It’s official: I was born without the vampire gene. I don’t get it. I don’t find vampires “erotic” (I didn’t even know that they were supposed to be erotic until about four years ago when I read about it in a book called How to Read Literature Like a Professor). I don’t find the idea of being bitten in the neck and then preternaturally controlled by some creepy guy AT ALL appealing. I don’t want to be immortal. I didn’t even like the Count on Sesame Street very much when I was little.
First of all, the structure of this novel would never, ever fly in a fiction workshop. (Not that I think the rules of a fiction workshop are the be-all-end-all of life, but, like most rules, they are fun to invoke when they help to support my case.) The novel is set up like this: a “boy,” who seems more like an adult than a boy to me, is in an apartment in San Francisco interviewing a vampire (hence the title). And that’s it. The rest of the novel is the vampire talking. I was expecting and hoping that there would be a Part II of some kind in which the boy and the vampire leave the apartment and start actively doing stuff. Now, I realize that this novel is the first in a series, and that the boy and the vampire may do other things besides talk to each other in future installments – but still. In the first creative writing class I took in college, I was taught that this kind of structure is called a “bathtub story” (taking as its model the story in which a protagonist – usually female – soaks in the tub after a hard day and ruminates on everything that happened), and that these types of stories are very, very bad. We MFAers worship the god of immediacy.
But, more to the point, I just don’t care. Most, if not all, of the books that I enjoy do something meaningful to explore the question of what it means to be human. Now, a book does not have to be “realistic” to do this kind of exploration well (I happen to think that the Harry Potter series is one of the best stories ever told about the experience of being an adolescent), and I certainly recognize some metaphors and that sort of thing in this novel that suggest an attempt to explore some larger questions, but for whatever reason these metaphors don’t resonate with me.
I do, however, think it’s interesting to look at a book like this intellectually and try to figure out why it appeals to so many people and – perhaps more so – what would prompt a person to want to write it. (I made it through all four of the Twilight books high on the thrill of imagining what was going on in the head of a Mormon housewife when she decided to sit down and write those particular books. It was the only thing that kept me reading.) The standard assumption that vampires are “erotic” may well be the answer, but I am more interested in a couple of other elements of the vampire myth: the idea of immortality and the separation between modern, industrialized civilizations and more “primitive” ones.
First, it seems relatively obvious that the vampire myth appeals on some level to the human tendency to fear death. Over and over again, in this novel and elsewhere, humans are who are dying are approached by vampires and offered a chance at immortality – and in general they take it gratefully. However, this myth also appeals to our fear of stasis, because after they are “saved” from death and made into vampires they face an eternity filled with violence, self-hatred, isolation, guilt, and contact with only a limited number of creatures whose presence only exacerbates their painful isolation. Reading Interview with the Vampire, I was continually reminded of Wallace Stevens’ famous line, “Death is the mother of beauty*.” In other words, beauty exists in the world because death does. We are capable of seeing the world as beautiful because we know on some level that we will lose it someday. For a long time I have seen this line as being almost identical in substance to Robert Frost’s equally famous “Earth’s the right place for love; / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better**.” I don’t think I’m wrong to read that “love” and “beauty” are close synonyms in the context of these lines – and, in Frost’s words, we are best capable of love in a world that is flawed and ephemeral; human love (which is also flawed and ephemeral) would wither up and seem meaningless in the context of eternity and immortality. This is essentially the discovery that Louis (“the vampire” of the title – although why he is not called a vampire is beyond me, since there are plenty of other vampires – too damn many, if you ask me – in this novel. I spent way too much time grumbling about definite and indefinite articles while I was reading this book) makes very shortly after he is transformed: he may get to live forever, but he has to do so in the company of the controlling, violent asshole who sucked his blood and therefore granted him his immortality.
The character of Claudia adds an interesting dimension to this question of immortality (and I’ll admit that there is a certain appealing creepiness about Claudia, although I got tired of it before the novel was half over). Claudia is a young girl who is changed into a vampire by Louis and his creator Lestat (because they wanted a “daughter” – EWW!) when she is about five years old. At that time, she acquires the maturity and wisdom of a vampire but retains (and will retain forever) the appearance of a five year-old child. She also seems to retain a five year-old’s tempestuous emotions – and, probably for this reason, she develops a ruthlessness as a vampire that Louis never possesses, although she is never completely amoral, as is Lestat.
The second larger idea that I want to look at is the way vampires serve as a link between “primitive” and “advanced societies.” But first I want to tell a story. A couple of years ago, I was supervising a junior retreat at school, and part of the retreat included a presentation by a Franciscan friar (in full regalia: brown robe, rope belt, bare feet! You never know what kind of cheap thrills you’ll be in for when you take a job at a Catholic school) who passed out index cards and told the students that this was their chance to ask a priest anything they wanted to ask. One of the students thought it would be fun to ask the priest if he was “Team Edward or Team Jacob” (this is a Twilight reference if you’re unfamiliar with this series). The priest was fast on his (bare) feet and did a good job of deflecting this silly question into a history lesson about the early Christian church. I don’t have any other sources to support the accuracy of his claim, but I thought it was interesting and kept remembering it while I was reading Interview with the Vampire. What he said was that the tradition of the vampire myth originated in the ancient Romans’ perceptions of the early Christians, who gathered in dark places, often in the middle of the night (to avoid detection during the years when Christians were persecuted), “drank blood,” and talked about achieving “eternal life.” I especially thought about this theory at the moments in this novel when Lestat and the other vampires sometimes drink blood out of cups (specifically crystal goblets, I believe) instead of drinking directly from a victim (and, on a related note, even though I have never read any Anne Rice before – and I seem completely incapable of saying her name out loud without first accidentally calling her “Ayn Rand,” but I digress – I remember all the hoo-hah a decade or so ago when she suddenly starting writing all those books about Jesus, and people just couldn’t believe that she had made such a surprising transition from writing about vampires to writing about Jesus, and after reading this book I can say that I don’t find that transition surprising at all – this book is absolutely FULL of Eucharist-like moments and various crucifixion-like scenes where the ideas of suffering, blood, resurrection, immortality, and masochistic ecstasy all come together. I tend to think that her interest in telling the stories of Christ’s life is entirely part and parcel with her interest in vampires – and her even earlier interest in writing porn. But now I really digress.)
(And, since I’m digressing and you haven’t complained yet, I’ll add that a few weeks after this retreat, Ralph Nader came to our school as a guest speaker. This same student, having received such an interesting answer from the Franciscan friar, thought it would be fun to ask Ralph Nader if he was Team Edward or Team Jacob. Nader’s response was not as interesting as the priest’s.)
But back to Interview with the Vampire. Louis is transformed into a vampire in 18th-century Louisiana, a place that was peopled with a lot of slaves, including many who were born in Africa and only brought to North America in recent years. Louis, Lestat, and the other vampires give these slaves a wide berth because the slaves possess a certain closeness with the spiritual world and intimacy with superstition that makes them more likely to recognize a vampire when they see one (and therefore less vulnerable to being attacked). Louis and Claudia encounter a similar phenomenon when they go to Eastern Europe in a search for other sentient vampires who can help them understand why vampires are the way they are – the local peasants are highly aware of the presence of vampires and prepared to defend themselves. Educated, urban Europeans (including the ones in Louisiana), on the other hand, seem to be able to look directly at vampires and not notice anything unusual about them – and as a result they are more vulnerable to attack. For this reason, vampires seem to be a symbol of what human beings and human societies lose when they become “modernized,” industrialized, overly educated, and/or overly secular. So-called “primitive” people seem to recognize vampires for what they are and have a healthy fear of the possibility of a depraved immortality that more “modern” people either are completely unaware of or, on some level, crave. So the presence of vampires brings out the many ways that modern city dwellers are disconnected from the reality of death and the dangers of craving immortality.
So that’s it. I didn’t much enjoy the book while I was reading it (it took forever to read – not because it was difficult or anything, but because I just plain wasn’t interested and my attention kept wandering). I don’t especially fault Anne Rice, whose writing is competent at worst and at best really quite artful. It’s just like I said – I don’t have the gene.
BUT, just because I am vast and contain multitudes and life is a rich tapestry and all that, I’ll share with you the fact that the only thing that kept me reading this book (other than the fact that I would get to write about it on this blog and cause all kinds of controversy with my co-blogger) was the fact that July 10th was fast approaching and I wanted to be finished with this book by that date because Deborah Harkness’ new novel Shadow of Night was being released on that day and I wanted to start reading it RIGHT AWAY.
And Shadow of Night is about – you guessed it – vampires. More on that shortly.
* The Wallace Stevens poem I am quoting here is “Sunday Morning.”
** The Robert Frost poem I am quoting here is “Birches.”