Monday, August 26, 2013

Here Are Five Good Reasons Why "Interview With the Vampire" is the Best Novel Ever Written

I believe a little background information is in order.

Growing up, I was a horror movie junkie.  While other kids were playing with dolls, I was hanging out with my imaginary friend – who happened to be Larry Talbot.  I’m betting most of you don’t recognize that name.  Larry Talbot was the name of the man who eventually became The Wolf Man.  Played by Lon Chaney, Jr. in several films in the 1940’s, most notably the original, Talbot was my favorite of a number of horror movie characters, including Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula and, of course, Frankenstein’s Monster, as portrayed by Boris Karloff. 

While most pre-teens were spending their allowance on candy or toys, I spent a good part of mine on horror model kits and issues of my favorite magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland.  (Exciting news – in researching the magazine just now, I find it is actually still being published!  This has made me inexplicably happy.)

The latest issue!

So it should come as no real surprise that my favorite novel of all time is a “horror” story.  And not just any horror story, I dare say.  My favorite novel of all time is Anne Rice’s first – and best – book, “Interview With the Vampire.”

Bottom right is the original 1977 paperback.

As you probably know, there have been numerous sequels to the book.  Some of them weren’t bad.  But none came even close to the original, which stands on its own as a terrific read, and a great piece of horror fiction.

Now, as you may recall from previous blogs, I have a Bachelors Degree in English.  I read a lot.  So, in answer to your unasked question, no, I am not foolish enough to think that this is some sort of literary masterpiece.  That status, I reserve for other “favorites,” like “Wuthering Heights,” “Great Expectations” or “Lord of the Flies.”  But when it comes to characters and storyline, as well as originality and imagination…”Interview” is hard to beat.

I first read the book in 1977 when the paperback came out.  I remember loving it so much that the first thing I did was to run out and buy another copy to mail to my best friend, who was living in New York.  While she didn’t love it quite as much as I did, we did have many interesting philosophical discussions about it.  And, to this day, I still believe she’s wrong about the one thing we argued most passionately about - the ending of the book is perfect, and, in fact, is the only possible ending.

Before we get into the reasons for my love affair with Louis and Claudia, a word about the film.  You know, the one with Tom Cruise as Lestat, and Brad Pitt as Louis.  I, of course, saw it on opening night.  I could barely contain my excitement, and dragged Mike with me.  He had never read the book.  He liked the movie.  To this day, I maintain that I could have done it much, much better.  And the casting?  Horrendous.  One small observation, which should give you some idea of how ludicrous the overall casting was.  Armand is about 15-16 years old physically, is beautiful in an overtly feminine way, and has auburn hair.  So really, who better to portray him than…Antonio Banderas?  Seriously?  Good grief.

Good casting takes a holiday.

But I digress.  Since that first reading, I’ve read the book at least a dozen times, probably more.  I am always horrified, enthralled and completely taken with it.  The story never fails to captivate me.

So, let’s talk about the five good reasons why “Interview With the Vampire” is the greatest novel of all time.  (Be forewarned – if you’ve never read the book, and think there is a chance you’ll want to after reading this, be careful, because I’m likely going to give away the ending…since the ending is so damn perfect.)

1.  The Story

A young man with a tape recorder encounters a stranger in a bar, and strikes up a conversation with him, hoping to convince him to share his life story.  This man claims to have a life story worth sharing, and invites the boy up to his room to hear it.  He then claims he is a vampire.  The boy is skeptical to say the least, but agrees to record his story.

That story takes us from the plantations and townhouses of eighteenth century New Orleans, through nineteenth century Paris, and on to twentieth century San Francisco.  The story is a fascinating account of a man’s struggle with his morality as, thanks to a shallow and lonely vampire, he becomes an unwilling member of the undead, and encounters everything from a 5 year old child who is also made into a vampire, to a group of mindless Eastern European revenants, and finally to a band of cruel but sophisticated vampires in Paris, who have created the Theatres des Vampires, where mortal men and women come to watch what they assume are “plays,” but are actually real death scenes orchestrated by the theater troupe, in which they (seen as actors by the unsuspecting audience) openly torture and kill beautiful young victims in front of a full house each night.  Through it all, Louis continues to question his own nature, and fights against the basest urges to try to retain some of his humanity.

As he tells his story, we see the boy’s attitude slowly change from suspicious to enchantment.  By the time Louis de Pointe du Lac finishes his life story, there is not a shred of doubt in the mind of Daniel Molloy that what he has just heard is true.

2.  The Characters

For my money, the characters created by Anne Rice for “Interview With the Vampire” are among the most original, enthralling and imaginative characters in the history of fiction.

Louis de Pointe du Lac is a handsome young man in his twenties, part of a plantation family in eighteenth century New Orleans.  He is a philosophical and romantic man, a lover of art and literature.  After the death of his brother, a religious zealot given to “visions,” Louis is left to care for his sister and mother.  He never forgives himself for his brother’s death, and the guilt drives him to take foolish chances.  After drinking too much one night, he encounters Lestat de Lioncourt, a beautiful blond vampire, in a dangerous area of the city.  Lestat attacks him and eventually makes him into a vampire. 

While the later novels focus on a somewhat re-invented Lestat, the Lestat of the first novel is, to me anyway, neither interesting nor sympathetic.  He is a lonely, not particularly intelligent young man, driven to create a companion for himself by not only his loneliness, but by a need for money and wealth as well.  He himself is not clever enough to gain these on his own, and must manipulate Louis into providing them for him.  

Louis, on the other hand, is completely fascinating.  Upon becoming a vampire, he embarks on a mission to save the life and reputation of a woman he has admired from afar in his mortal life.  He has moral and ethical issues with the need to feed on blood, and for many years, makes do with the blood of rats and other small animals.

Louis begs Lestat to share the secrets of the vampire world with him, eventually coming to realize that Lestat knows next to nothing about his own origins.  Eventually, much later in the story, Louis meets up with Armand, a 400 year old vampire in Paris, who appears to be everything Lestat is not.  But first he is “given” a companion by Lestat, who, fearing he is about to be left alone again, creates a vampire out of a starving, orphaned 5 year old girl.  The child, who they name Claudia, becomes Louis’ companion and foil for many years.

Claudia.  Rice’s piece de resistance.  Imagine, a 5 year old child vampire!  And then imagine that this child eventually becomes an intelligent, passionate and cruel woman…but only on the inside.  On the outside, she is forever doomed to reside in the body of a 5 year old girl.  My God, the horror, the shock – and above all, the utter brilliance of this!  Claudia is Louis’ match in intellect and Lestat’s match in cruelty.  The combination is both horrifying and magnificent.

3.  The Settings

There are two main locales in which the story takes place, and both hold a lot of meaning for me.  The book opens in 1791 New Orleans.  New Orleans might very well be my favorite city in the world.  I’ve been there numerous times, and I pretty much love everything about it.  I’d move there in a millisecond, but my practical husband has these silly ideas about unbearable heat and humidity as well as high crime rates, so, sadly, we probably won’t be living in a big old house in the Garden District any time soon.  (I did, however, see Anne Rice’s Garden District home once, many years back.) 

The latter part of the book takes place in nineteenth century Paris.  Ah, Paris.  A city I have long wished to see.  So far, the closest I’ve come to realizing that dream is to enjoy a croissant while walking along the cobblestone path at the Paris hotel and casino in Las Vegas.  I’m led to understand the real Paris is even better.

Both locations work beautifully in the context of the storyline.  If you know NOLA at all, it is remarkably easy to envision the characters walking along the Vieux Carr√© at night, feeding off their human prey in the alleys, or gazing into the little shops and cafes.  It's just as easy to imagine the grand Pointe du Lac plantation, and the townhouse where the three main characters eventually set up residence.  (The latter is based on the Gallier House, at 1132 Royal Street.  Just looking at it can put me into a trance, imagining the three of them up there.)

1132 Royal that
Claudia in the window?

The Paris of the nineteenth century comes alive in the book as well.  Even without having ever seen the city, I have very little trouble imagining the streets and buildings as described by Rice.  My only complaint is that she glosses over Louis and Armand’s nighttime visit to the Louvre.  Now, that would have been fascinating to read about!

4.  The Homoerotic Undertones

Even though (in Rice’s novels, anyway) vampires cannot make love, there are enough homoerotic references in the book to make for a whole other blog. 

There are very few female characters in the book.  Claudia, of course, is a child, at least physically.  Madeleine, although a young woman, is portrayed as a mother figure.  Celeste, one of the Parisian vampires at the Theatres des Vampires, is seen as beautiful but cold and cruel.  The males, on the other hand, are uniformly fascinating, physically attractive and sensual.  And, I mean, come on, they flirt with one another like nobody’s business!

What exactly is going on with Louis’ initial enchantment with Lestat?  At one point, very early in the story, Louis describes Lestat’s movement as “so graceful and so personal that at once it made me think of a lover.”  Later, in Paris, Armand talks about the love between himself and the vampire who made him, and later tells Louis, “I want you.  I want you more than anything in the world.”

I imagine a lot more could be made of this whole thing if the novel were written today.  But for a story written in 1976, or possibly earlier, since it was originally a short story, this is pretty amazing stuff!

5.  The Ending

As I’ve said, as far as I’m concerned, there was only one possible way to end the story.  Have you guessed what it is?  If you haven’t, and you don’t want to know, I would highly recommend you stop right here, and run out and read the book.  Trust me, it will be time well spent.

As I read the book for the first time, all I could think about was how completely amazing it must be to be a vampire.  At least a vampire as portrayed by Anne Rice.  Yes, I would no doubt miss food and sex, but living forever seemed to me to be a more than adequate tradeoff.  To see the changes in society and in the world over the years, to be able to travel pretty much unencumbered, can you even imagine!?

So when, at the conclusion of Louis’ story, Daniel begs him to make him into a vampire, my immediate response was, “yes, of course!”  Louis’ response, predictably, was shock and disbelief.  “This…after all I’ve told you…is what you ask for?”

Daniel answers him perfectly.  “You don’t know what human life is like!”

I’m older and wiser now.  I’m not entirely sure I’d take the offer if it were somehow to be made.  But I’m not that much older, and definitely not that much wiser. 

Because I still think I might.

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