Friday, 31 October 2014

Ode to the Damned

[Spoilers: Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, The Queen of the Damned.]
Anne Rice's vampires exist in a permanent state of gothicism. Their nature is defined by a kind of abstracted sensuality: they experience the world in a heightened, profoundly aesthetic way, where everything is art and beauty, light and movement, feelings of intensity, much more than it is for humans. But this is often as dark and disturbing as it is beautiful, in part because they're still predatory blood-drinkers, and usually in thrall to existential crises.

Sexuality is displaced but not replaced by Rice's vampire condition—vampires don't have functioning sex organs, but you'd have to employ some serious denial not to read erotic meanings into... well, pretty much everything, up to and including the ecstatic act of feeding.

In an odd way, it sort of reminds me of how sexuality works in J.G. Ballard's Crash (1973), where it's abstracted beyond sexual attraction per se and everything—in Ballard's case, the industrial environment, destructive machinery, death—becomes erotically charged. But where for Ballard it's something perverse, sexuality bent out of its usual shape due to a sickness of modern society (and Ballard treats homosexuality as the same sort of abstraction), the fluid sensuality of Rice's vampires is much more ambiguous.

While so much of vampire sensuality is easy to read as sexual metaphor, it's subsumed into something more universal, which frees it from those boundaries. It's love as much as lust; it's aesthetic appreciation as well as intimacy. It's heightened human passion, but its abstract nature is non-specific and all-encompassing—bodily, but also transcendent. Human context slips away and immortality renders moot certain things like an individual's sex and age and even familial relationships—things that aren't relevant to the technically-dead.

There are always remnants of these things, though, with bodies eternally as they were at the time they were taken, and personalities shaped by past human lives. Vampire nature opens up a realm of sensual possibility, but the remnants of human context both embrace and resist it, and at times render it sinister.

That's what makes it gothic, gives it the horror elements, even as it gives us access to a rich, sensuous world. It's what leads to 'cognitive dissonance', as William Gibson spun the term (he also referenced 'exquisite corpse', which seems relevant)—the fascination that draws us in when something doesn't feel quite right, when the weird and alien is invoked, and our usual conceptions of things become hazy and slightly unstable. What Rice's vampires show us how this can be liberating and thrilling as well as disturbing; the way that even drinking blood can be made both monstrous and beautiful. Rice's vampires are defined by this tension.

Interview with the Vampire (1976) deals mainly with the guilt and self-loathing of Louis de Pointe du Lac, the vampire narrator who doesn't take to his own aesthetically predatory nature. He's described in the books as more 'human' than most, a source of fascination to some of the other vampires. He nibbles on rats in lieu of humans, spends a lot of time fretting about the reason for his own existence, and resents Lestat, his glamorous sire, for his lack of answers and shallow, petty ways.

I didn't take to the book at first. I'm pretty susceptible to gothic melodrama, but the overwrought style, stilted and exclamatory, got on my nerves. Louis reminded me of those tedious narrators of Victorian novels, constantly trying to rationalise his own experiences with rambling, hand-wringing self-examinations. The whole book had a curiously old-fashioned feel to it, exacerbated by the clunky quotes-within-quotes interview conceit.

But about a third of the way in, Interview finally sunk its teeth in with Claudia, the first character whose vampiric transformation we experience from the outside. Claudia is only a little girl when she's turned. She rapidly evolves into vampire maturity while trapped in her six-year-old body, growing an adult mind over the next sixty years, but without the human conscience that she was too young to have developed in her mortal life. She's clever and manipulative and vicious, a killer without empathy, but comes to resent having been made a vampire.

The deteriorating triangle of her eventually murderous relationship with Louis and Lestat is the sinister trick that finally pulled me into the novel—the way Claudia is both compelling and alienating, to Louis the stubbornly human-like vampire and to us. Claudia's child-like demeanour emphasises the sense of dissonance, while also being the very thing that traps the character in her own particular existential nightmare, making her both monstrous and tragic.

To a point, though, all of this is standard horror. In some ways, the first book took the most conventional route by approaching vampire subjectivity from the 'what is this monster I've become?' angle. The Vampire Lestat (1985) made an interesting move in that it switched narrator and focused instead on the character who wholeheartedly embraces the sensuous, aesthetic aspects of vampire nature, which is really what makes Rice's vampires unique.

Through Lestat—who by his own account is less the shallow, pathetic caricature he was according to Louis—the second book dials back the 'horror' aspects somewhat, and the vampires become more rapidly normalised, not consistently couched in the obvious self-loathing of the protagonist. Familiarity takes the gothic edge off them a little bit, but the existential questions remain.

The second book feels more like the key to the concept, delving into a mythology that structures itself around seeing how far this aestheticism can go; how a vampire can continue to exist without falling to madness, and what happens to the very oldest ones. Conceptually, it's the richest book, glutted with stories-within-stories that search backwards in time through to the origin of vampires, even as it tells Lestat's life story before and after the events of Interview and his own struggle to understand his existence.

Lestat spends a lot of his time as a vampire referencing his idea of the Savage Garden (prior to it becoming a '90s pop act). According to Lestat, beauty is brutal and death is everywhere in it, but aesthetic principles 'are the only enduring principles' in this world.

In contrast to two characters who are trapped by religious ideas of good versus evil—the cynical Nicolas de Lenfent, who sees himself and his art-making as evil and sinful; and Armand, who, feeling abandoned by his God, reaches in vain for ugly sham philosophies that would render him evil for the sake of comprehending his own vampire nature—Lestat believes in goodness but sees it in embracing beauty and art, in all its brutality; the only meaning against the darkness.

One interesting idea that this book explores, which the first only briefly touched on, is the fact that, over time, the vampires themselves become more and more like artworks—less lifelike, more statuesque; colder, harder, paler. Their movements lose human character, and even their need for blood diminishes. The Vampire Lestat takes this to its eerie logical conclusion with Akasha and Enkil, the first vampires, who sit on thrones in a shrine barely having moved for thousands of years.

It's a hallmark of Rice's novels that almost every character of note is preternaturally good-looking, even before they become vampires, and they're often picked for that very reason. It's what can sometimes give the books the veneer of trashy romance. I also wonder if there's something to be said of vampire beauty and whiteness, given the predilection for perfect paleness even when Ancient Egyptians are the subjects.

But like everything else, this perfection is often rendered disturbing and unnatural, treated as a loss of something human. The vampires even seem to creep each other out by how perfect and unblemished and sometimes dead they look, in the middle of being hopelessly besotted with each other.

Humanity, in contrast to the statuesque vampires, is described as something yielding, raw and tender. The vampires themselves seem softer and more alive when they've just fed, warm and flushed with colour. Lestat's fascination with humans, and most other vampires', seems to be an attempt to recapture their tenderness and vitality. Louis, who is consistently described as the most human-like vampire, apparently achieves this by empathising with and suffering like them.

This relationship between vampires and humans, along with Lestat's notion of the Savage Garden, reaches for the question of what life is, how it can make sense and be given meaning, in a world where beauty itself seems simultaneously sublime, brutal and painfully meaningless. Shockingly, given Rice's legions of goth fans, vampire nature in these books is ultimately a way to explore existential angst.

With each of Rice's characters, vampirism seems to make the particular flavour of their angst more potent, albeit approaching the exact same questions from only slightly different angles. Individuality itself undergoes a perfecting transformation: personalities rapidly harden and simplify, shedding human relationships and concerns, and vampires become singularly driven—and driven apart—by their compulsions. The books embrace individualism, but they also make the observation that ultimately this alienates and isolates us from each other, as best shown by Lestat's relationship with Gabrielle.

There was a very specific reason I originally decided to pick up the second book, and that was the promise of Lestat as an '80s rockstar—a ridiculous enough departure from the more-or-less period piece of the first book to justify taking another bite. In reality, most of that stuff is saved for the third book, The Queen of the Damned (1988), which is the first to take place predominantly in (what was then) the present day.

I wasn't sure what The Queen of the Damned was going to do other than tie up some loose plot ends. It's the first to make use of multiple simultaneous perspectives, and brings together pretty much every surviving character from the first two books. Most of them converge on Lestat's live performance where he threatens to reveal the truth about vampires, while other vampires all over the world are being set on fire by a newly awakened and rampaging Akasha.

Through the schemes of these two characters, the novel eventually reveals itself as an exploration of the concept of evil. In the later stages of the book, this becomes talky philosophising over the same themes that had haunted the first two—the nature of good versus evil, and how the vampires themselves, with no real meaning for their own existence, come to understand evil: whether their vampire nature convinces them that it exists, like Nicolas or Louis, or they embrace representations of it in order to transmute it into good, like Lestat and Akasha.

Akasha, who has a knack for desperately convincing herself of grand schemes as a way of protecting herself from the meaningless void, ends up doing a lot of real evil in order to turn herself from demon to benevolent goddess in the eyes of humans. Hers is the evil, above all, of elegant philosophies that are too simplistic, as she justifies to herself the massacring of humans and vampires alike.

Lestat attempts to be a symbol of evil through which he can make himself known to the humans, in order to bring himself closer to them—a way of shining a light at the darkness so everyone can know him for what he really is, both in his beauty and his monstrosity.

The best thing about The Queen of the Damned, which mostly happens earlier on in the book, is how the lens of the present is used to refract the subject of evil into meta territory, dealing with the appeal of Rice's vampires themselves and what they might mean to us culturally. The books have always flirted with meta-narrative, existing as physical artefacts in their own world and talked about by the characters (the second book, for instance, is partly responsible for Lestat's ascent to notoriety). While there's always a risk that things will get too self-conscious and self-congratulatory, I think Queen of the Damned pulls off a neat trick. It explores the glamour of its own evil: these vampires who have always been as seductive as they are sinister.

With the present day comes a greater awareness of the pop culture vampire, evoked by Lestat's exaggerated rock band persona and imitated by young fans who roam around in Dracula costumes, wearing false fangs and capes. (Some of the other vampires do the same, for fun.) Rock music is invoked for having the same appeal as the vampire novels, an attraction to the sensuous and obscene. Daniel, the nameless interviewer of the first book, still desperately wants to become a vampire, and epitomises the reader who finds the vampires' darkness glamorous and exciting.

[H]e saw this being like a great insect, a monstrous evil predator who had devoured a million human lives. And yet he loved this thing. He loved its smooth white skin, its great dark brown eyes ... because it was ghastly and awful and loathsome, and beautiful at the same time. He loved it the way people love evil, because it thrills them to the core of their souls.

The Queen of the Damned, in other words, explores why we read these books—what the fascination is, and why we find ourselves drawn to them. Lestat's purpose, to acquaint us with this 'evil', hints that we're attracted to such horrors for what they can reveal to us of ourselves—facing the full reality of our complex natures, and feeling alive by doing so.

The end of The Queen of the Damned circles neatly back to Louis. Louis is only a passive participant in all the events of the third book, but his own struggle is surprisingly validated by its conclusion. Like Lestat, Louis finds himself suspended between conceptions of good and evil, but it's the perpetual tension between the two that matters, rather than grasping for easy answers as to what counts as either.

For Lestat, life in the Savage Garden, as a vampire or as a human, is both beautiful and horrifying. In the end, he acknowledges that the power of the vampire-as-metaphor is in embracing that tension and complexity, and in putting it on stage so that we, the spectators, the readers, can know it and understand it, destabilising our own conceptions of good and evil.

What shape this stage takes over the next ten books, I don't know. So far, I've been making deals with myself as I've gone along—try just the first, on a whim; try the second because you'll probably get a kick out of the vampire rockstar thing; make it a trilogy, nice and neat.

But there were already signs in book three of too much water in the blood—all the bland 'paranormal' stuff, for instance, the witches and spirits and Talamasca, which really didn't do it for me. They lacked the richness and resonance of the vampires, and seemed to ready their world for further dilution. The premises of subsequent books don't dissuade me from this notion... all of them sound a bit tangential and extraneous.

Maybe I'll make the most of unbelievably serendipitous timing and skip ahead to the very latest, which is the first Rice has written in over ten years and, apparently, the first true sequel to The Queen of the Damned. It happens to be out this week.

God winks at me, and sinks his teeth into my skull.

[Edit: I made it only partway through the new one.]

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