Thoughts on Anne Rice’s Prince Lestat novels (spoilers ahead)

Anne Rice’s newest novel, Blood Communion: A Tale of Prince Lestat was published on the second of this month and I’m sorry I missed it.  Ever since Anne Rice returned to The Vampire Chronicles I’ve never failed to get  my hands on the new books as soon as they’re available.  Anne Rice may not be my favorite living storyteller but she is definitely up there with my favorites.  Although she may not pull off a completely lucid success with every given story, she is always ambitious and her ambitions are always exciting.  I also think it’s a testament to her character as an artist that she is not afraid to follow sequences in narrative development and thematic complication regardless of where they end up. While I can think of previous works on hers that are more dynamic and successful examples of this, I also believe the three recent Prince Lestat stories are worth reading for their ambition and enthusiasm even if they’re essential success cannot be gauged yet (Rice has not specified at what point the new arc that these stories constitute will be finished but that she has at least a few more novels planned).

The first extremely bold challenge Rice takes on in this new stories is turning Lestat into a hero.  Lestat, at times, has been an anti-hero and at others has almost been a villain protagonist (I’m thinking of The Vampire Lestat and Tale of The Body Thief).  The first time I can remember reading a portrayal of Lestat that edged on unambiguous benevolence was at the end of Merrick, when Louis had attempted suicide by exposing himself to the sun.  While the novel largely hinged on Louis and his feelings of responsibility for what happened to Claudia in Interview, David Talbot is the viewpoint character and at times I think he took up more of the foreground that he should.  The resuscitation of Louis was one of those.

Some books in The Vampire Chronicles are standalone stories but Merrick is not one of them.  At a bare minimum, Merrick requires context from Interview With The Vampire, which makes it clear that Lestat is primarily responsible for the things that Louis feels tortured over.  The fact that Lestat revives Louis after he exposed himself to the sun and then sequesters himself away with him seems…troubling, to say the least.  But Rice chose  to frame it as unambiguously positive.  The change in David from a narrator into an actual protagonist allows the implications of this ending to fade into the background.  David’s attention is primarily on Merrick and Lestat which doesn’t give the reader much of a chance to consider Louis and how he feels about his “rescue” by the author of his suffering.

From this point on until Blood Canticle, Lestat occasionally took up the mantle of a morally ambiguous protagonist or at least a key plot-mover but his presence in the overall series became questionable for the first time.  My feelings about his presence and function within Merrick are deeply mixed but I believe it essentially works.  I don’t think Lestat’s intervention at the end of that book breaks any continuity or takes risks with suspension of disbelief, but it does tilt the story in a way I didn’t care for.  I believe his involvement in that novel works in the end, even if it creates an ending I don’t like.  Blackwood Farm is another situation altogether, though.  Blood Canticle brings us back to Lestat’s first-person narration in a lovely way but it also hinges on how Blackwood Farm brought him back to that foreground, and that for me is too bad.

Blackwood Farm begins with our protagonist seeking out Lestat for assistance regarding a problem at the center of the novel’s plot.  The function Lestat serves within the plot is to put the main characters in touch with Merrick Mayfair from the prior story, who is a medium capable of summoning and exercising ghosts.  This is with a story that has the Mayfair family involved way before there is any surface level reason for Lestat to be anywhere near the main events, and we already know from the Lives of The Mayfair Witches novels that the Mayfairs are on comfortable terms with the supernatural.  Many vampires renounce their association with their mortal contacts after being transformed, but Merrick Mayfair probably would not.  There is no organic reason for the plot to require Lestat to bring her into fray, especially since this is only the second time the Mayfairs have had direct contact with vampires (first time with Merrick, second time with Mona Mayfair falling in love with Tarquin Blackwood).  Merrick herself would be sensitive to that.

Now, regarding the following book, Blood Canticle, there is nothing within it’s own pages that takes any unnecessary risks and the return of Lestat’s first-person narration is very welcome.  The problem, though, is that his central place in Blood Canticle hinges entirely on his involvement in Blackwood Farm.  

Needless to say, these are conclusions regarding the apparent nature of the final result and do not involve Rice’s own feelings and intentions.  I have read a lot about Anne Rice’s own thoughts regarding the internal process of her work.  She has very personal reasons for being attached to Lestat and has had a dynamic relationship with this character over the years, but I do not believe it is necessary to keep Lestat at the forefront of the Chronicles.  This is especially true since we have seen so many other character threads fade into the background.  Armand, Marius, Louis, Pandora and others have occupied the foreground of certain books never to be a protagonist again afterward.  We have seen characters do their part and then retire to the background.  I don’t believe the Chronicles would suffer if the same happened to Lestat.

While I do not think he is any more necessary than any other character, though, I see no problem with Anne Rice insisting that he is necessary by continuing to use him as a main character.  Keeping Lestat in his morally ambiguous niche would be a way to play this safe.  So while I haven’t really appreciated Lestat’s function in the later Vampire Chronicles, I do think Rice has chosen to take a very intriguing risk with him in the Prince Lestat stories, and Rice’s refusal to play things safe is one of the things I love most about her.

Not only do the Prince Lestat books see Lestat situated as a hero, we also see a very stark attempt at reversing part of the basic philosophical nature of The Vampire Chronicles.  Until this point, Rice’s vampire novels have had a fundamental relationship with alienation and otherness.  My favorite Anne Rice novel, The Vampire Armand, struck a very personal chord with me as a queer, dysphoric teenager, especially since there were places in the novel where Armand seemed to have something of a fluid gender identity and sexuality.

Many of Anne Rice’s characters show this kind of fluidity but The Vampire Armand was the first time I connected with one of her stories on that particular level.  Perhaps this part of my reading would have happened differently if I was born later, but one reason why I identified so much with Armand is that many of my own confused feelings about my own identity made me feel fundamentally insane, as if there was this world of health and function that I was shut out of.  Armand, for me, was a way of connecting with the possibility that there was something outside of what was conventionally sane or desirable.  Many friends of mine who are also queer discovered a similar resonance with Anne Rice.

Another form of alienation that is front and center in The Vampire Chronicles has to do with finding meaning in a world where your interaction with others is always slanted toward either withdrawal or destruction.  Not only are her characters often banished from human society at large but interactions with other vampires can easily slide into very hostile territory.  In this way the Chronicles often involve a search for values and a meaningful place in the world with protagonists who have the odds stacked against them in this way.  Even before I read Armand’s novel, The Vampire Lestat had a special place in my heart for this reason.  The power behind the meeting between Lestat and Marius in that book, and later the confrontation between Akasha and the rest of the vampires, has to do with a clash between nihilism and philosophical optimism.

The odds, though, are always against you.  Another reason why The Vampire Armand is my favorite in the series is the confrontation between Armand and Marius at the very end, when Marius loses his faith in humanity and transforms two humans because 1) they want to be vampires and 2) humanity just isn’t worth being invested in.  I do not think the Chronicles in general are misanthropic but that particular character shifting closer to misanthropy is a powerful and important event in the story.

This moral struggle is another thing that Rice attempts to reverse in the newer stories.  I have not yet read Blood Communion: A Story of Prince Lestat but my copy is in the mail (yes I’m that much of a fan girl, I need hard copies and this one is signed 😛 ) and maybe I’ll change this assessment.  Maybe the struggle is simply changed, but as of Prince Lestat and The Realms of Atlantis, it seriously looks like it’s being reversed.

In the decisive volume, Prince Lestat, the alienation of the vampires is challenged.  This possibility is suggested early in an innovative way that I thoroughly enjoyed.  Ever since Interview With The Vampire and The Vampire Lestat, we’ve been aware that within the fictional universe all of these books have fictional authors and they disagree starkly.  Lestat rants about how unfair Louis’s portrayal of him was and I was also tickled by an argument by Lestat and Louis in Tale of The Body Thief.  Louis is insisting to Lestat that his apparent chance to be human again has got to be a dangerous trap of some kind.  Lestat says “if you don’t stop I’ll weep”.  Louis says “go ahead, I’d love to see you weeping” and Lestat replies “you described my weeping very well in your memoir in a scene which we both know did not take place” (forgive me, I’m paraphrasing).

In Prince Lestat we see spaces between Lestat’s volumes that include significant omissions.  Lestat had chosen not to describe the existence of vampire scientists who were studying vampire physiology and biology since, if vampires in general knew about it, they may have been singled out as a risk to exposure to humans, especially since they recruit prominent scientists who are humans and then later transform them.  We also learn that Lestat has a human family, of sorts: a victim of random circumstances whom he had “adopted” in a sense (Rose) and a genetic human son created without his knowledge by the vampire scientists.

We also see a character named Antoine for the first time since Interview With The Vampire.  Now for most of the duration of the Chronicles the brief mention of Antoine and his subsequent disappearance could easily be chalked up to an oversight on the part of Rice.  Maybe once she got going with The Vampire Chronicles she simply couldn’t find a way to include that character in a meaningful way and eventually the Chronicles started taking off without him.  That’s not the worst thing in the world: oversights happen, after all.  But including Antoine in a story that pointedly draws attention to Lestat’s unreliability as a fictional writer just makes it work.

What this means for the new series is that the framing of the entire previous narrative is being called into question, or at least is no longer canonical and definitive.  I’ve read parts of Blood Communion online already and we have Lestat stating that he did, in fact, author the books Prince Lestat and Prince Lestat and The Realms of Atlantis.  That new wrinkle could go well or it could go badly, but until that point I was rather enjoying the possibility that the new stories were not going to use the device of the fictional author, especially since Prince Lestat calls the authority of Lestat’s authorship into question so much.

Bottom line: what was considered true and immutable in the Chronicles until that point is now no longer true.  And the change in how the fictional author is treated is a fun and interesting way of understating this.

One truism that we may be letting go of is how vampires do not seem to thrive in a communal setting.  In Rice’s prior stories vampire groups succeed best as small families.  Larger vampire communities, like the Children Of Satan, The Theater of The Vampires, the household of Eudoxia, the Court of The Ruby Grail and the priesthood of Akasha, exist only through the power of an autocrat.  Until now, it seems large groups of vampires need a single strong, dominant vampire cracking the whip all the time.  Now, we’re seeing the emergence of a fairly benign and consensual vampire government.  We also see characters like Gregory, who owns a large and influential pharmaceutical company, that are beginning to interact with humanity in the most direct way since Lestat’s rock career in the early eighties.  Even though the clinic and laboratories of the vampire scientists are run by their own kind, they choose candidates for transformation from among the human scientific community.

One of the most radical expressions of these dissolved boundaries fails to carry enough weight in the first volume, though, and that is Rose and Viktor.

One common plot device in the Chronicles is situating a story around becoming a vampire.  It was front and center in the first two books and has been used as one of the central plot details in several others.  We have seen a ton of Anne Rice stories about what it is like to become a vampire.  While reading Prince Lestat, it seems that Rose and Viktor are going to serve as a distinguishing new expression of this.  Something about their transformation into vampires is going to be different from all the others and is going to be in line with the other fundamental reversals at work.

It just now occurred to me that it may be possible to interpret this part of that book as a success, but it would have to hinge on the perspective of every other character except Rose and Viktor.

This may seem like a fine point, but everything about Prince Lestat begs you to think that this is a turning point in the Chronicles so fine points and the contrast with older precedents matter.  This is by far the least personal transformation we see.  While Merrick Mayfair was transformed “off camera”, we still see her immediately afterward and we learn what she thinks and feels as a vampire.  The transformation of Benji and Sybelle in The Vampire Armand constitutes a huge part of the ending’s momentum.  Not only do Rose and Viktor become Vampires “off camera”, we don’t even get the chance to spend any substantial time with them afterward.

Another complication with this is the traditional role of the Maker in Anne Rice’s stories (Maker: a vampire who makes another vampire).  In Interview With The Vampire and The Vampire Lestat, the main character is either transformed with not enough information (Louis) or against his will (Lestat).  Lestat’s egomania and toxic sense of possession of others also expresses itself in this way, not only with Louis but with Claudia and with those whom he wants to sweep in and “rescue” (Nicolas, his mother, Mona) and another instance that happens in a way that is non-consensual and violent to the point that it resembles rape (David).  Marius, in a way, takes sexual advantage of Armand as a young boy.  Vampire sexuality does not work the same way as human sexuality, but they do have a kind of sexual intimacy that has long-reaching and destructive consequences for Armand’s human life and essentially ends it.  Armand decides he doesn’t want anyone except Marius and, during a stretch of promiscuity, attracts the attention of a homicidally jealous man.  In the end, Marius needs to transform him into a vampire to stop him from dying, which itself can be construed as a consequence of a violated boundary in Armand’s childhood.

Not all vampire transformations in these stories are brutal or unwanted and not all of them have dark, sexualized undertones, but a lot of them do.  The role of consent versus non-consent and the ways in which a Maker takes charge of a fledgling’s early existence are high-lighted often. This inevitably involves the feelings of agency or non-agency in the newborn vampire. So, in Prince Lestat, in which so many fundamental things are being redefined and turned around, what are we to think of the transformation of Rose and Viktor?  Rose has been rescued from traumatic disaster multiple times by Lestat which already prompts her to think of him as a kind of super hero who can always protect her.  Never does she have full control over her life with no shadow of outside influence and then there’s the plot points that require her to be sequestered away with Viktor and eventually transformed.  Oh yeah, and Viktor has lived his entire life under the rigid surveillance and protection of the vampire scientists and has had even less of a shot at an independent life than Rose.

Now, with moments in stories that are meant to break with prior convention, there is an expectation that those moments have some sort of meaningful contrast with the older conventions.  One cannot escape comparing them.  With this in mind, I don’t see how it’s possible to read Rose and Viktor’s story in a way that’s not dismal.

Luckily, though, this so far is the only really bad thing I have to say about the Prince Lestat novels.  Hopefully nothing in Blood Communion will exacerbate this.  There are other details that one could construe as weaknesses, but only if one insists on reading Prince Lestat outside of the context of the prior works.  Every chapter involving a vampire from before that book requires the context of the larger series to fully appreciate it.  I can understand that some may take issue with this.  Since I am comfortable reading Prince Lestat in the context of all the other stories, though, I do not take issue with it.

I have to disagree with the general fan reaction in that I think Prince Lestat and The Realms of Atlantis was amazing.  The only complaint I can think of is that it would have benefited from spending time with Amel after his corporeal destruction and maybe a little bit of his initial contact with Mekare and Mararet.  I also really appreciated getting to know Amel fully as a fleshed out character beyond his oblique little communiques in Prince Lestat.  The manner in which the sacred core is placed into it’s own body also puts all of the onus of being the Prince on Lestat, since he no longer wields the unassailable protection of having the core in his body.  I also can’t help but wonder if the denizens of Bravenna will show up in any future stories.

Anne Rice has stated that many of her favorite writers are “messy” and that she thinks about her new vampire novels as “messy” stories.  I agree with both her choice of the word “messy” and the positive connotations she gives to “messiness”.  The new Prince Lestat stories have an unbridled feeling of possibility but it’s hard to determine their essential success or lack thereof this early in the new series.  At the very least, she has a deft grasp on the nature of the reversal that she is attempting, she is fully aware of how huge it is and so far I am enjoying seeing the adventure unfold.

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