Hey there-

At the end of the last entry I said I would review Promethea next. While I still fully intend to do that, I was not able to finish the last volume and I would prefer to do a comprehensive review. Circumstances have been such that I actually read two Neil Gaiman comics, Violent Cases and Marvel 1602. I’ll probably end up reviewing one or the other soon.

I was also in Anchorage for the recent massive earthquake and have been taking time to be with those I love here

Mental health

Trigger warning: contains descriptions of potentially disturbing events, violent language and frank discussion of suicidal ideation and a suicide attempt

So yesterday, while my family and I were at a restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner, a stranger had a very bizarre outburst that seemed to be aimed at me. She was addressing an old man at her side while passing us and she was becoming harder and harder to ignore. At first it wasn’t altogether clear who she was referring to. She kept saying “it’s her” and “there she is, next to that wall”. I glanced around, incredulous. There was only one female person who is standing anywhere near a wall in the immediate area, and guess who it was. There was some sentence fragment about someone on her porch. A case of mistaken identity? Lately, in the community I live in, there has been a rash of break-ins that usually start at sliding glass doors on a porch or a deck, and these people had recently began targeting victims sleeping inside of cars.

Meanwhile, my mom and uncle are talking and I’m saying hi to a cousin and I’m dealing with two strange demands on my attention: one is that this increasingly loud stranger is talking about me, second that it has something to do with the recent break-ins. I hear the word “porch” a few more times. Later, as this woman is inside of a rickety elevator with a clear plastic door (evidently designed to resemble glass) I catch the phrase “that’s a man, that’s a fucking man”. The elevator is closing and it’s harder to make her words out, as loud as she is. I catch a mention of a place I used to work, and she says something that contains the words “gonna get shanked”.

So this, at least, is where the flood of raw, spontaneous crazy ends. But now there’s the crazy of the apparent implications and what sense, if any, can be made of it. For one thing, there was another transsexual working at the place she mentioned mid-rant. This person preceded me by some years and before I came out I would hear people referring to this location as the place where “so and so” works. People would bring it up to me as a punch line before anyone in my hometown had any reason to think I was transgendered. So there’s that layer of the local gossip fixtures.

One part of me feels like Graham Chapman in this skit from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The Graham Chapman character is standing around at a restaurant waiting to be seated while a waiter played by Terry Jones stops to make small talk. Near the end of the conversation the waiter says “now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go commit suicide.” Graham Chapman: “Oh no, I’m sorry!” Terry Jones: “Oh don’t worry, it’s not because of anything serious.” The Terry Jones waiter walks off and Chapman has a look on his face that is both disturbed and very confused. Another part of me has been put in touch with another set of memories.

One of them involves a walk I went on a few years ago. I stopped for about an hour to read in a park and it was near the end of the summer. My mother passes by and we stop and chat for a while, then I go back to my book (I think it was The Basketball Diaries, the Jim Carrol memoir). When I finally start for my apartment, my walk takes me by a community center building where my mom’s ceremonial native dance group used to practice when I was a kid (and yes, as a kid I was involved). There was a large woman standing in the driveway who seemed to be looking vaguely in my direction.

“You fucking cunt!”

At this time in my life, I live in a part of town where people are frequently intoxicated and loud and colorful outbursts are known to happen, but normally only among involved parties. At first, I have no reason to think this has anything to do with me.

“I’ll kick your ass!”

This time it’s louder and there is something of a meaningful beat before the ‘fucking cunt’ yell. I glance at her and sure enough this bloated, sow-eyed oxygen-thief is dead-eyeing me.

“I’ll kick your ass, you fucking bitch! That’s what you wanna be, right!? I’ll kill you, you fucking cunt! I’ll kick your ass!”

I break eye contact and keep walking. She gets louder but doesn’t say anything new, just more combinations of ‘cunt’, ‘bitch’, ‘kick your ass’ and ‘kill you’. It shook me up a little and I avoided that part of town for a long time afterward.

Next summer, I’m walking from my apartment to a convenience store. A large bald man and a short elderly woman are arguing. The old woman seems like she’s spacing out and making absolutely no secret of the fact that she’s not listening to the pissed off bald guy. By the time I’m walking by, mister bald dude is nice and livid and his head swivels at me. He’s a little more inventive then the cunt-shouter from last year, but not much.

“Fuck you, you fucking skag! Fucking no one wants your ass, bitch!”

I’ve managed to put some distance between myself and him and two tourists emerge from a store between us and start walking in his direction. I hear him say “I’m sorry you had to hear that, ladies, I’m not like that normally.” So I take my sweet time shopping and walk a longer, separate route home. At this time I’m not driving so I start wondering about the feasibility of maybe finding a convenient way to get across town where there are other places to get groceries.

A few other similar events happen over the years. Once I get asked “Do you suck dick?” by a random man while I’m walking home. I ask why and he says he doesn’t know and eventually walks away. Another time at a strange man says “Nice new tits” to me while I’m shopping and I just keep walking.

If it seems like I’m going down a rabbit hole of itemizing different, unrelated things, there are two reasons for that. One is that, as a transwoman who began transition in her late twenties, many of things experiences were new to me. Some ciswomen might say that all this is simply par for the course, at least as far as the encounters with men go.

Another reason is that I have a hard time channeling my fear and anger. For a handful of reasons, I grew up thinking that anger or loudness is an invitation for even worse bullshit then whatever made you afraid to begin with. When I feel those feelings stirring in me I have this sublimely squirmy impulse, like you just want something off of you and away as quickly as possible. As a child and a teenager, standing up to bullying and harassment never made anything better for me and then, as the dysphoria began to reach suicidal proportions, my spirit was essentially broken. For most of my late teens and early twenties, I cared about very little except alcohol, marijuana and dying somehow once I get the nerve up. At a certain point I finally got the nerve and I tried my best. My slow, tentative steps toward coming out have done wonders for dragging me back from mental and emotional living death, but I still have a world of work to do with dealing with threats like this.

Two months ago, while being trained for my current job, this came to a head as well. I’ve gone on for awhile and I’ll try to keep it short. Basically, there was an instructor who would misgender me every damn day and every damn day try to chalk it up to an accident. If I had to interact with her for any prolonged length of time she would eventually drop the apologies and just start with consistent male pronouns. At that point I was seething with anger. I need and want this job and I don’t want to do anything to screw it up, but I simply cannot make eye contact with her. During one particularly awful day where she just wouldn’t cut the shit I had to excuse myself to go to the bathroom because I was having a panic attack for the first time since I was twenty. Like I said, that was about two months ago.

Then the jolly Thanksgiving of 2018 happens.

I feel like I’m at a time in my life where I have to draw a harder line with my mental health. When I was twenty-two and just coming out of my engagement with the first person I ever tried to come out to, I made a promise to myself that I would not die by suicide, that I would live as long as I could and as best as I could. Talk is cheap, though. A few years later when I was twenty-six I tried to kill myself with a couple bottles of cold medicine and a fifth of whiskey.

Talk is so fucking cheap. You can say whatever you want as loudly and passionately as it can, but the universe will never cease to say “Fucking prove it” as soon as you stop. You can promise all you want, you can talk yourself up in the privacy of your own soul and that is where many important first steps are taken. But things still must go past the first step. And on top of everything else that drove me to the edge when I was twenty-six, the fact that I broke my promise made me feel like the blackest failure. Even then, though, you have to keep trying. I tried to kill myself once, so now I have to learn to say “once was enough, never again.” I felt guilty and remorseful after I came out to my ex-fiancee and she cried over it, and after that I had to learn to say “once was enough”.

A broken boundary is not defeat. It is a screaming call to arms. Is there any reason to believe that? How about because you need to, because if you don’t behave as if you believe it then the worst truly will happen.

My therapist told me recently to give myself more credit for being as strong as I am. That is a new experience for me but I like to think I’m taking to it. I’m learning to remind myself that my life is filled with genuine triumph and I’ve come a long way. But the areas that you’ve paid less attention to because it’s too painful, those times and places where you feel like your only choice is to shut up and take it, are not going to get any better unless you walk yourself, step by step, to fixing what you thought was unfixable.

Some of the blind spots in my mental health exist due to my fearful neglect, but I also have a truly non-violent personality and moral attitude. Values are worth holding on to and worth living out, but you must also recognize adversity for what it truly is without letting your values lapse into escapism about how you wish things were. This is everyone’s problem and it never stops. The good news is that we are equal to it. We can do this, it’s possible and we have everything to gain.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I know this is a departure from the relatively light-hearted lit-crit and video game reviews that I usually do more of than anything else. And I’ll soon get back to that. A review of Alan Moore’s Promethea will be coming soon. I just have to get this out of my system, and if you’ve accompanied me this far you have my sincere gratitude.

Thank you, and best wishes

Vampyr video game review (spoilers)

A few days ago I finished my first play-through of Vampyr on the PS4 and I think it more or less…maintains the standard of Dontnod’s previous game Life Is Strange.  That comparison might be a little difficult for me to make since I’ve only played through Life Is Strange once and I’ve already made some progress into a second play-through of Vampyr.  That, in and of itself, speaks to one significant difference between those two games: Vampyr invites repeated play-throughs more than Life Is Strange.  At least for me.  Thing is, Life Is Strange is so heavily narrative driven that I got way too attached to my choices and what my “head cannon” of the story is.  I fully intend to replay it at some point, but it ended in a way that just seemed too “neat” to be tampered with.  Part of this is established  by how linear it is as well as the attempt at flowing like a true-to-life experience, like a film.

Not that Vampyr isn’t narrative driven and carefully written (carefully written a lot of the time, anyway).  It’s just that the player character and the setting are more conducive to exploring and experimenting.  Life Is Strange revolves around a girl in her late teens to early twenties who, for the most part, only has the resources and perspective of an American minor.  The appearance of Maxine Caulfield’s time travel ability creates a stark point of departure where she has to navigate the possibilities of her new power with her pre-existing frame of reference.  This divided perspective rooted in a single character (without getting into the Before The Storm stuff) orients everything about our view of the story and it’s pacing.  The scope of Life Is Strange revolves, very closely, around Max’s personal point of view, which means you are not going to be easily tempted to step off the beaten path.

The way in which Vampyr differs from this has to do with some mechanics that are rather common in other genres, like a map showing different accessible regions.  The leveling mechanic and combat add an action-RPG touch that at times leads you to play the game like an action-RPG, with the attendant exploration.  Your player character being a vampire also puts some emphasis on combat which also makes Vampyr feel a little more like a “normal” video game (although you do not need to feed on non-combatant civilians to finish the game…not if you don’t want to, anyway).

What also adds to the relative openness of Vampyr‘s gameplay is it’s sense of place.  Vampyr is set in London in the year 1918 and Dontnod worked hard to make this very immersive.  The character animations are some of the best I’ve seen in recent history with a few very memorable instances of subtlety in body language and facial expression.  Particularly with the characters Edgar Swansea and Elisabeth Ashbury.

Right now, during my second play-through, I love watching the exchange between Johnathan Reid (our player character) and Swansea in the boat at the beginning.  Swansea’s body language is great at establishing both his familiarity with the world of vampires and the supernatural and also a certain obtuse enthusiasm.  Swansea never get’s uncomfortably awkward but there are a few moments where he seems like he’s about to.  In the boat, a few of his gesticulations almost look as if he’s tempted to touch Johnathan, like he’s barely stopping himself from being overwhelmed by curiosity and excitement.  Later in the game you have the chance to make some decisions that lead to him being turned into a vampire and his facial animations shine well after that point as well as his voice acting.

If you choose to explore this possibility, Johnathan Reid transforms him as a punishment for inadvertently unleashing a version of the Spanish flu that also transforms its victims into extremely impulsive and dangerous undead creatures called Skals.  After his transformation, though, Swansea either seems totally dismissive of it being a punishment or unaware of it.  If Johnathan brings it up, Swansea will happily assure you that hearing your thoughts in his head occasionally is quite punishing (in this game, fledgling vampires sometimes hear the thoughts of their makers).  He fantasizes out loud about conducting radical experiments on his vampiric body that a human could not survive through.  If Johnathan asks him if he learned anything from his prior mistake, Swansea will say that he promises to never do any experiments on mortals.  He adds “See that?  I said mortals.”  I just love how that reflects on his grasp on the conversation’s tone and how his casual and light-hearted word choice contrasts with Johnathan.

Elisabeth Ashbury, a fellow vampire, is another highlight.  She may be the only video game character I’ve ever seen who, through facial expression, body language and voice acting, pulls off a kind of stoicism that reveals tenderness by implication.  It’s possible for a budding romance to take off between Elisabeth and Johnathan.  Here, Elisabeth comes as close as she ever does to being effusive with warmth and it’s pulled off largely by what is unsaid and what is said timidly.  I also gotta say the chemistry between these two characters is a joy to watch.  During my first play-through, I got an ending that was kind to the couple, and I loved the emotional pay-off.

Also, when I said “only”, I meant the only one to pull off these things largely through character animation and voice acting.  Emotional momentum can happen a million other ways in video games and I feel like text-based RPGs and action-RPGs are sometimes unfortunately overlooked here.  For me, reading dialogue while watching character animations can be very persuasive and when Final Fantasy X used voice acting for the first time in the history of the franchise, I wondered if maybe they weren’t doing it simply because they were expected to.  I also remember playing Diablo II for the first time as a preteen and that game had some truly bad voice acting at certain parts.  The American accents kind of got to me.  I mean…is the spoken language of Diablo‘s world meant to resemble any particular real world language?  Probably not, but the American accents messed with my suspension of disbelief.  And a review of Vampyr probably wouldn’t be the place to get into the ups and downs of voice acting in the various Silent Hill games.

So yeah, I don’t think photo-realism and voice acting are necessary to create emotional investment in the story of a video game, but Elisabeth Ashbury is probably my favorite implementation of convincingly dramatic character modeling and voice acting.  Rumor has it that a TV adaptation of Vampyr may be in the works and I think the casting of Elisabeth is something that it could potentially stand or fall on.

There are also some interesting elaborations on vampire lore in this game.  I already mentioned Skals, one of a few different species of vampires.  The Disaster phenomena, aka Dus Astros, which figures largely in the later parts of the game, was intriguing…at times.  Maybe it’s because I’m an Anne Rice fan who has read everything she wrote to date about the spirit Amel, but when it was revealed that the Red Queen and Myrddin are spirits that live in all vampires, I thought the writers could probably do something a little more creative than what they ended up doing.

It did have some interesting nuts and bolts, though.  Myrddin has created numerous vampires including both Johnathan Reid and William Marshall.  The Disaster appears periodically throughout history and typically begins life as an ordinary female vampire.  What the Disaster does, then, is cause a giant regional disaster (*giggles*) like a plague and feed on the pain and suffering.  Anyway, William Marshall, the knight from British history, has dedicated his existence largely to fighting the Disaster when she appears.  At the end of the game you have the chance to ask William a few different questions.  If you ask him who the first Disaster was, he says he cannot say it in front of Elisabeth, who is his fledgling and surrogate daughter.  Off hand, I can’t think of any obvious reason why he shouldn’t talk about it pertaining to Elisabeth herself, so perhaps it has to do with him.

This reflects interestingly on an unexplained plot hole.  During my play-throughs thus far, I have come across three different animated sequences that almost resemble comic book art.  One is after fighting and killing Johnathan’s sister, Mary, whom he turned into a vampire on accident, another is after fighting the Disaster in the sewers beneath London and the last one covers the ending.  Mary’s accidental transformation is a plot hole because Elisabeth explains to you clearly how vampires are created and it’s through a human drinking a vampire’s blood.  During Mary’s death, there is no visible opportunity for her to drink any of Johnathan’s blood.  If Elisabeth is to be trusted, Mary’s transformation has no obvious explanation.  Now this could be a simple oversight on the part of the writers, but this brings us to the placement of the animated cut-scenes.  The two latter ones, after the Disaster fight and at the end, are very specifically related to huge plot points.

So.  William Marshall cannot bring himself to talk about the first Disaster he ever fought.  What other vampires has the spirit Myrddin created other than Johnathan Reid and William Marshall?  King Arthur is one of them.  King Arthur died at the hands of his son, whom he sired with his sister, Morgan LeFay.  As far as I’ve dug into the lore of this game, King Arthur, William and Johnathan are the only three that are specifically singled out as being the progeny of Myrrdin.  So according to myth, King Arthur’s sister played a huge role in his downfall, William Marshall will not talk about the first Disaster he fought, and Johnathan’s sister became a vampire for no reason that reconciles with anything else.  It almost seems like, whenever Myrddin creates a male vampire, that male will soon make a female, but not through the ordinary blood exchange (remember that part in the myth about Arthur impregnating his sister?), and that female seems disposed to become a Disaster.

If this theory is true, then obviously Johnathan killed his sister before she could mature into a Disaster, but look at how quickly she develops as a vampire as opposed to Johnathan.  Many agree that the fight with Mary Reid is the first truly hard one in the game.  Not only is Mary more emotionally explosive but her destructive supernatural abilities far outstrip Johnathan’s.  She seems to be maturing far quicker than normal and is far more powerful than a typical fledgling.

This theory also makes sense since Myrddin and the Red Queen seem to be two halves of the same whole.  An avatar of one may necessarily call into existence the avatar of the other.  If a Disaster appeared in the time of King Arthur, potentially in the form of Morgan LeFay, that would even help explain the nationalist loyalty that many vampires feel.  The Ascalon Club, an exclusive shadow-government of vampires and humans, is dedicated to the protection of England.  Myrddin says a few times that he is committed to keeping England safe.  This protective sense of possession would make sense if, whenever a legendary English male figure became a vampire, a Disaster would also appear.

This also helps to explain William Marshall’s somewhat crazed passion for finding and stopping Disasters, up to and including chaining himself up forever in a castle, since, while he did not exchange blood with a Disaster prior to her creation, he did get bitten by her during the fight.  This infection is known colloquially as the blood of hate, and he even spread it to Elisabeth once.  During that time, Elisabeth was a blood-thirsty monster until William concocted a sort of antidote.  Elisabeth was cured of the mental frenzy of a Disaster, but the blood of hate remained alive in her body, meaning that if she ever tries to make more vampires, they would become Disasters.  As Johnathan puts it, she is a “healthy carrier”, like Typhoid Mary.  (and yes, the appearance of the current Disaster has to do with Edgar Swansea doing experiments with her blood)

Then again, the mysterious creation and maturation of Mary Reid could be a simple oversight.  It’s not like there are not moments of laxity with establishing causal links in Vampyr.  Now and then, the next elaboration in the story line may either be unexplained or obliquely explained.  At one point, Johnathan’s objective is to help the Ascalon Club in their fight against Priwen (vampire hunters), which I think happens after the fight with Doris Fletcher.  Before this, there is no reason to think that the Guard of Priwen and the Ascalon Club are in a state of open war.  You even have an earlier opportunity to talk to Lord Redgrave, the leader of the Ascalon Club, about things like this and he makes no mention of it.  Then, the closer you get to the Ascalon Club, Johnathan’s mental narration tells us he plans to take advantage of the protection the club offers it’s members while investigating further.  This is a little messy, to say the least.  The next lucid story objective appears before we have time to really dwell on the messiness, but it is still messy.

There are also a few moments where the next story direction comes from an in-game document you pick off of a corpse but, unless you take the time to actually read the paper, you are not given a clear reason why the next objective appears.  I could see how one could argue that expecting the player to read the in-game notes and stuff is perfectly reasonable, but it still creates this odd possibility that there is a way to play parts of the game where you don’t know how or why Johnathan knows something.  This oversight stands out, especially since Life Is Strange, Dontnod’s previous game, was so tightly written.  As I said at some length earlier, though, Vampyr is intentionally open-ended and exploratory, so perhaps a little messiness is to be expected when coming off of a prior game that was quite linear.  These little oversights are no less of an eyesore in the writing, though.

The gameplay, though, is pretty solid throughout.  The combat is what I would call tough but fair, which I think bears some mention since some other reviewers have brought up the combat system as a weakness.  I liked the combat since it encourages you to try a few things, evaluate how their working, then go back in, and the aggressive AI makes this tense as well as engaging.  Over time you start to notice certain patterns, like you may, occasionally, catch an aggressive Skal alone and off guard, but you will never catch one of the Guard of Priwen alone, even if you have them off guard.  Renegade Ekons (in-game jargon for the species of vampire that you and Elisabeth belong to) are often alone, but also have an annoying tendency to be a little close to Skals who might decide to enter the fray at painfully vulnerable moments.  Combat in Vampyr teaches you to look for circumstantial advantages and disadvantages before and also during a fight.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this game.  Weaknesses in the writing notwithstanding, it continues Dontnod’s trademark of strong, narrative driven games while also taking some substantial steps in a new direction.

The importance of non-binary language for those who are not

I have a lot of mixed feelings about bringing up this topic but since I brought it up in my very first post I feel like I should clarify what I meant.

Way back when I heard Jordan Peterson’s appearance on Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast and felt compelled to sound off publicly, I briefly mentioned my own relationship with non-binary language when I first began coming out.  The more personal and anecdotal stuff was secondary to my main points there, but upon re-reading it I don’t think I was very clear on what I meant.

Right away, I want to make it clear that I’m not saying everybody is non-binary.  A. that just isn’t true and B. it parallels a very fallacious line of thought about bisexuality.  In the past, when people have learned that I am bisexual, they’ve been a little incredulous.  A straight friend of mine from high school seemed to think that I’m interested exclusively in men and, for awhile, was surprised whenever he was reminded that I’m attracted to women as well.  One man, whom I was involved with for a long time, would sometimes say that, on the rare occasions he had sex with women, that they were essentially “the exception that proves the rule” (this person is gay.)  The point of these stories seemed to be that everyone has some degree of flexibility but there is an inevitable average that, for most intents and purposes, designates your orientation.

I don’t think this person knew about Alfred Kinsey, but his beliefs clearly mapped onto the concept of the Kinsey spectrum.  When Kinsey gathered his data for his two books on human sexuality, he surveyed innumerable people and reported that people who are exclusively heterosexual or exclusively homosexual are rare, and that most people are “predominantly gay” or “predominantly straight”.  In essence, everyone is bisexual but everyone has an average that designates their sexual orientation more than the deviations from the average.  Back when my high school friend would be surprised by my attraction to women, he would sometimes express something similar.  I would say something like “you already know I’m bisexual” and he would say something like “yes but don’t you…desire men more than you desire women?”  The high school friend and the ex-partner seemed to be driving at the same thing: the term ‘bisexual’ is fundamentally not relevant.  Either you have a consistent average within more diverse possibilities, or you are simply refusing to “own up” to the fact that you are either gay or straight.

I don’t think people should be afraid of fluidity but I also think embracing fluidity can obfuscate other relevant averages.  On one hand, consider people who have been mostly straight except for one very deep and long lasting same sex attraction.  If that one relationship ends, such a person may simply continue being interested in the opposite sex.  The one break in the pattern does not, in and of itself, compel one to re-evaluate their identity.  Internalized homophobia could also come up in this context: if you think that gay people are foreign “others” who you think of as existing far from you, you might not mentally place yourself in that category.  On the other hand, there are people like me who simply do not have a consistent preference for the sex or gender of their partners.  For myself and other bisexuals, bisexuality itself is the average.

Forgive me if I’m taking a long time getting to the point, but I think this habit of mind bears mentioning.  With sexual orientation and gender, there are categories that are used the most and that people are the most familiar with, i.e. gay, straight, male and female.  The vast majority of people can relate to one of those four categories and their common acceptance can create doubt about people who do not relate to those four groups.  If it is commonly assumed that those four groups are universal and if someone has things in common with more than one of them, a lay person might think that some sort of male \ female straight \ gay identity must be there, even if it’s not obvious.  This has an unintentional consistency with “questioning” people who may feel alienated from commonly accepted groups but eventually come to identify with one of them.  This both alienates people who truly do not identify as gay or straight, male or female, and compels people to re-interpret their lives with previously unclear aspects of their identity re-defined as lucid.

Aaaaaannndd……at long last we’re now close to that “point” thing that seems to be all the rage these days.  In the Waking Up episode with Jordan Peterson, he expresses his anxiety with legal protection extending to non-binary individuals in particular.  In other situations, Peterson has described gender neutral pronouns like ze and hir as words that he “hates” and will never use.  From that point, I started getting anecdotal with my early twenties when I was struggling to come out and how Kate Bornstein’s explanation of being genderqueer was my first really accessible way of making sense of my feelings.

As I said at some length above, I do not want to say that everyone is non-binary in the same way that Alfred Kinsey encouraged people to think that everyone is bisexual, and that once you’ve nailed down your consistent average the wider flexibility ceases to matter.  As someone who used to identify as non-binary, I would never say anything that flippant.  But I’m not at all convinced that my lived experience is unique, or even very different from the average transgender person.

For me, the most basic and obvious reason for the usefulness of non-binary language is that the average transperson has internalized a script from the rest of society interrogating their existence.  Most transwomen, at some point in their lives, have heard something like “it takes more than a dress, heels and surgery to make a woman”.  Queer people in general are also likely to be asked why they are how they are.  I’ve heard some truly odd replies to this question when older transwomen have told me about other conversations that they’ve had.

In my own family, there’s a widely circulated story about a trans individual who said she wanted to be female because men open doors.  I don’t think I need to dwell on how absurd that is.  But if you have been told that you’re mentally ill and have had people demand an explanation from you over and over again, it definitely makes sense that you’d start to think that any answer would be better than no answer, that if you just say something, no matter how transparently false, it will take the heat off of you.  If someone badgers you to answer a question over and over again throughout your life, it makes sense that eventually you’d just want them to shut up and go away, and giving a random answer could be a learned way to do that.

Another surface level reason for why non-binary language is useful for trans people within the binary is their lived experience.  I have not had the childhood that a ciswoman or a cisman has had.  Cismen don’t have their peace of mind ruined by gender dysphoria and ciswoman have female anatomy.  As a bare bones concession to objective reality, I have a set of experiences as a transgender person that cispeople simply do not have and vice versa.  TERFs are infamous for pointing out the absence of wombs, vaginas, menstruation, etc.  Strictly speaking, these remarks are relevant, but not in the way that TERFs maintain that they are.  It doesn’t mean that transwomen are less female or that transmen are less male, but it does mean that there are experiences that trans people have that cispeople do not.

If that seems obvious to the point of being silly, let me break down some stuff about myself.  My body dysphoria compelled me to persistently seek out hormone replacement therapy and voice training.  The stress of my dysphoria compels me to make my body more female.  Regardless of what I believe about gender or consciously assert about myself, my bodily transition is definitely headed in a direction that fits within the binary.  I don’t know why that is and never have, so my dysphoria seems to have subconscious origin.  According to the definitions, this makes me a transsexual woman, since the motivation comes from and relates to my sex.  A big part of my transition is making my body female, which in and of itself is an experience that both cismen and ciswomen do not have.  Although I’m female, only a minority of females need to transition.  It’s absolutely true that I don’t have a uterus and have never menstruated, but the same can be said of many women, and it fits with the larger phenomena of experiences unique to transpeople.  I don’t think owning this uniqueness causes anyone to lose, it certainly doesn’t invalidate anyone.  Only in a world where male and female are the only two gendered categories could that be invalidating.

An intuitive objection to this is that mainstream culture in general only accommodates the categories of male and female and to act like this does not have the power to isolate and harm people is naive.  I totally agree, but the consequences of social censure is not the same question as whether or not something is real.  A lot of us have had conversations with straight people who think that being queer is a “bad idea” because of all the ways that society punishes queerness.  This is also more or less what social conservatives mean when they say that the definition of marriage is between a man and a woman.

Asserting that someone disbelieves in something or will attempt to dissuade others from doing something is not evidence against it.  A statement of belief or disbelief is not objective evidence of anything.  So it’s absolutely true that society punishes people who do not conform to the binary, but that’s not the same question as whether or not non-binary experiences and language matter.  I think it even attests to the weakness of the binary that it alienates and oppresses people who identify within the binary, like transsexual women or men, who typically have to deal with a lifetime of reconciling their felt gender with a world that constantly demands an explanation or justification.

There is another objection to this that I really do have mixed feelings about, though; that trans people feeling alienated from the binary is a consequence of internalized transphobia.  That’s true and there’s nothing like the difference between a trans persons’ conscious assessment and beliefs and the persistence of body dysphoria to underscore how true it is.  Body dysphoria can compel someone to transition in the face of a lifetime of internalizing messages that they should not.  At the same time, though, I also believe that part of exorcising bad emotions is to acknowledge that it’s okay to feel them.  If you have felt that being trans has caused society to make you feel unwelcome as either a man or a woman, then the next step could be to acknowledge that it’s okay not to be either.

Sopor Aeternus & The Ensemble Of Shadows

The last few weeks have been a little rough on me.  I have ADHD and Borderline Personality Disorder, which means I have to be a little extra vigilant with monitoring my mental health and self-care.  And let us not forget Puberty Round Two, close friend and confidant of any transsexual in their first years of hormone replacement therapy (I’m going on year four but, erm, still.  My dosage was recently adjusted as per blood work).  Receiving my signed copy of Blood Communion in the mail caused a brief spike in excitement but didn’t really effect my mood in the best way.  I saw things in the characters Benedict and Rhoshamandes that made me dwell uncomfortably on bad decisions I’ve made in past relationships.  A close friend sent me a link to a song on YouTube, though, that cheered me up for the first time in days.  That little emotional bump was probably the spark I needed to write my big’ol text brick of a review for Blood Communion.  And that bump is named Anna-Varney Cantodea, mastermind of Sopor Aeternus & The Ensemble Of Shadows.

You know something speaks to you in the right way when you start to return to things you normally enjoy.  That is, when you regain your ability to feel mental pleasure and satisfaction and you realize how deep your anhedonia actually was.  What specifically happened was that my friend linked me to Sopor Fratrem Mortis Est, and the playlist went on to A Strange Thing to Say.  I then proceeded to immerse myself in the brilliance of Anna-Varney when playing Bloodborne with the sound on the TV turned all the way down.  For the last week, Sopor Aeternus has been my go-to band, with occasional digressions into Cake Bake Betty and Francoise Hardy.

You also know you’re something of a special cupcake with extra special frosting when Sopor Aeternus, of all bands, opens a floodgate for your emotions and makes everything feel okay.  For those who don’t know, Sopor is popularly associated with sub-genres like dark-wave, dark cabaret and neoclassical and it is said that the memory of Rozz Williams of Christian Death was on Anna-Varney’s mind while writing the Dead Lovers’ Sarabande albums. Sopor Aeternus also takes strong direction from medieval European music and can run a gloriously chaotic mental, emotional and spiritual gamut.

I’m fascinated and often blindsided by the easy overlap of camp and earnestness.  In It, the character Richie Tozier has a moment of internal dialogue where he reflects on the thin line between what is funny and horrible.  It’s kind of like that.  I think part of that is, as a queer in a small rural community, self-loathing has often been very close at hand.  Especially for a transsexual.  Even now that I’m an adult who has been frankly out as trans for years with a supportive family.  Maybe I only feel like this because I’m pre-op, but gender dysphoria seems like something that’s always going to  be there, at least a little bit.  Do I actually believe that?  I try not to…I try hard.  Perhaps the delicate segues between self-celebration and self-effacement, humor and horror, also speaks to the thin divide between humor and anger.  Recognizing these things in another mind can be a vital safety valve.

This makes Anna-Varney Cantodea a new hero as both an artist and a fellow transperson.  To say nothing of the fact that the music of Sopor Aeternus is like an on switch for my mind.  As soon as I put on Es reiten die Toten so schnell or Mitternacht I’m probably seconds away from pulling out the journal to brainstorm or vent.  Es reiten die Toten so schnell is immersive and otherworldly, easing you in and out at the beginning and end and has a consistently elaborative emotional nature.  It’s very self-contained and each song builds directly on what came before it.  Mitternacht, though, is more manic and, to my ears, more personal.  Beautiful, La Prima Vez, Confessional, You Cannot Make Him Love You and If You Could Only Read In My Mind all gave me chills.  The alternating energy between the short and long songs and the long melodic sections with the louder parts also give the whole body of work a comfortable dream-like framing.  The dream-like nature is also supported by Mitternacht‘s covers of Bang-Bang and Into the Night.  For some reason, Anna’s rendition of Into the Night has a way of reminding me of the parts in Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels with Mia and Susannah holding palaver on the allure of Castle Discordia.

However, I heard those two albums along with The Spiral Sacrifice after I had heard the EP A Strange Thing To Say and I almost don’t know if I can go back to it.  Anna-Varney pulls off visceral camp exquisitely but there’s just something about her longer and more emotional albums that I just can’t stay away from.  Maybe it’s because so much of what she does comes from situating things within a specific body of work.  Each album is self-contained with a beginning, middle and end, which speaks to the novelist in me.  Which can make digressions like A Strange Thing To Say a little awkward to return to, as much as I love that EP.   I especially liked the video for the title track and how it elaborates on the song’s metal sensibility (her music is only occasionally inflected with metal).

I also plan on checking out Poetica (All Beauty Sleeps).  Anna-Varney Cantodea may be the first artist I’ve encountered to use the Edgar Allan Poe poem The Conqueror Worm, which I particularly like, as direct inspiration.

I think I’m also gonna end up having my will power challenged as I’m a total sap for owning hard copies of music and books.  I don’t shy away from the digital market but there really is nothing like holding a copy of something in your hand, and Sopor Aeternus puts together gorgeous bundles.  This is more special with musical artists that cultivate a direct relationship with fan communities as the more obscure acts are wont.  There is this unknown punk band in Pennsylvania called Gash that self-published an EP called Subspace a few years ago and I still have the packaging that it came in, with the hand-written address.  Granted it has my dead name, but there’s nothing quite like that personal touch from an artist you love.  Anna-Varney, similarly, cultivated support for the latest Sopor Aeternus album through Patreon with rather cool rewards for supporters.  So my crazy little collector’s soul will have to be reigned in before it bankrupts me 😛

I feel like a total groupie fan girl for adding this last part, but I love Anna-Varney’s presentation in interviews and her reflections on herself.  Por exemplo, she tends to get asked why specifically she devotes herself to the Hellenic deity Saturn and always refuses to answer.  This rings true to me: spirituality and devotion, when it’s part of an authentic journey of one’s soul, can be a deeply intimate and personal thing.  As someone who was raised with traditional ethnic spirituality, I can identify with this.  To make myself look like an even bigger fan girl, I’m impressed by the fact that she is, as of this writing, sixty-six years old.  As a transgender queer, the world can often seem like a treacherous and inhumane place.  Anna-Varney Cantodea has been living that life longer than twice the amount of time that I have, and at her age she seems so powerfully confident in her presentation and gender.  This warms my queer little heart to no end.

So thank you Anna-Varney Cantodea for being the hero that you are, in this world of Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox and insane anti-trans bullshit in the gutters of the internet, in the mainstream of American thought and in the White House.

Just finished Blood Communion: A Tale of Prince Lestat (spoilers)

Yeesh, it’s been awhile since I finished a book this quickly!  There are also a handful of surprising confluences from other precedents in Anne Rice’s body of work to be found in this most recent story.

If you’ve been an Anne Rice reader for awhile you have probably noticed that, every now and then, something like The Mummy, or Ramses The Damned or the Sleeping Beauty books will come along that offer a stark contrast to her more dense and sprawling works.  Also, if you’re an Anne Rice fan, you probably love her most when she knocks the breaks off of being sprawling and dense.  Not that the faster, energetic and shorter stories are bad- I and others appreciate them as novel departures.  Really, we’ve mostly gotten used to think of them as different, and sometimes alternating patterns in her work.

Now I don’t quite consider Blood Communion to be the same sort of fast paced-story as The Mummy or the like but this book went by so quickly and it was so action-driven and concise that I couldn’t help but be reminded of that kind of story.  It also reminded me a little of Lasher with how quickly the plot moved and the sequence of the threads resolving (Lasher is quite the unique book among Rice’s bibliography as well).  I mean, let’s not mince words, while Anne Rice shines when she’s ambitiously philosophical she is also very good at quick-moving thrillers.  These kinds of stories are undeniably enjoyable.

That being said, while I enjoyed Blood Communion there were a few things that I found difficult to get behind.  While we still haven’t gotten into spoilers yet I want to mention that this book shines best when you know nothing about the plot in advance.  If you want to read Blood Communion and get the most out of it, you might want to stop here.

First off, her treatment of the story’s apparent villain gave me pause.  This is something Anne Rice has typically been very good at.  Favorite examples that come to my mind are Akasha, Lasher, Gregory Belkin, Santino, Patronia and Lestat.  While the Brat Prince is on a very different and openly heroic path in these new Prince Lestat novels, Lestat has often been at his most compelling as an antagonist.  So I do think it’s fair to place Lestat on that list of compelling villains.  Owing perhaps to her deft footing in gothic storytelling, Anne Rice does a great job at villainous characters that are destructive and evil while still eliciting emotional, and sometimes moral, sympathy.

In genres like gothic fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, etc. that have many firmly established tropes, the situating of protagonists, antagonists and compelling motivations can be botched very, very easily.  Last spring I read the Lord of The Rings trilogy for the first time and I was as impressed with Tolkein’s delicacy as I was with his vibrant and immersive world building.  Tolkein was quite deft at fleshing out characters in archetypal, mythic story arcs in which the mythological framework itself may have boxed in a less talented writer.  Often, the simplest things are the hardest things…and the most impressive things when they go well.  Anne Rice is good at the simplest things.

One of the biggest failings of the Queen of The Damned film is it’s total simplification of Akasha.  One reason for this had to be because the studio was afraid that a villain specifically targeting men might alienate part of the anticipated demographic.  The movie version of Akasha did not have the Utopian ambition as book Akasha, which was central to one of the Vampire Chronicles‘ huge themes: moral optimism versus moral pessimism.  Three books into the Chronicles, we have met Lestat and Marius and have experienced their belief that the Enlightenment has opened the most important and liberating horizons for the West and humanity’s greatest steps forward are still ahead of us.  Akasha’s certainty that humans need a firm, authoritative hand to keep them in line makes her the ideal counterpoint.  Lasher and the Taltos are also slam-dunk antagonists: when Michael Curry brutally murdered him and Rowan Mayfair shot and killed Emalaith my heart was absolutely broken.  Rowan and Michael’s actions made sense but the pathos evinced by the Taltos made those actions hurt miserably.

In many ways, Benedict and Rhoshamandes fit this pattern.  Back when Prince Lestat first came out, Benedict and Rhoshamandes were my favorite new characters.   One reason is that they were a sympathetic pair of lovers and they were pitted against all of the main characters.  I was also intrigued by how many of Rhoshamandes’ fledglings ended up with the Children of Satan and how Lestat himself is descended from Rhoshamandes, through Benedict and Magnus.  If there was going to be more New Tales of The Vampires, I would have loved a Rhoshamandes novel.  In all honesty his role in Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis was disappointing but that novel had enough innovation and substance to make up for it.  Rhoshamandes’ expressed hatred for Amel at the end of the Atlantis novel was fully consistent, though, and held promise for the future.  Between Blood Communion and the last book, it seemed that Rhoshamandes had transferred his animus from Lestat to Amel and could potentially target the Children of Atlantis.  Lestat extracted a promise from him not to do this but who knew how binding that would be in the end, especially considering Rhosh’s prior conflict with Lestat.

This brings us to his role in Blood Communion.  What Rhoshamandes does in this story hinges entirely on how we know about his growing rift with Benedict and how we are made to believe it.  Before we learn about this in earnest, we hear Kapetria tell Lestat that Rhoshamandes has been stalking and menacing the Children of Atlantis, barely stopping short of open threats of violence.  Then Benedict appears at Court, offering Lestat the gift of a gilded throne.  Benedict explains that he intends to end his life and gives reasons that seem to refer directly to alienation from Rhoshamandes.  He says that “two is not enough”, that a relationship with a single individual with no outside input can never be sufficiently nurturing, that vampires transformed in youth or childhood never truly extricate themselves from relying on their adult makers, and that certain wounds can bring forth a rage that is “primitive and catastrophic”.

The context for these remarks is clear: Benedict and Rhoshamandes have always relied exclusively on each other and have never truly wished for any other companionship.  Benedict, like Armand, was also transformed early in his youth.  Benedict’s words indicate that he can never really exist apart from Rhoshamandes but so far has never needed to.  Only one thing, in the thousand years these two vampires have been together, has ever driven a wedge between them: Rhosh’s increasing violence and single-minded anger ever since Amel was stirred to action and Lestat’s ascendance to the rank of Prince.

What also lends context to this is Rhoshamandes’ behavior pattern before Amel, during the events of Prince Lestat, instigated the modern day Great Burning.  Rhoshamandes has never tolerated conflict or aggression and has avoided it at times to the detriment of himself and his fledglings: he would rather abandon his holdings in France when he was attacked by the Children of Satan than take action against them and even allowed them to capture his fledglings Allessandra and Everard.  This makes a bit of sense in light of the fact that Rhoshamandes had found his true love in Benedict and had ceased to desire anyone or anything else, but there is something else that explains it more.

In Prince Lestat, we learned that Rhoshamandes was a pirate in his human life who ran afoul of Akasha’s Queen’s Blood army and was press-ganged into an existence as a vampire warrior.  During these early years Rhoshamandes and Nebamun- the modern day Gregory -were neck and neck for supreme military authority within the Queen’s Blood.  Rhoshamandes was clearly very successful in the wars between the Queen’s Blood and the rebels of the First Brood and was even clever and driven enough to assist in Nebamun’s escape and achieve his own.  Between his human life and his early existence as a vampire, we know that Rhoshamandes is no stranger to conflict, has no fear of it and is a force to be reckoned with in battle.

If someone is a seasoned and capable warrior yet avoids combat at all costs, what does that look like?  Do the claims of other characters, alleging that he is a coward, seem credible?  Not really.  Rhoshamandes’ long-established behavior pattern seems to be the product of his experience as a pirate and a Queen’s Blood soldier.  He has, perhaps, learned first hand that he wanted his warlike existence behind him.  Then, under the influence of Amel, he murdered Maharet, essentially bringing him back into something that was long behind him.

I realize that I’m relying a lot on what is unsaid, but I believe these unsaid things speak rather loudly: after a long life of combat, Rhoshamandes lived a private and largely peaceful existence.  Him breaking this pattern, that has been the rule for most of his existence, seems very telling.  It makes sense that it would cast a large psychological shadow and that, while he may understand that Lestat himself did not directly and maliciously cause this return to older things, Rhoshamandes would continue to associate this event with Lestat.  If Rhoshamandes met Benedict in the midst of his long non-violent stretch, what did they see reflected in each other?  How did that precious, sustaining reflection change once Rhoshamandes was tempted back into violence?

All of this may be unsaid but I find it hard to read the first three Prince Lestat stories and not be aware of them and I think they supplement Benedict’s explanation of his suicide profoundly.  For Benedict and Rhoshamandes, two seemed to be enough, and had been enough for a thousand years.  Perhaps, after the murder of Maharet, Rhoshamandes felt banished from Benedict’s love as a consequence of his remorse and self-loathing.  Violence was something Rhoshamandes had put behind him and perhaps he could not “undo” the results of having crossed that gulf again.  If Rhoshamandes was haunted by guilt and self-hatred over the death of Maharet, then how must he have felt when Benedict had to beg for his maker’s life at the end of Prince Lestat?  Rhosh walked them into the first circumstance where separation was a genuine possibility.

For eons, Rhoshamandes had found his peace in solitude and passivity.  This reversal, perhaps more than his temporarily removed arm and humiliation before all other vampires, was likely more than he could bear.  He could never go back, he had ceased to be the person he saw reflected in Benedict and lapsed further into anger.  Benedict was referring to a growing rift between them before his death and few other things seemed to be a likely cause.  Two things changed for them in the last three books: Lestat is now the vampire monarch and Rhoshamandes has lapsed back into a previously suppressed violent state of mind.  If, during that time, these two lovers are being estranged, there’s only so many apparent reasons.

Tragically for Benedict, he needed Rhoshamandes more than Rhoshamandes needed him, and the neglect brought on by Rhosh’s self-loathing was more than he could bear.  As he said, “two is not enough”, especially since Benedict had been transformed as a relative young adult, if not child, he has never been able to learn to exist on his own.  This destructive journey into solipsism left no room for Benedict and he did not know how to go on.

To the best of my understanding, this is how the rift between Benedict and Rhoshamandes happened.  The possibility that this was brought on by Rhosh going down a path of solipsism due to self-loathing is also evidenced by the fact that Rhoshamandes held Lestat solely responsible for Benedict’s death.  Because of Lestat and Amel, Rhoshamandes returned to violence.  After the death of Benedict, Rhoshamandes doubled down to the point of attacking Gabrielle, Louis and Marius in order to cause Lestat as much suffering as possible.  If Rhoshamandes’ arc revolves around a belief that oneself is violent and evil beyond redemption, it would certainly make him a perfect opposite to Lestat’s frequent rejection of self-hatred.  In this respect, the role Rhoshamandes plays in the plot of this story works well.

Does it rub me the wrong way at all?  Maybe, and maybe not even for good reasons.  The tragic fate of Benedict and Rhoshamandes tugged at my heart-strings, certainly, but I also have to cop to an admittedly childish disappointment that we may not get any more stories with Rhoshamandes and Benedict, save through flashbacks.  I’m allowed to not like it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it works.

At the same time…I’m not sure how this elaborates on another long-standing pattern in Anne Rice’s writing and in the Vampire Chronicles: tragic love.  While The Vampire Armand may remain my favorite story in the Chronicles, I found the romance between Lestat and David in The Tale of  the Body Thief to be the most painful and therefore, perhaps, the most tragic.  Lestat was not able to love David on purely consensual and nurturing terms.  David’s love for him played a subtle role in his temptation to be human again, the only form of existence David ever wanted.  When Lestat realized he truly did not wish to be human, he also refused to let David go as a result and took him into vampirism against his will.  I think the dynamic between Armand and Marius is also very poignant and complicated, and I don’t believe I have to go into the emotional roller-coaster of Interview With The Vampire.

Are there any happy love stories in the works of Anne Rice?  Totally.  Tonio and Guido, Morrigan and Ashlar, even Armand and Daniel had parts that were very touching and sweet.  Even Lestat and Nicolas and Lestat and Gabrielle.  But there is certainly a strong pre-occupation on the ins and outs of unhealthy relationships and why people sometimes do the worst things to those they love the most.  No way do I think this has to be positive all the time: stories about adversity are vitally important and nurturing.  Everyone suffers and we live better when we know that suffering does not have to destroy us.  I think this is part of the sustaining function of dark fiction and dark art in general.

As a set of stories about resisting despair and destruction, this is very natural territory for the Vampire Chronicles.  This is even more true for the last three books in particular, in which Anne Rice says she wants to open doors (paraphrasing an interview).  I think these particular doors could have been opened more effectively if we had more recent moments with Lestat bonding with Gabrielle, Louis and Marius.  One of my favorite chapters in Prince Lestat is when we meet Sevraine in her golden caves with Gabrielle and Eleni and Allessandra, and it’s a very powerful moment for Gabrielle and her son as well as Amel.  I think Blood Communion could have benefited from more scenes like that beforehand, we also could have gotten a better look at the current state of Louis and Lestat’s report.  Louis had an important role in the plot of Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis but we’ve never really seen him attempt to co-exist with and love Lestat on the same scale as Interview With The Vampire.  

I don’t think these nit-picks constitute a genuine weakness, but with the dynamics between Benedict and Rhoshamandes so recently established, the delicacy and passion of Lestat’s attachments may be overshadowed.  This, though, is something of a circumstantial issue in the placing of these events in the bigger context of the Chronicles.  Lestat’s various relationships and all of their nuance have been very thoroughly established, it’s just that so many of them happened so long ago.

Even this, though, could be seen as a careful implementation of an older trope.  As I said earlier, Anne Rice is very good at the simple things, and mythology and archetypes and ancient tropes can, for many of us writers, be treacherously simple.  This is something Anne Rice does well, and in so many classic tragedies and landmarks in gothic fiction we see the incremental revelation of the antagonist’s background.  Perhaps, for certain kinds of detective fiction and horror, this is the fundamental plot dynamic.  In this respect, the heightened visibility of Benedict and Rhoshamandes makes perfect sense, and as witnesses to the destruction from Lestat’s perspective, we are well-placed to understand Lestat’s passion for moving the Court and all vampires to transcend self-hatred.  In a genre in which we see Erik the Phantom die in the arms of the Daroga, Victor Frankenstein murdered by his creation and Carmilla staked and dismembered by the family of her lover, this plot structure is well precedented.

Nonetheless, on a purely personal and subjective level, I was saddened to see Benedict and Rhoshamandes die, especially since we’ve already seen so many relationships between characters in the earlier Chronicles turn fatal.  And I wish the parallels between Rhoshamandes and Lestat- who turned Claudia into a vampire as an uncomprehending child and transformed David violently and against his will -had been more front and center. Lestat himself has been the most dangerous and possessive of lovers, which makes his current misery even more significant.

We see Lestat deeply and spiritually shaken in a way reminiscent of Memnoch The Devil and Queen of The Damned and, arguably, Blood Canticle, and this lends necessary gravity to Blood Communion.  Lestat’s sense of ambiguity and moral nausea with the introduction of the Court’s public executions is also well placed in this regard.  But I felt that Lestat did not exactly have the same feeling of momentous change at the end of Blood Communion as he did with Memnoch The Devil and Queen of The Damned.

Since I’m almost finished with this review I feel the need to mention something that I just wasn’t sure where to place in the rest of this.  When Gabrielle is abducted by Rhoshamandes, Lestat spends a somnolent daytime in the loving embrace of Gregory, Nebamun that was, and has a very interesting dream.  Lestat is aware in this moment that each and every soul is a planet unto themselves and one travels from planet to planet by looking at them.  This very strongly resembles an early moment in Dante Alighieri’s Il Paradiso, when Dante realizes something similar under the guidance of Beatrice during his first encounter with Heaven, when they travel from place to place by thought and attention.  I could probably keep writing for awhile about using that reference in that particular moment but I’ll try to be brief.

Legendary pilgrims such as Dante, Orpheus and Gerda in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen have gone on profound, visionary odysseys prompted by the loss of a loved one, journeys of revelatory spiritual import.  The significance for Lestat in his moment of debilitating grief is obvious and Lestat has himself made such pilgrimages in prior stories.  Like Gerda, Lestat brings his loved ones back to the land of the living.  The significant departure the Andersen story makes from Orpheus’s fatal separation and Dante’s divestment of his human sinfulness stands out.  If anything, we can agree that Anne Rice’s ambitions in these new stories are at least that much of a mythic departure from traditional gothic fiction and it’s this ambition that makes her one of my main inspirations and heroes as a writer myself.

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.