Thursday, 23 July 2009
Fiction to get your teeth into
Interview With a Vampire by Anne Rice
Earlier this year, I switched on the TV to find that one channel was just about to screen Interview With a Vampire. Five minutes in, I wrenched myself away and switched off. The book was sitting on the shelf, ready for the moment when I felt in the mood for that specific literary experience – and I wanted the book to come first.
It eventually ‘came first’ this month – and provided an intriguing read.
The story is told in the first person by Louis, the oldest son of a rich, eighteenth-century French émigré family in New Orleans that owns an indigo plantation. Mourning the death of his younger brother, Louis simply wants to die – until the vampire Lestat, having already nearly drained him of blood, takes him into a very different life.
And there begins a journey, only part of which is revealed in this first volume of Anne Rice’s vampire series. We know, for instance, that the book is actually set in the present – at least, a time when cars and tape recorders exist, since the basic premise for telling the story is that of a young man conducting an interview with Louis.
Vampire fiction is hardly a new phenomenon and is rooted in the vampire hysteria of the early 18th century, which reached extraordinary heights with the official exhumations of suspected vampires Peter Plogojowitz and Arnold Paole in Serbia.
Poems and stories followed – some of them including a sexual aspect to the idea of vampirism and some of them concentrating on an idea of Christianity v paganism. Then, in 1897, Bram Stoker’s Dracula took the genre to new heights.
Stoker’s work centres on Victorian fears of female sexuality – particularly in Britain, where syphilis was rampant, including amongst the middle class. ‘Respectable’ middle-class women didn’t ‘like’ sex. It was something to be done only to produce heirs. Thus men found themselves lacking any regular conjugal pleasure. Prostitution offered an outlet, but with syphilis widespread, the dangers were obvious. The solution, it seemed, was to find virgins. And the search for virginal prostitutes achieved something unintended but arguably inevitable – a lowering of the age of the prostitutes. In the late 19th century, London was the child prostitution capital of the world.
In Dracula, Stoker portrayed unrestrained female sexuality and sensuality as the threat. Women’s sexual natures would, if allowed free rein, leave them vulnerable to the fatal foreign disease that would make them mad and very, very dangerous. That Stoker portrayed the ‘disease’ as foreign was not surprising – many countries referred to sexual diseases as being linked to a rival nation. Of course it also allowed for a racist element. But the issue of the dangers of unrestrained female sexuality is paramount in the text. And that, inevitably, has a religious component going back to the myth of Adam and Eve, the serpent and The Fall.
The vampire novel remained around in the coming years – Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend in 1954 was an example of a decently written take on the genre, penned with the Cold War at its background. But writers and readers next really got their fangs back into vampire fiction in the 1970s, when Rice produced Interview With a Vampire and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro began her Saint-Germain series.
During the near 80 years between Dracula and Interview With a Vampire, even though there hadn’t been a vast amount of quality vampire literature, a lot had changed.
Vampires had ceased to be simple, straightforward personifications of evil. Matheson, for instance, throws conventional morality on its head by asking the awkward question of just why his central protagonist deserves to triumph over the vampires – indeed, to survive.
And Rice’s first entry into the genre is stuffed with a philosophical struggle that is centred on ideas of good and evil.
Louis’s curse is that having once become a vampire, he cannot accept his own nature. His inherent being demands food. That food can just about be animals such as rats, but for a good and properly sustaining diet (if you will) he needs to feed from humans.
But he considers that – and therefore himself – to be evil.
And Louis is searching for answers on a wider scale – trying to work out how the God that he has grown up to believe in could make such a creature as himself.
In other words, much of the book takes on the sense of a debate between a conventional Christian view of morality and a more Nietzschean perspective.
Rice herself was born in a Catholic family and, after several years as an atheist, returned to Catholicism in 1998, saying that she would now dedicate her writing to glorifying her religion. So it seems possible that the moral questions at the core of Interview With a Vampire had been questions at the heart of the author’s own life for some time.
What is clear about the novel is the idea of alternative – or transgressive – sexuality amongst the vampires. While they don’t actually have sex, there is a strong sense of homoeroticism and paedophilia – the latter, which reveals itself through various vampires’ obsessive desire to possess/kill a child, is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the novel. And some of the scenes where children are involved are described in a particularly sensual/sexual way, heightening any discomfort that the reader might feel.
If such labels can be applied, then it seems that both Louis and Lestat are bisexual: there are lesbian overtones to the relationship between the female vampires Claudia and Madeline later in the novel (and paedophilic ones, since Claudia is – physically at least – a child).
Where Stoker’s vampire was fairly one-dimensional and simply ‘evil’, there is far more complexity here. Although it’s difficult to see what conclusion – if any – Rice reaches. And the apparent linking of homosexuality/bisexuality and pederasty is itself disturbing. Since none of what happens to the vampires would appear to make them ‘happy’, it could be read that Rice is implying that all ‘alternative’ sexualities are ‘wrong’, and that paedophilia is on a par with homosexuality and bisexuality.
But Interview With a Vampire is an interesting and well-written novel – and certainly a valuable contribution to a fascinating and developing genre.