammers. The answer is always no.

As if to fortify her characters against this void, Rice endowed the vampires with new, magical powers with each successive book. They became increasingly protean and god-like: They learned to fly, read mortals’ minds, travel through time and space, and rise from their bodies, releasing their spirits through vibrations in their heads. They cease sleeping in coffins and even learn to endure the glare of the sun. But these tricks lead them no closer to what Rice has described as the “Golden Moment,” the instant when “everything made sense.” Their only consolation is that their disenchantment was universal. “This is the spirit of your age,” the oldest vampire in the world told Louis in Interview. “Everyone feels as you do. Your fall from grace and faith has been the fall of a century.”

Rice wrote these lines in 1976. In the decades that followed, she herself came to embody this spirit of the graceless century. Domesticating her gloom, Rice became what her readers wanted her to be: the so-called “queen of the damned.” Every fall, she threw a massive Halloween ball at her New Orleans mansion, a converted Catholic orphanage. Readers from across the country arrived with their faces painted white and plastic teeth glued to their necks. Rice greeted them seated atop a gravestone in her front yard. Her young son, Christopher, now a best-selling author of thrillers, provided tours of her collection of more than 400 dolls.

Rice’s tales were embraced as allegories for gay life: alienated and often genderless, her vampires were initiated into a secret subculture in which they could finally be free. They perpetuated their species by sucking the blood of mortals—a tender interaction that left them trembling with arousal. They exuded a kind of Victorian anxiety about their own physical desires, which made the murder scenes all the more seductive. Readers from any subculture where sex was problematic—and in America this was not only teenagers, Catholics, and gays, but also everyone else—could find solace in the sex-substitute that Rice was offering.

As the years went on, however, Rice’s writing became sensuous to the point of tedium. Her later novels read like self-parody. Her vampires begin to resemble ancient vegetation gods who’ve learned to say “yo” and use e-mail. Cursed with eternal life, they flit around the globe, boring themselves and their readers.

Rice herself began to tire of the damned. She was no longer interested in a world that was cold and dark and unfathomable. Unable to invent a convincing alternative spiritual universe, she gradually returned to the beliefs of her childhood. Her novels, although still pulpy, moved away from the underworld and featured ghosts and spirits. “I saw it as a progression on the ladder of my heroes, that I would now deal with the ghost,” she explained in a 1996 interview with the scholar Michael Riley. “I had dealt with vampires. I had even dealt with the mummy; and I wanted to go into a supernatural persona that didn’t necessarily have a body.”

Four years ago after writing twenty-one books about vampires, witches, mummies, psychic humans, and pleasure slaves (there were five books of erotica, under pseudonyms), she progressed one step further on the ladder of heroes. She announced that she was abandoning her vampires. From now on, all her books would be for and about “the ultimate outsider, the ultimate immortal of all”: Jesus Christ.

Growing up in New Orleans, Rice believed that “all was right with the world. The world made sense. God made us and God loved us,” she writes in her 2008 memoir, Called Out of Darkness. She went to a conservative Catholic girls school and attended mass every Sunday at a local chapel. (Later, she purchased the building, “as it had tremendous meaning for me.”) When she was 8, she fell in love with the story of Saint Teresa of Avila and decided she wanted to be a Carmelite nun. With the help of her father, she turned her three-by-five-foot bathroom into an oratory, where she would spend hours kneeling and praying. Even as a child, she was transfixed by the erotic power of Jesus’ crucifixion; she liked to imagine him splayed on the cross, his body drained of life.

It wasn’t until she discovered existential philosophy at San Francisco State College in the early ’60s—she enjoyed slipping on long, black gloves to enhance her reading of Sartre—that she was tempted away from the Church. Most of her friends were intellectuals, and she decided that she should become one, too. But she quickly bored of “the fiction of alienation and cleverness” popular among her peers at the time. Her intently sober stories would suddenly erupt into perverse or magical scenes. Her husband, the poet and painter Stan Rice, told her to abandon realistic fiction because she was an “imaginativist.” She had an appetite for spectacle that she couldn’t quite squelch. “Modernism had supposedly killed the well-plotted novel,” she writes in her memoir Called Out of Darkness. “It had supposedly killed the hero. Well, not for me. I didn’t even really know what modernism was.”

When her daughter died of leukemia in 1972, she and her husband sank into a two-year-long alcohol binge—what Rice called their “Scott and Zelda period.” As Katherine Ramsland describes it in her 1991 biography, Prism of the Night, Rice emerged from this phase as another hapless housewife who entertains dreams of becoming a Writer. Dutifully, she attended workshops composed of married women who were rightly skeptical of one another’s work. Her workshopmates scorned Rice’s gaudy style. It was too “rococo.” After learning that she had sold her first book, Interview with a Vampire, for $12,000, she called her friends to share the good news, only to find they were not as cheered as she’d expected.

As it turned out, the novel appealed to an unusual cross-section of readers who believed that reading Rice was a mark of cultural protest. It created a mainstream by convincing its readers that they were outside it. Rice’s most visible fans were goth teenagers and gay men, although there were plenty of housewives too. “Countless times people out of the mass audience have come up to me and said, ‘Yours are the only books I can read,'” Rice writes in her memoir. “Others have said, ‘Yours are the only novels I’ve ever read.’ Still others have said, ‘Your novels started me reading. After I read you, I read everything. But before that I never read at all.'”

Rice had such faith in her creative process that she engaged in a kind of automatic-writing: in her memoir, she claims that she can write five times faster than she reads. She viewed every novel as a dare. With each, she reached for something forbidden—a new unknown. When readers criticized her chaotic and bloated style—the novels were tangled with flowery descriptions of everything from upholstery to a young child’s puckered, wet lips—she saw it as a mark of their intellectual limitations. In the first chapter of Blood Canticle, her last book about vampires, she scolded her readers for being careless and disloyal. “Oh, you bought the book, I’m not complaining about that,” she writes of her previous book, Memnoch The Devil, which had a million-copy first print. “But did you embrace it? Did you understand it? Did you read it twice? Did you believe it?” She anticipated that her readers would be similarly disappointed with the overstuffed book in their hands: “Go ahead, throw this book away. Cast  me out of your intellectual orbit. Throw me out of your backpack. Pitch me in the airport trash bin. Leave me on a bench in Central Park!”

Throughout Blood Canticle, Rice repeatedly chafed against the boundaries of the fictional universe she had created. She invested her hero, the vampire Lestat—formerly an angry and hedonistic rock star—with the burgeoning desire to be a saint: to achieve “peace, the certainty of the sublime, the irresistible joy of faith, the cessation of all pain, the profound abolition of meaninglessness.” She realized that her readers did not want a meditation on the power of goodness. “Don’t worry we’ll snap back in less than five minutes! … I’m almost ready to pick up the conventional frame of this book.” She repeatedly burst outside the bounds of the novel before reigning herself in: “TIME TO TELL YOU WHAT HAPPENED AND SO I DO.” Her tone was that of a confused and frantic adolescent, testing the limits of her own control. “Okay, enough about Merrick,” she wrote of one character.”But keep her in mind, because she will definitely be referred to later. Who knows? Maybe I’ll just bring her up anytime I feel like it. Who’s in charge of this book anyway?”

In the mid-’90s, Rice felt she was being pursued by the Lord. At first she told herself she was just “fulfilling childhood fantasies.” She began reading books about Jesus, but, again, reminded herself it was merely a hobby. “I was just ‘interested in Jesus,’ because Jesus was an extremely interesting man,” she explains in Called Out of Darkness. She says she didn’t even know the name of the pope. But in the ensuing years, during which she visited her childhood church and read classics of Christian philosophy, she found a “kind of delirium, a kind of joy” in surrendering to the religion she had resisted so long. “There was the sense, profound and wordless, that if He knew everything I did not have to know everything. In this great novel that was His creation, He knew every plot, every character, every action, every voice, every syllable, and every jot of ink.”

The image of God as a novelist, controlling time, love, and death, is by no means a new one. His omniscience is total and exhilarating. “If there were a God,” Nietzsche wrote, “I could not endure not being He.” Rice, too, seems seduced by the promise of getting inside His mind.  In 2005, she published her first book about Jesus, Christ, the Lord: Out of Egypt, written in the first person. In a letter slipped into review copies of the novel, she reassured her readers that her books would make people believe in Christ just as they made readers believe in vampires.  “In humility,” she explains, “I have attempted something transformative which we writers dare to call a miracle in the imperfect human idiom we possess.”

In her attempt to tell her first “true” story—cobbled together from details in the Gospel and apocryphal books—Rice resists spectacle, as if newly fearful of her own artistry. The book chronicles Jesus, Mary, and Joseph’s journey to Israel, and it is taut, polite, and numbingly monotonous. Having decided to enter the Lord’s waking consciousness, Rice is perpetually putting Him to sleep. For much of the book, the central narrative event appears to be Jesus’ overpowering need to rest. Rice offers an astonishing amount of detail about the various positions and places in which He nods off, and how He feels when He wakes up. He begins and ends many chapters unconscious. It’s as if Rice is incapable of rousing Jesus from the world of dream and myth into everyday life. She is still outside of him, watching without comprehending.

For Rice, Modernism couldn’t kill the well-plotted novel, but Jesus can. In Christ, The Lord: The Road to Cana, she is content to merely note the passing of days: “And so the next day went. And the next day. And the day after.” Although she does indulge herself with a brief romantic interlude—a peasant girl falls for Jesus; he must say no—much of the novel is concerned with Jesus’ dawning understanding of his place in the universe. When a friend asks Jesus (whom Rice calls Yeshua) if the stories circling around Him are true, He shyly admits that He knows the secrets of his origin. The exchange resembles the conversation between Louis and the oldest vampire in the world, only this time it ends very differently.

“Do you yourself believe these stories?” [Jason] asked. “Tell me; tell me before I go out of my mind.”
I didn’t answer.
“Yeshua,” he pleaded.
“Yes, I believe in them,” I said.
He stared at me expectantly for the longest time.

By answering yes, Rice lets Jesus do her work for her. He silences the skeptical reader who sees the book as a fantasy, a fiction. She no longer has to contend with her readers’ ornery demands on her plot. She can put to rest her anxious questions: “Did you embrace it? … Did you believe it?”

Although Rice speaks passionately of her own religious awakening, it is hard not to wonder whether her return to Christ was as much a spiritual decision as an aesthetic one. Throughout her career, she worried that her outlandish characters were confining her to second-rate genres. “Only in our time,” Rice told Newsweek in 1990, “is Gothic fiction associated with low-level writers like H. P. Lovecraft. I mean, I love him, but he’s a hack.” In her 1992 The Tale of the Body Thief, a novel about body-swapping, the vampire Lestat is stalked by a stranger who hands him Xeroxed copies of Lovecraft tales and other horror stories. When Lestat sees the man approaching with a “small thick wad of pulp pages, stapled together,” he is filled with revulsion and tries to run away. Lestat is desperate to avoid being placed in this lineage of heroes.

Rice, too, tried to escape her genre, even as she recycled the same basic plot line: a lonely, immortal creature attempts to comprehend the secrets of the universe. But while the vampire novels had an anxious force, the Christ books feel bland and lifeless. Rice does not work to make her vision feel true. She spent her career searching for “a moment of exploding truth,” a “powerful core of meaning” she called It. She wrote best when she was fanatical. But, in her attempt to preserve her intensity, she has abnegated the forces that led her to become a cultural icon. In ceaselessly searching for a force larger than herself, she has relinquished her own authority as a novelist: the It has taken over. The story’s message is out of her control. “If this path to God is an illusion,” she admits in her memoir, “then the story is worthless.”

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