Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice, isn’t quite as old as some of the immortal vampires who populated the pages, but over 40 years after its original publication, it’s getting up there. Although it’s certainly older than Claudia, a perpetual child in a land of elders.
Published in 1976, it had its origin in a short story Rice wrote in 1968. Interview With The Vampire introduced many memorable characters, Louis de Pointe du Lac, Lestat, Armand and intrepid interviewer Tom Molloy. But the novel was more influential on the audience’s relationship with the vampire and how the creature sees itself. Anne Rice introduced the regretful and self-reflective vampire, and I know vampires don’t cast reflections. Bloodsuckers who didn’t just play with their food, but who came to have feelings for it. Mosquitoes who questioned their own existence and place in the world. Moaning, self-loathing vampires finally came out of the coffin and created a romantic subgenre.
Vampires were always sexy. Bela Lugosi made women swoon in the twenties when he put on the cape he would one day be buried wearing. But they weren’t romantic. They were seducers, at best, rapists and murderers at worst and they had little regard for the lives they ripped apart at the jugular. You’d never hear Christopher Lee’s Dracula bemoaning that he wasn’t “the spirit of any age … at odds with everything and always have been! I have never belonged anywhere with anyone at any time,” as Louis did. Lugosi’s caped impaler mused “to die, to truly be dead. That must be glorious.” While Rice’s vampires dreadfully questioned “Do you know what it means to be loved by Death?… Do you know what it means to have Death know your name?”
There had been regretful monsters before. Lon Chaney’s Wolfman balked at the moon and all the monstrous things it did to him. Frankenstein’s creature acted like a child pulling wings off flies and cried when they could no longer fly. And anyone who didn’t shed a tear for King Kong has a gene missing in their DNA.
Kong is a good parallel to the vampire, an animal with an animal’s nature who has no compunction for the blood he spills. Kill or be killed. Eat or be eaten. It is the law of the jungle and the world is a jungle. Anne Rice tamed a savage beast. The films that followed make it almost seem like the vampires had forgotten the first lesson, that they are to be “powerful, beautiful, and without regret,” and now “have a lingering respect for mortal life.”
Rice wrote the book while coping with mortality. Her daughter Michelle died of acute granulocytic leukemia, a cancer of the blood, at the age of six. She both respected and loathed the life-giving liquid that she had been forced to grow so intimate with.
Both John Carradine’s Count Dracula inHouse of Dracula, and Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas Collins in the horror soap opera Dark Shadows, attempted to curb their bloodlust through science. But Rice’s life-shattering experience infused new life into the legend. Interview With The Vampire spawned ten sequels and reached its peak popularity with 1988’s The Queen of the Damned. Rice tapped an emotional vein that gave her vampires empathy and made them sympathetic.
This isn’t to say Rice’s vampires were any less homicidal. They took a kind of glee in the hunt and the kill. Most of the vampires of Rice’s netherworld took hedonistic pleasure in the exsanguination of beautiful mortals. They got high off the fumes of death just so long as they didn’t jones and overdose on a dry corpse. Lestat “killed two, sometimes three, fresh young girls a night,” as an appetizer before snatching a society snack.
Vampires have always been cultured. Dracula took in the opera and Rice’s vampires opened Théâtre des Vampires near the Grand Guignol. Anne Rice jumped on the goth rock wagon she herself had set in motion and put Lestat on the rock stage. The bloodsuckers of The Vampire Chronicles, and in the 1994 film adaptation starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, were faded and jaded libertines.
“Only the genius of a woman exorcising her own demons could have created a vampire rockstar to whom the modern woman would willingly offer her tender throat,” Marie Bargas, aka King, who was the Vampire Expert on Entertainment Tonight in the nineties, said after an impromptu interview. “Akasha’s unbridled madness is an aphrodisiac to Lestat until he is figuratively under her feet and he becomes the Shiva in supplication to her Kali.”
“Our love affair with the handsome Trickster began with Rice’s Vampire Lestat and continues today with Marvel’s Loki. Generation after generation, we swoon at the embrace of the bad boy who cannot be reformed, because we know intuitively know that he is better in bed,” Bargas told us. “The bite of a vampire and the commingling of pain and pleasure is penetration in a world teeming with limp dicks.”
The vampire’s bite has a long association with symbolic penetration, but Louis, while he may have been 200 years old, had enough of the seventies “sensitive guy” in him to make sure his woman was also fulfilled. Lestat de Lioncourt, who was the Fonzie of the book, the breakout bad boy who couldn’t be tamed and never needed a comb, didn’t appear to care. But, like the similarly perfectly coiffed male vampires in the Twilight series, it turned out that he cared more deeply than even the former New Orleans plantation owner did.
Louis and Lestat enjoy a fluid sexuality, as Rice was one of the first writers born in a generation that could tell it like it is. The Stonewall riots put gay activism into the public consciousness and by the mid-seventies discos made it possible to party like it was 1999. There had been lesbian overtones in Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, but very little homoeroticism.
Rice explained what should have been obvious. After an eternity of erotic adventures, sooner or later straight or gay doesn’t mean anything, especially when food and sex are so intertwined. Poppy Z. Brite, another New Orleans author, delved further into the fluids of the body with her sanguine novels and short stories. Of course, Brite’s characters rode an avant-garde wave where vampires pretended to be humans pretending to be vampires.
HBO’s True Blood used vampires, and all manner of otherworldly creatures, as an allegory for the LGBT community. But Bill the Vampire was the perfect guy. Sure, he had his secrets and his ambitions, but he was about as selfless a vampire as one could hope to meet. He was good enough to eat, though that was a double-edged razor in itself as his blood could be both healing and addictive, like any drug.
Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse Series, also set in Louisiana, occasionally New Orleans, delved deeper into the romantic thriller possibilities than Rice would go, but Bill could very well have been Louis’ neighbor. Louis was 24 in 1791, when he went chasing death in the aftermath of losing his wife and infant in childhood. Bill left his wife and family for the blood life sometime shortly after the civil war. They have adapted to all manner of change, but they both share a desire to cling on to their human selves. This is irresistible to the romance reader, already attuned to loving the bad boy.
But what is a bad boy? “Evil is a point of view,” Lestat pointed out and he’s a rock god. As Homer Simpson has asked, “rock stars, is there nothing they don’t know?” But Lestat isn’t the boy band bad boy secretly spilling his innermost feelings in hurriedly penned Vampire Diaries. If you brought him home to meet your parents, he would only see it as a family meal. Vampire Rock Gods kill indiscriminately because they are as unique as any almighty creature. A vampire knows “nothing of God, or the Devil … never seen a vision nor learned a secret that will damn or save” their souls.
Rice dispensed with a few of the vampire legends. Her vampires were quite fond of looking at crucifixes and didn’t fear a take through the heart, though coffins were still a necessity. Rice had them looking at death differently and self-doubts began to creep in where only pure animal need had only existed before.
Frankenstein’s monster may have blown up the castle because he knew he, his bride and Dr. Pretorius “belonged dead” and Larry Talbot bitched about being bitten by the gypsy lycanthrope, but the only thing to concern vampires were that the blood of their impure whores might have been killing them. Now, if a vampire doesn’t transform from a Lost Boy into some kind of living bat, they moan and groan about their favorite happy meals.
But Louis has been whining about it for centuries, since he saw his last sunrise and set out to become what he became. But he’s not being childish, like Claudia, who slit Lestat’s throat after poisoning him, though Louis did help temporarily dispose of the bully’s body. Eli, the child vampire in Let the Right One In, protects her friends from bullies because she, too, has grown up in the post-Anne Rice underworld.
Even Frances Ford Coppola was bitten by the love bat when he looked at Bram Stoker’s Dracula and saw the love story staked to its heart. Gary Oldman griped a little, he earned it, look at how he gets out of that coffin and he’s been doing it for centuries. But he never whined. Sure, Vlad was still carrying the torch for a love that wouldn’t stay dead but he never forgot the torches that the mobs carried while running him out of town. Rice reclaimed the torches from cinema for literature by making it personal. The bodies that were being burned were the vampires they knew. Rice’s vampires burn down the theater just as film is emerging like a new dawn. Motion pictures reinvented romance. The blood is the life and every generation of vampire needs new blood.
The film Interview with the Vampire was directed by Neil Jordan and starred Brad Pitt as Louis, Tom Cruise as Lestat (a controversial choice at the time, as Rice herself envisioned Rutger Hauer when writing the books), Antonio Banderas as Armand and Kirsten Dunst as Claudia. River Phoenix was cast as the interviewer but died from an overdose and his part was taken by Christian Slater. Slater donated his entire salary to Phoenix’s favorite charities, something the sensitive Louis would appreciate. The character he played, the interviewer, heard the stories of woe yet learned nothing from his interview with the vampire. Like all those who followed, he was swept up in the romance.
Editor’s note: This story first ran in April 2018.