If Dracula is the king of all vampire fiction, then Interview with the Vampire may well be its prince. Each one had an undeniable influence on the genre, and though Bram Stoker’s novel popularized the image of a hellish bloodsucker, Anne Rice is very much credited with the rise of vampires portrayed not as evil fiends, but sympathetic anti-heroes. Louis in particular was a broody, introspective, tormented vampire long before it became a cliché. By making vampires the protagonists of her novels, Rice flipped the reader perspective to not only explore how it feels and what it means to be an immortal vampire, but to put a spin on our traditional understanding of good and evil, and where vampires fall on that spectrum.
Having read plenty of Rice’s books (including The Witching Hour, which remains one of my favourite books, period) I thought it was way past time that I acquainted myself with the book that made Anne Rice a household name. I’m glad I did.
The premise of Interview with the Vampire is relatively straightforward: in a dark apartment in New Orleans, a vampire called Louis tells his story to a mortal interviewer. Once he was a wealthy 18th century plantation owner in Louisiana who suffered a personal tragedy and so lost his desire for life. In the depths of his despair, he’s approached by a vampire called Lestat, who seeks to turn him into a vampire for fairly pragmatic reasons: he wants the wealth and luxury that Louis possesses, as well as someone to take care of the economic practicalities that come with immortality.
Desperate to escape his loss, Louis agrees to the change, though the ensuing relationship between the two vampires is a tempestuous one. At times the only reason Louis stays with Lestat is that — to his knowledge — they are the only two vampires in the world. But as the years go by, Louis grows more and more disillusioned with Lestat, not only with his refusal to tell him how he in turn became a vampire, but the cruelty with which he takes innocent lives. In an attempt to keep Louis by his side, Lestat turns a five year old girl that Louis has drunk from into a vampire, thus binding the little family of three together forever.
It is this development that brings us Claudia, perhaps Rice’s most unforgettable creation. Sure, Lestat might get all the notoriety, but Claudia leaves the lasting impression. As she’s only five years old, she quickly forgets her mortal life and embraces existence as a vampire — but of course you can see the terrible fate that awaits her. No matter how much she grows mentally and emotionally, she will spend eternity in a child’s body. Just let that sink in for a bit. Eventually Louis and Claudia begin to rail against Lestat’s authority over them, and it is Claudia who comes up with a plan to rid them both of him forever and seek out others of their kind…
Interview with the Vampire is written as an autobiographical account of an extraordinary lifetime, complete with all the randomness, unpredictability and time-skips that you’d expect from someone recounting their experiences over a number of years. There is no sense of any build-up to a climax, rather the book reads like a series of vignettes that examines what existence as a vampire might be like and the complexities of the relationships they have with each other. There is plenty of philosophical retrospection along the way, and you end up with a book in which you could easily flip open onto any page to read an account of one of Louis’s adventures without the need for any context.
What emerges as the core theme (at least to me) was the on-going search for one’s origins. Louis’s search for answers is very reminiscent of a parentless child trying to discover their missing heritage, with the twist in this case being that he and Claudia aren’t so much interested in their mortal ancestors as they are in their makers and the history of vampires. Louis is driven by a desire to understand where he came from, what it means to be a vampire, and how he fits into the belief-system that he was raised with. After the domestic drama of the first half of the book, the second revolves around Louis desperately searching the world for other vampires in the hopes that they’ll be able to answer his questions.
Because of the first-person narrative, we’re thrown directly into the mystery of vampirism. While reading I found myself wondering for the first time — where DO vampires come from? In becoming one, they’re inevitably faced with the mystery of who and what they are; waking up to a brand new world that has a pitch-dark backdrop. Human beings often struggle with identity issues when raised by two parents, so one can only imagine the crisis that would emerge in having absolutely no understanding whatsoever of the history of your species. Unsolved mysteries permeate the book, from Lestat’s shady past to Louis’s brother’s visions to Armand’s true motivations. Vampirism may give you all the time in the world, but it doesn’t promise you any answers.
The final thing that Rice brings to the table is her rich prose. I’ve heard it said that she can go overboard with this in later books, but here it hits the balance between restraint and opulence in describing the world that these creatures inhabit. In fact, along with vampires as anti-heroes, Rice may have also codified, if not created, the idea of vampires as glamorous, elegant, sophisticated, cultured, and fabulously wealthy. But more than that, Rice also provides insight into the visceral and intellectual experience of what it’s like to actually be a vampire: to be turned, to drink blood, to experience immortality, to make another vampire, and so on.
Interview with the Vampire has entered the sphere of pop-culture osmosis wherein even those who have yet to read it are aware of its main characters and plot-points. It provides an intoxicating glimpse into the life of a vampire and all that such a thing would involve, examining the cons as well as the pros of immortality and bloodlust. Be warned that it is quite wordy and never delves too deeply into the questions that it raises concerning the origins of vampires, but by this stage any self-respecting fan of the vampire lore has to read the book that put the entire genre on a new trajectory.