Penny Dreadful reaction

Penny Dreadful is the Dracula fix-it fic I’ve been wishing for since I first read Bram Stoker’s staggeringly awkward and tacked-on ending when I was sixteen. Within the first few episodes it’s obvious that this show is a genre retrospective and deconstruction, which I gotta admit made me a little hesitant at first. Deconstruction and nostalgia is kind of the big thing right now, what with every other new movie being a remake, popular old TV shows getting reboots, etc. It’s also combining a bunch of different stories which is also a current flavor of the week- I mean, it seems like every other super-hero movie or TV show has some sort of cross-over angle. Penny Dreadful distinguishes itself, though, by being written by people who seem to truly love the source material, and judging by what they eventually did with the re-imagining of Dracula, they seem like they love the source material for many of the same reasons I do.

 
Even when they’re being faithful to the letter of the original stories, it’s still pretty bomb. Case and point, Frankenstein. So. Freaking. Welcome. After decades of adaptations who paid little to no attention to Mary Shelley’s novel. I mean, props to the Kenneth Branagh movie, Robert DeNiro makes a pretty neat Creature. That’s kind of the only nice thing I can say about that movie though. I haven’t seen Branagh’s Hamlet adaptation, but his Frankenstein film doesn’t make me too confidant in his ability to direct movies that he’s also starring in. That box being checked, Penny Dreadful seems like it cares about the letter and spirit of the work more than anything else. Other than the over-arching Dracula plot, it doesn’t try to adapt the blow-by-blow story of anything else. But it does use alternative details of Frankenstein’s plot points in really imaginative ways to develop new versions of the characters.

 
Mostly. It does have the Creature’s demand that Victor make a bride for him, but that’s used in a way that’s far more relevant to the characterization of the new Victor Frankenstein and Brona/Lily. Even though it’s the Creature that makes the original demand, everything that follows relates way more to Victor and Brona/Lily.
To almost anyone who has read Frankenstein, it’s hard to overlook the role of Victor’s attraction to his adopted sister. In Penny Dreadful, the sublimated incest is re-interpreted as a kind of sexualized father-daughter relationship when Victor resurrects Brona without her memories and tries to isolate her. This is an important detail because it begins a problem that may, potentially, last until the very last frames of the last episode of the third season. And it may even have some substantial roots in the original novel.
Mary Shelly gave Frankenstein the subtitle The Modern Prometheus and there’s more than a few analogies drawn in the text between the book’s plot and a sort of Edenic “fall from grace” situation. Prometheus and Eve\The Serpent gave humanity the gift of it’s next great step forward at the cost of a simple life. Shelley’s novel also begins with a quote from Paradise Lost in which Adam is wondering if the naked state of innocence upon birth can allow for any responsibility to a creator, almost as if innocence connotates autonomy and God should know better than to expect otherwise. So that sets a clear parallel between Prometheus, Eve and Adam speaking as one of the first creations in the universe.

 
These parallels matter in Penny Dreadful because of the various statements about the goals of Dr. Frankenstein throughout the story. Near the end, when the Creature is reunited with his human family, his wife asks him if Victor meant for his memories to be wiped. The Creature replies “his only goal was resurrection” and that any other consequence was accidental. The words of Victor himself do not seem to contradict this. In the original novel, though, Victor creates a being from different body parts with the expressed wish to make an original newborn being.

 
Getting back to Brona/Lily, this point of departure from the original text seems to be informing the new portrayal of Victor’s incestuous desire, but I’m not sure how yet. Novel Frankenstein starts with the framing device of Victor talking to the ship captain on his death bed and then begins his story from his earliest memories. We see Victor’s attraction to his foster sister blossom in childhood and early adulthood. In Penny Dreadful, we know almost nothing about his background and we see the incestuous dynamic unfold in the present of the story. And entirely through showing rather than telling. When Brona awakens as Lily, she’s absolutely docile and credulous. It’s kind of hard not to see the father-daughter parallel. Since we know that Victor’s creations in Penny Dreadful definitely had former identities, Victor moving into an authoritative creator/father role is really hard to ignore. What was shown implicitly as sublimation in the original novel is now a visible, front and center plot point.

 
I’m not sure what the writers were driving at here, but moving a layer that was implied in the original text to the level of plain visibility seems like it has got to be intentional. Whether this is supposed to give any new dimension to the incest, though, it does face us directly with the different pictures of the creatures as newborns versus pre-existing beings. After all, Victor is treating Lily like a (sexually available) newborn. And the story ends with Victor abandoning his sense of possession because he’s absolutely convinced of the authenticity of Lily’s pre-existing identity. If something ends with one side of two different things being validated, then presumably the discussion up until that point matters.

 
The conflict between these two different pictures is even more inescapable with season three’s inclusion of the scene from Frankenstein when the creature is watching a family from a distance. In Penny Dreadful, it turns out to be the Creature’s actual family from his prior lifetime. Something I should maybe get out of the way now is that Susan Stryker’s essay My Words To Victor Frankenstein Above The Village of Chamounix had a powerful and life-affirming impact on me as a young adult, when I was just beginning to come out as trans.

 
Both Susan Stryker’s essay and the appearance of the Creature’s human family both originate from the same source within the text: the monologue the Creature delivers to Victor on the mountain range, detailing his life experience up until that point. In the original novel, this is the first and only time we see through his eyes. Penny Dreadful used a scene described in the monologue as his literal human origin. I mentioned Susan Stryker’s essay because it deals largely with ubiquitous transphobic beliefs holding that trans people are artificial, medical “inventions” and transsexuality is therefore not real.
I’m not gonna have a big digression here talking about Susan Stryker or transsexuality, but I find Stryker’s parallel between societal repulsion with trans people with the isolation of the Creature very relevant to Penny Dreadful’s rendition of the Creature’s story arc. This show is, after all, contrasting the idea of Victor Frankenstein as the creator of new, original beings against the possibility of those beings having their own prior existence before Victor’s meddling. The repulsion with things that are thought to be a blasphemous aping of the work of God versus reverence for God’s creations is relevant here. And the possibility that the charge of being a false/evil creation is wrong is also important…and if it’s wrong, then the idea of a single God responsible for everything is suspect.

 

 

This is not the only time Penny Dreadful examines the idea of God, and this particular examination does not end with Victor setting Lily free and letting go of his desire to control and possess. While the rest of the events of the final episode are unfolding, the Creature has returned to his human family to find his son dying. There are a few transparent attempts by the writers to tie up plot threads before the final season ends and this is one of them: kiddo starts dying just in time to have an impact on the rest of the story. The Creature’s wife, remembering what her husband told her, wants to bring their son to Victor to have him brought back to life. She gives him an ultimatum: bring their son to Frankenstein or leave the house and never come back. The Creature choses the latter and then learns that Vanessa Ives is dead. Dot, dot, dot!!!!!

 

 

Along with the Frankenstein analysis of creation and divine sanction, there’s the lingering possibility that everything to do with the vampire plot points may be unfolding according to Biblical myth. The first explication we get regarding the vampiric source describes two fallen angels from the dawn of time, one of them confined to Earth and the other to Hell. The scarified writing on the bodies of the vampiric thralls uses language like “hidden ones” that later comes up again when Mr. Lyle is helping everyone decode the origin story written on random objects. Interpreting all this is made even messier since the big bad of the second season is talked about both in terms of one brother or the other.

 

 

At least, I thought it was unclear which brother is identified as the spirit inside the Vanessa doll. At times, it seemed that the Hell brother was completely off-camera and that, from the beginning with Mina and the Murray household, we had always been dealing with the earth-bound brother. Victor Frankenstein even asks if this is the same “vampire master” that targeted Mina and gets an affirmative. The on-camera appearance of Dracula in season three renders this understanding incorrect. It also seems much of the ancient lore of angels is not reliable- there is no reason to think that the brother inside the doll still exists. Evidently fallen angels are quite mortal. At least on Earth? Or something?

 

 

Anyway, Dracula is A. a fallen angel and B. the source of all other vampires. It is possible to watch the first season and think that the Christian language with demons and angels and sin and all the rest are things that the human characters are bringing to the party in their own minds that the supernatural creatures are taking advantage of telepathically. Dracula’s identity as a fallen angel seems to make it literal, though. During the confrontation in the asylum in season three, when Vanessa proclaims her devotion to God in the presence of Dracula’s projected astral form, is she talking about “normal” religious belief as we understand it, or is this God a being she personally interacted with? Or simply a language for the supernatural that her belief gives psychic power to?
Near the end of the third season, though, Kaetenay tells us that the prophecy of the Wolf of God was known to the Apaches and that it ties into the apocalyptic events foretold in the myths of all cultures. Evidently, at that point, the writers are easing off of the Christian language and are trying to portray the prophecies and supernatural activity as something that is known to all cultures and exists with or without human belief. The ending of the overarching story is not at odds with this change, but it ties into other themes that had evolved over the series in a way that could inform the story’s earlier Christian perspective.

 

Por exemplo, action versus inaction. Many character arcs in this show involve either a character trying to maintain the status quo of their existence or trying to change it. The vampire plot-line takes us, at the end of the story, decisively to a place that’s deeply involved with the inaction story arcs. Dracula begins to earnestly fall in love with Vanessa and wants nothing other than to be with her. Dracula tells Ethan that Vanessa is where she wants to be and she doesn’t need rescuing and he’s literally telling the truth. When Vanessa confronted him in the museum and he admitted to what he was, he didn’t force her to be “embraced” in Vampire: The Masquerade parlance (to embrace someone is to make them into a vampire). By way of agreement she says “I accept myself”.
Everything Vanessa does from that point onward contributes to the protection of Dracula. She and Ethan have a tearful goodbye before he shoots her, but just look at the actual consequences for the other characters. Vanessa persuades Ethan to kill her to make the diseased air go away, meaning she made a decision for the greater good rather than her own desire. So what about what she does want?

 

 

When Ethan, Malcom & co. convene in London and start the planning for their final raid, Dracula describes Ethan as the one who is prophesied to kill him, to which Vanessa says not all prophecies come true (paraphrasing, obviously). And she totally succeeded in protecting Dracula from the prophecy- her own death stopped the plague and therefore the reason for Ethan to go after him. At least from the perspective of external obligation- London’s not filled with an inescapable sickness any more. He still might seek vengeance. But by ending the plague, Vanessa got rid of the reason for everyone else to think of Dracula as a threat. Vanessa fell for Dracula as much as Dracula fell for her, and she died standing up for her love. You could argue that her own statements on that subject are ambiguous but look at the actual consequences: actions speak louder than words. And even confining ourselves to her words leads us in that direction (“I accept myself”/”not all prophecies come true”).

 
I understand that my digressions may be one of this blog’s shortcomings but stick with me here because this one matters: in Bram Stoker’s original novel, there was an early subplot regarding Lucy Westenra’s multiple suitors and the possibility of everyone letting her make her own decision. The subplot wraps up benignly enough, but consider how the character ends up. With all art forms that I know of, there are really basic inferences that can be used to deduce authorial intent. One of them is that if two things/actions/images/sounds/motifs/characters are placed together, the author either wants you to see them as connected or the author feels they are connected in spite of their intentions. Lucy’s presence in the foreground starts with multiple men suing for her affection and ends with her as the “bloofer lady”, the newborn vampire that gets the rest of the male characters involved in the essential plot. Need I say more?

 

 

Oh hey, something like this happens in Carmilla also. That story opens with some interesting plot doo-dads, like the question of whether the shared dreams between Carmilla and the narrator are predatory telepathy or if it has a more organic and innocent cause. But really it just turns into what modern readers would recognize as a straightforward lesbian romance. And shortly after Carmilla and the narrator confess their love for each other, the narrator’s family kill her off camera. The narrator is just sort of like “oh she was a vampire? ‘Kay, nevermind”.

 
I haven’t read The Vampyre or Varney The Vampire but at least two of the foundational vampire stories communicate a lot of anxiety about female sexual autonomy. And it’s not like that fear doesn’t bear itself out in the derivatives of those stories. Obviously, this is a trait of older, supernatural gothic fiction that Penny Dreadful attempts to turn on it’s head. Not only does Vanessa “grow up” in the end and make her own commitments on her own terms, but a few of the characters that represent Lucy Westenra’s suitors in the original Dracula novel are also re-imagined in ways that bear this out, i.e. Dr. Seward and Ethan Talbot.

 

 

The original Dr. Seward is introduced to us as the author of the medical notes in the subchapters dealing with Renfield and his “zoophagy”. Fictional in-world documents as a narrative device had already been used at the beginning of the novel to make the reader feel like they are getting a private glimpse of something from a second hand source. There is the excitement of eavesdropping paired with discovery- in other words, it creates a voyeuristic effect, like the reader is watching characters that don’t know they’re being watched and discovering something way more dramatic than “normal” secrets.

 

 

The medical documentation of Renfield is used in a similar way. We are seeing notes that lay people would not normally be privileged with and also getting more than we bargained for in the end. Essentially, the notes encourage the reader to identify with Dr. Seward, thereby exoticizing Renfield and what is happening to him. Like the female characters whose fates are presented as dependent on the male characters (with the exception of Lucy which conspicuously brings all the characters into the central plot), the person in the care of a doctor is turned into a spectacle. Not just a spectacle, but a spectacle whose potential freedom could invite disaster. With both Renfield and Lucy falling under Dracula’s influence in the end, it even seems implicit that these characters can never truly be autonomous- to lose your grip on them is not to let prisoners escape so much as it is letting your property fall into the hands of a stranger. The presence of the American cowboy suitor bottom lines this as well.

 

 

I know these sort of inferences could set people off and one common objection is that these conclusions rely on the implications of circumstance instead of openly stated intent. Again, with any art or anything created by someone, to put events and ideas close to each other in your work reveals that the author either thinks they’re connected or feels they’re connected. At a certain point, ignoring inference could lead to corrosive skepticism where you even interrogate sequential logic into nothingness. In other words, implied statements are still statements. In fact, I think any adult who has read Dracula would be hard-pressed not to pick up on this.

 

 

Anyway. The inversion: Vanessa, as a patient of Dr. Seward, is not something viewed from a distance- in fact, Seward furnishes an opportunity for explication and back story which further situates Vanessa as a protagonist. Renfield still retains his function in the basic story, as one of Dracula’s human thralls, but this time he’s Dr. Seward’s secretary. Even when Renfield is confronted and interrogated by Seward, his unlocked memories prove to be directly helpful to the search for Dracula. During Vanessa’s treatment, a moment of telepathic contact between the two women even establishes equality between doctor and patient.

 

 

Essentially, Penny Dreadful is attempting to reverse the portrayal of women in Bram Stoker’s novel while trying not to abandon the Christian framework altogether. While the role of Christianity in this story is handled with flexibility, the attitude of this fix-it fic isn’t altogether irreverent or dismissive of it. This could be that Christianity was simply too big a part of the Western imagination to completely leave out. Or maybe because the nineteenth century was a profound transitional moment in Western history, with evolutionary biology, psychoanalysis and the rest of modern science as we know it beginning to threaten religion’s cultural supremacy. In any case, Christianity isn’t just a force for evil in Penny Dreadful. It’s importance does fluctuate, though. At first the origin of Dracula and his disembodied brother are explained exclusively in the language of Christian mythology and then Kaetenay makes it clear that the Apaches are familiar with the same prophecy (is that true irl?  I dunno, I’m a different kind of Native), suggesting that all religions, like all humans, exist in the same world and therefore no single one can be the one true cipher. The flexibility also remains in the foreground by Vanessa’s struggle with her faith: she is embattled and feels committed to God, but since her stated belief is the most consistent expression of Christianity throughout all three seasons, it seems that Christianity has a bigger role with Vanessa alone rather than shaping the cosmology.

 

 

The presentation of the demon brothers emphasizes this neatly. The one that claims to be Satan will jump from body to body, taking and leaving different identities according to opportunity and usefulness. It’s possible that a few of the instances of possession in the first and second season could have been Dracula astrally projecting himself into another body, but it’s still obvious that while Dracula might come and go form his body, his soul has a mortal anchor. The soul of the second brother does not. One brother has a non-physical form that changes with circumstance and necessity, the other one may attempt this or that psychic ruse, but still retains a discrete, permanent identity. If we trust Dracula during his talk with Vanessa about vampire bats and nocturnal animals and his reverence for nature, then it seems like he doesn’t have very much conceit about himself. In his own eyes, he simply is what he was “born” as, nothing more or less. The plague unleashed by the embrace of Vanessa is an unavoidable consequence but not desirable.

 

 

Even though Penny Dreadful distances itself from Christianity near the end of the third season, the fact that the demon brothers were introduced to us initially as fallen angels pairs with the apocalyptic prophecy about Vanessa to keep the Biblical timeline of the universe at the front of the story, with the Edenic fall and the return of the kingdom of God on earth bracketing all of history. The second bracket, however, is pushed out of the way by Vanessa’s desire to protect the object of her affection. And the last image of the story is The Creature hanging out around Vanessa’s grave, taking us back to the relationship between the creator and the created. The timeline of the world’s salvation, beginning with the fall from grace and ending with the return of God, is mandated by God, and this portrayal of it ends with humans standing up for their ability to both claim ownership of their lives and thereby achieve peace with death. The dignity of the mortal, tangible existence is affirmed over the immortal and intangible one, which Penny Dreadful talks about in terms of a creator learning reverence and love for the creation. Neither a divine timeline nor an unnatural and sadistic ideal for a mortal being can survive natural chaos, and even the meddling of self-appointed creators can be reconciled with nature when those that survive “creation” achieve the grace that comes with owning your history, feelings and unique truth.

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.

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 of 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 of 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 these 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 than 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 between 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.